Passion of the Weiss’s 2014 Movie Round-Up: 20 Film Recommendations

Because sometimes music writers go to the movies, here is the Passion of the Weiss staff on the best films of 2014. They've given all of these movies two snaps and a rewind.
By    December 30, 2014

Birdman

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Keaton went from Johnny Dangerous to Beetlejuice to Batman to Big Sky Country. One minute, he kicked off the cinematic cult of Bruce Wayne worship, the next he disappeared into wanted poster scarcity. If you actually scan his IMDB, Mr. Mom has averaged almost a film a year for the last three decades, but since the trailer for Multiplicity, I haven’t seen him in a thing (save for Jackie Brown, the chronically forgotten Quentin Tarantino movie, except for film snobs who vainly maintain it’s his best).

There’s plenty to love about Birdman. The cinematography is magnificent, which is exactly the kind of thing you say to sound smart but usually sound dumb. In this instance, it’s actually a legitimate marvel. There’s the one never-ending take; the tobacco anxiety haze that blots day and night; the guts of St. James Theatre exposed and flipped inside out like a sibling to Synecdoche, New York. And Charlie Kauffman is probably the closest node of modern comparison; Inarritu and company flawlessly balance his strain of magical realism with migraine neuroses.

Despite the outstanding performances and camera tricks, Keaton’s ultimately why I love the film. It could’ve been made with someone else, but it wouldn’t offer half the redemption. “Riggan Thompson” offers him an excuse to revel in his talents and condemn his vanity. He wrecks dressing rooms and squares off against Ed Norton like an aging prizefighter flailing for one last knockout. He bargains and reckons with his past, equally insufferable and hilarious, pregnant with self-doubt and regret. The Birdman is the costumed alter ego, id, and enemy—a reminder of personal shortcomings and his own limitations. The delusions of the actor are spoofed. The delusional ambitions of art are revered.

The scene in which Riggan is stripped naked and forced to enter the theater amidst the neon toxicity of the Broadway mob might be the closest we’ll know to what it’s like to be absurdly famous for the accomplishment that makes you the least proud. It captures our fatuous need to destroy celebrity and the mutual thirst that drives our infatuation.

The film has a few flaws. The venomous critic feels thinly drawn and little more than a plot device. The female characters could use more depth and Ed Norton’s character is occasionally overwrought (though clearly in service of the jokes). But this is a masterpiece. You get a (final?) brilliant performance from one of the best actors of his generation—who abdicated a chance at the throne for reasons that grow murkier with each year.

If there is a moral takeaway, it’s open to interpretation. For me, it made me remember that little matters more than the original pact you made with yourself. It’s a reminder to stay true, no matter how absurd and pretentious that seems. Occasionally, you win. Occasionally, you fail. But you always have to jump. – Jeff Weiss

Boyhood

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Richard Linklater’s most ambitious film tracks 12 years in the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane). Focusing on the tiny moments in Mason’s youth, Boyhood works as an incredibly impressive experiment in form — it allows Mason and his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) to age before the audience, giving the movie, written on a year-by-year basis, the stop-and-start, unpredictable rhythms of life. Boyhood and boyhood don’t fit tidily into a feature film (even one that’s three hours long). And the specificity of its chronology transforms Mason’s life into a kaleidoscope, giving every viewer a different perspective on his love of Phoenix or Harry Potter based on how old they were at the time.

But the more compelling story in Boyhood floats around the margins, centered on Mason’s struggling single mother (Patricia Arquette), who goes through a string of bad men, and slacker father (Ethan Hawke), whose slow lurch to maturity is the story of the movie. The things that make it so formally fascinating and emotionally powerful also make Boyhood a bit nebulous and incapable of picking and choosing which of its many smaller components deserve more attention. It’s an achievement, and often a deeply moving one. But, like Mason’s childhood, it’s not perfect, and that’s what makes it so easy to love. — Eric Thurm

Enemy

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Director Dennis Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullon’s adaptation of José Saramago’s novel, O Homem Duplicado (“The Double”), presents duplicity as an everyday struggle for Jake Gyllenhaal. The monotony of Adam Bell’s (Gyllenhaal) existence as a Toronto history professor contrasts with the fresh-faced life of actor Daniel Saint Claire (again, Gyllenhaal). Establishing scenes are broken up by a helicopter capturing sprawling transition shots of Ontario, emphasizing bland compartmentalized facades that seem to represent our poor attempts at hiding affronts. They build towards Adam’s decision to rent a movie featuring Daniel, turning Enemy into a thriller whose beautiful web refuses to let any viewer go who’s tried to make peace with their issues.

