Saturday, January 10, 2015

Best Movies of 2014

Here we are, two weeks into 2015 yet the movies of 2014 are under scrutiny. Throughout the year, there's been a steady stream of good, solid movies released - and I would contend that there was a higher quantity than the previous few years. I'm still unsure on how many classics we have on our hands though I said the same thing in introducing my list of last year's Best Movies of 2013 and I would now count Her, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave as classics. So who knows, maybe a few months is all it takes for a movie to be solidified in my brain as somehow timeless or relevant beyond the two hours it takes to watch the movie.

As I looked over my list of movies for the year, I had plenty of thoughts but I would like to mention three themes that came up this year. The first is the use of time. From the quiet moments touched on over a twelve year span in Boyhood to the life-altering car ride in Locke to the video game level of lives found in Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live. Die. Repeat.) to the use of time-travel in Interstellar, it seemed as though movie producers were all about compressing, expanding, repeating or traveling through time in this year's movies. Gone Girl structured itself in a dichotomous before/after the crime. Oh, and Ida and Finding Vivian Maier were two movies fascinated with uncovering the long ago past in personal and moving ways.

The second very prominent theme I noticed was the use of doubles. Not your usual stunt double or use of a mask (a la Mission Impossible 2) but rather plots revolved around main characters interacting with alternate versions of themselves. Examples include The Double, Enemy, and The One I Love. And, if you're into Lifetime-like movies, The Face I Love. These are all indie-leaning movies but, none-the-less, an interesting quirk in this year's releases.

Finally, some of this year's best movies created a sense of unease that rival any horror movie (though none fit the traditional horror genre). Gone Girl used the unease to manipulate the viewer's perspective on the marriage. Nightcrawler's Lou Bloom is off from the beginning though you can't help but see some of his rationale ringing true. Whiplash created an emotional unease that left me asking more questions than answers. And, well, Foxcatcher had my heart pounding from start to finish.

I have plenty more to say about the year in movies but we'll get to the list. As with last year, I've included an Honorable Mention and a Highly Anticipated list with the latter certainly containing a few titles that could be added to my Top Ten or HM (lists... an imperfect system despite my addiction to them).

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
While TGBH maintained Wes Anderson's aesthetic, complete with intricately detailed sets, quirky costumes, and dialogue that follows suit, the movie felt, perhaps, set apart from the rest of Anderson's left-field emotional hipster-family dramas. Even more distinct than his stop-motion, Fantastic Mr. Fox. That said, the adventurousness and crime/whodunnit? plot was pure fun.

9. The One I Love
I'm not certain what genre this one falls into. The rom-com(?), comedy(?), sci-fi(?) explores the relationship between the lead couple, played wonderfully by Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass, as they encounter the ideal version of their spouse. Would we rather be with the one that caters to our needs? Or do we have it in us to allow our spouse to be their own person, even if it's the harder path? While I enjoyed the relationship exploration, the movie was a lot of fun to follow as well. Well done.

8. Ida
Perhaps the most beautiful movie of the year, Ida tells the story of a young woman in 1960's Poland who is about to become a nun. As she prepares to take her vows, she learns about her past and embarks on an exploration of her past, discovering more about her heritage and, ultimately, herself. With understated performances and purely cinematic shots, Ida was a wonderful surprise.

7. Foxcatcher
In a year full of stories of unease, Foxcatcher takes the cake. Based on the true story of wrestling gold-medal winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and their sponsorship by billionaire tycoon, John du Pont, this slow burner had me on edge from the first scene. Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum give Oscar-worthy performances, communicating as much with the facial expressions and physical nature as with their words. I just loved this exploration of brotherhood, power, and the desire for affirmation.

6. Whiplash
What does it take to become great? Does the process mean there's a disregard for the self or loved ones? Should the coaching push someone beyond their limits or be supportive and nurturing? These are some of the grounding questions of Whiplash and it's a fascinating idea to think about. It's also a movie made with expert, jazz-like precision. The edits are fast and feel spontaneous at times. The emotions move up or down on a dime. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons give impeccable performances as protege and mentor respectively.

5. Nightcrawler
I'm currently reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death but he has another book called, How to Watch TV News, that I imagine would be Postman's idea of the full degradation of TV news and its production. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an incredible 30 pound lighter performance of an amateur freelance camera man for a local news company with a singular focus: that of succeeding at what he does with no regard for others. He preys on the tragedies of others and in doing so, the largest critique the movie makes, succeeds because the viewers eat up his film. If having a conversation about what we watch on the news, or TV and movies in general, this movie is a must.

4. Boyhood
Oh Linklater. Such commitment to an idea. I intentionally watched Boyhood in a theater because I knew it would be a long rumination on boyhood. I was right in that there wasn't a ton of action or plot advancement. The "boy" of Boyhood definitely had some significant events in his life: a string of fathers (and father-figures), a brief encounter with domestic abuse, the usual adolescent moments of uncertainty and mistake making. What sets this movie apart, besides the fact that it was filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast, is that it never really resolves any of the set-ups. There are a lot of speeches about what it means to "grow up" but none are really satisfactory. In the end, his family is still there but everything isn't solved; life continues despite our inherent desire for a resolution come adulthood. Boyhood is a landmark in film-making.

3. Birdman
Vocationally, why do we do what we do? Do we aim for success? Pure love of our field? To simply survive? What does it even mean to be successful? In the entertainment industry, does it mean having a particular quota of followers on Twitter? Birdman asks many of these questions. But it's also not a "discussion movie," only good for the questions it asks. The script is airtight, Edward Norton is fantastic, and the cinematography alone is worth the price of admission.

2. Interstellar
I've been thrilled with pretty much every Christopher Nolan movie. His blockbusters over the last 6 or 7 years have been what Hollywood movies can be. In an era where Transformer movies keep getting made or great works of fiction like The Hobbit are turned into pure CGI warfare for 2+ hours, Nolan has a penchant for creating smart action movies with moderately complex characters that buck the trend of the day. When I saw McConaughey and Chastain's involvement and the visuals included in the trailer, I was definitely hooked. I was delighted to leave the movie with as many questions as when I watched Inception or Memento. The movie was filled with pure wonder at the complexities of the universe and while I would personally point more towards a creator of said universe, the majesty remained.

1. Gone Girl
This movie had a lot going for it: The incomparable Fincher directing and Reznor scoring. A fantastic source book with original author penning the script. And a solid cast (my distaste for Ben Affleck was somehow superseded by his perfect casting as Nick). No surprise, I had high hopes going into this movie. The book is hands-down the best "page-turner" I've read in the last few years. What made the book such a thrill to read was the constant second-guessing of Nick's innocence that slowly turns into a modern, twisted take on relationships. What the movie does so well is maintain the sense of fascination with the crime while slowly allowing the unease over the crime to turn into unease over the relationship. While the movie allows Nick off the hook a little more than the book (something I wished against), both Amy and Nick are guilty parties in terms of their relationship. The conclusion of the movie leaves the viewer with dropped-jaws and many questions. Isn't that what all good movies should do?

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Big Eyes, Calvary, Chef, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Fault in Our StarsFinding Vivian Maier, Guardians of the Galaxy, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, The Imitation Game, The Lego Movie, Locke, A Most Wanted Man, Noah, Obvious Child, Pride, The Skeleton Twins, Snowpiercer, The Theory of Everything, They Came Together

Highly Anticipated (in alphabetical order, movies in bold have since made the above lists)
American Sniper, Citizenfour, Dear White People, Inherent Vice, Life Itself, Listen Up Philip, A Most Violent Year, Selma, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Top Five

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