I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: What a year. For me, 2014 delivered more powerful cinematic experiences than any other year of the new decade, though “new” might not be an appropriate adjective anymore, as we’ve already passed the halfway point. Yes, time flies, but the films of 2014 make me hopeful about where it’s taking us.
Below are my favorite movies from this most bountiful year. These are the kinds of films that inspire me to write, that keep this blog alive. My only regret is not being able to see more of them – below my top ten, I’ve listed some titles I wasn’t able to watch before writing up this post, as well as a few movies that might have made it onto this list had I rewatched them (some films are just hard to fully digest the first time around, at least for me.)
And now, the movies:
This one-man character study features a scintillating performance by Tom Hardy as construction foreman Ivan Locke, whose late-night drive turns into a losing battle to keep the life he built from crumbling around him. Like the movie’s cryptic ads, I’ll say no more about the plot, for the film benefits from the audience’s initial uncertainty. As a near-masterpiece, Locke is several things at once, all of which converge into an experience that is haunting and beautiful in equal measure. It is a horror movie about the consequences of past sins; an introspective drama about one man’s obsessive need to be in control; and a visual poem – Locke’s face and upper body, filmed through the windows of his car, are often superimposed with images of light, darkness, and lonely highways. That these images resonate so well with the character’s tragic odyssey testifies to Knight’s superlative direction, which merges the psychological and the cinematic so completely that the two become one, carrying us with the force of a tidal wave.
9. The Lego Movie
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller made a name for themselves with 21 Jump Street and its sequel (both of which are quite good), but it is The Lego Movie that shows the comedic duo focusing their zany energy into a work that feels genuinely inspired. The film in question takes playful jabs at consumerist America and corporate capitalism, but really, it’s just one big pop culture pastiche, a joy ride that is perfectly happy with being a product of the very thing it makes fun of. In the end, the movie emerges with a sincere heart and a head full of imaginative ideas, all wrapped up in the boundless energy of a child discovering wacky, glorious worlds for the first time. There may be an edge of satire to the film, but there’s nothing ironic about its inventiveness, its humanity, and the side-splitting salvos of farcical excess that only get more epic as the movie speeds along.
Jake Gyllenhaal was shamefully snubbed of an Oscar nomination for his role as cable news cameraman Lou Bloom, surely one of 2014’s most indelible creations. Skeletal and possessed by a feverish energy, Lou is an astonishing satirical figure on par with – and often exceeding – Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. The salesman-like quality to his performance and the schticky, superficial jingles he recites like Scripture (“My motto is, if you want to win the lottery, you’ve got to make the money to buy the ticket”) turn Gyllenhaal into a walking lampoon of the type of do-it-yourself capitalism that has come to define our generation. What they don’t reveal is how thrilling Nightcrawler is – in spite of the critical distance provided by Lou’s exaggerated characterization, we are roped in by the horror of his Machiavellian approach to the American Dream, as well as our own, perverse enjoyment of a film that is at its core a rags-to-riches narrative. Against our better judgment, we find ourselves rooting for Lou even as we’re repelled by him, and it is the creation of this conflicting impulse that ultimately makes the film so engrossing.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
“I’m hooked on a feeling,” sings Blue Swede on what is arguably the most popular track in Guardians of the Galaxy’s groovy mixtape of golden oldies, and in Marvel’s latest (and, barring Iron Man, finest) movie, that feeling is something else. Borrowing from Star Wars, Serenity, and any number of space operas from the past several decades, Guardians is conceptually dated, but its freshness on a moment-to-moment basis suggests otherwise. Led by Chris Pratt as a Han Solo-esque goofball hunk charmer, the gang of misfits from the film’s title race through a plot that is more pastiche than an attempt at originality, and yet the action is nimble, the dialogue witty, the romance grandly sentimental in a way that won my heart. I laughed, I clutched my armrest, and, on several occasions, I was near tears. It’s been too long since a superhero movie – or any blockbuster for that matter – made me feel this way. I was hooked indeed.
6. The Immigrant
James Gray works within the confines of tradition in The Immigrant, but the passion and craft with which he retreads old paths makes the journey feel newly urgent. The centripetal force that holds the elements together is Marion Cotillard, who delivered two masterful performances in 2014, the other of which was in Two Days, One Night (a film that just barely missed making this list). As a Polish immigrant who is sucked into a life of prostitution upon setting foot in America, Cotillard manages to convey both fragility and towering strength – she plays a victim who claws her way back to a place of resolve and ultimately of grace. Across several scenes, her acting, which in some ways evokes Maria Falconetti’s from Passion of Joan of Arc, expresses emotion so powerful it seems to fill the frame – we notice nothing else but her. And yet there is so much else to notice: the performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner; the exquisite sprawl of the plot that navigates, among other things, a love triangle and various ageless themes; and the flawless cinematography, which closes the film with one of the year’s most beautiful shots.
To read my original review, click here.
A good film knows how to hold you. A great one jacks up your heart rate, sends goosebumps up your arms, and beats you into a state of awe – awe at your astronomical stress levels, awe at the sheer virtuosity on display. Well, it doesn’t have to, but Whiplash does, and it is a great film. Miles Teller nails his role as a freshman drummer obsessed with being the best, but it is J.K. Simmons who is transformative. Fearsome both physically and verbally, the man is the monster at the center of this horror film, a perpetrator of abuse dredged from the darkest nightmares of music students – or anyone who’s ever quaked in their shoes before a teacher or professor bent on destroying their dreams and self-esteem. These two characters go head-to-head within the claustrophobic orchestra room of a fictional Juilliard, and the result is explosive: a molotov cocktail of panic-pitched acting, stunning jazz, and an editing scheme in sync with both the music’s time signature and the escalating tension onscreen.
