2014 has come and gone, another year in books, so as is movie reviewer tradition it is time to come up with a listing of the very best films that I saw in the past year. The end tally range from moody period-pieces to contemporary documentations to far-flung futuristic voyages. Containing themes ranging from obsession, to questioning Identity, to growing-up, to following a calling in life. Nonetheless, if there is one thing that connects all of my picks, or nearly all of them, is that they are of the Now; that instantaneous moment that is Now, whenever that Now happens to be. They are all photographs, technically many photographs in succession, capturing those fleeting and progressing moments in time. All of them seeking to depict that there will never be another Now once it passes. It is the best art form to appreciate that aspect of life, so enjoy my picks for this fantastic year for cinema.
20). The Tale of Princess Kaguya/ The Wind Rises
I am hedging my bets with this one as the beautiful and harmonious The Wind Rises is technically a 2013 release but didn’t get a wide release until earlier this year. So I’ll pair it with another equally stunning Studio Ghibli work that may be the last in awhile for the animation giant, that being the gorgeously drawn ancient fairy tale portrayal of The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Both narratives focus on growing up and allowing your dreams to take hold of you to find your place in the world. However, both also don’t shy away from the harsh realities of doing so as both convey how inspiration and desires can be exploited and manipulated to misfortune. It may be a tough road, but living and giving yourself fully to a dream is the only way for it to be ever truly realized.
19). Blue Ruin
Revenge thrillers have been a staple of American cinema for decades, from Death Wish to John Wick, rare is one that actually examines its subject as thoroughly and concise as Jeremy Saulnier’s micro-budgeted entry Blue Ruin. Starring Macon Blair as Dwight, a drifter aimless wandering through life until one-day he is told that his parent’s murderer has been released from prison on parole. Suddenly a spark is ignited in Dwight as he goes off seeking retribution. A gritty look at the revenge narrative that stripes the genre down to bare bones in order to expose the more troubling aspects of the nature of taking vengeance against those that have wronged you. Dwight is no Rambo or John Wick killing machine, he is just a guy who has found a new dreadful purpose in his life. He was an adrift, aimless and lost soul beforehand. All goes to show just how much anger and need for retribution can fuel us to doing the unthinkable.
18). The Dance of Reality
Famous cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky returned to the director’s chair to render his childhood and coming-of-age as only he could. After participating in the fascinating and insightful Jodorowsky’s Dune the filmmaker decided to make a welcomed comeback with a deeply personal story of his upbringing (another theme on this list) in Chile in the 40’s and 50’s. Made with all the usual eccentricities found in his work, the filmmaker depicts his and his family’s hardships while living in the dangerously divided country. All the while seeking to heal the wounds brought on from his strict and emotionally distant father, this labor of love helping to act as closure for an extremely troubled past.
With so many ‘prestige’ bio-pics released during awards season, rare is one that actually finds a voice that does it’s subject justice. Director Ava DuVernay skillfully puts us right along side Martin Luther King Jr. in the middle of the civil rights movement and his people fighting for their ‘inalienable’ rights as citizens. Powerfully depicted and unfortunately very timely, the film seeks not to condemn or blame but only to foster understanding of what progress and change really look like when giant social issues come to ahead. We are marching in lock step with the civil rights leader as he challenges the old-guard, doubts his own methods and outlines his dream of a better tomorrow.
“Tom Hardy in a car” and that’s all in terms of what is presented in the frame in this engaging character study of a life unraveling. Hardy is the titular Ivan Locke driving from Birmingham to London as he takes calls from Family and Co-workers alike that paint a near complete picture of the man’s entire life and his personality. We empathize with his plight, we scorn him for his terrible choices, we are with him in finally making the right decisions. Everything that a character study needs, and is rendered using minimalist number of characters and location.
15). Inherent Vice
This divisive Neo-Noir from auteur Paul Thomas Anderson puts us right at the moment when a character is no longer of his time but of another era entirely. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private eye keen on being on top of things, until he finds that he is suddenly thrown into new situations he no longer can understand and fully comprehend. His ex-lover Shasta Fey (Katherine Waterson) comes back into his life one day asking for help with her current wealthy boyfriend’s trouble with the FBI. That is the first plot-point in the constantly shifting narrative of FBI informats, intimatdating lawmen, shady dentists, yachts and drug money. Through all the additional characters, motivations and plot points Anderson seeks to depict people lost in time, trying to find their place in sun-soaked haze of Southern California.
