Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Best Films of 2014



Well, 2014 is over and done, and now we're on to the next year. Keep in mind, I missed a screening of "Inherent Vice" and have not yet screened "American Sniper" or "Selma," but hope to review those this month. I liked quite a few films this year that couldn't not be mentioned, so all of the ones that earned either an A - or a B + and didn't make my Top 10 ended up in the Runners-up and Honorable Mention categories. I also included a few more fun little lists (Disappointments, Overrated and Underrated). Overall, I'm very satisfied with my 10 favorite films of the year, and I can't wait to see even more unique voices from filmmakers in 2015. 













My Favorite (or, The Best) Films of 2014


10) A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - With Jim Jarmusch's groovy "Only Lovers Left Alice" proof positive that vampire films are actually very much alive and well this year, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is more in a class of its own as a tantalizing chiaroscuro-styled tableaux that casts a haunting spell. This "Iranian vampire western" feels like a modern classic that can't be tied down to one genre. A terrific directorial debut from Ana Lily Amirpour, the film is is so simultaneously exciting and languid, so full of life and yet standing ever so still, working on the level of a fantastical dream. It mixes and matches without being beholden to the mood, rhythm and style by the master likes of David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, but really feels like a melting pot of visual poetry that envelops and washes over the viewer like a victim succumbing to a bloodsucker's seduction. A gorgeous piece of art for cinephiles to devour.

9) The Skeleton Twins - Playing estranged twin siblings both on the verge of ending their lives, "Saturday Night Live" cast members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig ground such dark, ostensibly depressing material with their innate levity and joy, jointly and individually. "The Skeleton Twins" knows what emotions to stir and when and where.  Too modest to come off precious and too true to come off cloying, this keeper is not a heavy drama nor a zany comedy, but a nimbly executed hybrid of both tones. The two leads' lip-synching duet of Starship's cheese-tastic 1987 dance-rock hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" has an off-the-cuff magic about it that makes such a sequence one of this year's most delightfully joyous moments. It's a safe bet the viewer will be touched and grinning from ear to ear. Beautifully tender, gentle, melancholy and also very funny, a wonderful antidote for seasonal depression.

8) The Babadook - Classically composed, chill-inducing, and challenging, "The Babadook" is much more than a bump-in-the-night tale with Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent's thematic metaphors gnawing under the surface. For her masterful feature debut, Kent directs with patience and an elegantly mounting sense of unease, every choice paying off with a film as powerfully scary as it is powerfully cathartic. Without the through-line of loss and trauma, the fragility of motherhood, and the presence of Amelia and Samuel, the film would only be a literal monster movie and not have as much of an emotional impact. Essie Davis is devastatingly superb as the single mother and Noah Wiseman is entirely credible as the terror child. It would be very easy to show the title monster at every turn, but Kent ensures that she believes in the unknown and how much more frightening such a supernatural concept can be when more is left to the imagination. For any discerning horror enthusiast out there, this is a must.


7) Gone Girl - David Fincher's screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-seller, "Gone Girl" might be more intoxicatingly classed-up pulp than a meaningful and important portrait of a poisonous marriage, but damn if it's not near-flawlessly executed (and entertaining as all hell) in how it bleakly takes the piss out of the way cruel, manipulative people see marriage and how the media sensationalizes the truth, or the closest thing to the truth. Ben Affleck is cannily cast as a the charismatic, square-jawed husband accused of murdering his wife, and Rosamund Pike gives her meatiest and most fearless performance as the "gone girl" who reveals a cunning and meticulous intelligence behind that smile and wide, fearful eyes. Fully absorbing in all of its 149 minutes, "Gone Girl" deceptively begins as a crime investigation and then becomes a bait-and-switch into a lurid, disturbing Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven collaboration, in a good way. This knocked my socks off.


6) Nightcrawler - "Nightcrawler" profits as a fascinating, disturbing character piece of an interestingly repellent creep who, from his twisted point-of-view, sees himself as a "hero" and makes no apologies. Jake Gyllenhaal is simply spectacular, conveying so much to a soulless, unethical character who is hard to pin down. Graveyard-shift videographer Louis Bloom is delusional, opportunistic and sociopathic, intensely self-sufficient and slick in his own way but not socially competent, and even as he makes your skin crawl, your nervous giggle is in his power. Headed by Gyllenhaal's dynamite, indelible turn, this is forceful filmmaking that shines a light on a nocturnal underworld of oily videographers going to great lengths to complete their risky, morally sticky line of work. Disconcerting, unnerving, and darkly, twistedly humorous, "Nightcrawler" unsettles and wriggles under your skin.