Central to the English-language debut of South Korean master Boon-Jong ho (Memories of Murder, Mother, The Host) is a glaringly literal image of inter-class conflict: a speeding train, circumnavigating a frozen earth, houses the poor in its caboose and the aristocracy in its engine room. As far as allegories go, this one’s not exactly subtle, but Snowpiercer’s primary purpose isn’t social commentary. It’s a fable, the kind of narrative that conveys big, ancient ideas in simple terms, and from this simplicity arises genius. By telling an age-old story packed with universal themes, the film summons the history of civilization within the cramped corridors of the train. Thus, there lurks an atmosphere – a feeling – of mytho-historical significance behind every frame; we feel we are watching something novelistic and momentous even as the film itself is lean and efficient. And all this is merely the starting point. Treating the rebellion’s forward momentum as an opportunity to showcase the train’s interiors, the film is a dazzling mix of steampunk and pulp, of lurid pastels and ashen grays, of surprising humor and startling violence. It contains traces of Gilliam and whispers of Kubrick, as well as a brashly confident aesthetic all its own. Even as the film cites humanity’s political past in its streamlined plot, it presents an endless stream of novelties that transcends genre and defies expectation. A movie this assured, this stylistically exciting, is a revelation.
To read my original review, click here.
The Civil Rights movement was half a century ago, but in Ava DuVernay’s tremendous Selma, it feels like it’s happening before you and at times to you. DuVernay doesn’t gaze elegiacally through time at the oppression and injustice of a distant past but tells history in the present-tense, reminding us that these were real issues involving real people. More importantly, these are issues that remain unresolved today, which makes the film’s aesthetic of now-ness uniquely fitting. In a stroke of brilliance, cinematographer Bradford Young employs the full repertoire of popular cinema to counteract the attitude of retrospective “then-ness” that characterizes many historical films. Instead of stately long-shots or anaesthetized period details, we have jarring close-ups and slow-motion; a soundtrack featuring a hip hop anthem by Common and John Legend; and a gritty, grounded performance by David Oyewolo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With most other films, this cinema of overdrive is a mark of a sensationalist. Here, it is used to say “this thing matters,” and after the breathless, heartbreaking two hours that is Selma, I couldn’t agree more.
To read my original review, click here.
2. Life Itself
Roger Ebert was the man who got me into film criticism, so to say that I’m biased in placing this film so high on the list is an understatement. Fine, I’m biased. But then again, I wouldn’t have loved just any movie on Ebert. Having read his memoir on which the film was based, I would only have been satisfied with a movie that did his legacy justice; that hit all the milestones of the critic’s illustrious career without failing to capture his private life; that told us what we already knew about him in a way that allowed us to treasure him anew. Life Itself did that and then some. How could I not love the film? How could I not love the way the film confirmed my notion of Ebert as a romantic figure? A newspaperman at 21, a Pulitzer Prize winner by 33, and an American writer who wandered historic European cities in the footsteps of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Ebert has a resume that fittingly reads like something from a movie script. How could I not love the way the film then reminds us of his very real struggle with alcoholism, his very real battle with cancer, and his very real impact on so many lives, which include Martin Scorsese and Selma’s Ava DuVernay? How could I not love the marriage of cinema and writing that occurs when film clips are played in concert with the sound of Ebert reading excerpts from his reviews? The way director Steve James’ gentle probing creates a vastly compassionate portrait of a great man? Life Itself is all these things and more, and I loved it so.
It would seem the only 2014 film that could top Life Itself is life itself. Richard Linklater’s magnificent-yet-modest, three-hour epic is one of the decade’s – if not the century’s – defining works of cinema. Praise for Linklater sounds paradoxical because the movie’s greatest strength is its existence apart from the guiding hand of an auteur, the way it reveals and exploits the one-to-one relationship between life and the recording powers of the film camera. And yet it is precisely this gesture of faith, of releasing the reins to let the vicissitudes of this world take over, that is so profound. The stellar lead Ellar Coltrane was six-years-old when shooting began. Linklater didn’t know who this boy would become, what circumstances and physical/emotional changes he would go through. Linklater didn’t know how well Coltrane would fit a particular character schema in five, ten years – or probably whether he’d still be interested in the film, for that matter – and so scrapped the idea altogether. Coltrane is the character Mason in the sense that who Mason became depended on who Coltrane became, and the same applied for the supporting cast: Lorelei Linklater as Samantha Mason, Ethan Hawke as the father, and an extraordinary Patricia Arquette as the mother. The resulting film is an artifact and a magic trick, a record of real-time that, through editing, manages to show us human patterns and trajectories of change that we couldn’t have accessed from within our own, insular lives. Meanwhile, the decade glides on by, past Britney Spears and Coldplay and Harry Potter and two Bush elections and the Iraq War, and the film is about loss as well as gain – on the one hand, the moments that disappear into memory; on the other, the moments to come, as well as cinema’s ability to preserve the first and anticipate the second.
To read my original review, click here.
Some Films I Missed:
Mr. Turner, A Most Violent Year, Citizenfour, Ida, Leviathan, Force Majeure, Mommy, Goodbye to Language, We Are the Best!, Only Lovers Left Alive, Dear White People, The Guest, Winter Sleep, John Wick, Top Five, Timbuktu, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Listen Up Phillip, Wild Tales, The Theory of Everything, Still Alice, Norte: The End of History
Films I Need to See Again:
Under the Skin, Birdman (or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice