I had stated over a month ago that 2014 did not strike me as a great year in cinema, and I was fairly confident in that assessment. However, when it came down to selecting my top ten films from the year, I found it extremely difficult. I saw upwards of 80-100 films this year that had a theatrical release at some point during 2014 (by far the most films I have seen in a year, although pretty poor by full-time critic standards), and I find it harder and harder to select a top ten by year’s end. At a different day or point in time, any of the films in my “Honorable Mentions” could replace one that was selected for my top ten. While I still may not say 2014 was a great year for film, I am not nearly as resolute in that judgment.
There are some interesting themes that jumped out to me and informed the list, one of which being a lament for time gone by and a nostalgia for an earlier point in time. Another theme was the examination and sometimes satire of the media and its influence. And finally, a number of films took a look at the idea of Americana at a variety of different angles.
Critics and writers have myriad approaches when formulating their end of year top ten lists. When it came to picking the list below, I tried to make decisions with the following mindset: “If only ten films from 2014 could be kept and preserved, which ten would you pick?” In some cases this made the decision to include/exclude a film even more challenging, but I stand by the methodology and will continue to adopt it in the future.
Before finally getting into the list, I must mention a special commendation that would easily have made the top ten, but I felt I could not appropriately compare it to the other films in the running. The movie is Life Itself, the documentary adapted from the memoir of the late Roger Ebert, and directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters). The film evokes so much of what made Roger such a special man and why I was moved to begin writing about the movies. Life Itself holds a special place in my heart that seemingly transcends any year-end rankings.
Below you will find my top ten films of 2014. I hope you enjoy it, and be sure to post your favorite films from last year in the comments.
The impetus of Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras’ final documentary in her post-9/11 trilogy (which includes My Country, My Country and The Oath), is the fact that Poitras was fortunate enough to shoot the unfolding events in Hong Kong during the summer of 2013 when Edward Snowden met with her and journalist Glen Greenwald to discuss the dissemination of information revealing the secret, intrusive NSA surveillance methods used on American citizens and countries around the world. We witness Snowden’s reactions and overall demeanor throughout the course of events that will irrevocably change his life along with the American public’s perspective of its own intelligence agencies and the governments that support them. While his background as a NSA contractor would instill a substantial amount of paranoia in anyone (there are moments when he places a bed sheet over his head when working on his computer), he appears rather stoic; resigned to whatever fate befalls him even as he becomes a recognizable face overnight. Reluctant to become the face of this scandal, Snowden would rather let the surveillance abuses speak for themselves, and they certainly do, all the way to a final revelation from another source who came forward to Poitras and Greenwald. Regardless of the outcome and impending fallout of this scandal, Citizenfour is likely the most important documentary of the decade.
What makes Whiplash so effective is that it simultaneously affirms the relentless drive for artistic perfection while also cautioning against the methods such a pursuit will entreat. If the film, about a young man chasing greatness as a jazz drummer at the top music school in the country, were to fall on either side of this line, it would not be nearly as captivating. What also leaves a lasting impact is the scene chewing performance by J.K. Simmons as the menacing and often cruel jazz instructor at the school, who finds particular pleasure in tormenting our protagonist, Andrew (Miles Teller). In a movie about jazz music, it is fitting that Simmons’ performance could be seen as one long show stopping solo. The film is brilliantly edited to the breakneck rhythms of the music (the title comes from a fast paced song the band performs), including a grand finale performance that is a virtuoso display of musical ability. It sets the film on the track of a success story, but it also seriously questions where Andrew will go from there. Whiplash is the rare film that successfully has its cake and eats it too.
