Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aim for the Head, Hit the Heart: My Favorite 2014 FIlms

One year when I was living in L.A., I think I saw something like 125 movies in theaters. My roommate and I would hit up the Pacific Theater at the Grove on the regular (it was way easier to double- or triple-dip there than at the Arclight, if somewhat less snazzy) and many a Friday night were spent at the movies with grad school friends. This year (meaning 2014), in Arizona, I saw less than half of that. That's a function of both living in the desert and having a Real Adult Job. So that's my long way of saying that this is hardly a comprehensive list. But I did see most of the big tentpole movies and awards-season films, as well as a good number of critical darlings—a few of which I had to wait until the calendar flipped to see. It's a good thing I did, too, as a few of those films wound up making this list. Speaking of which, I'm doing it a little differently this year than in years past. Instead of somewhat lengthy write-ups for my top 10, I'll be doing shorter write-ups for my top 20. But, first things first:  honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):  Captain America: The Winter Soldier, FrankGrand Budapest HotelOnly Lovers Left AliveThe Purge: Anarchy

20) Gone Girl
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry

I walked out of Gone Girl thinking it was just so-so, a well-made crowd pleaser with little depth or complexity. Much the same could be said of my thoughts on Rosamund Pike's performance—pretty but vacant. Of course, that's probably part of the point in a movie that's all about perception and outward appearances. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the film was built around Pike's performance—she never broke character, and neither did Fincher. The result is the most mainstream film of his career, but one that manages to weave in some wonderfully subversive commentary on sensationalist media and the power dynamics of marriage. Add in some of my favorite supporting performances of the year (especially Coon), another ominously cool Reznor/Ross score, and DP Jeff Cronenweth's typically immaculate shooting, and you've got a more-than-worthy entrant on this list.

19) X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James MacAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage

Two things about this movie: 1) It has inarguably the best (read: coolest) opening of any movie on this list. It's one of the best action sequences of the year—tense, well paced, with great special effects. 2) It has inarguably the worst ending of any movie on this list. This is a common theme with X-Men movies (and comic book movies in general). Remember in X3 when Magneto threw the Golden Gate Bridge? Well, at least they toned it down this time—he only threw a baseball stadium. Comic book movies have gotten much better at character development, but it usually all gets thrown out in the third act (the Captain America sequel was another example of that this year). It's no coincidence that the best modern comic book movie (The Dark Knight) went out of its way to *not* feature explosions in its third act. Here's hoping Marvel (I know, this is Fox) can learn that lesson soon.

18) Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson

I don't know if it says more about me or 2014 films in general, but Under the Skin is the highest-ranking female-led film of the year. (Note that Only Lovers Left Alive and Gone Girl had a female co-lead and that Wild, Obvious Child, and Happy Christmas were among the films that just missed the cut.) That out of the way, Under the Skin is simultaneously hypnotic and unsettling, a stylish, subtle exploration of female beauty and male lust. It features a career-best performance from ScarJo, who turns her natural good looks into an impenetrable mask—which, of course, is removed (along with much, much else) by the end of the film. (The ending is also one of the best of the year, perhaps behind only Whiplash.) Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the year's best score, courtesy of Mica Levi. It —and the film itself—have stayed in my head long after the first viewing. How (or why) the Oscars overlooked is a mystery to me.

17) The Rover
Directed by: David Michôd
Written by: David Michôd (story by Michôd and Joel Edgerton)
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy

This was a great year for small, gritty revenge thrillers—at least four appear on this list. (Shout-out to Frank Grillo and The Purge: Anarchy in the HM's). The Rover is the sparest and slow-burningest (real word) of the bunch—but what else do you expect from Australia? In the same tradition as The Square (also co-written by Edgerton) and The Proposition, The Rover interlaces small moments of character building with shocking scenes of sudden violence, all against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. It also adds a dystopian angle—but it's only explored about as much as the characters' backstories... which is to say not at all. No, this is a movie solely of action, and of reaction, motivation be damned—only in the final few frames does the other 99% of the movie finally make sense. But when it clicks, it clicks, like the last rusted key on a key ring, unlocking a glimpse into the meager remnants of a forsaken man's soul... or something. See the movie and you'll get what I mean.

