When you’re a classic movie fan, it can feel hard to motivate yourself to get to the multiplex for contemporary movies—knowing that it means you don’t get to use that time to watch a Buster Keaton comedy or Esther Williams musical or Charles Laughton drama or something jaw-droppingly amazing from 50 years ago that you’ve somehow still never seen. And, true, a lot of today’s movies—or at least the ones that are advertised ad nauseam—tend to veer towards the mindless, forgettable, and non-jaw-dropping spectrum of entertainment, one which we are luckily often able to avoid in older films, given our decades of insight and knowledge.
But, in addition to my vintage viewings, I also watch a lot of new movies, so I’ve put together this guide to some of my favorites from 2014. This is not really a list of the Important Movies of 2014 you’re supposed to see—these are simply my favorites, the movies I’ve enjoyed and loved and anticipate enjoying and loving well into the future, just as I do with my favorite classic films.
To help the classic movie fans, and to keep things “on brand” here, for each 2014 entry I’ve also included some comparisons to older films with similar vibes—if you’ve missed a lot of what 2014 had to offer because you were admirably focused on the classics, here are a few pathways to newer stuff that may prove worthwhile.
If you’re a fan of: Moody, silent horrors like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu
You might like: The Babadook
A lot of studio-produced horror movies nowadays seem to regard jump scares and gore as the inarguable pinnacles of terror. The Babadook takes a more classical approach, skewing towards dark, haunting imagery and generally unsettling creepiness instead. After a tragic accident kills her husband, now-single mother Amelia is left to raise her troubled son, Samuel, alone. Samuel soon develops increasingly violent behavioral problems after reading a disturbing children’s book called The Babadook. When Mr. Babadook appears to manifest physically in their home, Amelia fears that she, too, will become haunted by the creature… or worse. Mr. Babadook’s striking design—with his wide, toothy mouth; long, sharp fingers; dark, sunken eyes; and overcoat and top hat—invokes many of the great movie monsters of the silent era, and director Jennifer Kent deftly plays with shadows and darkness, in both the visual and emotional senses. The truly haunting part of The Babadook is the evil, sadness, hurt, and pain that can manifest within ourselves.
If you’re a fan of: Backstage musicals like 42nd Street or the Broadway Melod(ies)
You might like: Beyond the Lights
Behind-the-scenes showbiz stories have been the bread-and-butter of the musical film genre since its inception, and Beyond the Lights is a worthy, lovely modern successor to those early movies. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Noni Jean, a pop singer on the brink of superstardom, who gets saved (in every way that a person can be saved) by regular guy police officer Kaz, played by Nate Parker. In classical, grandiose fashion, they fall quickly and deeply in love, and face off against the negative forces of the world—overbearing parents, demanding audiences, and the like—as a united team of two. Beyond the Lights acknowledges but doesn’t play into too many of the cliches of romantic melodramas, yet at the same time, feels comfortable and familiar to watch. As always, the machinations of the starmaking machine remain a compelling setting for these human stories, whether it’s Broadway babies or pop divas.
If you’re a fan of: Antisocial antiheroes like those in Taxi Driver or Dirty Harry
You might like: Nightcrawler
Today’s media has no shortage of misanthropic antiheroes, but Nightcrawler takes that concept to a challenging extreme that feels maybe more at home in the bleak urban landscape of ’70s and ’80s cinema. Lou Bloom is a desperate husk of a man searching for work in Los Angeles. After he pulls over on the freeway to watch a burning car wreck (as you do), he inadvertently discovers the world of “nightcrawlers,” cameramen who sell shocking, graphic footage to local news—think the overturned vehicles, house fires, and triple homicides that are teased endlessly throughout typical nightly broadcasts. His antisocial nature (the sociopathic kind, not the introverted kind) makes him particularly attuned to the new career, and he quickly builds his success with no concern for the feelings or humanity of anyone in his way, including “intern” Riz Ahmed and TV news producer Rene Russo. An emaciated Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou with the ferocious desperation of a starving coyote wandering the streets of a suburb, looking for a scrap (or chihuahua) to eat. Nightcrawler is at times daring, funny, and true, and like the rebellious antiheroes of the ’70s, almost dares you to empathize with a man who shows none.
If you’re a fan of: Teen rebellions like Rebel Without a Cause or Splendor in the Grass
You might like: We Are the Best!
Being a teenager is always hard, and We Are the Best! tackles that hell in a joyful and truthful way. Three Swedish teen girls: Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig start a punk rock band, despite the fact that only one of them has ever handled an instrument before. The songs of their creation are delightful and funny; “Hate the Sport,” written during their gym class, becomes one of their major anthems—as the subject of its hate is endlessly adaptable through a simple lyric change. We Are the Best! really captures the teenage desperation to find simple solutions to the horrifying onset of real personhood: if I listen to this band (only their first album though, the second one sucked), if I cut my hair this way, if I affix the buttons on my jacket just so, then I will be punk, I will be cool, I will be secure. Sadly, there’s no real magical solution to gaining this self-awareness and peace, but the girls’ explosive—though sometimes misguided—confidence whenever they’re on stage is a revelatory and infectious celebration of girl power.
If you’re a fan of: Silly but witty lady-based comedies like Gentleman Prefer Blondes
You might like: Vampire Academy
Based on a young adult fantasy book series by Richelle Mead, Vampire Academy is a silly, frothy, saucy comedy about young women navigating their world who are largely unapologetic about their desires. Rose (the brunette) is tough with an acerbic, sarcastic wit, and Lissa (the blonde) is incredibly sweet and pretty—sound familiar? They are also best friends, and it’s clear that they—and we—are meant to value their relationship above any of their dalliances with the silly boys throughout. As you may surmise from the title, the film is indeed set at a boarding school for aristocratic vampires, but don’t let traumatic memories of past cinematic vampire tales stop you. As the product of Heathers writer Daniel Waters and Mean Girls director Mark Waters, Vampire Academy is nothing like the dreary Twilight series. Instead, it’s a celebration of female friendships and teenage desires—and I can fully imagine Rose and Lissa boarding a passenger ship and getting into much the same trouble that Jane and Marilyn did.