Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Top 10 films of 2014

Continuing yesterday's post, here's the main event! My Top 10 films of 2014.

Before we begin, I'm sure someone will bring up the fact that a film I called "the most brilliant and subversively political film you'll see all year," a movie I said, " might be the most cinematically daring film of this decade, if not this century," is not on this list. The truth is, I didn't think it was fair to these other twenty films to make them measure up to the opus that was TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. I gave it four thumbs up last summer and if you're curious about why, check out this review, or buy my book on all of Michael Bay's movies - MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

1. Boyhood - I feel like these first three or four films are in a dead heat with each other. I give BOYHOOD the edge because it's a deceptively simple story, yet really quietly powerful. I've seen a few people snark about how the film has no point beyond just showing people get older. Some even say that it's no different than watching characters grow up over the course of a long-running TV series or a continuing film series like HARRY POTTER. I think that misses some of the point of BOYHOOD, which often seems to be about the quieter, mini-milestones of youth. It's a character-heavy story that doesn't burden itself so much with making each year fill a "character-defining moment" quota. After a lot of thought, I think it works because it puts the audience in the shoes of the parents, always aware that their child will continue to grow and evolve, and wondering what sort of young man he'll become. There's a moment with Patricia Arquette near the end that really drives home how much we've been following the story of her life as well as her son's. So let the naysayers cry about how there was "no story." That just makes me more impressed with how this movie provokes an audience to feel.

2. Nightcrawler - If you're in the middle of writing a dark suspense film, like I am, NIGHTCRAWLER is both essential viewing and also confidence-crushing. Working from his own script in his directing debut, Dan Gilroy pulls off one of the most intense films of the last year. At least two sequences will have your heart racing and the wonderful thing is that by the time each of those emerges, the film has taken so many risks that we truly feel like anything can happen. I saw this movie while I was working on a script that had a total sociopath at its core and I was struggling with how to depict that without pandering to the audience. The first two scenes alone were a revelation in unfurling that sort of character. Jake Gyllenhaal gives what is likely his best performance ever as the ambitious and slimy Lou Bloom. He makes your skin crawl even before he gets to the really nasty stuff. Unfortunately, he's so good that the Oscar buzz for his performance seems to be overshadowing the equally deserving Rene Russo. And in a year that was even slightly less competitive, I bet Riz Ahmed would be a dark horse contender for Best Supporting Actor buzz.

3. Whiplash - For my money, it's one of the best films of the year, capped off with a fantastic performance by J.K. Simmons as a band conductor at one of the best schools in the country. Miles Tellar plays the jazz drumming student desperate to earn his respect, to the point that he endures a lot of verbal and (technically) physical abuse. It's also a very small-scale movie. Though there were turns in the story that came as a gut punch to me, it's much more about character than plot. Any writer seeking to learn from strong character writing (and that should be all of you) really would benefit from studying this film. Don't walk into this movie with the misconception that a film needs to be an epic in order to be one of the year's best. Simmons deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this one.

4. Selma - Like THE CRUCIBLE, SELMA tells a story about the past with very direct commentary on our present. Some of the parallels are so of the moment that for a moment, you might almost think that it was conceived in direct response to recent incidents. The film wisely doesn't attempt to be a full biopic on Dr. King and instead focuses on the marches Dr. King led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to protest obstacles put in place to prevent black citizens from registering to vote in the South. This is a film as much about 2014 as any other contemporary film. I'm aware this is an intensely competitive year, but director Ava DuVernay deserves to be singled out by both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America for her extraordinary work here. SELMA is more than an "eat your vegetables" movie. It's an important film that honors some brave men and women who stood up for their rights and forced a nation to look hard at it's own shame.

