Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My 20 Favorite Films of 2014

My end of the year list for films is always my most incomplete list, because so many films come out at the end of the year in New York and Los Angeles and nowhere else, simply to qualify for the Academy Awards.  So as always, here is a list of films that could have made my top 20 if not for the fact that I have no ability to see them yet: Mr. Turner, Inherent Vice, Selma, Two Days One Night, Song of the Sea.  This pisses me off.  And until I quit making this list, die, or move to New York or LA, I will keep complaining about this.  I mean, I can't see Inherent Vice and Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite director.  It's an outrage, I tell you!

Looking back at my top 20 list from last year, I noticed that there were more heavy-hitter directors that popped up.  Paul Greengrass, Edgar Wright, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater -- they all appeared on my list last year.  While 2014 doesn't have the pedigree to match that, I'd say that it was still a pretty great year for film, and I'm very satisfied with my top 20.

The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2014, it was eligible for placement on this list.  This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2013, but didn't get released in theaters until this year.  And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2014 will make it eligible.  Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...

Honorable Mentions (25-21)
Honestly, I'm still partially baffled by the frigid, oblique doppelganger drama Enemy, but that just makes me love it more.  And speaking of doppelgangers, Richard Ayoade's The Double is a fun adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name, and a marvel of set design and art direction.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't getting sick of the Marvel movie formula, but I loved the way Captain America: The Winter Soldier pasted the studio's house style onto a gritty spy thriller.  Joe Swanberg's lovely Happy Christmas fares much better than his similarly slight, but much more annoying Drinking Buddies did last year.  Calvary is impressive for its tonal juggling act, alternating between being wickedly funny, wryly self-reflexive, and shockingly grim.

20. Nightcrawler (Directed by Dan Gilroy)

"Heavy-handed" is getting thrown around by many people in relation to Nightcrawler.  That's accurate, but only if you decide to think of it as a diatribe against the local news, which it only is at its most surface level.  But it's also a sly metaphor for capitalism, a nasty little character study, and a sleek setpiece delivery system.  Nightcrawler wants to have it all, much like its main character Louis Bloom, played in chilling, gaunt fashion by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Louis is like a business course personified, assembled from self-help seminar highlights and success mantras.  He's everything we're taught to be in order to rise up in the world -- driven, shrewd, willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead -- and writer-director Dan Gilroy makes it clear that a part of you has to become hollow and bloodsucking to do so.  Louis worms through the dirt in this movie, revealing the depths of his sociopathy with every power play he makes.  And the film knows how to deliver a major scene; there are at least three or four sequences that are among the most memorable of the year.  Nightcrawler is much like the slimmer and chillier Wolf of Wall Street of this year, in the way that it provides a scathing, but completely engrossing critique of American values.

19. Blue Ruin (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)

Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier's lean revenge thriller, also functions as a mystery at first.  It starts the viewer off with so little information, and keeps us hanging on the few details we do get.  From there, it constantly upends itself, getting messier and more complicated as it goes on.  Blue Ruin is much more of a deconstruction of the revenge film than it is the genuine article, as it shows protagonist Dwight (Macon Blair, in a debut role) screwing up along almost every step of the way, to the point where it becomes black comedy in spots.  It would be easy to turn him into a violent, rampaging guy, but this is clearly a struggle for Dwight.  He doesn't have a killer instinct -- actually, he's kind of square.  The pain and hesitation is clear on his face at all times, which makes him a compelling character.  With many films about vengeance, even the ones that are ultimately trying to say that revenge is a futile endeavor, you can tell that they revel in the violence a tiny bit.  Not so with Blue Ruin -- the complications of the deed are symbolized in the blood smeared all over Dwight's white clothes.

18. We Are the Best! (Directed by Lukas Moodysson)

This top 20 list is full of violent, depressing, or pessimistic films; so Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best! is a nice antidote to all of that.  It's just a film about a trio of middle school girls in Sweden who decide to start a punk band, and it's utterly delightful.  The story is low-stakes and shaggy, but it's hard not to get infected with its rambunctious spirit.  Aside from a light subplot about faith and a late turn into romance drama, the film remains focused on the girls' charming quest to play a gig at a neighboring town's recreation center, tracking them from their rough beginnings to their slightly less rough conclusion.  The film's pleasures may be simple, but they're no less satisfying.

