Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Entertainment Junkie's Top 10 Films of 2014

It's finally time to start wrapping-up the year 2014 here at the blog, and we'll begin with my personal top 10 list. This past year was a fantastic one for film, with a ton of terrific independent productions that announced the arrival of brave new artists and more than a few studio blockbusters that challenged audiences while delivering the popcorn goods. While it personally took me some time to get rolling this year (thanks to a change in scenery), it was a year well worth getting caught up on. So, without further ado, here is my list of the top 10 films of 2014.

Links in the film titles will take you to my original review of the film.

10. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater doesn't make movies; he makes miracles. Most of what has been written about Boyhood, his most ambitious film yet, has focused on the way that it was filmed: a few pieces at a time over a period of 12 years, chronicling the childhood of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to age 18. And yes, it is remarkable to watch Coltrane and the rest of the cast - Ethan Hawke as his itinerant father, Patricia Arquette as his steadfast mother, Lorelai Linklater as his older sister - grow and age with their characters, their performances evolving alongside the film. There was so much that could have gone wrong over those years. But not only did Linklater make the film, he made a remarkable film that is unlike anything he's ever attempted by doing exactly what he's always done. His trademark narrative shagginess and philosophical musings are here in full force, and they feel organic to the characters, especially the teenage Mason. The film, against the odds, captures the feeling of growing up over the course of three hours, somehow touching on all the hallmarks of growing up without relying on cliche or obvious temporal landmarks. It's a sweetly-touching miracle of a movie.

The rest of the list after the jump.

9. Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

I almost skipped out on Ida this year. I had heard it gathering critical adulation when it was released earlier in the year, and took note of its box office (well, impressive for a black-and-white film in Polish about a nun who discovers a major secret about her past). But I didn’t necessarily go rushing to catch the film, figuring I’d just wait a little while and see if it was really worth watching. As it turns out, it’s a film that shouldn’t be missed. Director Pawel Pawlikowski proves himself to be an unsung master of the form, imbuing this story with stunning humanity through handsome cinematography and immaculate pacing. Agata Trzebuchoska, in her first film role, is nothing short of stunning as the titular nun who discovers her Jewish heritage. Agata Kulesza, playing her aunt who leads her on this journey, is equally terrific. It’s a shame that I wasn’t there to champion this little gem of a movie from the beginning. It’s a film worth discovering.

8. Life Itself (dir. Steve James)

It would have been easy to go the sanctimonious route in making a documentary about the life of the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert. But that's not the kind of filmmaker that Steve James is. James, whose landmark 1994 film Hoop Dreams was strongly supported and championed by Ebert, avoids hagiography by making the film a portrait of Ebert as man who was passionate about cinema, equal parts caring and abrasive. Footage of Ebert in his final weeks - his voice taken by throat cancer - is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, while glimpses into his nationally syndicated TV show with Gene Siskel show him butting heads and challenging ideas of what films can be. But the film never loses sight of it's subject and his legacy: more than any other critic, Ebert brought the idea of film criticism to the masses, using his reviews to educate people about film in a way that was accessible and enjoyable. James' film returns that favor by doing the same for Ebert, paying respect to both the icon and the man.

7. Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

In a summer that saw several blockbusters that were as smart as they were entertaining (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla), Snowpiercer was by far the smartest and most entertaining. South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho made his English-language debut with this tale of a dystopian world set aboard a high-speed train that contains the remaining survivors of humanity. Bong put together an incredibly diverse and exciting cast, including Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt. And naturally, the film is a non-stop inventive wonder, with action sequences that are original, exciting, and often outré (the night-vision battle and stopover in a children’s classroom immediately come to mind). But what sets the film apart is how Bong sneaks in a surprisingly nuanced and somewhat-cynical twist to the film’s revolution narrative, all while keeping the film chugging along at an exciting pace. It’s a remarkable feat of filmmaking, one that the rest of Hollywood could certainly learn a thing or two from.

6. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

There's truth in the title: Jonathan Glazer's first film in 10 years will definitely get under your skin. Scarlett Johansson's unnamed alien predator stalks the Scottish countryside, preying on men who are drawn to her sexual allure. As a lurid sci-fi B-movie, that would be enough. But Glazer doesn't stop there, using the premise to paint a vivid film about femininity in a male-dominated world that's remarkably unique. The film is a visually stunning marvel, providing some of the most indelible images of the year. And Johansson's performance is nothing short of stunning, using mostly stillness and silence to convey how out-of-place this creature feels on Earth. It's a marvel of a film that rewards on each subsequent viewing. Which is good, because you'll want to see it again as soon as its over.

