Dec. 29 2014 07:25 PM

Year's great achievements in cinema reflect ongoing unrest, protest and emotional discontent

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Every December, I hear dismissive complaints from fellow writers that it was a bad year for movies. Nothing could have been further from the truth in 2014. In the real world, we saw plenty of unrest and protest, horror and trauma, and the most astutely aware films seemed to mirror many of the complex problems that flooded our daily news cycle. Cinema (and its ever-changing form) is alive and well. 

Below you'll find 20 films that opened in San Diego (or will open in early January). Instead of forcing them into a top 10 with honorable mentions, I've decided to present my list as a series of couples, thematically linked by a single defining trait and perfectly tailored for a double feature. The parallel worlds they present reveal how dynamic the year in movies has been.  

1. Surveillance in Closed Curtain and Citizenfour: Our every move produces a ripple, especially in the virtual realm. As a result, information has become more of a bankable and privatized commodity. Both Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi's masterpiece about a filmmaker avoiding detection from the Iranian government in his own house, and Citizenfour, Laura Poitras' documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, are essential documents about the power of surveillance, both as an all-encompassing entity manipulated by the government and a form of protest to be used by film artists pushing the boundaries of social reform. 

2. Work in The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night: Marion Cotillard starred in two great films this year, one a magisterial throwback to classical melodrama from James Gray set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City (The Immigrant) and the other a strident updating of the women's picture directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night). Each explores the overlap between gender and work, identity and independence, not to mention the difference between surviving and living in a world owned and operated by white men.

3. Collapse in Pompeii and Force Majeure: An exploding Mt. Vesuvius in 3-D and a cascading wall of snow: Two of the year's most lasting images were of epic collapse. Indeed, these two films are both visually ingenious. But it was the unsettling subtext of male ego bubbling underneath both tales of tested romance that made Paul W.S. Anderson's fiery extravaganza and Ruben Östlund's wintry comedy perfectly comparable. 

4. Adolescence in Boyhood and In Bloom: Boyhood, Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making look at growing up, skews to the sunnier side of adolescence, while In Bloom, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß's striking Georgian coming-of-age story, took a far colder stance on the subject. At odds are young minds questioning the strict cultural and social boundaries brazenly presented to confine originality and self. Linklater's vision finds hope in the passing of time, whereas In Bloom reverberates with the desperation of young women who understand they don't have that luxury. 

5. Longing in Only Lovers Left Alive and The Babadook: Jim Jarmusch's vinyl-laden vampire hangout session (Only Lovers Left Alive) suggests that true love exists in the ether, drifting around us until we grab hold and never let go. Jennifer Kent's horrifying movie about single parenting (The Babadook) proclaims that true love will stalk your every move until reconciliation between past and present is reached. Both are subtle, enraptured looks at relationships being tested by monsters living in between (mental) spaces.

6. Speed in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Snowpiercer: No other film matched the velocity of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's glorious, powder-blue war film, and Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho's cramped cinematic locomotive steaming toward insurrection. Catching one's breath seems impossible as one scene overlaps into another, careening forward to an uncertain future. But it's not about the end result; the journey informs humanity's ongoing battle with corruption and fear. 

7. Bodies in Under the Skin and Stranger by the Lake: A slinky, sexy alien and sweaty male bodies stretched out on the sand. Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi art film (Under the Skin) understands the allure of physicality as a form of deflection, much like Alain Guiraudie's Hitchockian thriller (Stranger by the Lake) set at a gay cruising spot next to a crystalline body of water. Tension, threatening resolve, repressed curiosity and incendiary thematic power lie underneath the skin of both films. 

8. Power in A Most Wanted Man and Inherent Vice: Director Anton Corbijn adapts John le Carré's novel about espionage and blackmail in modern Hamburg (A Most Wanted Man) with a frigid sense of power's crippling hand. Paul Thomas Anderson adapts Thomas Pynchon's novel about hippy "espionage" and blackmail (Inherent Vice) with a warm sense of power's crippling hand. These are character-driven tragedies working in different color shades, films unafraid of admitting that institutions often overwhelm a palpable sense of self.

9. Trauma in The Homesman and Ida: The Old West and cold-war Poland provide the landscapes for two of the year's great examinations of trauma in relation to the female experience. In The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank play ornery characters who trek east across the prairie with three crazy women in tow, leaving gravestones along the way. Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski's black-and-white drama, also concerns a journey of sorts, although it works far more powerfully as an internal examination of faith, history, genocide and family, post World War II.

10. Manipulation in Gone Girl and Nightcrawler: Two of the most riveting Hollywood films of the year came in slick packages. Gone Girl, David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's mega-bestseller, proved yet again why he's such a razor-sharp provocateur of modern communication methods. The manipulation on display in the story of a couple being ripped apart for the world to see rivals that of Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy's news-media satire, which stars a rail-thin Jake Gyllenhaal as a cultural vulture picking apart every salacious image our society produces. We are what (or who) we eat.

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