Its evasive plot and symbolism fly like a stealth bomber. What appears to be a collision between two conscious ideals—Artistic Pursuit vs. The Dream That Got Away—is actually focused on the underbelly of our cyclical decision making. Though some of the themes are remarkable and right on the surface, they’re best digested with this helpful video (word to Barry). And if you’ve got 90 minutes plus another half hour to spare on that explainer, you’ll learn that a gag that has to be clarified can be worth telling. — Brad Beatson

Foxcatcher

foxcatcher-movie-poster-wallpaper-watch-an-unrecognizable-steve-carrell-in-trailer-for-oscar-buzzy-foxcatcher For my money, Bennett Miller is the best young American filmmaker to emerge over the past ten years. He already has a distinct visual palette and direction as a filmmaker, taking true moments from recent American history and using them to ask big questions about our country. He was fully formed with his first feature Capote, a biopic of sorts that follows the author as he writes his masterpiece and forges a relationship with his convicted murderer subjects. It also won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, a trend that continued with the dual nominations for his leads in 2012’s fantastic Moneyball, solidifying him as an actor’s director. Foxcatcher should’ve been a coronation. Three big names giving their all with daring performances, a story that has a direct connection to a history of perverted American wealth and power—it was right in Miller’s wheelhouse.

So it’s with some surprise that the final product is an odd bird, by far his strangest film, one that makes counter-intuitive decisions and leaves you haunted, with more questions than answers. What begins as a dark comedy about a troubled friendship disguised as a sponsorship turns into a Gus Van Sant film: Long silent shots of morose gazes and landscapes punctuated by half spoken sentences. Statements and ideas are buried under so many layers of ambiguity, that what you’re watching stops being a film, and turns into a tone poem. The critical consensus was left wanting, which isn’t wrong. The movie has a vacuum in its center that demands a climax. Any sort of suggestion to motive is left hanging in the air like the melancholy present in every half lit shot of a small figure lost in the large open space of a mansion or field. But I’ll take Foxcatcher over the paint-by-numbers, ripped-from-the-headlines tragic thriller that this story could’ve been in lesser hands. There are not many other movies this year that will nag at you and kick around in your head long after it ends. — Abe Beame

Frank

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Frank is a movie about one guy screwing it up for everybody else. The title character is a kooky songwriter inspired by the English cult-musician/comedian Frank Sidebottom, who was known back in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s for always performing with a papier-mâché mask on his head. Frank is played by Michael Fassbender and leads a band called the Soronprfbs, who take off to a remote cabin in Ireland to record an album. The experience proves to be more like a cult reeducation-retreat than a run-of-the-mill set of studio sessions—intense, mind-expanding and life-changing for all involved. But the band’s newest member, Jon, has ambitions of his own and everything changes when he books them at South by Southwest. Anyone who’s spent a lot of time in a local music scene is bound to have known musicians as creative and unpredictable as Frank, and also ones as untalented and misguided as Jon. Sometimes the best music is the stuff nobody knows about, and sometimes it’s better off that way. — Peter Holslin

Gone Girl

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Gone Girl features a number of plot twists that don’t so much strain credulity as snap it like a twig. Fincher favored rigorous All the Presidents Men procedural in Zodiac, and he dwelt fetishistically on the details of the grisly tableaus in Seven. But Gone Girl is unabashed pulp, his take on the dippy Spy vs. Spy anti-logic of The Departed. We learn the basics: insufferable schlub Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck, the best he’s ever been) comes home to find that his gorgeous cipher of a wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is missing. The orgy of evidence—broken coffee table, obvious blood splatter—points to homicide. The details mount from there, but Fincher doesn’t study them forensically. He uses them as totems to paint a sweeping satirical portrait of not just a marriage gone bad, but a country with an insatiable lust for tabloid sensationalism. The shifty, guilty-seeming Nick hires lawyer-cum-publicist Tanner Bolt (a perfectly cast Tyler Perry) to help him convince a skeptical public that he’s not a wife killer. And that he’s not fucking his sister (Carrie Coon, again, great).

