Five things we learned from films in 2014

A WISE man once said “all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” Here are five things we learned in 2014. By Alistair Harkness

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin. Picture: Contributed

1. Scarlett Johansson rules

“Where’s the Scarlett Johansson superhero movie?” asked Jessica Chastain midway through 2014. It was a good question. In a year in which the hitherto little-known Chris Pratt went from a supporting role in cult sitcom Parks and Recreation to headlining Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Johansson was left to play third banana to Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan (who?) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. No matter, she demonstrated her marquee value in undeniable fashion by turning Luc Besson’s sci-fi thriller Lucy into $460m-grossing box-office smash and cemented her position as the most versatile movie star of 2014 with another pair of sci-fi films. As an extra-terrestrial huntress learning what it means to be human in the Glasgow-set Under the Skin (my film of the year), she pushed herself as a performer, gamely chatting up unwitting Glaswegians without breaking character to add a strange authenticity to Jonathan Glazer’s shot-on-the-fly, alien-eye view of Scotland. In Spike Jonze’s Her, meanwhile, she delivered a virtuoso piece of voice acting as the artificially intelligent computer operating system with which Joaquin Phoenix’s sad-sack letter-writer fell in love, further proving that even when confined to a single genre, Johansson could transcend the movie industry’s myopic view of her gender.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

2. Marriage sucks

Her also tapped into another cinematic trend in 2014: the dark side of marriage. What initially seemed like a gimmicky meditation on our evolving relationship with technology revealed itself instead to be a nuanced and fairly lacerating exploration of failing matrimony, one that used its sci-fi conceit to gradually reveal its protagonist (played by Phoenix) coming to terms with the realisation that his idealised view of his estranged wife – and of women in general – not only made him a little bit creepy, but was completely incompatible with having a meaningful relationship with a sentient human being. This was explored in ever-darker ways in Gone Girl, David Fincher’s magnificent adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s mordantly funny thriller about a husband (Ben Affleck) who becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife (Rosamund Pike). Exploring the vicissitudes of modern marriage through such a deliciously depraved prism revealed the Frankenstein-like nature of coupledom: attempts to mould the perfect partner can have seriously monstrous results.

3. Time is (not) on your side

On the surface, the only thing linking Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood were the indie roots of their respective directors. But both were also epic and moving meditations on the nature of time. In Nolan’s endlessly debated sci-fi mind-melter, time became the film’s villain, robbing its wormhole-traversing hero (Matthew McConaughey) of years in the blink of an eye. In Boyhood it took a different form as Linklater took the audacious step of spreading a 40-day shoot over 12 years to chart in real time the coming-of-age of its young protagonist, played by Ellar Coltrane, who was just seven when he started. Watching him mature before our eyes was certainly remarkable – but only for being thoroughly unremarkable: this was a film that understood how the cumulative impact of seemingly inconsequential moments can be as important as the big melodramatic scenes we’ve been trained by books, songs and movies to identify as the key events in our lives.

4. Punk’s not dead

There was no sweeter movie in 2014 than Lukas Moodysson’s defiantly titled We Are the Best! His anarchic tale of three teen girls who decide to form a punk band in Stockholm in 1982 was a riotous celebration, both of being an outsider and being united as outsiders. The energy that coursed through the film was captured for real in Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer, a stomping documentary (the best of the year) about Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of the brilliant US feminist punk band Bikini Kill and progenitor of the Riot Grrrl movement. A British precursor of Hanna’s, Viv Albertine of The Slits, turned up as the star of Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition, a film that was itself pretty punk thanks to the way its discordant rhythms and minimalist story challenged the spoon-fed cosiness of most British cinema. I was cool on it initially, but having seen it a couple of times, I think it stands alongside Glazer’s Under the Skin and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner as one of the most singular and uncompromising artistic achievements in British cinema this year – outsiders united indeed.

5. Revenge is a dish best served cold

There’s no pulpier genre than the revenge movie – and 2014 served up a great one in Blue Ruin. Featuring a brilliantly conceived protagonist (played by Macon Blair), Jeremy Saulnier’s low-budget thriller deftly showed the allure of violence without getting off on depicting its bloody consequences. Similarly intriguing was the 1980s-set Cold in July, which boasted the entrance of the year for Miami Vice icon Don Johnson as a Texan private-eye-cum-pig-farmer given to wearing a white Stetson and driving a red corvette with “Red Bitch” on the licence plate. The biggest surprise of 2014, however, was Dan Stevens getting his revenge on the Downton doubters who’d written him off as another Brit actor destined to play dishy drips in middling period fare. With The Guest he took an inspired detour into highly tuned genre trash, playing an entertainingly badass US soldier with the eyes of Paul Newman, the skills of Jason Bourne and the killer instinct of The Terminator. Directed by indie horror auteur Adam Windgard it was the most fun and outré film I saw this year, a crazy-good postmodern action-horror hybrid that subverted expectations as deliriously as its star did his image.