One of the many masterful decisions director Ava DuVernay makes in Selma comes in the very first sequence of the film, which covers the efforts by Martin Luther King Jr. to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The film opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to ensure equal rights for African Americans, as if the award itself serves as a sign that progress has been made in America when it comes to racism. But when King and his supporters travel to Selma to lead a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, we see that not nearly enough progress has been made. The opening serves as an eerie but clear parallel to our society today, in a year that saw incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City that gained national attention. Selma is also beautifully photographed by Bradford Young, who also did great work in 2014’s A Most Violent Year, particularly in scenes of King sitting in a Selma jail cell. And speaking of King, David Oyelowo gives the performance of a lifetime. He may not physically look or sound like the reverend, but he makes up for it with a forceful presence in both his public moments and his private moments. We see a conflicted and human portrayal of King, which should be credited to writer Paul Webb and DuVernay for avoiding hagiography, but Selma gives its many supporting players a chance to shine, and the film is as much about all of them as it is about King. This is an effective reminder that real change requires all of us, especially in a modern age when it proves even more difficult to produce a leader like King.
7. Gone Girl
Director David Fincher provides a very particular contribution to American cinema. His films, meticulously crafted, often aim to pick apart certain bedrocks of our social and cultural consciousness. In Gone Girl, adapted from the novel of the same name by author Gillian Flynn, Fincher methodically deconstructs our preconceived notions of masculinity (a common motif of his) while also painting a broad media satire as the setting for the novel’s bestselling story of Amy (Rosamund Pike), a wife who has disappeared, and the unraveling marriage that raises suspicions around her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). If this were all the film had to offer, the question might arise, “Is Gone Girl just a remarkably well constructed piece of pulp?” Fincher seems to recognize this too because the most effective theme of the film is the notion of how we present ourselves to others and how our public personas are even presented to our spouses. This leads to the ultimate bittersweet ending that is honest to the source material. In a world where nobody is as they seem, Nick and Amy just might be perfect for each other.
Nightcrawler is an example of what happens when the American Dream is taken to a twisted and often times sadistic end. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants to be successful in whatever profession he finds. It is not hard to see him as a representation of the post-financial crisis working professional, desperate for employment. When he comes across a grisly car accident one night, he gets his first glimpse of nightcrawlers, freelance cameramen for hire who tape the graphic aftermath of violent crimes and accidents and sell the footage to news networks for the highest price. Lou soon becomes a nightcrawler himself, sitting in his car listening to police scanners for the next big scoop. But Lou is not satisfied with just being average, he wants to expand. With the old adage of “manifest destiny” seemingly as his inspiration, Lou hires Rick (Riz Ahmed) to work with him, all the while regurgitating long monologues that seem to be plagiarized from a number of self-help books. Lou also quickly oversteps each and every line of journalistic integrity to gain an edge over his competitors. Gyllenhall’s performance is magnificent, presenting us a man who believes it his duty to do whatever it takes to “make it” in our modern capitalist society; a notion that some may consider as American as the Fourth of July.
Inherent Vice is not your typical neo-noir mystery, in that the clues of the case do not move the plot forward as much as they move the characters forward, and director Paul Thomas Anderson has assembled a ridiculously deep cast for his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel. Supporting turns by actors like Michael K. Williams, Eric Roberts, and Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife) make the film’s setting—1970s drug-addled Los Angeles—even more immediate and tangible. These participants are flawed, usually beyond repair, in a world with societal and bureaucratic machinations aiming to exploit them. If private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is not completely aware of this, he is at least wary of it. One could call him a romantic of sorts, considering what ultimately motivates him to take on the case in the film are his unsettled feelings for an ex-lover, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), but he is also a romantic of the 1960s, an era he seems trapped in while the rest of the world passes him by. “There is no avoiding time,” we hear towards the end of Inherent Vice, but Doc’s resistance to it may just save the day.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
A delicate but sublime confection, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel may mark the turning point where Anderson’s distinct visual style and scrupulously crafted worlds are no longer rejected as mere gimmickry. This is easily Anderson’s most ambitious film, but the performance at the film’s center by the indomitable Ralph Fiennes suggests The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite personal as well. Fiennes’ turn as the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave, is so fully realized despite being the endpoint of a Russian matryoshka nested doll-like story structure (Grand Budapest ultimately is a story-within-a-story-within-a story-within-a-story, all featuring different aspect ratios). M. Gustave is fully brought to life by Fiennes, even if he appears larger than life, but he is also somewhat of a man out of time. His styles in perfume, hospitality, and even women seem to be of an era apart from the one he inhabits. Anderson could also be seen as an artist from a different time, but although The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most popular film to date ($59 million grossed in the U.S.) it is not a compromise. Anderson continues to do what he does best, only bigger, better, and with more layers.
