Friday, February 20, 2015

Best Films Of 2014

These are the movies from 2014 I loved the most. Anything from my top ten stayed with me hours, most cases days after my first viewing and even in the second month of 2015, I can recall them vividly. If you're wondering why this list is so late, I do not have the luxury of attending the festival circuit, nor do I live in New York or Los Angeles, so a lot of late 2014 prestige releases don't make their way to the rest of the country until January. To be able to put movies in the proper context of their respective years, it helps to see the films that have been lauded the most or were highly anticipated, hence the February arrival of this list. In my own world, it's still relevant as long as it's before the Oscars. So here it is.

1. Life Itself

Roger Ebert was a huge influence on me as a cinephile. If I hadn't started reading his reviews as a high school freshman, this very list you're reading may not even exist. I fought hard not to make Life Itself, my #1 movie of 2014 because of how much I adored its subject and for fear that I wasn't being objective, yet in the end, honesty won out. The emphasis on Ebert's love for movies alone would have still made this a memorable film, seeing as how his writing was filled with an observation, wit and insight that made him more accessible than some of his more sophisticated contemporaries at the time. The love he had for cinema was a very genuine and touching one, but in the spirit of objectivity, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) delved into the man behind the reviews, warts and all. The documentary follows Ebert through the last months of his life as he battled cancer, an ordeal that is not skimmed over in the least and quite graphic at times, in addition to less flattering biographical nuggets mentioned throughout the film. It's the kind of portrayal Ebert himself likely would have championed.

2. Boyhood

Much has been made about Richard Linklater's filming process for Boyhood, and deservedly so. It was a risk to film one singular story over the course of twelve years and credit has to go to the boldness of the task. While I do feel this approach provided a subtle advantage for the performances here over actors that would have had to cover the same time span and emotional range over the course of two months on a movie set, it's not what made Boyhood great. It's a film made of tiny moments. They're often quiet. They have little to no bearing on the overall story, but they are moments that resonate so well to growing up because there isn't a plot to serve. It's almost documentary-like in its refusal to turn up the volume except for a few tension-filled moments, and much like that genre of film, it's confident enough to realize that the mundane is often where the most honest moments lie.

3. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a slimy, down on his luck go-getter with a gift for gab who turns to the world of recording footage of gruesome scenes for profit. It's one of the most unnerving performances of the year, as he connives and cajoles with no moral barometer and a pair of gaunt eyes that poke out with desperation in every frame. Nightcrawler is part media satire, part outcast character study with the style of a thriller and in his directorial debut, screenwriter Dan Gilroy already has a knack for crafting scenes of tension and ambiguity. The movie also boasts my favorite supporting cast of the year, which features memorable moments from Bill Paxton as Gyllenhaal's foul-mouthed rival, Riz Ahmed as his "intern" who is even more down on his luck and Rene Russo as the veteran news director willing to pay for the footage with little regard to conscience.

4. Whiplash

We've seen tales of young underdogs before striving to be the best, but it's usually done so within the confines of a sports movie. What made Whiplash  so refreshing is that it took some of those same tropes (protagonist being pushed to the edge, nail-biting finale, etc.) and translated them to the world of music school with the frenetic energy of jazz. Director Damien Chazelle is no stranger to adapting the feel of music convincingly to the screen (his excellent debut, Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench actually cracked my 2011 list) and when the time signatures and tempos are upped as they are here, it's a seamless transition for him. In Chazelle's second feature, Miles Teller stars as a young drummer who idolizes Buddy Rich. His goal is to be the best, even if it means being viciously berated and tormented by a near-rabid teacher (J.K. Simmons) who also wants nothing but the best from his students. The subject of greatness is one that's brought up often and Whiplash is one of the best films in a while to delve into the pains of achieving that goal and its overall effect on the psyche and personal relationships. There are those that will identify Simmons' character as a villain, but I loved how the movie refused to take such an easy route. It highlights the importance of what both of these men are attempting to achieve and the hold that it has on their lives, which made the final scene one of the most exhilarating of 2014 and will likely push Whiplash into classic territory one day.

5. Under The Skin

As a person raised on MTV during the '90s, I became pretty acquainted with Jonathan Glazer's work as a music video director (Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity," UNKLE's "Rabbit In Your Headlights," Radiohead's "Karma Police"). A haunting atmosphere was the common strand between his videos with visuals that were either discomforting or provocative. While Glazer's films as a feature length director have dealt with dark content (Sexy Beast, Birth), neither really showed as many traces of the man behind some of the greatest music videos of all-time as much as Under The Skin did. The hue of the movie is likely to blame since it consistently looks dimmer than his previous films. It also helps that the story is otherworldly, with Scarlett Johansson as a being that preys on men while disguised as a human. In its quieter moments (of which there are many), the movie works well as a dissection of gender roles, human nature and the male gaze, but the visuals carry it into special territory. The lead-up to Johansson's victims meeting their fate was one of my favorite images in cinema this year: an all-black setting where clothes are gradually removed and the men descend into...well, I'm not exactly sure what, but the sentiment is definitely clear. Add to that a stirring, minimalist score by Mica Levi and Glazer was able to flex the kind of the disturbing muscles that initially made me an admirer of his so long ago.

6. Two Days, One Night

The latest from French filmmakers/brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The SonThe Kid With A Bike) crams a bounty of social issues and questions into a space that feels small-scale, but carries with it a weight that presses on to you in nearly each moment. Marion Cotillard portrays a factory worker recently recovered from a difficult episode of depression and ready to return to her job, only to find out her fate is in the hands of her fellow employees, who must decide between either keeping her on or receiving their bonuses. It's up to Cotillard to convince her co-workers one by one to let her stay. Each interaction offers its own surprises and it's rare that sympathy isn't felt on both sides. That Cotillard has been placed in such a delicate situation that makes it easy to root for her, yet sympathy can be felt on both sides, is the kind of tightrope act that gives the movie its depth. At the center of it all is Marion, in a performance stunning in its fragility, where there's no hiding the effect that each response has on her face and few words are needed.

