Even before North Korean hackers spilled Sony Pictures’ dirty laundry across the internet, threatened the American multiplex with violence and turned Seth Rogen’s The Interview into an unlikely cause celebre, 2014 proved a hard knock year for Hollywood. Movie attendance dipped steeply as blockbuster after blockbuster failed to bust many blocks, and rightly so: The studios’ mainstream offerings had all the creative kick of tepid coffee. But if you look at the year in cinema as a glass half empty (or if you focus on box office returns alone) then you’re seeing only half the story.
Because, while so many films failed to overcome the rising tide of mediocrity, those that did soared. You could decry Hollywood’s cinematic homogenization—the cycle of sequel, franchise, rinse, repeat—but that would ignore the serious risks that paid off handsomely this year. Yes, 2014 gave us Michael Bay’s latest rote exercise in ear-drum piercing Transformers, but it also let slip a sly blockbuster like The Edge of Tomorrow, which showcased Tom Cruise’s charisma better than any film since Collateral. Certainly, Ridley Scott’s bombastic Bible epic Exodus: Gods and Kings landed with a thud this Christmas, but, love it or hate it, Darren Aronofsky’s ecowarrior take on the biblical Noah kicked off the spring with virtuosic audacity and truly loony imagination. And for the diehard denizens of the art-house, the summer brought one of the most bizarre yet compelling action films of recent years: Bong Joon Ho’s frozen train of socio-political allegory Snowpiercer. Lest the cornucopia of franchises sap your spirit, don’t forget the most successful film at the box office this year was also one of its most original, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which made a talking tree and gun-toting raccoon mainstream.
This year also saw some of our most revered auteurs at the height of their games. David Fincher’s gruesomely grandiose adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl presented a pitch-black vision of matrimony qua blood sport that made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf feel like a trip to the marriage counselor. Meanwhile, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, incidentally the first adaptation of the great Thomas Pynchon novel, simultaneously channeled Robert Altman’s brilliant The Long Goodbye while feeling like no other movie out there. And although Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar felt like 2001 with an extra helping of sweetener, you can’t deny the breathtaking integration of theoretical physics and visual imagination. Even Alejandro Gonzalez Iñàrritu managed to break free from the self-serious mold that had hamstrung his work lately, letting whimsy take flight in Michael Keaton’s frantic hands with Birdman—one of the most insane films to ever compete for an Oscar. But for my money, no one gave us a more purely distilled dram of his vision than Wes Anderson: Built around Ralph Fiennes impeccable performance, The Grand Budapest Hotel was an ornately decorated wedding cake of a film—sumptuous, rich and absolutely delightful.
Yet 2014 might be best remembered for films that thrived on a scarcity of resources. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash heralded a stunning new talent on a modest budget: who needs money when you have J.K. Simmons setting every frame on fire as the ultimate abusive music teacher? (Although the “bang for your buck” prize goes to Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin: Made on a shoestring, Saulnier perfectly re-imagined Hal Ashby’s humanity in the form of a revenge thriller.) Virtuoso performances almost single-handedly electrified these films of modest means. In Locke, Steven Knight built a muscular and moving drama out of nothing more than Tom Hardy, a cell phone and a car; while Marion Cotillard immersed herself in the Dardennes brothers’ Two Days, One Night, her natural glamour muted in service of their trademark blue-collar films; and Jean Marc Vallee gave us a taste of the sublime with a lonely, captivating Reese Witherspoon set against the rugged beauty of the Pacific Crest trail in Wild.
And this brings me to the film that will likely, and rightfully, define 2014: Richard Linklater’s indie masterpiece Boyhood. You could be distracted by all the hoopla about the film as a feat in itself: Shot over the course of 12 years, on a miniscule budget, Linklater achieves what feature films just aren’t built to accomplish. No, Boyhood is far more than just a clever trick. Linklater employed his high wire act in service of a truly audacious goal—to capture on film those subtle temporal tectonics that transmute who we are into who we will become as we balance precariously on the cusp of adulthood. That he came even close to success is more than astonishing, it’s a work of art in the truest sense of the word.
2014 would be a triumph for Boyhood alone; that such a small, daring film now suddenly finds itself the frontrunner for Best Picture might be the most heartening takeaway of the year. The studios have already slated a surfeit of blockbusters for 2015, eager to leave behind the economic and creative headwinds of this past year. But great films can flourish in even the least hospitable of environments, and a year Hollywood doesn’t want to remember produced a handful of films movie-lovers will never forget.