17. Listen Up Philip (Directed by Alex Ross Perry)

They say that depression is rage turned inward.  Well Listen Up Philip's eponymous character (Jason Schwartzman) seems to take his rage, turn it inward, and then turn it back outward.  He lashes out and acts like he hates others, but it's really because he hates himself.  Listen Up Philip is a great portrait of loneliness, but the frustrating way that that loneliness can paradoxically lead one to shunning human connection. It's about Philip, a struggling novelist, secretly trying to break free of his boredom and sadness, but he keeps getting in the way of himself at every turn.  The structure of the film resembles one of those Great American Novels, complete with flowery, prose-like narration.  It's a film that works like chapters in a book, shifting perspectives and devoting large chunks of time to fleshing out side characters.  But even in parts of the movie where Philip doesn't appear, it's a story about him, the way his destructive personality poisons others and lingers with them after he's gone.  There have been many films about misanthropic creative types before, but few have been as acidic, bilious, and daring as this is.

16. They Came Together (Directed by David Wain)

In 2001, David Wain created the summer camp parody, Wet Hot American Summer, which is one of the best comedies of the previous decade.  Since then, he's been unable to recreate the magic of that gem, making stabs at more mainstream comedy with the simply okay Role Models and the extremely limp Wanderlust.  He may have finally gotten his mojo back with They Came Together, another parody, this time of romantic comedies.  The film effectively skewers all of the tropes of the genre -- the characters having quirky jobs, the city being "a character," the contrived conflicts, the meet cute -- while also paying lovely tribute to them, reminding you that for all of their built-in silliness, there's something comforting about romcoms.  Wain also finds a way to fit some characteristically goofy humor into it too.  He's able to take dumb jokes and make them perversely funny, either through repeating them until you laugh by submission, or delivering them in the most hilariously aloof way possible.  It's a gag-heavy film, and those gags hit far more than they miss.  Some sequences connect so well, they'll have you in tears.  Critics really underrated this one, that's for sure.

15. Obvious Child (Directed by Gillian Robespierre)

The headline for my original review of this movie was "Obvious Child is the most charming abortion movie you'll probably ever see," and part of that is correct.  This movie is incredibly charming, full of endearing characters having sharp, amusing conversations.  But the best thing about Obvious Child is that it's not "about" abortion -- it's about Donna (the effervescent Jenny Slate), a woman who decides to have an abortion.  The difference is small, but important.  Obvious Child is far too immediate to indulge in moralizing, preferring to take Donna's decision at face value and follow her journey from start to finish.  Along the way, this story about young people gently fumbling through life evolves into a swooning, low-key romcom too.  Obvious Child is a film that gets better and better as it moves along, and it's so lovely that you'll feel 10 pounds lighter by the time the credits roll.  Who knew a movie about abortion could be one of the best feel-good stories of the year? [Read the original review]

14. The Babadook (Directed by Jennifer Kent)

So many horror films are about bad things happening to people who deserve it just a little bit, but it's a wonder why that trend is so pervasive when it's much more compelling to see bad things happen to those who don't deserve it.  The Babadook proves that, centering on exhausted single mother Amelia (a revelatory Essie Davis) and her troublesome son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), as their situation goes from bad to worse when a mysterious creature with metaphorical implications begins haunting their home.  This is one of those horror films where it could take out the scares and still be a fascinating story.  Amelia's struggle to overcome the grief from her husband's death and muster up the energy to be a mother to Samuel is deeply resonant.  But the low-budget scares that do appear are extremely effective too.  Director Jennifer Kent knows how much to show in the frame to maximize the creep factor, and her steady, unfussy direction makes the film's horror sequences even more tense.  She prefers unsettling images to jump scares, winding up scenes not for the sake of a capping shock, but just to get you riled up.  There's usually at least one good horror film every year, and The Babadook is definitely it.