14). Dear White People
The most intentionally uncomfortable sit I had in the movie theater this year belongs to Justin Simien’s debut feature film, realistically portraying and at the same time satirizing contemporary race relations on an elitist university campus. Good satire should always be this biting and relevant, hardly any intentionally over-the-top character this year was as successfully rendered as the Ultra-WASPy Dean of the up-scale College. Most of his dialogue will have you squirming in your seat, as he tries to come to terms with the make-up of his campus. Of course not entirely about Racial issues stemming from the halls of privilege, the film is made up of many stories about forging one’s identity within your own group of peers. Balancing out what is expected from you based on where you come from vs. what you truly are at the moment.
13). Gone Girl
David Fincher always manages to take his audiences to places hardly any other filmmaker would dare to even try. Ben Affleck plays the beleaguered husband and suspect number 1 Nick Dunne in the cable news crime of week story, as his wife goes missing on their anniversary. Caught up in the media circus that surrounds him Affleck plays off of segments of his own real-life in the spot-light to give a nuanced performance in this penetrating and darkly humorous satire of media spin cycles.
Before another film on this list, Jake Gylllenhaal had already made me take notice of him as not just as a good actor, but a great one with his duel roles as Anthony/Adam in this mind-bending thriller by Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve. Adam is a mild-mannered College history Professor and Anthony is an impulsive wanna-be actor who discover that they share the face. From then on it is a pointed psychological thriller with twists and turns and a helluva seat-jumping ending. The very idea of what is personal identity is questioned in this surreal and bleak thriller with Lynchian vibes.
Dread, that is the singular feeling that seeps into every frame of Bennet Miller’s bleak sports drama centered on three distinct personalities that clash in and outside the wrestling ring. Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) become involved in helping multi-millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) rise to prominence in the olympic wrestling community by training under his guise on his Estate. All three actors are nearly unrecognizable as they grow into their characters uncannily well as they play off of one another in battles of wills. The end result is a three-way character study into male obsession and competitive nature.
Travis Bickle if he were a young man today is the impression one could could get after seeing this gripping duel local cable news and “Kid with a dream” satires. Tony Gilroy’s brother Dan has the best feature debut of the year with Nightcrawler featuring a gaunt and crazed Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom a kid just trying to live a dream, a dark twisted one albeit, prowling the streets of L.A looking for footage for the local morning news lead story. “If it bleeds it leads” says Rene Russo’s show runner, and Lou takes that to his black heart. The day-time scenes were captured using film stock, portraying L.A as an angelic paradise. The night-time scenes use digital cameras like a Michael Mann thriller to bring out the predatory nature of the city at night. Two sides of the same place, although Lou inhabits both he only lives for the fear-inducing part, and the same can be said for the industry he services.
Like Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Pt. 1 this year, François Ozon’s portrayal of an underage prostitute depicted candidly a female sexual awakening while also offering a glimpse into the uneven teenage mindset of spitefulness and rebellion. Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is a spoiled and sheltered french teenager on the verge of adulthood, when she secretly takes up a new vocation as a high-class sex worker in Paris. The former fashion model does a tremendous job at conveying that unfaltering point in adolescence when someone is figuring out who they are and who they want to be. In the name of acting out against authority figures we all did rather regrettable things, Young and Beautiful seeks to remind us of that and to perhaps not judge the younger generations too harshly in some of their antics.
8). A Most Violent Year
New York City, 1981. The opening title cards to J.C Chandor’s latest probing character study tell us the time and place that he weaves his tale, and from then on we are right there in that setting of this tumultuous period in the famed and storied City. Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain are Abel and Anna Morales, a couple that has after years of hard work finally gotten their family the American Dream. Now for the real hard part; keeping it alive, and perhaps “legit”, amidst a seemingly endlessly crime ridden and corrupted setting. Both actors deliver some of the best understated performance work of the year in rising star Chandor’s moody period-drama. “Who are the Morales’?” Is the main question that always presents itself from frame one, are they mafia wannabes? Devious opportunists? Legit business people? “The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.” Exactly.
