Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014). Though based on a half-baked idea from the rambunctious mind of its director rather than anything that originally appeared on a printed page, Lucy can make a claim on being one of the best comic book movies of the past year, in that it establishes and locks in on its own suspicious and imaginative logic and then lets all other rules fall away in favor of what’s most thrillingly entertaining in any given moment. Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, a young woman whose scruffy boyfriend gets her ensnarled in a situation in which she’s an unwilling drug mule, carrying a strange new drug for ruthless Taiwanese gangsters. When the package holding the illicit substance bursts inside it, it winds up ramping up her brain power to the point that she has an ever expanded variety of superhuman abilities at her disposal. It’s utter nonsense, blithely, joyously so. Johansson is markedly good in the early scenes as a unremarkable woman in way over her head, but as the film progresses, she’s has to settle for the same fiercely focuses and yet slightly disaffected allure that is her default mode. It’s amusing to think that Besson might be deliberately trying to take Johannson’s three preceding roles — the exponential cognitive expansion towards godhood of Samantha in Her, the casual, mildly perturbed kick-ass capability of Natasha in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the otherworldly danger of “Laura” in Under the Skin — and trying to fold them all into one delectable batter.
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014). Jake Gyllenhaal is darkly electrifying as a hungry schemer whose indifferent attachment to morality makes him an ideal candidate to film human misery in all its forms for the nightly news in Los Angeles. Stumbling into the profession of freelance video journalist, Gyllenhaal’s character insinuates himself into the sphere of a desperate news producer (Rene Russo) on the night shift of a local station, getting into grimmer and grimier territory as the film goes on. Gilroy, a longtime screenwriter making his feature directorial debut, doesn’t have complete command of his film, often pitching it awkwardly and uncertainly between pitch black satire and stern drama. No amount of muddled storytelling is going to obscure what Gyllenhaal pulls off.
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, 2014). This downbeat western is the second feature film from Jones as a director, and it bears its creator’s tendency towards terse directness. When three different women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) in a frontier town succumb to different levels of mental illness, they are effectively banished to a church out east that is willing to take them in. With their husbands unwilling or otherwise resistant to accompany them on the journey, a local spinster (Hilary Swank) agrees to take on the task, eventually recruiting a battered scalawag to help her at the reins. Based on a Glendon Swarthout novel, the screenplay (co-written by Jones) is appropriately fixated on the way the American pioneer culture was quick to disregard women. It’s admirable, a little bleak, and more than a little inert. Swank’s characterization never completely gels, and Jones relies a little too heavily on his most familiar mannerisms. Ambitious as it may be, the film plainly doesn’t work.
The Monuments Men (George Clooney, 2014). Clooney’s directing career has been a study in diminishing deftness. He made a smashing debut with Good Night, and Good Luck. and then has looked more and more clumsy with every subsequent outing. Based on a non-fiction tome tracing the efforts of some unlikely soldiers trying to rescue the great art of Europe from the destructive impulses of the Nazis at the end of World War II, The Monuments Men feels like a terrific story poorly told. Clooney and his regular screenwriting partner, Grant Heslov, hopscotch around individual incidents without ever settling on a satisfying through line or giving the film any emotional heft. It sets up characters right before knocking them down, in the manner of countless war films, with no impact. Most dishearteningly, Clooney squanders a cast of ringers, providing practically nothing to do for everyone from Cate Blanchett to Bill Murray. Clooney himself gives the weakest performance. It’s the sort of disinterested, slightly smug work that defined his big screen work until Steven Soderbergh turned him around with Out of Sight.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014). Jarmusch evokes the endearingly shaggy freedom on his mid-eighties to early-nineties heyday, when his films brimmed with surprise. The difference is that Only Lovers Left Alive is also swimming in lush style, befitting a story of vampires who’ve been roaming the world for centuries, evidently always seeking out the coolest pieces of every era. Tom Hiddleston oozes blasted charisma as a sloping, goth musician and Tilda Swinton is practically playing herself as his wife, a woman who wears outfits like portable houses. There’s also a flinty supporting performance by John Hurt, who seems devoted to spending his seventies playing wild, weathered men smothered in bushels of facial hair, and bless him for it. In the end, it’s a lot of mood and humor so dry it nearly gasps, but it could use a plot. Even though Jarmusch specializes in this sort of loose structure, enough of the rest of the film is so artfully constructed that it would have been nice if he’d found his way to a story that followed suit.