Exhibiting raw promise is one thing, but to exceed those initial flashes is something really special. Throughout this year, many filmmakers and performers were pressing on in remarkable ways, showing that even artists who have already exhibited notable skill, talent and accomplishment still contain the ability to achieve something new.
This wasn’t so much the year of the breakthrough as the year of the follow-through.
Throughout the year people you thought you knew showed they were still full of surprises — including filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Alex Ross Perry, who have continued their upward trajectory of making work with a distinctive voice and performers such as Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose work showed a deepening emotional complexity.
After her debut with “I Will Follow,” DuVernay won the directing prize at Sundance for “Middle of Nowhere,” which displayed a supple sense of storytelling that flowed with a dancer’s grace. In “Selma,” which depicts Martin Luther King Jr.'s voting rights protests of 1965, that confident ease is coupled with a growing air of power. DuVernay rises to the challenge of a bigger budget and larger sense of scale as well as having the instinct to tell that story in this particular cultural moment.
The story is one of now-obvious contemporary relevance, and the film has a boldly inspirational air, particularly in David Oyelowo’s delivery of speeches in the style of King. (The film also takes time to show King writing and rehearsing his orations, acknowledging the work that goes into getting good at something.) Under DuVernay’s guiding hand, “Selma” in many ways renews faith in the year-end prestige picture and in the ability of movies to give shape, context and new meaning to events past and present.
An actress since childhood, Moss found acclaim for her role on TV’s “Mad Men” and has continued to show herself to be a performer of depth and inner resolve in “Listen Up Philip” and “The One I Love.”
Her role in “Listen Up Philip” was the most unexpected, remarkable for the attention she and the screenplay give to the inner life of her character, a woman amid a protracted breakup with the self-centered author of the title. Instead of making her a forgettable subsidiary, writer-director Perry uses a literary-inflected structure to open the story’s perspective in unusual ways. Moss captures the struggle of someone in the process of painful self-discovery.
Like DuVernay, Perry is on his third feature after his debut with “Impolex” and the scorched-earth sibling comedy of “The Color Wheel.” Many find his characters abrasive, but it’s in that friction where Perry works best. In “Philip” he gets far underneath the surface to something undeniably vibrant and honest even when, perhaps most of all, the characters are infuriating or off-putting.
For me likely the most revelatory surprise of the year was an actress I have seen numerous times before — on short-lived television series and in the ill-fated Tom Hanks vehicle “Larry Crowne” — but who suddenly burst forth in completely new ways. Mbatha-Raw appeared in the period-set “Belle” and the contemporary “Beyond the Lights,” and though the movies are completely different, the actress brought an inner strength and light to each of them, a sense of an active mind, a beating heart and a soul yearning for more. Both movies are better for having her in them.
Or consider Katherine Waterston. After a few years of struggling to break through with roles in unremarkable films like “The Babysitters,” she slyly sidles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of “Inherent Vice” on a spectrum between damsel in distress and femme fatale.
The film’s centerpiece moment — and in the running for greatest scene this year — finds her combining sex appeal and regret to her hippie detective ex-boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix). In an unbroken long take, it’s a quicksilver mix of seduction, humiliation, confession and self-immolation, with the moment, and Waterston’s performance, made more stunning because she is naked, stripped bare but cloaked in mystery.
Add to all that veteran filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson, who with “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” respectively, showed that even working in a deeply personalized, highly idiosyncratic style can leave room for adjustments and advances. Veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy made a savage debut as a director with “Nightcrawler.” Tilda Swinton and Phoenix remained capable of virtuoso transformation in multiple films.
Scarlett Johansson had a remarkably rich, diverse run in “Under the Skin,” “Lucy,” “Chef” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” (She also found time to have a baby and get married — what did you get done this year?)
What’s most exciting about these artists is the lesson to never stop, to keep pushing, changing and evolving. Distinct from the come-from-nowhere discovery, the notion that something new and astonishing can emerge from someone already in our view is even more thrilling. In 2014, when some would see cinema as a storytelling mode and cultural force as an endangered species, these are vital signs of life.