Gone Girl is not a film you take notes to. You do not follow the specifics of the case and wring your hands over the feasibility of this or that plot point. It’s a film you stare aghast at, an emotional Hieronymus Bosch painting: Given the right circumstances, these are the things we do to one another, and the things we accept from one another. That second point is key. The best part about Gone Girl is that it’s a film that gets more horrifying as it gets less violent. Because murder’s bad, but you don’t have to shed blood to destroy a life.  — Jordan Pedersen 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Like most of Wes Anderson’s work, the Grand Budapest Hotel is categorized as a comedy. Though hilarious throughout, the film would be better labeled a fantasy. The Republic of Zubrowka never existed; the façade of the hotel is a miniature model; the hotel lobby is actually a defunct, WWII era department store; and the priceless painting central to the plot, “Boy with Apple,” was created for the film. Yet Anderson is capable of making you feel as though all might’ve existed somewhere. This is partially because of the care taken to approximate the architecture and art, but it’s mostly because the film is not about a hotel or a painting. It’s about the people who inhabit that hotel; the people who guard and quest after that painting. As is the case with all frame narratives, we know very little about the man who grounds the story. (Here he is simply named “Author.”) However, the frame fades with the appearance of Monsieur Gustave H., the eccentric, eloquent, and “heavily perfumed” concierge played by Ralph Fiennes. Once he and Zero (Tony Revolori),  a refuge turned Gustave’s lobby-boy apprentice, become inseparable, the film finds it’s footing. Or rather, it doesn’t.

The Grand Budapest Hotel finds Anderson trying his hand at several types of films: prison escape, romance, murder mystery, action. No matter which turn the film takes, he retains his signature style—and the stellar cast helps carry it. But there will always be those who think Anderson’s work remains to twee to stomach, with the eye-popping colors and postcard-like set design too stylized and obtrusive. To watch an Anderson film you must immerse yourself in the colors and sets. It’s only then that you see past them, that you see the poignant humanity of the characters beneath the comedy and fantasy. With the Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson once again sustains the illusion of levity with marvelous grace. — Max Bell

Guardians of the Galaxy

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Sequelitis and a waning sense of the zeitgeist has left Pixar’s grip vulnerable on the Iron Throne, as a new mass-maker studio has emerged to challenge the venerated cartoon factory for supremacy. Marvel Studios, the superhero cinema syndicate behind the billion-dollar Avengers franchise, has followed the Pixar formula for crafting quality mass-market movies with big box office appeal and a surprising amount of heart. With the release of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios might have officially ascended to the throne. Despite being an obscure deep cut in the Marvel comic book mythology, Guardians allows director James Gunn to craft an operatic universe for his pop-music-loving heroes to play in. The galaxy is bright and colorful, filled with wondrous people and places for the viewer to explore—a modernized take on the Star Wars formula with a dash of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Avengers to boot.

The story itself is classically simple: A tale of misfits—in this case, a roguish space pirate, a pair of alien assassins, a talking raccoon and a tree—that must put away their differences to stop the forces of evil before everyone in the universe dies horribly. The joy of the film isn’t in the narrative invention or cinematographic innovation, but in the way these familiar yet uniquely idiosyncratic elements interact with each other. A sarcastic Indiana Jones proxy has impassioned fondness for the music of Redbone; a foul-mouthed raccoon has an unexpected moment of traumatic honesty; and a living tree connects with the audience more than most actors, when it can only utter the same three words. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has never felt so delightfully weird. It’s as if they hired Douglas Adams to write a comic book movie. In a culture which seems addicted to the tropes of comic book films, Marvel Studios proves that it can keep getting things right by making films that bring wonder to the viewer, despite seeing the same old trick. — Doc Zeus

The Guest

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Filmed with so much verve, The Guest pleasures all of our primal desires. There’s the guns, the sex, horror and music. And the plot—which sees a kind-hearted though not-everything-he-seems US soldier turning up at a dead comrade’s family home—is trimmed to its leanest and meanest as the piece rapidly moves from scene to scene. Adam Wingard is a talented young filmmaker who, coming off the stylish horror flick, You’re Next, was ready for a step up in scale. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens is completely absorbing in the leading role, switching from pleasant to menacing in a manner that’s just enough to dazzle without descanting into blatant self-aware parody.