16) Nightcrawler
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Written by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed

If Nightcrawler was as sharp a satire as it wanted to be, or as violent and disturbing and it should have been, it probably would have landed a top-5 spot on this list. As it is, it's a nice median between American Psycho and Taxi Driver, with a committed performance by Gyllenhaal that's 1/3 Patrick Bateman, 1/3 Travis Bickle, and 1/3 the kind of goofy earnestness that was Gyllenhaal's calling card early in his career. (Just watch Bubble Boy and try to tell me you don't see a bit of him in Lou Bloom. I'm dead serious.) It's a shame the Academy couldn't find a spot for his performance—I'd have bounced anyone but Keaton, including the winner. Rene Russo was certainly worthy of a Supporting nomination herself for channeling Faye Dunaway in Network, while Bill Paxton was clearly having a lot of fun as Gyllenhaal's rival. Finally, props to Ahmed for serving as the movie's moral compass—a role that was never going to end well in this movie's warped version of nighttime Los Angeles (aka my entire wheelhouse). I have a feeling this will prove to be a lasting favorite from this year's movie crop.

15) Interstellar
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine

Interstellar is the kind of spectacular misstep that I wish there were more of in Hollywood. It's ultimately a failure as a film, but only in that it fails to reach the lofty ambitions it sets for itself—the next 2001 it is not. It's not even the next Gravity. But at least it strives to escape the low orbit of most other blockbusters, sci-fi or otherwise. Michael Bay is content to smash rocks into the earth and robots into each other like a cinematic toddler (remember, as always, that I'm fan—but he's making it hard to be these days), while Kevin Feige and his cadre of hired guns tap into our collective adolescence—Christopher Nolan may be the only director with a nine-digit budget who makes movies for grown-ups. Even though the story holds up about as well as an IKEA-made tesseract, one can't help but admire its scope—who are we? where do we come from? where are we going? why do we exist? It's a noble failure (much like Prometheus), and I'd absolutely brave a dust storm to see Nolan's next movie. He's got an Oscar in him someday.

14) Snowpiercer
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell

Unless you've never seen a movie before, you know that the train that "never stops" in Snowpiercer will stop before the movie ends. I just wish that the film's often-propulsive narrative momentum didn't stop before the train did. Instead, it crashes and burns just like the train itself, as a too-long d'état with Ed Harris brings the narrative to a screeching halt. Fortunately, there are a number of bravura sequences leading up to the unfortunate denouement that it almost doesn't matter—the icy "disarming," the bridge fight (that fucking bridge fight!), the school car, Tilda Swinton's teeth. Even if it doesn't stick the landing (although the final shots works quite well), Snowpiercer is still a magnificently weird movie (what else do you expect from a Korean director?) that isn't afraid to take risks. I almost shudder to think of the neutered version we'd have seen had Harvey Weinstein gotten his way. We need more weird movies, not less.

13) A Most Violent Year
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo

A Most Violent Year is perhaps the most well-made film on this list, like one of the immaculately tailored suits that Oscar Isaac's character wears throughout the film. The script is tightly wound and perfectly executes its themes, the performances are finely tuned, the cinematography is painterly, the music foreboding yet elegant, and Chandor's assured direction is the Windsor knot that ties it all together. Had the film been released earlier and marketed a bit better, there surely could have been Oscar nominations for at least Chastain, Chandor's script, and Bradford Young's cinematography (not to mention the costumes). Isaacs could have nabbed a nom in a weaker year, but something tells me his first isn't too far off —although it won't be for the Star Wars or X-Men sequels he'll be starring in in the next 18 months. Long story short, get ready for the Oscar Isaac takeover. (I've been on board since Drive. Just sayin'.)

12) Selma
Directed by: Ava DuVerney
Written by: Paul Webb and Ava DuVerney
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo

Selma fits into the category of films that I immensely respect, but don't necessarily enjoy or plan on watching again anytime soon. (Other examples are films like 12 Years a Slave, The Master, A Separation, etc.) I have a hard time placing films like that on my year-end lists because entertainment value and rewatchability are *huge* components of how I rate movies. (This is why I could never be a film critic. Well, that and my penchant for way overusing parentheses.) That said, Selma is a pretty fucking sensational film and it absolutely should have been recognized for more than just Picture and Song at the Oscars. Oyelowo, Ejogo, DuVerney's direction, Bradford Young's cinematography (again—here's another dude to look out for)—all were more deserving than some of the actual nominees. Come for MLK's speeches (originals written by DuVerney due to licensing issues), stay for the Pettus Bridge sequence. There wasn't a more harrowing, yet beautiful, sequence put to film this year.