3. Under the Skin
For a film about an enigmatic woman (perhaps an alien?) who prowls the streets looking for unwitting men to abduct, Under the Skin offers a fascinating take on body image and how it informs our culture. As a result Scarlett Johansson is an essential casting as the film’s shadowy predator. She is certainly seductive and alluring in the film, but something is not quite right with her. If someone were to visit earth from another planet, she may react similarly to Johansson’s character when approached by men. We are challenged to wonder, “What attracts us to other people?” As the film goes on, she grows more comfortable in her own skin (hence the title), and she seems to have a better idea of what makes us “human.” This sentiment is echoed in the gloriously haunting score from Mica Levi, striking beautiful chords and then turning sour through a flat or sharp note. What is left is a perplexing and mesmerizing experience you succumb to, leaving you with questions that will not be answered any time soon.
For many of the great films in recent memory, there is a scene or two that stand out and reach an iconic status in cinema history. Boyhood is the rare film that does not really have a “hook” of a scene. Over the course of the twelve years the film was in production, covering the same characters as they aged over that period of time, director Richard Linklater was not satisfied to give us the “highlights” of life. Instead every moment, though understated, is significant. From our young hero Mason (Ellar Coltraine) asking his father (Ethan Hawke) about magic; to the painting-over of a home-made height chart; to Mason’s Mother (the heartwarming Patricia Arquette) seeing him drunk for the first time; these moments are played so quietly over the slow burn of the film that if you don’t give pause to listen, you will miss them. In essence, the entire film is the hook, no moment being more important than another. Because in the grand scheme of our existence, the most important moment in our lives is the next moment, the moment that just slipped through our fingers, and the moment we find ourselves in now—equally.
The ordeal that director Bong Joon-ho and his masterpiece Snowpiercer endured to even secure a U.S. release of the original two-hour cut could be a film in itself, and Hollywood executives will likely reference it as a case study in simultaneous theatrical and V.O.D. distribution. But what is important on the surface is that American audiences need to discover this director, easily the most inventive filmmaker to come from his native South Korea in recent memory. Snowpiercer is an action packed drama, a caste system allegory, and a cautionary tale in global warming, but above all, the film is pure cinema. A bleak and dystopian future is fully realized on the non-stop locomotive carrying the last survivors of humanity as it circumnavigates the globe that has frozen over. As the lower class passengers in the grungy tail section revolt and fight to the front of the train, featuring intricately choreographed fight sequences, the wealthy rail cars they pass through are so excessive in their grandeur that the inequality is sickening. Some of the passengers were born on the train and never knew of life on earth, referring to luxuries such as cigarettes and steak as “extinct.” The movement to other parts of the train is an awakening to them, much like Bong’s work is an awakening for us to his distinct cinematic style. Snowpiercer is the most fun I had at the movies this year. It is a film that should not be missed.
A cosmic coming-of-age story and the latest gem from animation titan Studio Ghibli, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; The brilliant debut of director Jennifer Kent in arguably the best horror film of the year, The Babadook; A hypnotic reflection on a centuries-long vampire romance from the mind of Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive; Perhaps Christopher Nolan’s most personal film set across a star-searching space epic, Interstellar; The story of a nun-in-training who learns she is Jewish and a beautiful throwback to classic Polish cinema, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida; A masterful performance from Brendan Gleeson as a priest with one week to live in Calvary; A vintage coming-to-America story with countless images that could double as baroque paintings, James Gray’s The Immigrant; A story of marital bliss disrupted by the forces of nature (literally) in the Swedish film Force Majeure; Justin Simien’s biting, witty satire of present day race relations, Dear White People.