There’s an air of familiarity as The Guest pays homage to eighties action flicks, teen comedies and low-budget grindhouse exploitation. And what it does so well is simultaneously use the audience’s expectations for and against them, much like the 2012 horror pastiche Cabin in the Woods did. Wingard is counting on those feelings of familiarity, teasing you with common framework before throwing it back at you like a Fireball shooter to the face. We’ve all seen bullies get their comeuppance before, but certainly not like this. — Dean Van Nguyen

Inherent Vice

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Bad news first—as a book adaptation, Inherent Vice is flawed. Pynchon’s stoned narrative unfolds like smoke being exhaled from one of Doc’s joints, hanging thickly and pungently about the narrator at first, it’s obscure shape and dimensions constantly changing, then gradually dissipating into the atmosphere, leaving only a lingering aroma and a befuddlement of what exactly has happened, if anything at all. Anderson himself admitted to not having any idea of what the book is actually about, so instead of trying to follow Doc’s (Joaquin Phoenix) labyrinthine adventures faithfully, the director cherry-picks from them, singling out scenes and characters and stringing them into a slapsticky, hippy picaresque. Viewers insisting on a clear progression of events will likely be frustrated, and those unfamiliar with the book may find the procession of characters and happenings hard to follow. Incredibly, though, this jumbled mess works. It is almost unerringly hilarious when it aims to be funny and chillingly effective on the rare occasions it aims to be serious.

The entire movie is one long chain of inspired moments, anchored by Phoenix’s rubbery, bug-eyed performance. Anderson may not do the entire universe of Inherent Vice justice, but he and his cast do an incredible job in staging, and often elevating, what they take on. Phoenix’s reactions to the world created around him are worth the price of admission alone. And Brolin is the movie’s secret weapon, with his square hair and terminally clenched jaw residing on the other end of the comic binary from Doc’s rat’s nest of curls and bloodshot eyes. He is a geometrically rigid straight man, and often the funniest thing on screen because of it. Katherine Waterson’s Shasta bears the more dramatic responsibilities; she imbues her character with a richer emotional pallet than the source provides and it pays off with the movies most memorable scene. And the haphazard events the players go through are portrayed with sophistication and a great sense of visual humor, each frame full of subtle wit, or evocative when needed, but never above a good vagina joke.

There is a complicated nerdy conversation that could be had here in an attempt to parse the film’s multifaceted existence as a Pynchon adaptation and the Nth movie in PTA’s filmography and a comic neo-noir in the lineage of The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski… and also (improbably) a Naked Gun-inspired parody of the Big Sleep. Each of these angles can provide a valid insight, but I don’t think you actually need to have that conversation to enjoy what’s on screen. It’s simply really funny and entertaining, even if incoherent. That’s why Inherent Vice is a success, if you can enjoy it on a gag-to-gag, scene-to-scene basis, it’s a great experience. — Alex Piyevsky

Interstellar

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The world is coming to an end as we know it, always has been and always will be. Whether we’re worried about the issues of the day or the apocalypse, the point is, we are an anxious bunch. Interstellar exploits this gloriously but refuses to accept our imminent demise. When Coop (Matthew McConaughey) leaves his family a countdown plays over his drive away, and by “three…two…one” the mission has begun to save everyone on Earth. There’s no time to wallow in ever-present stress; there’s only time to believe in what’s next.