Christopher Nolan has been dividing audiences with his style for the past couple of projects, so it is no surprise that his most ambitious project to date would divide audiences and critics alike. Fair enough, but I stand firmly by his record as a challenging and engaging filmmaker, with his latest sci-fi epic I consider to be one of his very best in his eclectic career. From the dirt-storm ravaged Earth to the magnificent ice landscape of an alien world, Matthew McConaughey and the filmmaker guide us on an emotional journey of discovery and the perils thereof. All done to an awe-inspiring soundtrack by the great Hans Zimmer.
Unkempt and exhausted looking in nearly every moment Marion Cotillard as Sandra reminds us again why she is one of the best in the business today in the Dardenne’s masterful naturalistic contemporary drama. Recovering from a recent emotional breakdown due to her clinical depression, Sandra wakes one friday morning to a phone call from her foreman at the factory she works at telling her she has been let go due to a co-worker vote to keep their bonuses rather than have her on the payroll. Discovering she has a chance at keeping her job if she can get a majority of her co-workers to forego their bonuses she takes going door-to-door to their homes pleading her case to her co-workers. A drama that centers on naturalism and on depicting the impossible economic situations millions of people around the world find themselves in daily.
5). Under the Skin
And the award for most Kubrick-like film of 2014 goes to…, certainly Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror opus is a strange macabre journey into the world we inhabit everyday just seen through different eyes entirely. Scarlett Johansson gives one of the best performances of the year with her role as an Alien being coming to understand the human race in the mysterious and maddening Under the Skin. Using hidden camera’s to capture real reactions to the Being’s advances towards men adds to the examination of actual human nature. Additionally the eerie music by Mica Levi adds an unsettling vibe to the atmosphere of dread in this uniquely terrifying analysis of the Human Condition.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu shifts gears mightily from his usual dower and emotionally draining character studies to depict Michael Keaton running around in his underwear in Times Square NYC, works for me. Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a wash-up former superhero actor just trying to get back in the game and to be taken seriously as an artist as he helms a broadway adaptation of his favorite author’s work. “Am I the man behind the mask or am I just the costume?” is the question that haunts the actor as everything that can go wrong with staging a play happens. Though the question of identity is one that we may all be afraid to ask, the actions to get the answer have hardly ever been as hilariously portrayed here.
The movie with the single best ending of the year also has one of my favorite performances of the year in J.K Simmons psychopathic Jazz-Band Professor Fletcher. Seething with an anger and drive that is palpable in every scene the man is in, Simmons owns the screen like very few can. What should not be looked-over is Miles Teller as Andrew, providing a student foil to the insane methods of the psychotically demanding professor. A depiction of determination taken to its most insane extreme, writer/director Damian Chazelle portrays the forces of nature that go into producing something as expressionistic and personal as Jazz.
Boyhood is document of time, a progression of moments that culminate as the experience that is growing up. Richard Linklater’s 12 year experiment pays off in emotionally engaging dividends scene after scene as Ellar Coltrane and his family age before our very eyes. A powerful testament to the the experience that film can convey in rendering emotional weight to time, given the right determination and creativity ability behind it. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater and Coltrane all give understated and naturalistic performances depicting a family’s trails and tribulations. Along the way making an audience understand that you are the sum total of every experience (large and small, good and bad), from the very moment we are able to remember and feel.
Boyhood had me early on from the scene when Mason and his family first move away, Pawel Pawelikowski’s Ida really took hold of me late with a seemingly simple image of a polish girl doing the Sign of the Cross with dirt covering her hands. The point is that it is a near given I’ll be emotionally tied to a story of a boy growing up in the 2000’s from the onset. Considering struggling to acclimate to new school systems, waiting anxiously for the next Harry Potter Book to come out, and geeking out about Star Wars were all a part of my own childhood. Thus a story of a young polish Nun in the early 60’s who is about to take her vows to God and goes digging up her family’s past with her estranged aunt had a much higher hill to climb in terms of resonating with me, to say the least. It just goes to show the power of filmmaking that these two women have stayed with me to as high of a degree despite the great distances in time, location and culture. Combining thematic elements from the other great movies on this list; crisis of identity, coming-of-age, being of the Now, to create the most arresting visually and emotionally resonating film of 2014.
And that is all folks, time to shelve this year in film. As it was as absolutely outstanding year for film that built on and carried on the momentum of the greats of the previous year. Here is to getting more of the same in the coming year!