Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014


2014 is behind us now, and you know what that means: obligatory top 10 lists! Let's just be honest, the only reason anybody writes these things is to boost traffic, and the fact is that there's no way to accurately judge a year's worth of film in a year's worth of time. Even if you could see every important film released in your country, there are international releases that won't be available until next year; and even if you could see all those, there's simply not enough time to digest that much material completely. Opinions shift. Your friend points out something you didn't notice and it ruins the rest of the movie for you. You notice something you didn't see before and it makes the rest of it better. Only 5 entries in the top 10 I wrote last year are still in it today, and except for Side Effects they're all in different places. Anyway, you get the point, and chances are you haven't read this far into a paragraph when there's a more easily consumable list right below it, so I'll just get to the good stuff. With the caveat that I still have a lot left to watch, here are my top 10 favorite movies released in 2014 so far (full updated list).

10. The Babadook (full review)

The horror genre has had a hard time finding its footing recently. Theaters have been packed with flops and failures relying too heavily on jump scares, but since these movies are so easy to produce there's no incentive to change practice. In comes Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent with The Babadook, a film which is more psychological thriller than traditional horror (although its roots in classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby are clear from beginning to end). It utilizes strategic editing and sound design to create a thick atmosphere and constant sense of dread instead of sticking to the crutch of loud noises and cheap tricks. Its sense of existential anguish is slightly overbearing at times, but its restraint, intelligence, and power are all things Hollywood ought to learn from.

9. The Guardians of the Galaxy (full review)

The Guardians of the Galaxy has the high honor of being one of the only movies on this list to make more money domestically than Transformers: Age of Extinction. In fact, Guardians is the #1 film of the year for US ticket sales. You see, as much as I try to be a serious film critic, sometimes it's hard to resist easy popcorn entertainment. This probably isn't one of the smartest or most impressive movies of the year, but it might just be one of the most fun. With a plot which tries desperately to cram The Avengers into a Star Wars mold, the characters are forced to carry a lot of weight, and they succeed effortlessly. I am Groot. Plus, who can say no to space opera? Possible competitor with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for the Special Effects Oscar.

8. The Lego Movie (full review)

If this is one half children's fantasy and one half product placement, how did it end up being so much fun? There was never reason to believe this should have been any good, but somehow it takes Toy Story and combines it with The Matrix to turn a silly kids movie into an intelligent social satire. The cast alone is enough to get excited about, from Wills Arnett, Farrel, and Forte, to Hollywood mainstays like Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, and Liam Neeson, to the fresh talent of Chris Pratt, Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum (not to mention Lando Calrissian and C-3PO as themselves). Writer/director duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (of Jump Street fame) take this incredible mix and turn it into the best animated picture of the year, and one of my personal favorites.

7. Whiplash (full review)

Every year I have a difficult time around awards season because of the inevitable gap between what are considered "good movies" and what I actually enjoy watching. A lot of attention is paid to big performances, and I often feel this comes at the expense of other aspects of film I find more interesting personally. In this sense, Whiplash is a case of the best of both worlds. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons both give Oscar-worthy performances, but the film is also founded on an obvious love for jazz that informs every facet of its production. The storytelling has a unique rhythm to it, and the editing and sound mixing deliver the music as its own entity rather than as a backdrop for the larger drama. With a finale that's built to impress, Whiplash is a film I won't soon forget.

6. Interstellar (full review, brief analysis)

Christopher Nolan has an amazing talent for making films which are filled with big ideas but still easy to understand. These high concept blockbusters like Inception are exciting if for no other reason than their potential ability to change our current cinematic landscape. Of 2014's 10 highest grossing films worldwide, Interstellar was the only one which was not part of a franchise or an attempt to reboot one. Nolan creates original content people will pay to see, encouraging studios to invest in more interesting material. This strategy has a tendency to divide audiences—critics want less pandering and the public wants less pretense—but for my money it results in an experience which is both immediately entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Nitpick all you want; this is still one of the year's greatest.

5. Nightcrawler (full review, brief analysis)

In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal not only gives the best performance of the year, he gives one of the best performances of the past decade at least. It's not simply that he's thoroughly convincing as Lou Bloom, it's also that Bloom is one of the most unique personas to ever grace the silver screen. But movies need much more than strong performances, and here Dan Gilroy proves himself with his second solo screenplay and first directorial effort. Nightcrawler is very much a product of its time, and it takes contemporary ideas about success and turns them on their head. Shot by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), it is also a gorgeously gritty portrait of LA nightlife which provides the perfect playground for its unforgettable antihero.

4. Gone Girl (full analysis, spoiler-free analysis)

The year's most controversial film is also one of my favorites. Gone Girl forced audiences everywhere to answer the question, "What do you think about Amy Dunne?" Whether you like her or not—whether you think she's an icon of feminism or misogyny—it's impossible to deny the impact she had on moviegoers everywhere. This movie ruined real relationships. But there's more here than simple sensationalism. Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn tackle topics as diverse as marriage and the media; but its most compelling aspect is its exploration of modern identity, something Flynn examined at length in her book and which Fincher does justice to in his adaptation. Expect nominations for both, as well as for Rosamund Pike's performance as Amy.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (full review)

I never think of myself as a big fan of comedies, yet here I am with not one but two comedies in my top 5. Like most of my favorite comedies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is much more than just a funny script being read by funny actors. Director Wes Anderson finds ways to make jokes out of everything from the film's framing and camera work to its color palette and set design. But this isn't just one of the funniest films of the year, it's also one of the most intelligent. The story opens on Roland Barthes's death of the author, and from there it discusses what we do in this life and how much of it carries over after we leave it. Ralph Fiennes gives what is likely his funniest performance, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him (along with Wes Anderson) acknowledged at the Oscars.

2. Birdman (full review)

It's impossible to overstate Alejandro González Iñárritu's achievement with Birdman, but that never stops the movie itself from trying. The way it goes on tirelessly about the value of art, it can be easy to dismiss it as pretentious nonsense. It definitely thinks of itself as Art-with-a-capital-A, but it kind of deserves to. Not only is the central cinematic conceit of appearing as a single uninterrupted shot impressive (executed by Gravity's Emmanuel Lubezki), the film is also replete with great performances (Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone all stand out), interesting characters (Riggan is a washed-up actor trying to redeem himself on stage), and philosophical discussions (what is the purpose or value of our actions?). Not the most modest film of the year, but definitely one of the greatest.

1. Boyhood (full review)

With Boyhood, Richard Linklater has created a truly one-of-a-kind film. He shot it with the same cast over 12 years, and in the process he captured an unimaginably realistic and truthful picture of humanity. Remember a little film from 2003 with Jack Black called School of Rock? Linklater has been shooting Boyhood since before that. Less than a year had passed since the September 11th attacks when he began the project. This is a "picture a day" montage on a massive scale. Linklater takes this footage and weaves it into an ambling and plotless but deeply layered and thematic masterpiece about life and how we engage with it (or, more often, how we don't). Expect to see this nominated in just about every category at the Oscars.

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