5. Gone Girl - What I appreciated most about Gone Girl is that this was not a film that felt like it made a choice between having a complex, twisting plot and complex characters. There's enough real estate here for both. Usually in these kinds of films, the plot goes through so many contortions that the characters either don't have time to be fleshed out, or the film needs them to be cyphers so that later twists aren't telegraphed. Wild Things is a good example of this, a fun, trashy thriller with more turns than a roller coaster, but barely any pretension about its cast of characters. It's far harder to tell a story about complex people and maintain enough mystery about them to keep shocking us late into a complex story. Ben Affleck is quite good as a man suspected in the disappearance of his wife, maintaining his innocence even as the evidence piles up, but Rosemund Pike utterly owns this movie with her Hitchcock-blonde portrayal of that wife, Amy. If you've gone this long without learning of the many twists in this film, see it before someone ruins it.

6. The Lego Movie - We all wrote this off before seeing it, and we all ended up with egg on our face afterwards when this was as clever, fun and moving as some of the better Pixar films. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller remind us that even a questionable idea can be - wait for it - awesome with the proper execution. At this point, Lord and Miller could be announced on a remake of Birth of a Nation and I'd say, "Let's give them a chance before we judge."

7.  Birdman - the story of a washed up actor who saw his career plummet after walking away from the latest sequel in his superhero franchise twenty years ago. That actor, Riggan Thomsan, (played by Michael Keaton) is on the verge of a possible comeback via the Broadway play he's directing, starring in, and adapted. The problem is the show isn't very good and it's just had to recast one of its main players at the start of previews. The film's thoroughly character-driven from start to finish. As much as the three-act structure is there, this is not a movie where you'll be overtly aware of the structure. You will notice the film's technique of appearing to have all been shot in one take. Though the visual effect is seamless, I found it occasionally showy to the point of distracting. That doesn't change that this is a well-made, well-acted film.

8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Dawn is probably the best film this summer at building tension and character simultaneously, and that equation adds up to tragedy. Even if you went into this story unaware of how events have to turn to line up with later installments, you'd probably be struck by the inevitability of the events, specifically the war between apes and humans. After this, there's no excuse for fully CGI-characters to not feel as real as ones played by human actors. This is a movie that opens with some fifteen minutes in ape society and it's absolutely riveting. As it develops the conflict between humans and apes it's clear neither side really wants a war, but the ones doing the most saber-rattling are provoked into it out of the fear that if they don't strike first, they will be run over. Both sides have their justifications and once the die is cast, the saddest moment of the film comes when it's apparent there will be no way to avoid the consequences. It's rare to get this sense of tragedy in a summer movie. In fact, it's probably even rarer to find this sort of craft in a franchise that's some eight films in.

9. Interstellar - INTERSTELLAR is a hard movie to write about, even though it ranks among director Christopher Nolan's best. It's also one of his most emotional. The director has a rep for being cold, but the script - co-written with his brother Jonathan Nolan - wisely makes the emotional relationship between McConaughey's Cooper and his daughter Murph into its backbone. The sequence where he awakens from decades of cryo-sleep to catch up on years of recorded messages from his daughter as family as they grew up without him. I have some issues with the third act (I think Murph makes a critical realization WAY too fast considering what a logistical leap that it is, and then a later scene involving Cooper and Murph is too rushed and abrupt to be a fitting emotional catharsis for that relationship.) So much of this film works that if its ambitions outstrip its ability in a few spots, I can roll with it. Best seen on the biggest screen you can find.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past - Not just my favorite comic book movie of the year, but one of my favorite comic book movies ever. The degree of difficulty on this was insanely high. There's the blending of two casts in what is essentially a crossover between the two X-MEN continuities, a complex time travel plot, and solid character arcs for multiple leads. On top of that, there's a coda that addresses some of the missteps of the past films and brings closure to a 15 year saga while putting us on a path to tell new stories with the younger cast. The fact that any of this feels effortless or simple is just a tribute to the fine work of credited writers Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn and director Bryan Singer. If you want to write superhero movies, you need to study this film.

1 comment:

  1. It's rare that I agree with someone's top picks for movies out of the year, but your list is very similar to mine (and I've seen Wild, Imitation Game, American Sniper, Inherent Vice, the former two being in the mix.) I also have Force Majeure near the top, such a brilliant Swedish relationship drama/black comedy.

    Also, I really enjoy your very thought out movie reviews, hope you do more in this new year.