13. 22 Jump Street (Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

It's very rare that comedy sequels are as good as their predecessors, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller understand this, much like they understood the inherent silliness of reboots in 21 Jump Street.  Thus, 22 Jump Street is chock full of self-aware jokes about the nature of sequels and movie-making in general.  At times, the film thinks that pointing out the fact that they're repeating the same beats as 21 Jump Street is enough to excuse the repetition in the first place, but it's funny enough that that's not too much of a demerit.  Lord and Miller like to move their films along at a steady clip, so while they have huge comedic setpieces, they're not bogged down by the formless riffing of the Apatow school of comedy.  And the series has found a winsome duo in Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, who serve as interesting foils who allow each other to be equally as funny as one another.  This is a film that doesn't have any high-minded ambitions, and it's all the better for it.  Sometimes you just need laughs, and 22 Jump Street has that in spades.

12. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay  Part 1 (Directed by Francis Lawrence)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is a tale of two Lawrences.  The first is star, Jennifer Lawrence, the film's most obvious asset.  She brings a new level of vulnerability, torment, and resolution to the role of Katniss, awoken from the events of the last film's Quarter Quell, separated from Peeta, and in the midst of a budding war.  The movie hinges on her performance to sell the gravity of it all, and she takes on that challenge with ease.  It's hard to imagine this entire film franchise even working without her.  The second Lawrence is director Francis, whose face may not be visible onscreen, but whose hand is all over it.  Mockingjay is a film of images, and Francis Lawrence uses indelible ones to make thematic points, form neat visual parallels, and take the emotional temperature of characters in the frame.  It's also an unflinching film, thoroughly examining the consequences of war and the moral compromises people are willing to make to achieve an ultimate goal.  Forget all of the grousing about that pesky "Part 1" in the title.  This may be half of a bone, but there sure is a heck of alot of meat on it.

11. Edge of Tomorrow (Directed by Doug Liman)

Edge of Tomorrow might be the most surprising film of the year.  In a summer dominated by a film that delivered lackluster action and only batted .500 with its comedy (looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy!), Edge of Tomorrow was a truly funny and exciting experience.  The film's base concepts feel rote -- alien invasion, Groundhog Day-esque time loop -- but Liman and the screenwriters breathe new life into them.  Tom Cruise may receive top billing, but the real star is Emily Blunt, whose Rita Vratski is one of my favorite characters of the year.  She's tough and stubborn, but not in a way that screams "male character played by a woman."  Together, the two of them form a unity of equals with a terrific dynamic.  The tight editing intelligently circumvents repetition by assuming that we will quickly understand the concept of Cruise constantly repeating his day.  There are even some scenes where it's our first time seeing something, but not his first time experiencing it.  Some say that the third act devolves into typical blockbuster action sequences, but it's hard to count that as a negative when it's all so spectacularly staged.  If only every summer movie could be this satisfying and well-rounded.

10. Coherence (Directed by James Ward Byrkit)

I went into Coherence knowing only that people really liked it and that there was something vaguely sci-fi about it.  And honestly, that's the best way to go into Coherence, so I'll say as little about the plot as I can.  This partially improvised film is set at a dinner party between eight friends on the night that a comet is supposed to be flying close enough to the Earth that it will be visible.  Then something happens.  Director James Ward Byrkit makes great use of what is basically the film's sole location, making the house feel at once claustrophobic and limitless.  He also understands how to generate fear and terror from not knowing what's going on.  We're just as in the dark as the characters are, and piecing together information is gripping and haunting.  The more we learn about what's going on, the more the film threatens to go off the rails and become convoluted, and while it does lose some of the joy of its simple terror as it goes along, many of Coherence's late reveals will knock your socks off.  Like Primer, it's a movie with an extremely complex plot that you will need many diagrams to keep track of.  But unlike Primer, it's packed with humanity and characters you can latch on to.  Where Primer feels like a theoretical paper, the plot implications in Coherence have immediate, visceral consequences.  It's as much of a tense chamber drama as it is a heady science fiction story.

9. Ida (Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)

There are only two scenes in Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida where the camera moves.  There are no focus shifts between the foreground and background either.  The film is mostly just a series of austere, static shots.  Technically rigid, sure, but emotionally Ida is anything but.  The film is a devastating tale of a young woman who has spent her whole life living in a convent and must find out about her family before taking vows to become a nun.  She tracks down her Aunt Wanda, who informs her that her parents were murdered during World War II, and the two of them embark on a journey to find their bones.  This is a film that's soaked in regret and guilt, dealing with the atrocities committed during World War II and the scars that still remain.  So many quiet revelations occur throughout, and Pawlikowski smartly keeps the camera trained on the characters, watching their emotions play out in unbroken takes.  Ida is like a road trip buddy comedy without the comedy, or a two-hander where the two hands are learning how to shake.  At only 80 minutes, it's short but (bitter)sweet.