Amidst the visual wonder, Christopher Nolan posits sides to the question of our mortality. What are you willing to give up for others and does that outweigh what you’re willing to give up for yourself? What’s more important: belief or love—or are they intertwined? After years of technical prowess, he’s finally achieved the emotional balance to equate the effects. There are times when you might judge it as schmaltzy and snicker at its overt gravitas, but its not worth it. It’s the best movie to see on the big(gest) screen this year. — Brad Beatson

The Lego Movie

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During the first half hour or so, the Lego Movie comes off as patent satire. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is basic and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is a hater; He follows a guide on how to live his life and She is all: fuck a guide! When Wyldstyle creates a motorcycle out of found parts, I reacted like Emmett, thinking “Holy shit, how did she do that, that was absolutely magical.” When Emmett tries to build something, he ends up making a double-decker couch. It’s at this point where you start to empathize with Emmett, and the movie slaps you for forgetting life’s essence: Work together, believe, don’t be so controlling. With supporting voices by some of the funniest people of our generation, The Lego Movie captures a timeless lesson and almost makes me forget that it’s selling a product. — Brad Beatson

Life of Crime

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I once asked my buddy, a film director, what his favorite Quentin Tarantino movie was. His answer was Jackie Brown, the only flick where QT was forced to tell a story and not show off his cool ’70s references complete with catchy lingo. Jackie Brown had a killer R&B/soul soundtrack, sure, but because Tarantino was adapting an Elmore Leonard book, he was forced to comply within set boundaries, something he hasn’t done before or after.

Daniel Schecter’s adaptation, Life of Crime, a prequel to Leonard’s Jackie Brown, shows even more restraint. When you’re working with source material from Elmore, all you have to do is deliver a good cast and the dialogue will take it from there. Ordell Robbie, previously paraded about by Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie, is a smoother, younger, and more playful criminal in the hands of yasiin bey. John Hawkes’ take on Robert DeNiro’s Louis Gara brings leading-man charisma and less internal brooding. The ace in the hole is Isla Fisher, with her turn as Melanie proving to be as manipulative and sexy as Bridget Fonda’s. For a cool little black comedy that came and went in theaters, Life of Crime is the perfect Redbox rental or Netflix recommendation—and an unobtrusive companion to Pam Grier’s lone collaboration with QT. — Zilla Rocca

Listen Up Philip 

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It’s not hard to see why a lot of people don’t like Listen Up Philip. The movie, which is totally not about Philip Roth even though it centers on a young, pretentious novelist named Philip (Jason Schwartzman), whose older mentor (Jonathan Pryce) writes novels almost exclusively about how hard it is to understand women, can be summed up as a string of Male Novelist Jokes. But seeing Listen Up Philip as a narrow-minded comedy about the struggles of annoying white people does a disservice to the cast, especially Pryce and Elisabeth Moss, who turns in a possible career-best performance as Philip’s estranged girlfriend Ashley. That view of the film also misses some of the subtlety of writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s work.

Perry is excellent at drawing every ounce of painful humor from Philip’s deep, unrepentant awkwardness, but there’s more going on. The movie announces its real intentions early—Philip’s emotional problems are precisely because he is a good writer—and digs into a subtler examination of the psychic and emotional costs of creative work. Sure, it’s funny, but Philip and Ashley’s navigation of their respective art, and the types of sacrifices they’re willing to make in pursuit of success, are no joke. — Eric Thurm

Live.Die.Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow

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Imagine The Matrix Groundhog Day Starship Troopers as one film starring your favorite Scientologist. Live. Die. Repeast: Edge of Tomorrow is that flick and another notch on the belt for Tom Cruise’s flawless action movie pedigree. As much as Cruise tries rom-coms, period pieces and soapy dramas, he’s never iller than when he’s carrying a gat the size of Mount Olympus, killing alien robots alongside the brutally efficient super-soldier Emily Blunt. When movie stars like Cruise go out of their wheelhouse and preen for critical acclaim, it makes their return to the award-repellant genre of “Blowing Up Shit and Running From Bullets” that much sweeter.

