Top Films of 2014
Alas my favorite films of the year, I hope you enjoy it, I’ve spent quite some time considering and writing about each one. Again, do not take these as recommendations, they are reflections of my taste and what I see as great.
Before we continue I must of course lay out a few I haven’t had the chance to catch up with that would have had a chance to be contenders: Two Days, One Night; Leviathan; Nightcrawler; Mr. Turner; Love is Strange; Citizenfour; Starred Up; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Listen Up Phillip
Nolan’s latest sprawling epic features some truly grand and spectacular moments as well as some beautifully touching small ones. It uses space and time to explore what it means to be human, the choices we have to make as humans, and whether love can transcend evolutionary impulses to survive. Not every note hits, but Nolan continues to dazzle as a blockbuster artist.
Bong Joon-Ho made one of my favorite films from a few years back, Mother, a Korean-language movie, and Snowpiercer is his American debut. His cross-genre stylings serve him well in this tale of a dystopian future that takes place entirely on a train. The lower class citizens start a revolution and as they move from train cart to train cart Joon-Ho uses the different genres to create a wide range of tone which is brilliantly executed and so much fun. Its talkier parts do drag (except for the scene where they talk about the arms, which was absolutely captivating to me), but it features the best action sequences of any film this year.
The latest small, improvised film that Joe Swanberg likes to crank out continues the wonderful relational dynamic that his previous work, Drinking Buddies, brough. While even smaller in scale, it is in its smallness and little touches that the film thrives. It’s not a Christmas movie by any measure–as its title would indicate–but it is a movie about family, young people, and marriage, which are things that invade our daily lives, making it–in a way–the most Christmas movie of all.
22 Jump Street really surprised me, not that anything Miller and Lord do should anymore, but I found it comically and absurdly delightful. They do fairly broad comedy, but it comes at you in a way that is unexpected, clever, and subversive. Tatum and Hill’s chemistry of course drives the whole thing and I can only hope they do continue to make more of them.
Chef is like the Christmas song the Who’s sung that melted the icy heart of this movie Grinch. It is such a sincere movie, on ehtat a typical cynic like me would love to absolutely crush, but instead I adored its positive sensibility. It’s about a chef who is going through a midlife crisis and ends up starting a food truck with his son. Although it’s based in rom-com tropes, it never really throws itself into them. Instead, the movie chooses to focus on people mostly getting along and having a good time, becoming a celebration of life rather than a melodramatic romantic comedy.
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are back at it once again, road tripping to beautiful locales, eating delicious food, and attempting to outdo one another with hilarious comedy bits and impressions. It’s a really funny movie (though the first one is funnier), but really works because of its melancholic tone. Each, playing a version of themselves, is wrestling and discovering with who they are in the world of entertainment and as members of a family. It’s a wonderful sequel and at this point is starting to look like Linklater’s Before trilogy with a comedic edge.
The world of A Most Wanted Man is grim, focusing in upon main character Gunther (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role), a depressed and world weary agent in Germany. The world of spies and international politics is played out and each character makes decisions in order to advance their cause. Everything builds toward a spectacular finish where all hopes and dreams of reasonable negotiation for peace are dashed in light of the selfishness that pervades those in charge.
Marion Cotillard plays an immigrant in the early-1900s forced to choose between her ideals and the opportunity that America can represent for her. Which moral and religious lines is she willing to cross to enter into the home of the brave and the land of the free? Director James Gray paints America and the immigrant experience as a shady, compromising one, but ultimately shows that sacrifice and love can come out of it.
An exciting, clever, and funny action movie that is essentially the action version of Groundhog Day. Tom Cruise stars as a high ranking rarmy officer placed among the grunts of battle as a stint by his commanders. However, after the first day of battle each time he dies he wakes up to relive the day over again. Eventually he meets up with Emily Blunt–a top tier warrior–and the two team together to try to defeat the alien army that has invaded earth. The strength of the film is that it can rely on its central conceit for both humor and to skip across tropes that would otherwise bog it down. It’s also quite interesting as a love story, that by not being allowed to pay off, does so immensely.
A sort of Southern Gothic revenge tale about a man who commits a violent act, unleashing chaos in his life. Jeremy Saulnier creates some of the most gripping scenes of the year with Dwight–really an amateur when it comes to violence–forced to fight against an entire family who will not let things go. Violence and justice are often seen as intertwined, but as Dwight discovers they only grow bigger and bigger until there is nothing left.
I don’t think this is really a movie that can be thought about too in depth, but I also don’t think it’s meant to be. Instead, The Guest is a multi-genre feature that is amazingly well layered. It’s about an ex-marine who comes to visit the family of one of his deceased comrades, but there is always something else under the surface. Director Adam Wingard has such a skill of knowing perfectly where and how to place each scene for maximum entertainment and the whole thing is a riot.
A surprisingly moving continuation of the Planet of the Apes series. This time the focus is so ape-centric, creating genuine emotion for the apes and their world. Of course this is helped by the brilliant motion capture acting that Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell do. It all centers around the conflict between apes and humans and the misunderstanding that comes when two cultures clash–a pretty typical and perhaps over-mined storyline–but they are able to pull it off in a way that feels fresh.
I read the book just before I saw the movie, so I certainly had a different experience than those who had already seen it, but Fincher certainly did it justice. The twists hit hard and Fincher brings to life what I see being one of the greatest female characters for years to come.
A haunting movie that brilliantly flips its story about halfway from that of a demon-child to a possessed mother controlled by her past. Its sound design and aesthetic make it rise above most horror films, actually making it look and feel interesting. Its ending is also quite fun in the most frightening way. As the plot conceit unfolds the rest of the movie can be seen in a different light and the director uses this to actually tell a quite moving tale about the pain that comes with loss.