7. Starred Up

I have yet to see Unbroken, a film that is likely to net its lead, Jack O'Connell, more roles in Hollywood. Although the promotion for it was relentless, I somehow felt lied to that I didn't recognize him in Starred Up. Perhaps my facial recognition skills aren't what they used to be, but I'd like to think there's always the possibility that O'Connell was just that damn good in the movie and he disappeared into his character. His role here is that of a young male who is finally transferred to an adult penitentiary for a violent offense. He carries that explosive behavior into a new world where it clearly won't be tolerated, a new world that also includes his father as a fellow inmate who has his own aggression issues. Throughout the movie, I was pretty convinced that O'Connell and his co-stars were former felons that were plucked from obscurity and not guys with several IMDB credits. Was this troubled, volatile, profane kid really the same guy who had the golden glow of a hero in the trailer for Unbroken? Of course they're two different films and the grit that director David Mackenzie covers the film in goes a long way toward concealing O'Connell from anything remotely Hollywood, but my appreciation for his performance shot up even more once I realized who he was.

8. Beyond The Lights

I can't sell you on Beyond The Lights being an original story—although it is refreshing in this current climate to see black actors engage with each other in a way that doesn't pander to broad and lowbrow standards—it is certainly a story told with incredible care. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood covered similar territory in Love & Basketball and Disappearing Acts, with the former still loved to this day in some circles. In Beyond The Lights, she's created a film that stands toe-to-toe with those benchmarks of African-American romance and if there were any justice, will hopefully find a wider audience. The two lovers here are played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. Mbatha-Raw is a burgeoning pop star who begins to crack under the pressure of the limelight and Parker is the security guard assigned to look after her. We already know that sparks will fly or that there will eventually be conflict between the two, but the film operates on a different level than just serving as comfort food by providing familiar conventions. It's so genuine in that it doesn't only revel in the moments of embrace, but in the journey leading up to them with characters that are smart, yet far from perfect. I'll be the first to admit that I like my romantic movies in the classic vein (there have only been a handful since Harold & Maude that really do it for me), so I usually need a bigger angle to get me hooked. There is no such angle to be found here, but it served as a reminder that as much as my knowledge of movies has expanded, there was a time as a kid when I didn't need a hook to be engaged. The story and the way it was told was simply enough. Beyond The Lights brought me back to earth. It has a terrific story and a terrific cast. Isn't that why we go to the movies in the first place?

9. Selma

For my generation, the legend of Martin Luther King Jr. has reached folk hero-like proportions. He is a near-mythical figure who literally changed the world and people's perceptions with seemingly few flaws or gaffes. It's a daunting task to bring someone like that to life on the screen, which is why I think Selma is a movie that will endure for years to come even as it strikes down some of those lofty images. The film does a great job of humanizing people we're already familiar with before the lights go down in the theater and does not stray from the harsh truths that get glossed over in the history books. The same intimacy that Ava Duvernay brought to her previous two films, I Will Follow and Middle Of Nowhere is of great service to a story that is dying to be approached from an epic standpoint at each corner. It's not always grim, but the gravity of the situations lingers in just about every scene. When it does come time for the scope to be expanded, Selma works at or above the same level of other prestige films in recent Oscar races that have been showered with acclaim.

10. The Lego Movie

One of the most imaginative and fulfilling surprises of 2014 came from a movie with a trailer that I had my doubts about. Save for the Wonder Woman joke at the end of it, my hopes were low for The Lego Movie, but nearly a year from when it first debuted, it's a piece of work that still makes me smile whenever I think about. Chris Pratt voiced the protagonist, Emmet, who is a construction worker content with the repetition of life until he discovers that he is not really all that unique. From there, he gets sucked into an adventure to save the Lego universe and from there, we're treated to a world filled with boundless ideas and a healthy love of pop culture. Seeing some of the characters and pieces in action is supposed to achieve a sense of nostalgia and take you to a place in your childhood where imagination was still a valid currency. Luckily, that's not the only level that The Lego Movie operates on as it giddily tries to break the jokes-per-minute record with clever lines and visual gags while also providing some unexpected heart. With a talented cast that includes Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman and Will Arnett, it should have been serviceable at the least, but when coupled with one of the smartest screenplays for an American animated movie outside of Pixar, it becomes pure entertainment of a high order.

11.Top Five
12. The Grand Budapest Hotel
13. Mr. Turner
14. Snowpiercer
15. Gone Girl
16. Fury
17. Birdman
18. Leviathan
19. A Most Violent Year
20. Winter Sleep
21. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
22. Dear White People
23. Force Majeure
24. The Raid 2: Berendal
25. Only Lovers Left Alive
26. Norte, The End Of History
27. Obvious Child
28. Guardians Of The Galaxy
29. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
30. Interstellar
31. Edge of Tomorrow
32. John Wick
33. We Are The Best!
34. Inherent Vice
35. Venus In Fur
36. Stranger By The Lake
37. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
38. Jodorowsky's Dune
39. 22 Jump Street
40. Frank
41. Ida
42. Stand Clear Of Closing Doors
43. The Unknown Known
44. X-Men: Days Of Future Past
45. The Immigrant
46. The Imitation Game
47. The Guest
48. Blue Ruin
49. Foxcatcher
50. Bad Words
51. Mood Indigo
52. Locke
53. Bird People
54. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
55. The Book Of Life
56. Finding Vivian Maier
57. Nymphomaniac Vol. I
58. Belle
59. Into The Woods

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