5. Begin Again (dir. John Carney)

I was a huge fan of Once, director John Carney’s 2007 musical about two street buskers in Dublin who form a connection through music. So naturally, I came into Begin Again with high expectations: can the film possibly live up to the sweet naturalism and soul-stirring music of Once? The answer, of course, is yes, only in different ways. Carney works with professional actors, Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, the latter proving to have an incredible voice as a recently-dumped singer-songwriter. The former has the aw-shucks charisma needed to make his record producer, who’s on a quest for redemption, feel like a shaggy underdog. But the real magic of this film is in the way it treats the creative process as a burst of energy, a way for people to connect with one another to create something amazing. There’s plenty of incredible music as well, from the soaring “Lost Stars” to the propulsive “Tell Me If You Want to Go Home.” The film was originally titled Can A Song Save Your Life?. Based on this film, it’s hard not to believe that’s true.

4. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

David Fincher is well-known for taking his films to dark places, so it’s no surprise that Gone Girl, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name (she also wrote the screenplay), has some pretty twisted psychology in it. What is surprising, however, is that it may be his funniest film yet. At any given moment, the film balances a high-wire act of being a chilling thriller, a dissection of America’s love of crime and celebrity, and a marital comedy between, to quote defense attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), “the two most fucked-up people I ever met.” The casting is impeccable, from Ben Affleck as the blank husband Nick to Rosamund Pike as his missing, mischievous wife “Amazing” Amy to Neil Patrick Harris as a slimy ex of Amy’s. This is to say nothing of the incredible supporting turns from Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Missi Pyle, Casey Wilson, and others. Even when the film threatens to fly off the rails, Fincher miraculously keeps it on track. Gone Girl proves once again how masterful of a director he truly is.

3. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)

The best horror films tap into a fear that everyone can relate to, consciously or subconsciously. The Babadook, however, is terrifying exactly because of its ambiguous nature. The nature of the Babadook - even it's appearance - remains a mystery throughout the film, allowing the audience to project its own fears onto the monster. Could it be a metaphor for the grief that Amelia (Essie Davis, remarkable) feels after the loss of her husband? Is the monster a stand-in for her fear that there's something wrong with her son Sam (Noah Wiseman), and perhaps it's her fault? Or could it be a manifestation of the anger she feels toward Sam sometimes, an acknowledgement that sometimes your child is just terrible? Whatever the Babadook represents, the one thing it most certainly is is terrifying. Jennifer Kent has established herself as a masterful new talent with a film that lingers long after the credits roll. There's no getting rid of The Babadook, not that you'd ever want to.

2. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu)

Nobody would have expected Alejandro G. Inarritu, the auteur best known for miserablist films such as Babel and Biutiful, to come up with a heady, challenging, and surprisingly funny comedy about a washed-up actor trying to shed his superhero-role past for a chance at legitimacy. It seems more like the kind of thing Charlie Kaufman would have made. But make no mistake, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is deserving both of the comparison and of consideration as its own kind of masterpiece. Filmed impeccably by Emmanuel Lubezski to appear as if the entire film is one unbroken shot, Inarritu’s masterwork juggles major concepts like art, truth, celebrity, and performance while delivering dark, caustic humor as soulless as show business itself. Michael Keaton, as actor Riggan Thomson, is clearly reveling in the best performance of his career, and he’s matched by great work from co-stars Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifinakis. It’s a cliché to say that the film soars, but it certainly gives you a high you never want to come down from.

1. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Here's the truth: on my numerical-score spreadsheet, Interstellar and Birdman actually tied for the top spot. Now, I could have gone with the tie, given them both the top spot, and left it at that. I do ties all the time in my Jarmo Awards, so why not let this one slide too? But I can't do that, not on a numerically-ranked list (if it's a top 10, there should be 10 films, not 11). So I had to make a choice: which one would earn my top spot. For all the virtues (unexpected and otherwise) that I've extolled about in Birdman, I had to go with Interstellar for the top spot. It's heady, yes, taking astrophysicist Kip Thorne's theories about wormholes and spinning them into a thrilling, inspired, and awe-inspiring saga about one man (Matthew McConaughey, in his best movie-star performance to date) trying to reunite with his daughter (Jessica Chastain as an adult, Mackenzie Foy as a child) and find a new world for humanity to live on. Nolan's deft, brilliant script and impressive direction is a marvel, with enough incredible images and setpieces to tickle both the eyes and the brain. But that's not what put Interstellar in the top spot for me. This is Nolan's most emotional film to date, keeping the central father-daughter relationship at the heart of the film. It matches visual sweep with romanticism, lending the film an aura of a David Lean epic if he had ever been interested in science-fiction blockbusters. The choice was clear: Interstellar had to earn the spot as my favorite movie of 2014.

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