Top Ten Films of 2014
After 2013, with modern classics like Gravity, Her and 12 Years a Slave, just to name a few, this year felt like a bit of a comedown, cinematically. It’s not that 2014 hasn’t had excellent films, but I feel like I had to dig a little deeper to find movies that really stuck with me. That being said, for me personally, 2014 was a return to indie-films – under the radar gems that made many blockbuster and “prestige” pics seem stale. Here’s what caught my attention in 2014:
The fascinating Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour
Superior blockbuster filmmaking in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
David Fincher’s bleak and darkly hilarious adaptation of Gone Girl
Tom Hardy’s mesmerizing one-man thriller, Locke
Stirring, illuminating Selma humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King
And the Top Ten:
Dan Gilroy’s deeply disturbing Nightcrawler not only dissects the relatively easy target of local newscasts – it becomes a sickening fable of win-at-any-cost American entrepreneurship. At its center is Jake Gyllenhaal’s tremendous, blood-chilling performance – his business-school platitudes and plastic smile barely hide the monster underneath.
9. Obvious Child
The year’s trickiest balancing act. Writer/director Gillian Robspierre manages to tackle this tale of a young stand up comedian’s decision to get an abortion with equal measures of dramatic pathos and satisfying romantic comedy. Due credit to Jenny Slate, whose dynamite lead performance should be considered for an Oscar.
8. Get On Up
Director Tate Taylor takes the hoary conventions of music biography in Get on Up and sticks them in a blender. Tracking the rise and fall of James Brown, the film darts back and forth in time, its tone vacillating between gritty realism, crisply edited musical numbers and fever dream surrealism. It’s an amiable mess held together by Chadwick Boseman’s brilliant, vivid performance as James Brown.
7. The Lego Movie
In The Lego Movie, broadly entertaining mainstream animation continuously bumps up against wildly subversive humor. This seeming contradiction gives the film its devilish, fizzy energy. From the maddeningly catchy “Everything is Awesome,” to the parade of character cameos, to the incredibly detailed action sequences that seem to be created entirely from Lego blocks, to the ironic skewering of corporate conformity, The Lego Movie is the A.D.D. generation’s Toy Story. I’m smiling just thinking about it.
The year’s most divisive blockbuster. Christopher Nolan’s hard sci-fi space opera has some stiff acting, lumpy sequences and frankly bewildering plotting. But it’s also visually glorious, deliriously complex, and emotionally powerful. Everything about Interstellar is the maximalist answer to 2001’s minimalism – from Hans Zimmer’s Philip-Glass indebted score to Nolan’s intense action staging (the ship-docking sequence rivals the rotating hallway in Inception) to the operatic emotions of the film’s final third. It doesn’t work for everyone, but no other film affected me as viscerally in 2014 as Interstellar.
5. The Theory of Everything
On paper, The Theory of Everything should be a stodgy, predictable piece of Oscar bait – and it kind of is, but it’s also elegant, beautifully filmed and exquisitely acted. Eddie Redmayne plays renowned physicist Steven Hawking from his fleet-footed days as a college undergrad through his middle-age, when his body is ravaged by ALS, rendering most of his muscles useless. What Redmayne manages to convey with just his eyes and lower lip in the film’s second half is beyond remarkable – it’s an acting miracle. He is matched by Felicity Jones, who plays Hawking’s wife Jane as his equal – an immensely loving if stubborn partner. Sure, Hawking’s science gets a short shrift – there’s more theoretical physics in Interstellar – but that’s not the story this film is telling. The Theory of Everything is more concerned about Stephen and Jane’s emotional journey, and on that level, it’s immensely rewarding.
4. A Most Violent Year
Many directors work long and illustrious careers without every achieving the kind of variety J. C. Chandor has in his first three films – the talky financial crisis drama Margin Call, the dialogue free seafaring adventure All is Lost, and now the fascinating, handsome crime saga A Most Violent Year. Starring Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain as the married moguls of an oil trucking company in the dangerous days of 1980’s New York, A Most Violent Year plays as a coolly reserved Godfather film. In a tricky role that he nails, Issac’s character is a man of character and composure – unwilling to compromise his morals in the morality-free industry he has chosen. Yes, there’s a couple of thrilling chase scenes, but Chandor’s film gets its charge from watching its characters resist temptation at all odds, even as everyone around them gets ahead by lying, cheating and stealing. A Most Violent Year trusts its audience with its slow, steady treading of the grey area in the middle of the American dream.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive
Although Jim Jarmusch has become a genre unto himself – his ennui laden aging hipsters floating through noise-rock soundtracked cityscapes full of quirky characters – his best work has come when he takes his sensibility and fuses it with another genre entirely. Only Lovers Left Alive is his best film since Ghost Dog – perhaps his best film ever, actually – because it takes all of the writer/director’s preoccupations and filters them through a pair of vampiric lovers played by Tom Hiddleston and the always-radiant and amazing Tilda Swinton. They have been married for centuries, bound by their affection for outsider artists and the shellacked cities (he, Detroit; she, Tangiers). But immortality can be a bummer, man, as can the God’s-eye-view of humanity and the devastation it has caused the planet over the years. Even if you’re not a Jarmusch fan, Only Lovers Left Alive is darkly funny, devilishly plotted and acted to perfection.
Richard Linklater’s masterwork is extraordinary in its defiantly ordinary way. Shot over the course of twelve years, Boyhood depicts the very specific tale of one family but, also, tells the story of the American family over the last decade. As we watch young Ellar Coltrane’s character grow from age 6 to 18 (and, incidentally, into quite a formidable actor), culture around him changes slightly – computers get smaller, video games get more realistic – but, in allowing these differences to subtly accumulate, Boyhood recalls collective memory in a radical, unique way. The film is not entirely without incident, but it certainly downplays huge moments, and in doing so, we see a tapestry of small moments snowball into the creation of a life. As the divorced parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette also grow, diving deeply and affectionately into two flawed but deeply people doing their best to better themselves and protect and provide their children. Richard Linklater has been an acclaimed filmmaker – from the Before Trilogy to School of Rock to Dazed and Confused – but this, his most personal and deeply resonant film, elevates him to the level of American iconoclast.
Despite its simple premise, Whiplash contains multitudes. Ostensibly about the epic battle of wills between a prodigious jazz drumming student and his fascistic professor, Whiplash also delves deep into the particularly American psyche (psychosis?) surrounding artistic accomplishment, and the sacrifices that must be made in its name. J. K. Simmons plays Fletcher as a music professor who terrifies, bullies, berates and sometimes slaps his students until they achieve musical perfection. Miles Teller, as his student Andrew, uses Fletcher’s abuse as fuel, even as it threatens to destroy him. Simmons is mesmerizing in the showier role, but Teller is simply fantastic– not only did he learn jazz drumming for the role, but his Andrew is equal parts nervous energy, cocky id, raw vulnerability and egomania. When Whiplash threatens to become ripely campy, writer/director Damien Chazelle taps the breaks, allowing one or both of the characters a moment of humanity that pulls back the curtain on their destructive duet. The final scene, which I dare not spoil, is easily the most thrilling sequence from any film this year – proving that you can have all the CG armies and explosions money can buy, but you can’t fake living, breathing actors putting an exclamation point at the end of a viscerally intense, psychologically troubling film. At one point, Fletcher tells Andrew that there’s no more destructive words in the English language than “good job.” At risk of getting a chair thrown at my head – Whiplash, “good job,” you’re the best film of 2014.