Off the Carpet: A ‘thin’ year? Not for the craft of filmmaking…

I've been trying to put my finger on just what it is about 2014 that has me reticent to embrace the “it's weak” narrative. First and foremost, it's a narrative that I do understand. Maybe there's something about the overall cultural impact of film product this year that feels beneath bars set in the past, I don't know. But as I've worked through my personal assessment of the year's best over the last few weeks, I've found that I'm revisiting films more often than usual. I'm finding that my favorites are a funky bunch and that the old top 10 isn't clicking into place as fluidly as it has before (not a bad thing). I'm basically just finding my passion for the year in interesting places.

And then it finally dawned on me. The reason 2014 doesn't feel “thin” or “weak” to me is less big picture than nuts and bolts: On a purely craft level, this has been an absolutely outstanding year for film.

Look at the design of something like “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I didn't take to the film much on first viewing, but when I went back, I was sucked into the world Wes Anderson and his team created. “Moonrise Kingdom” was the director's high water mark for me two years ago, but this may well be the most immaculately crafted work of his career. At the top, Adam Stockhausen's production design is beyond reproach, the eponymous lodging serving as a character unto itself amid the film's sparkling ensemble. Milena Canonero's costumes pop right off the screen, almost as if they were conjured by, you know, a legend. Robert Yeoman's photography is warm and inviting, making the film a true pleasure to just sit with. And Alexandre Desplat's classically epic score is one of his best, which is saying quite a lot.

Turn to something like “Mr. Turner.” Here is a film I admire but that I find impenetrably dry; it's not one of my favorites this year. But Dick Pope's digital photography could fool anyone as the height of celluloid, its lush beauty a very extension of J.M.W. Turner's famed canvases. Suzie Davies' production design fills the frame with immersive environments, the spaces Turner inhabits blasting a whiff of authenticity off the screen. Ditto Jacqueline Durran's costumes and the subtle wizardry from the makeup department.

On the blockbuster side of things, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a considerable leap forward for performance capture technology. “Godzilla” is a marvel of sound editorial and exhibits an enigmatic visual quality thanks to director Gareth Edwards' eye for effects novelty and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who continues to float between intimate beauty and big-scale entertainment with ease.

Craft is so top of mind it has even led the story in negative ways, such as with “Interstellar.” Christopher Nolan's film has been criticized for muffled sound design and beclouded photography. But then, the visual effects progression in the film stands as milestone work in the realm of astrophysics according to theoretical physicist and technical consultant Kip Thorne, while the practical designs of the film are truly novel for a project of this scale.

Wade further afield. Bong Joon-ho's “Snowpiercer” is a monument to set design, each compartment of its barreling locomotive distinct and eye-popping in its own way. And the makeup effects on Tilda Swinton (also notable in “Grand Budapest”) are nomination-worthy full stop. The actress even took a moment while accepting a career achievement honor at last week's Gotham Awards to single out her “dental technician.”

The inventive costumes of “Into the Woods” and “Maleficent” (and I would even add the stop-motion “Boxtrolls” to that conversation), the tight and propulsive editing of “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Whiplash,” the tableau photographic beauty of “A Most Violent Year” (the cinematography field is positively littered with examples of greatness this season), the pristine sound design of “Fury” and, as ever, the latest “Transformers” extravaganza, the respective western grandeur and massage parlor creep of the “Homesman” and “Gone Girl” scores…this list is endless.

Oh – and, uh, “Birdman?” The movie that sums up the entire point here? A “magic trick” designed to pull the viewer along with an electrifying, immediate experience, shot like a dream by reigning Best Cinematography Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (with a huge tip of the hat to steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff), painstakingly designed by Kevin Thompson and his team, outfitted by a legend in Albert Wolsky, invisibly stitched together by editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, riffed into jazzy rhythm by Antonio Sanchez's improvised drum score – it's a staggering achievement.

And I haven't even mentioned a few of my very favorite craft contributions this year: Alexandre Desplat's thunderous, adventurous “Godzilla” music; Robert Elswit's vibrant “Inherent Vice” cinematography capturing an expertly designed production; the meticulously reconstructed soundscape of originally unusable music selections in “Get On Up,” as well as the unsettling sound editorial of “The Babadook”; Matin Pensa and Jean-Marc Vallée's innovative, subjective editing of “Wild,” not to mention Sandra Adair's wrangling of 12 years of footage into what we know as “Boyhood”; Alex Ebert's haunting original song “America For Me” from “A Most Violent Year”; the eerie CGI flourishes of “Under the Skin”; virtually every below-the-line element of “The Immigrant”…

I should probably find a stopping point here. But you get the point. Let's just say the oldest Hollywood trade in town picked a fine year to finally launch a significant below-the-line initiative. 2014 is a marvel of craft and a reminder that artists are thriving in this industry. Just open your eyes and clean out your ears. You can't miss it.

The Contenders section has been updated.