11) 22 Jump Street
Directed by: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell

If there was ever an argument against trying to rank films at the end of the year, this is it. 22 Jump Street ahead of Selma? I'm not even going to try to defend it... but remember what I just said about entertainment value and rewatchability? Well, I've already seen this three times and laughed just as hard each time I watched it. Hill and Tatum's effortless chemistry, vintage Ice Cube, Jillian Bell's foulmouthed villainess, the (not always subtle) meta-commentary on sequels, expert deployment of "Turn Down for What"... what's not to love? Oh, how about the funniest scene of the year? That do anything for you? No? Well, fuck you. This is my list. I do what I want. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be playing stickball in the field behind old Pop Wiggledy's sweet shop.

10) Blue Ruin
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Written by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Amy Hargreaves, Devin Ratray

Blue Ruin is the smallest movie on this list, pulling in less than $300,000 domestically—which is a shame because it's a small-scale masterpiece, a gripping, genre-inverting indie gem. It's a revenge thriller, yes, but it also takes everything you know about the genre and chucks it out the window about 20 minutes in while going 60 down a Virginia highway. Protagonist Dwight Evans is the anti–Bryan Mills—played by Macon Blair, he's a bushy-bearded homeless man with the sad eyes of a wounded animal, not the steely, don't-fuck-with-me-eyes of Liam Neeson. He's entirely unsuited to the task of offing the recently released con who murdered his parents, but, even absent a "particular set of skills," he pulls the task off—and there' still over an hour of movie left. The movie goes unexpected places, even until the end, which makes me excited for writer/director's next film, Green Room. It features Patrick Stewart playing a white supremacist. All. In.

Bonus shout-out to Cold in July here. I saw it too late to be able to put it in this list, but it's another great, you guessed it, indie revenge thriller that takes genre conventions and gives 'em a Texas-style ass whuppin'. Except the score, which is a okay-by-me John Carpenter knock-off. Also, Dexter has a mulletstache. It's glorious.

9) Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

This one doesn't need much explaining. It's the most purely entertaining movie of the year, and the second-best Marvel movie behind The Avengers. Like most Marvel movies, the plot is a bit McGuffin-y (Cube? Tesseract? Orb? Who cares!), but director Gunn wisely foregrounds the characters, relegating the plot to the sidelines. (And, really, nothing happens in the movie that greatly affects the Marvel cinematic universe as a whole.) And the characters are really what make this movie tick—from Pratt's wounded, wisecracking Star-Lord to Bautista's hilariously literal Drax the Destroyer to the breakout duo of Cooper's Rocket and Diesel's Groot (and Groot, Jr.), their spitfire dialogue and growing bond is really what drives the movie, not the rather unmemorable story. (Um, also Zoe Saldana looks good in green. Really wish they gave her more to do.) It definitely wet my whistle for Avengers 2, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the two story lines cross. (Avengers 3? 4?)

8) The Guest
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick

If Blue Ruin is a deconstruction of the revenge thriller genre, then The Guest is an action thriller pastiche—a little Terminator here, a little Stepfather there, and essence of John Carpenter sprinkled liberally throughout (so glad to see a resurgence in appreciation of his work of late). It doesn't hurt that it centers around the most handsomest antagonist/antihero I've ever seen, Mr. Dan Stevens. It's entirely obvious he's the villain from pretty much the get-go, but you don't care because you melt every time he smiles. It's a good thing, too, because the movie flat-out wouldn't work with just about anyone else playing the role. He's so good that you're actually cheering for the telegraphed "twist" ending. My only complaint is that the overarching plot is introduced a bit early (the mystery of his identity could have been played out a bit longer) and that is's a bit ho-hum (not weird enough), but when things finally come to a head, the tension is ratcheted to 11, leaving a trail of bodies on its way to a nearly perfect climax (both cinematically and in my pants). More like this, please.

7) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Starring: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell

First things first: Yes, that's an ape carrying a gun while riding a horse, and, yes, that happens in the movie. Second things second: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the best blockbuster sequel of the year, and probably of the last few years. It's perfectly paced, with a fuse that's lit in the first few minutes that slowly burns until the inevitable third-act pyrotechnics—but they're actually earned this time, as the final battle sequence (buckwild and a whole lot of fun) actually makes sense dramatically and doesn't feel tacked on (cough*Winter Soldier*cough). It's also technically masterful—from cinematography to set design to the editing. But what really makes it stand out is some of the best CGI I've ever seen—this movie is the first time I can recall seeing CGI characters emote on a human (or near-human) level. Andy Serkis (as always) and Toby Kebbell give two of the finest motion-capture performances of all time. I'm not sure there needs to be an Oscar category to recognize their work, but giving the Visual Effects Oscar to this film instead of the bigger (but not better) Interstellar would have been a start.

6) The Raid 2
Directed by: Gareth Evans
Written by: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais, Afirin Putra, Tio Pakusadewo, Oka Antara

The original Raid was a lean, mean, martial-arts machine: one location, shot in real time, no frills. (It also has one of the best fight scenes of all time. R.I.P., Sgt. Jaka.) The Raid 2 is, well, more—with four times the budget, almost an hour longer, and a vastly wider scope, it's like The Godfather 2 of martial arts movies. It takes a while to get going, but once it does, it's an absolutely visceral moviegoing experience. Movies have left me slack-jawed before (see the movie ranked at number two), but none like this—you're almost as exhausted as Rama (Uwais) by the time he makes his way through the gauntlet of prisons, crime lords, baseball bats, hammers, and a brutal kitchen fight scene that's almost as good as Mad Dog vs. Jaka. Of course, his trials aren't even close to over. The Raid 3 can't come soon enough. ...actually, it can. I'm still recovering from this one.

5) Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat, or All You Need Is Kill)
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendon Gleeson, Bill Paxton

It must be noted that Edge of Tomorrow is perhaps the blandest possible title for this movie. I mean, it sounds like a slogan for a Gillette razor or something. Warner Bros. must've realized its mistake, as the movie was released on DVD seemingly titled Live Die Repeat, which is better—but not as good as All You Need Is Kill, the title of the Japanese novel the movie is based on. Title rant out of the way, this is easily the best sci-fi action movie in a long time, and firmly puts Tom Cruise back in movie star mode. It's also the best video game movie that isn't based on an actual video game. What's more is that the "live die repeat" cycle is actually explained in a way that (sort of) makes sense, unlike in most video games (or in Groundhog Day), where it's basically arbitrary. Once the plot is explained relatively early on, the rest of the movie allows the filmmakers to have fun with the premise (watching Cruise fail over and over at first is great) and the characters to inch closer and closer to the final confrontation and to each other. The typical romantic subplot is handled with sweetness and subtlety—and I'm not just talking about the one between me and Emily Blunt in my head. For once, I was actually rooting for the corny ending—and was happy when I got it. This is the best major Hollywood release of the year (and, of course, it was trounced at the box office by Trans4mers) and one that I know will withstand multiple "repeat" viewings. (Sorry, had to.)

4) Inherent Vice
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the Thomas Pynchon novel)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston

My favorite movie review of the year is just about all you need to know about Inherent Vice: "Every ticket to Inherent Vice should come with the choice of a joint or a second ticket to Inherent Vice. You will need one or the other." Quite apt—following the plot of Inherent Vice is like listening to directions from a stoner to a place he's never been. "Well, first Doc Sportello goes to a massage parlor, but there's also this cop, then there's a dentist... something about a Golden Fang..." That's pretty much all I could tell you what happened in the movie myself, and I wasn't baked. (And I haven't seen it a second time.) It doesn't matter though—much like its spiritual antecendent, The Big Lebowski, the plot is just a loose framework in which the characters operate, not a blueprint to be closely followed. Phoenix keeps finding new leaves to turn over—Doc Sportello couldn't be much different from his characters in The Master and Her—and Brolin and Martin Short especially are a whole lot of fun. (Jena Malone also gives a memorable monologue in a bit role.) Raucously funny, wonderfully hazy, and with memorable characters and perfect period music to accompany Johnny Greenwood's score, Inherent Vice is an obvious cult classic in the making and PTA's most original film since Punch-Drunk Love.

3) Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone

I can't say the Academy erred too grievously on Oscar night—they merely picked my third-favorite film of the year rather than my favorite (slight spoilers). While I was wrong about which film AMPAS would pick that night, I'm fairly sure I'll prove to be right about one thing: the reputation of Boyhood will only be buoyed by the Oscar snub, while I think that of Birdman will fade. (Basically the exact same thing that's already happened with The Social Network/The King's Speech.) But enough about what Birdman *isn't*—what it *is* is an extended take (pun intended) on "that little prick called ego," specifically the artist's ego—a topic I can certainly relate to, although not on the same level as Keaton's Riggan Thomson (or Iñárritu for that matter). It's about how you put yourself on the line every time you create something, about how there is no such thing as a safety net when you bleed your heart out on the stage (or screen, or page), about how insane the creative process can make you feel. My only complaint is the final scene—it's ambiguity for ambiguity's sake, which is lazy to me (besides, the magical realism works a lot better if it's all in Thomson's head). That said, it's got the year's smartest script, the best cinematography, and the finest performances—a worthy Best Picture winner when you think about it.

2) Whiplash
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

This is the other movie that left me speechless and slack-jawed this year. I'm of course talking about the final 10 minutes of the film, in which abused and broken jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Teller) rises from the emotional rubble of the grand finale of psychotic music teacher Terence Fletcher's (Simmons) series of humiliations to deliver a rousing 6-minute jazz drum solo. While the scene is a technical and physical marvel (Teller actually played drums throughout the movie), it's a morally complicated one. Did Fletcher's savage, callous methods work on Andrew? Even thornier, does the movie somehow endorse those homophobic, chair-slinging methods? I think the answers are "kind of" and a resounding "no"—you can't watch the previous hour and a half and think that. Simmons—in the best performance of his career and of any actor this year—is terrifying, a black-t-shirt-clad study in sociopathy, an embodiment of the tortuous hell he thinks great artists must go through. He's like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket meets Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, only more controlled. If the movie was more widely seen, he'd go down as one of cinema's great villains (hell, he still might anyway), so you can't say the movie thinks he's in the right. But he also pushes Andrew father than he'd ever push himself—and the resulting performance is the crux of the film. But I don't look at the scene as the validation of Fletcher's methods. Rather, I view it as Andrew's big "fuck you" to his "mentor"—he's not going to let the monster win. He's not trying to impress him, he's trying to beat him at his own game. And a big part of me thinks he'll walk out of that music hall never to touch a drum kit again—the ultimate "fuck you" to Fletcher. *This* is how you pull an ambiguous ending off. I'm still thinking about it, and still picking my jaw up off the floor.

1) Boyhood
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

I'll come out and say it: Boyhood is a masterpiece, the kind of movie that comes along every 4-5 years and serves not so much as a touchstone but as a monument to artistic achievement. They rarely win Best Picture. The Social Network didn't. There Will Be Blood didn't. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind didn't. In the Mood for Love didn't. And, of course, Boyhood didn't. It doesn't matter though—the achievements of these films speak for themselves. What Linklater and his cast accomplished will be remembered long after those of any other movie on this list. Boyhood distills 12 years of human life—12 awkward, painful, frightening, difficult years—into a 2 1/2 hour emotional crucible that leaves the viewer wondering how they survived it themselves. (And that probably goes twice-over for any parents—this could just as easily be called Motherhood or Fatherhood.) It's a testament to Linklater and his editor, the Oscar-snubbed Sandra Adair, that the movie works as well as it does—the passage of time feels natural—and the cinematography of Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly give the whole thing a dreamy, sun-washed quality that fits perfectly with the Texas backdrop. All together, the film plays like a family movie with the scope of a Tolstoy novel. It's The Tree of Life without without the metaphysical bullshit. (And, admittedly, without Emmanuel Lubezski's cinematography.) I pay no heed to the chief complaint levied against the film—that Coltrane is a poor actor. Of course he is, as he's not a professional. And his natural awkward aloofness lends itself perfectly to the adolescent years the film spans. Anyone who's lived through those years (that is to say, *everyone*) should be able to see a little bit of themselves in Coltrane. Be they male or female, white or black, poor or rich, watching Boyhood should feel a little bit like watching yourself up there on the screen. It's beautiful, it's truthful, and it's ego-free. If Birdman is meant for the head, then Boyhood is meant for the heart. I have little doubt as to which will prove to be the more lasting achievement.

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