Directed by Doug Liman of the Bourne trilogy and written by my OG, Christopher Mcquarrie (of Usual Suspects, and more importantly, Way of Gun fame), Edge of Tomorrow is a loaded deck. Cruise starts off the movie as a wimpy marketing rep for the military with absolutely no swag or killer instinct. He’s a patsy thrown into battle, and judging by the revamped title and endless promo, you know the catch already. Tom Cruise isn’t a likable celebrity anymore, but when he drops the façade and gets down to whooping ass, there is no one better to spend 90 minutes with. — Zilla Rocca

Locke

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Spending 85 minutes in a car is a Los Angeles commute, not a movie plot. But Steven Knight struck gold with Locke, a film in which Tom Hardy (Ivan Locke) does little else besides speak on his car-phone and drive to London. The film maintains an exhilarating pace throughout, thanks to Knight’s ability to slowly reveal plot points. Not to sell Hardy short—there aren’t many actors who can stay captivating for an hour-and-a-half of solo screen time—but there’s something intangible about the emotion Knight conveys that pushes the film from good to great.

Thanks in part to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the explorative camerawork gets to know the car, Ivan, and the highways intimately. While telling a rather simple story—a man makes a decision to be with a woman whom he got pregnant—the underlying subtleties begin to reveal themselves upon multiple screenings. It wasn’t until my third time that I noticed Locke’s split-second decision that spurns the entire narrative. While Knight deftly weaves a comfortable storyline, Locke is Hardy’s show to steal. He’s at times heartbreaking, heartbroken, hilarious, and aggravating: The majority of which result from calls between Locke’s wife, employees, children, and more. That Hardy affects the viewer through these one-way exchanges is a testament to both his chops and Knight’s writing.  — Will Schube

A Most Wanted Man

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When comparing the endings of Biggie’s two albums, it would be easy, and probably correct, to argue Ready to Die has the conclusion that is more difficult to deal with. The gun shot, the thump of dead weight, Puffy’s appeals into the void fading out slowly. But it’s the end of Life After Death that has always provoked a visceral response for me. As “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Kills You” gives way to devastating silence, I struggle anew with the notion that I’m listening to Biggie’s last words, that he’s dying again and this is all we’re left with. I bring up Christopher Wallace because in the seventeen years since he passed, I’ve never felt the loss of a stranger—that I’ve personally lost the opportunity of seeing more from (a very, very selfish feeling)—more than what I experienced when I heard Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February.

A Most Wanted Man is a story about modern spy craft. Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, an agent in whatever body is the German equivalent of Homeland security. The film is set in Hamburg, where Mohammad Atta helped orchestrate September 11th—a specter that weighs heavily over the film and Bachmann. It’s a two hour, deeply cynical David Simon rant: One that superimposes global terrorism over the decay of the American city, making similar arguments for meticulous, high-reaching case-building over flashy buy busts and the shortsighted institutions that can’t get out of their own way. It’s filtered through [novelist] Le Carre’s plotty shadow realm and competently executed by [filmmaker] Anton Corbijn. But really, it’s about Philip Seymour Hoffman. And yes, that’s lazy, reductive criticism but you try watching the movie and concentrating on anything else. It’s his last star vehicle. Not his best, but the last thing we’ll ever see him in (He’s a peripheral character chipping in exposition in what YA franchise? I CAN’T HEAR YOU LALALALALA) and this gives every moment on screen a particular gravity that’s hard for the film to get out from under. While Rachel MacAdams and Willem Dafoe fumble through pan Eastern European bit parts, Hoffman will have you convinced that he was only a wildly gifted American actor by some sick twist of fate and actually should’ve been a shlubby German bureaucrat all along.

It’s hard to imagine another middle aged American actor of his caliber (Not that there really is one) allowing himself to be shown on screen so weather beaten and gritty. It’s the type of movie in which American actors portray Germans who speak to each other in English with German accents, and yet Hoffman is entirely believable as an unshaven bundle of booze, caffeine filled with jittery anxiety. The performance is little more than a holding pattern. You sit and wait for Hoffman’s repressed, haunted, broken agent to explode. When he finally does it’s such a cathartic explosion of anger and anguish, it borders on a kind of joy. After the climactic scene, Hoffman gets into his car and drives offsite. He says nothing over the course of the short ride but he’s wearing his wrung out despair, every single lash life has taken out of him. Then he parks, exits his car without ceremony and trudges out of scene. The silence is deafening. — Abe Beame