8. Night Moves (Directed by Kelly Reichardt)

All of Kelly Reichardt's films are about humanity wrestling with nature and the elements in some way, so it seems fitting that she'd finally explore the flip side, making a movie about eco-terrorists who are stepping in to fight for the side of nature.  Reichardt has always been able to make high stakes thrillers come off as low-key, and the stakes are very high in this story of three people plotting to blow up a dam in Oregon, but Night Moves has a long fuse.  Despite its slow burn, this is one of the most suspenseful films of 2014.  The mounting tension leading up to the protagonists attempting to blow up the dam is excruciating, as Reichardt tosses in all of these tiny complications to make us sweat more.  And the actual sequence at the dam is even better, an absolute masterclass of suspense.  Thankfully, Reichardt doesn't make this film a polemic.  It's quite balanced, in fact.  It makes the viewpoints of the environmentalists seem like they have their merits, but also isn't afraid to puncture their worldviews the next second.  And as always with this director, the film is gorgeously shot and framed.  Night Moves might be Reichardt's most plot-intensive film yet, but she maintains her rigorous style and compositional acumen.

7. The Immigrant (Directed by James Gray)

The Immigrant has many of the signifiers of the Boring Period Drama -- the ornate sets and costumes, the sepia tones, the melodrama -- but there are plenty of elements that keep the film's fire stoked.  First, there's Marion Cotillard, who gives a spellbinding performance as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who must find her way in America after her sick sister is detained at Ellis Island.  She begins to work for Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) as a dancer and prostitute at his theater, in order to make the money that will go towards getting her sister free.  The second way Gray heightens the immediacy of the film comes from the introduction of Bruno's cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), who also tries to help Ewa out.  What follows is a complex web of manipulation, co-dependency, and desperation.  Gray never lets any of the characters just be one element of the equation, allowing them to be multifaceted people who are simultaneously victims and villains.  All of it leads to a staggering final shot that still has me reeling, months later.  Small in scope though it may be, The Immigrant weaves a grand emotional tapestry.

6. Snowpiercer (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

Very few directors could pull off Snowpiercer with the panache that Bong Joon-ho does.  He already exhibited his skill for blending myriad tones with his excellent Korean work -- Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother -- and his American debut loses very little of his idiosyncratic style in translation.  The story of the film, which is about Earth's last survivors living on a segregated train that circles the world, sounds like it's nonstop bleakness.  But the film does it all -- it alternates from grim to exciting to insane to hilarious.  It's a very simple movie, but it manipulates that simplicity to its advantage, using the different cars of the train as locations for the ingeniously conceived setpieces that Joon-ho strings along.  Snowpiercer may not be the smoothest ride -- the themes are unsubtle, and it gets a little too verbose near the end -- but it's one that you'll want to go on again by the time it's over. [Read the original review]

5. The Fault in Our Stars (Directed by Josh Boone)

John Green is my favorite author and The Fault in Our Stars is one of my favorite books of his, so I was stressed out about the idea of this movie, but luckily my worries proved to be a non-issue.  From a distance, it's easy to make fun of this film.  The kids with cancer, the teen love story, the indie sheen; they all make the movie seem like it could be cloying, manipulative claptrap.  But The Fault in Our Stars earns its emotions, helped by strong characters and writing that doesn't fall into the worst habits of the Hollywood formula.  Shailene Woodley kills it as Hazel, imbuing the role with a delicate balance of vulnerability and steely resolve.  This quickly got a reputation as the movie that will make you cry -- and it almost certainly will; the third act is a precisely constructed series of small devastations -- but its wit and charm pull the story out of the pits of melodrama.  Adaptations are really hard to do.  That The Fault in Our Stars comes so close to matching the quality of the source material is a marvel.

