Revenge is a theme that pulses through a lot of cinema, but what if you're not Schwarzenegger or Charles Bronson? What if you're just a hard-luck vagrant living out of his car, seeking revenge on the cats that killed your folks? That's the premise of Jeremy Saulnier's stunning and expressive breakout film, Blue Ruin. Smart, savage and anchored by Macon Blair's poignant protagonist, Blue Ruin stands tall as 2014's triumphant revenge thriller.
The bizarre true tale of one of America's wealthiest men who murdered an Olympic athlete back in 1996, all told through the bleak lens of Bennett Miller ... man, just the synopsis of this sucker rubs me in all my dirty parts. The cinematic hat trick of Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell (in a wickedly gnarly turn) elevates the film's grim atmosphere. While I would never call Foxcatcher entertaining, it is a darkly compelling masterpiece that explores the darkest crevices that exist between the haves and have-nots.
A Most Violent Year
Contrary to what its title suggests, A Most Violent Year is very nonviolent. It focuses on a few desperate characters trying to keep their heads above water in 1981 NYC – a time of widespread brutality and opportunity for those not afraid to grasp it. Oscar Isaac gives one of the year's best turns as Abel, the honcho of a heating-oil company trying to keep straight while seemingly everyone around him has their finger on the trigger. From its performances to its pacing, this bad bitch shows that it doesn't matter if you're a shark or a goldfish – it only matters how well you can swim around the drowning suckers.
From the very first shot of the film, when Jack O'Connell's eyes are quivering in front of the camera, Starred Up is drenched in tension. Then it's literally drenched in baby oil as Jack fights off prison guards and bites one of them in the dick. The story of an imprisoned youth confronting his father in prison, David Mackenzie's film is a carnal exploration of thrashing back against society and ultimately finding peace within it. Jack O'Connell may get a lot of love this year for his turn in the Oscar wank Unbroken, but with Starred Up he tears through the screen like a goddamn Cockney lion in a truly profound performance.
Damien Chazelle's Whiplash is probably the most appropriately titled film of the year. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons duke it out in a kinetic, blisteringly intense cinematic display of teacher-student power dynamics. While the premise of Whiplash almost begs the audience to come up with analogies (fear versus love, a teacher's legacy, etc.), it's best to just sit back and enjoy the audiovisual ass-kicking. Vulgar, psychotic and beautiful in the way only well-earned blood can be, Whiplash somehow manages to feel like the most violent film of the year without a single punch being thrown (except at a snare drum). – Patrick Cooper