5) Whiplash - Never would one expect a film like "Whiplash" about discipline and raw talent in the world of jazz music to be as brutal and emotionally distressing as a blood sport. Expanding upon his short film, up-and-coming writer-director Damien Chazelle showcases motivated directorial flair, a laser-focused script with minimal subplots, and two nuanced, fiercely riveting performances. While 27-year-old Miles Teller more than holds his own as an aspiring core rummer at a New York music conservatory, veteran character actor J.K. Simmons is nothing short of electrifying and unforgettable, finally getting the chance to really eat up a juicy part that of a volatile, profane S.O.B. as jazz teacher Terence Fletcher. "Whiplash" is potent, unflashy filmmaking, daring to place its audience in an uncomfortable place and put us through the wringer. Who knew a film about music could be so thrilling?


4) Snowpiercer - Pleasingly and excitingly different from any genre picture this year or most years, politically charged futuristic sci-fi action satire "Snowpiercer" is both an uncommonly intelligent, spectacular entertainment and an uncompromising, bitingly provocative allegory for class warfare. Imagine that all life has become extinct after the world suffered an Ice Age. In 2031, the new world is a frozen tundra, where a bullet locomotive spans the globe and carries mankind's last remaining survivors, divided by class. With such a diverse, impressive cast (Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, John Hurt), it would be easy for some of the actors to not get their fill onscreen, but South Korean director Bong Joon-ho makes sure no parts are too small. It's strange, inventive, audacious, and meaty in the ways most summer studio releases usually are not, so hooray for creativity when it comes around. Perhaps "Snowpiercer" is too downbeat and disturbing to find a wider audience, but it certainly deserves its due, stat, for those hoping to catch the grandest, most brilliantly executed sci-fi opus in recent years.




3) Boyhood - Life really does pass us by, as it is basically a compilation of small, ordinary moments that we can only experience once. Writer-director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" understands this universal notion more than any other American release, whilst showcasing a daring evolution and milestone in the filmmaking form. With his latest passion project--the ne plus ultra of a long-gestating passion project--he made quite the gamble by shooting in three-day increments for 39 days over a span of 12 years from 2001 to 2013, with the same set of actors, and boy, his leap of faith paid off bit time. Taking biographical journeys and cinema to the next level, "Boyhood" goes beyond an inspired, unprecedented stunt, gimmick, or experiment and comes out a visionary, all-encompassing time capsule made up of moments that, without a single falsehood, feel real and full. To watch 12 years unfold in 2 hours and 44 minutes is a sublime, rewarding experience.



2) Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - Each year, only a handful of films really evoke a "wow" or blow one away. There is a frisson in seeing a motion picture so original, unclassifiable and rule-breaking that it exhilarates. In a meta wink at his real-life status, an acting veteran who once played the first Batman on the big screen and has since faded into a lot of two-bit supporting roles, 63-year-old Michael Keaton truly makes a return to form as a washed-up actor trying to be taken seriously as he adapts, directs, and co-stars in a show on Broadway. Everyone else (Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan) serves as excellent support. "Birdman" is pretty relentless in its movement, but it is a gloriously lunatic, inventive, intoxicating triumph of volatility in filmmaking and gives audiences plenty to take home and discuss. An indescribable art title, this is a piece of work not to go unseen or be easily shaken off.


1) Under the Skin - Spellbinding. Hypnotic. Contemplative. Indescribable. Wildly uncommercial, potentially divisive, and probably only for the most adventurous defenders of outrĂ© avant-garde cinema who don't need every question answered, "Under the Skin" is nothing if not the first challenging and haunting visual and aural experience of this year with major staying power. Fraught with a sinister threat and vulnerable longing, this film is at once artfully elusive yet mesmerizing and disturbingly freaky in how it looks and sounds. You feel like you have really seen something, even if you're a little baffled by what that something might be. Sight unseen, the film about a frequently nude Scarlett Johansson as an alien preying on men might sound like the logline for a cheesy sci-fi farce directly lifted from 1995's "Species." In actuality, it's far from it. 

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