4. Nymphomaniac (Directed by Lars von Trier)

Nymphomaniac, the latest offering from everyone's favorite enfant terrible Lars von Trier, is a wonderful bait-and-switch job.  He enticed people with scandalous, in-your-face marketing that posed this film as a wild sex romp, when actually it's an epic poem of depression, isolation, and self-punishment.  He finds his unlikely hero in Joe (played by Stacy Martin as a teen, Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult), who recounts the tale of her lifelong battle with sex addiction.  Told in two volumes and broken up into many chapters, the film playfully mashes together tones, aesthetic styles, and body parts.  Those two separate volumes form neat little mirrors: one is playful and operatic, the other is focused and stark; one is about the inherent loneliness of Joe's affliction, the other is about the self-punishment that comes as a response to that loneliness.  Yet despite how bleak that sounds, it somehow stumbles around to a vaguely hopeful ending, putting an interesting and meaningful cap on the director's so-called Depression Trilogy.  Von Trier may present a merry little trickster demeanor, but Nymphomaniac proves that he still knows how to deliver thoughtful films. [Read the original review]

3. Whiplash (Directed by Damian Chazelle)

Whiplash writer-director Damian Chazelle has no interest in the idea of raw talent, or observing the sui generis quality of great artists.  No, this film is about the work that goes into creating art.  There's literal blood, sweat, and tears that shed directly onto instruments (hello, symbolism!), and Chazelle's camera tracks this through extreme close-ups.  It's such a kinetic, electrifying film.  The performance scenes are truly captivating -- the camera cuts and swirls around the action, visually representing the internal energy of the people creating the music.  In a way, Whiplash is about the damage we inflict upon males by teaching them to strive towards becoming The Next Great Man.  Young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and his mentor (JK Simmons) buy into that narrative, with the former wanting to become the greatest drummer alive and the latter beating the mediocrity out of anyone he comes across.  The relationship between the two is terrifying -- it's clearly poisonous for the both of them, but they convince themselves it's normal because it's all for the sake of creating "great art."  If we have to put ourselves through hell to achieve it, then do we really need greatness?  Whiplash presents that question in thrilling and anguishing fashion, then smartly lets the viewer decide for themselves.

2. Gone Girl (Directed by David Fincher)

There's been some hand-wringing around certain corners of the internet about David Fincher's last two choices of films to direct, decrying his recent love of adapting "airport novels."  But hasn't that been a part of his appeal from the very beginning: applying prestige-level craft to trashy stories?  Gone Girl might just be his finest achievement yet, simultaneously one of the smartest films of the year and a gloriously dumb piece of pulp entertainment.  Fincher's style can often be too chilly, but paired with Gillian Flynn's lively, clever script, he makes 150 minutes feel like a breezy romp.  It's at once silly and thoughtful, a delicious yarn of a narrative that also interrogates the way we eat these stories up.  Gone Girl effortlessly has its cake and eats it too. [Read the original review]

1. Boyhood (Directed by Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater has done it again.  He was responsible for my favorite film of 2013 (the brilliant, daring Before Midnight) and he's somehow churned out another clear winner with Boyhood.  It would be easy to praise this movie based solely on its gimmick: it was shot in pieces over the course of 12 years, tracking the real-time growth of the actor (Ellar Coltrane) who plays Mason, the main character.  And yes, that's a massive achievement in and of itself, but it could've produced an insipid, indulgent result.  Boyhood is not that; it's a moving, overwhelming portrait of growing up that manages to be wonderfully specific and universal at the same time.  It's less interested in observing the big moments of Mason's life or going for the emotional gut-punches in individual scenes.  Instead it does something more effective, accumulating tiny moments into a splendid mosaic.  In that way, Boyhood functions much like our lives do.  We are not writing our arcs as we go along.  We are nothing more than a collection of moments, an accretion of days, of months, of years.  And one day, we'll reach a point where we'll take a step back and wonder where it's all gone.  There is so much time, and yet not enough.  Boyhood gets it, man. [Read the original review]

Well, that wraps things up for my best films of 2014 list.  I love reading other lists, so feel free to share yours in the comments.  Or if you want to just tell me that I deserve to die for my horrible list, then you can do that too!  (But please don't.  I'm very fragile.)  To see a complete ranked list of all the 2014 films I've seen this year, CLICK HERE.

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