This film is a romp if you take what it’s saying and look as a portrait of celebrity culture. Michael Keaton plays a washed up actor trying to create his passion project and gain all of the credit and acclaim that he so desperately wants. As the project ensues, he loses grip with reality, haunted by the hero that he used to be, and gets lost amidst the desires for fame and success. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot the whole thing to make it look like one consecutive take, increasing its manic energy and the chaos surrounding the production. Edward Norton puts up one of the best performances of the year as an actor who tries to bring a realistic take to the play. Birdman got hated upon for some of the things it tried to say about criticism and contemporary culture, but I say ignore those parts and it really is a brilliant farce.
An intense drama following a dedicated music student trying to make it in the music world, specifically his music school as a jazz drummer. Miles Teller and JK Simmons play student and teacher in a relationship that is constantly redefined thanks to writer/director Damien Chazelle’s brilliant choices. Their tumultuous relationship drives the film which throws into question ideas of dedication toward a craft and what it takes to create something great.
Lukas Moodysson again delivers an honest and heartwarming tale of teenage girls, this time focusing in on three girls in the 80s with an affection for punk and its counterculture. He writes each character so well and uses their interests in starting a punk band not only to show their rebellion against having to do PE, but to tell a story about things that all teens have to go through, whether their punk or not. Moodysson’s film is sweet, charming, and often hilarious.
A character study feauturing Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a concrete supervisor, who in one night makes a choice that turns everything upside down. We watch as he drives in his car, making phone calls that slowly unveil pieces of his life, his past, and what exactly the choice he is making means. Hardy is unbelievable, relied upon to carry the entire load of the movie and delivering completely. Locke is a man with strong convictions, respectable and consistent. Those virtues have made him into the man that he is, but will they also destroy him? As he tries to right his mistakes and overcome the insecurities that haunt him, the complexities of right and wrong are shown, demonstrating that a life void of grace is destructive.
7. Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson focuses on the comedic in this stoner noir featuring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc a not-so-hardboiled detective. Inherent Vice is hilarious with its hazy plot reflecting the drug addled state of its protagonist. Yet Doc is truly the hero of the story, with the most pure of intentions. As he somehow unlocks each part of the mystery he is presented with an increasingly corrupt image of the world is shown. Each level of the world is greedy, willing to do whatever it takes to advance themselves. In the middle of this Doc stands alone, a holy figure simply trying to transcend the ugliness brought by the man.
Ida is a young woman about to commit her life to becoming a nun. She carries out her duties solemnly with the rest of the sisters. Before she takes her vows, the sisters suggest that she her last remaining relative, an aunt who she has never met before. Her aunt–an eccentric and unbridled hedonist–is her mirror image, but they journey together making discoveries about their past that throw everything into question for both of them. Shot entirely in black and white, the film is amazing looking and while it is a stark tale of a dark period of history, there are moments of lightness and of beauty that really bring it home.
A Catholic priest has his life threatened by a parishioner bringing into light the entirety of his life, the work he does for God, and the sacrifice required by faith. While that might sound overly serious, Calvary brings with it a wit and dark humor that John Michael McDonagh is known for. Brendan Gleeson is wonderful at representing this holy figure who seems like he could snap at any moment, doing his best to bear with each admitted sinner purposely trying to aggravate him within his community. It takes place in gorgeous Ireland and ultimately is a tale of grace, faith, and sacrifice.
The most timely picture of the year, essentially a Martin Luther King biopic, but mostly a concentrated story of the protest at Selma for voters rights. Ava DuVernay displays King’s life in all its aspects, as an American hero, a leader of an oppressed people, a tired individual, and flawed husband. It shows the incredible courage it took to nonviolently take on the hate of millions and the never ending sacrifice required for justice.
A vampire movie where the main focus is the primacy of art and humanity’s abuse of the world they’ve been given. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as immortal lovers Adam and Eve, dealing with the modern world and lamenting the mess that has been made. It’s a gorgeous and well written movie driven by the charisma between Hiddleston and Swinton, with Hiddleston’s suicidal pessimism and Swinton’s caring love for her husband. Lest we get too self-serious Mia Wasikowska shows up as a portrait of youth, but also to bring things back to reality, declaring the pretentiousness of everything they stand for.
Richard Linklater’s latest film was fascinating at the least because of the way he chose to make it–filming the same cast of people over 12 years to tell a long term story of a boy and his family. But it is also so much more than a portrait of the last 12 years. It is about life and how the small moments–which Linklater wisely chooses to focus in on–build upon one another to create who you are. Typically there is no grand narrative, just bits and pieces of smaller stories that make you who you are. Mason has bad things happen to him, good things happen to him, and small things happen to him. He has people constantly coming in and out of his life trying to tell him how to live and though their influence is important, it is his story. Boyhood is a beautiful story about life and everything that goes into it.
The film that relies most heavily on pure cinema released this year. Director Jonathan Glazer uses the old adage “show not tell” to create a film that entirely shows you what is about rather than dragging itself through long periods of plot explanation. He allows you to put together for yourself exactly what is happening while the themes of image, vulnerability, and what it means to be a human come forth. Scarlett Johannson is great in a subdued performance as some sort of alien figure who preys on humanity’s weak. Yet as she begins to grow in curiosity about the things humans choose to do, our pleasures, desires, compassion and the evil we are capable of, she changes allowing herself to accept this humanity in a decision that she ultimately has to pay for. And that’s just my take on it. Oh and did I mention that it probably has the best visual effects and sound design of any movie of this year and potentially the last few?
And a few more that just missed: Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6, Foxcatcher, Force Majeure