Nightcrawler

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There’s a particular sort of film that displays a distinct portrait of Los Angeles: the particular and diverse sprawl so alienating to outsiders that it’s a welcome sign of home to those who reside within its boundaries. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a nice place to start, capturing Elliott Gould as a lonely wanderer pressed againsts the faux-romantic backdrop of 70s Hollywood. Paul Thomas Anderson went north, turning the massive Valley floor into an interwoven connector in Magnolia, and a space of decay and romanticism in Punch-Drunk Love. Nightcrawler, Dan Gilory’s directorial debut, continues this tradition by focusing on the under appreciated, under-examined crevices of LA county.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a strange, possibly sociopathic wanderer who makes a living as a petty thief, the film captures the LA aesthetic perfectly by turning the city into a carnivorous wasteland of capitalistic tragedy.Gyllenhaal’s not likely to win an Oscar for Best Actor—his role is a bit too weird and unlikeable for that—but there’s not a better performance in 2014. Supported by cinematographer Robert Elswit’s grainy filming style, morals fly out the window and Bloom’s unrelenting determination rockets him to the top of the accident-footage food chain. The film’s latter half is a document of madness, and Gyllenhaal is disturbingly fantastic. Nightcrawler shows LA at its creepiest, but damn, does it make me miss home. — Will Schube 

Top Five

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The residue of this year’s best movie is all over Top Five, even if it isn’t quite in the class of Boyhood. The Motherfucker With the Hat, the Steven Adly Guirgis’ Broadway play Rock co-starred in three years ago, gets much of the credit (in his recent New Yorker profile, at least) for Top Five’s new-wave trek through New York and its question of authenticity. But it was the neo-realist turn he took in 2012 with Julie Delpy, in her 2 Days in New York, that is much more likely to have been the inspiration for the best movie Chris Rock has ever made. Of course, Delpy was just doing a pale impression of Linklater’s Sunset trilogy, which she starred in.

As a writer and encourager of improvisation, Linklater delivers finely drawn characters with a master’s instincts and a taste for subtlety that Rock is unlikely to develop this late in his creative life. Still, this is the same guy who made Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife. And what really impresses me isn’t his turn away from those movies, but the way he’s folded their comedic sensibility into this camera-follows-two-people-having-a-romantically-inclinded-day-long-debate structure. Cedric in Houston and Seinfeld in the club echo the broader moments of Rock’s prior comedic atrocities, but the humor of their moments is tonally in line with the film (it helps that they’re intensely funny). He doesn’t trade his story in for jokes, he’s found a way to build on top of them.

Then there’s the imprint he’s made on Linklater’s model. While the interaction between Rock and Dawson never reaches the lived-in intimacy and understanding for the Sunset movies protagonists, there is a life and energy that is captured in Top Five’s absolutely perfect apartment scene that you won’t see in Boyhood, or in any of what is about to be an Oscar winning director’s filmography. Rock managed to get us into a room full of brilliant black comedians carrying out a hilarious, naturalistic conversation and didn’t have to force us there. It’s an admirable feat and the best time you’ll have in a movie this year. — Abe Beame

Whiplash

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“Realism” isn’t a word you’d use in conjunction with Whiplash. Midway through the film, a semi t-bones aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman’s (Miles Teller) car on the way to a gig, and Neiman walks away from the crash. It’s a moment so patently ridiculous as to almost be Brechtian in its absurdity. What it illustrates is the depths to which Neiman will sink—or the heights he’ll aspire to, depending on your point of view—to satisfy Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the jazz teacher who alternately terrorizes and motivates him.

Neiman wants to be the next Buddy Rich, and he thinks Fletcher can get him there. Director Damien Chazelle isn’t saying Neiman could actually walk away from that crash; simply that he’d be willing to. Whiplash is essentially an ever-escalating series of tortures meted out by Fletcher on Neiman and the rest of the jazz combo Fletcher conducts. It is not a documentary. It’s about how hunger for greatness is all-consuming, about how decency is not an operative concern when you’re trying to be the greatest of all time.

Fletcher tells Neiman that “the worst two words in the English language are ‘good job.’ ” The film may agree with Fletcher, but it’s not totally clear. What it does say is that many of the greats did view their talent this way. When dealing with the absurd nature of greatness, realism is best avoided. It’s actually the exaggeration that gets us closer to the truth. — Jordan Pedersen 

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