2014 was filled with the typical crop of blockbuster flops (Winter’s Tale, and The Legend of Hercules), a block buster not based on a comic book (Edge of Tomorrow), and blockbuster winners (Guardians of the Galaxy). We saw the typical formulaic comedies, some hits, the Skeleton Twins, some misses (A Million Ways to Die in the West). What is most notable in 2014 is the directorially daring, and seemingly simple risks that some filmmakers took, such as Linklater’s Boyhood with its twelve years in the making (it could have gone oh, so wrong), Iñárritu’s Birdman with its long tracking shots (and its location—a Broadway theater), Pawlikowski’s Ida an artsy film shot in black and white in box format; and Jean Luc Godard’s bird-flipping 3-D deconstructed in Goodbye to Language. These outwardly simple technical choices resulted in some of the most inspired films in years. One director did it best, his masterful command of technique playfully peaked out to transport the viewer and realize a beautifully wholly unique film that took viewers to the quirky new world found in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Without further delay, here are Myrna’s and Dave’s Top 10 Films of 2014, and a few extras.
John David’s Best
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s world is a wonderful place to visit and in The Grand Budapest Hotel he takes us to a new fantastical, quirky place, while skillfully maintaining and enhancing his signature directing style. Anderson masterfully and playfully switches aspect ratios from widescreen to Academy (box format) and incorporates elements of silent film, and black and white, with unbelievable imagination. He effectively transports the viewer to the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka, which is squarely situated in the middle of Wes Andersonland.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski strips down all the glitz of today’s sleek, CGI-sexy movies to presents a masterful black and white film whose lush images beg to be captured, framed, and hung on a museum wall. Shot in academy ratio, Ida recalls classic 35 mm film and early Carl Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc). Ida’s minimalistic style and stationary shots allows the viewers to enter the scene and immerse themselves into the film’s world and enjoy the beauty and story that unfolds before them. Ida stands out as one of the films this year (the other being The Grand Budapest Hotel) that will be sure to stand the test of time.
We all know the story: director Richard Linklater shot Boyhood over twelve years using the same actors. Through seven-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) eyes, we see before our own eyes him and the rest of the cast grow up on screen. While it’s not a perfect film (a couple scenes are preachy with some heavy handed commentary), Boyhood effectively plays out the human condition and the imperfect process of growing up. Boyhood’s self-reflexive honesty ultimately leaves the viewer to ask, “Is that all there is?” For most of us the answer is a painful yes—and that’s not so bad.
Birdman opens with a steady shot of Michael Keaton from behind, apparently levitating a few feet from the floor of his Broadway dressing room. Once the camera starts moving, it’s apparent that that this is going to be a unique viewing experience. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu creatively blends the ego driven worlds of movies and theater to explore the themes of fame and success. Birdman combines a career high performance for Keaton, a percussive score that layers on an element of aural turbulence, and intricate long tracking shots (film school students watch out) shot by cinematographer it-boy Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Tree of Life), to make this one of the most daring and unique films of 2015.
Whiplash is probably the year’s most tense and emotionally draining film. With it’s over the top dramatics (kind of a brutal bro version of The Devil Wears Prada) Whiplash is the total opposite of the many subtle, contemplative foreign films in my Top Ten. As we root for the gifted jazz drummer Fletcher, played with raw guts by Miles Teller, his literal blood, sweat, and tears demand empathy from the viewer. It’s much easier to watch a dozen guys get their heads blown off by John Wick than to watch this kid prodigy succumb to emotional abuse by his master teacher. It also helps to have well written, multi-dimensional characters—a rare thing in Hollywood films these days.
6. Under the Skin
The tone of this dark film is like the thick viscous fluid that the victims of the alien protagonist find themselves trapped in—it’s oddly sleek and beautiful, yet quietly disturbing and hauntingly mesmerizing. With the spare dialogue this is some of Scarlet Johansson’s best work, not because she doesn’t have many lines, but because she effectively displays her increasing vulnerability as she transforms from sublime lady alien to naive, disillusioned victim.
7. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Director Isao Takahata created a small miracle in our world of fantastic computer animation and 3-D immersion. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one of the most emotionally moving films of the year as it shifts from moments of simplistic intimacy to moments of cinematic grandiosity. An animated film that sometimes appears to be not much more than line drawings, yet it plays both like a majestic epic and intimate piece.
8. Force Majeure
A simple yet human story that explores questions of masculinity in the family dynamics and ideas of the father as both protector and fallible individual. It’s surprisingly captivating, cleverly funny, uncomfortably honest, and refreshingly original.
Selma is no didactic history lesson, it’s a drama that is both engaging and moving and yet, feels important but not in a tedious or masochistically I-have-to-watch-it way. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, David Oyelowo creates a very human King that is relatable, as he stays clear of delivering a performance that is a mere impersonation of the inspiring Civil Rights leader.
10. Mr. Turner
Mike Leigh’s latest export is not your typical biopic, nor is it the typical Leigh film. Mr. Turner focuses on the later years in the life of artist J.M. W. Turner—brilliantly played by rather a gruff Timothy Spall. The film focuses on Turner in his later years, already a famous and successful artist. This is no rags-to-riches story but rather an unconventional love story that features a very un-Hollywood looking couple. Without heavy climactic monologues or narration, Leigh shows everything the audience needs to paint together a beautiful narrative.
Leviathan – Adultery, a conflicted teenage boy, small town political corruption, and lots and lots of vodka.
Snowpiercer – a train ride through a frozen dystopian world with an unforgettable performance by Tilda Swinton.
Citizenfour – You feel like your witnessing history unfold, and you are.
Two Days, One Night. – A winning combination, the Dardenne brothers and Marion Cotillard who turns in one of 2014’s best performance
Goodbye to Language – For this viewer who avoids 3-D whenever possible, it was one of the best film moments I’ve had in years.
1. Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s latest farce is set in the ‘30s is a European screwball comedy, stolen-art caper, and romantic bit of nostalgia about best friends. Outrageous characters with severe hairdos and posh clothing populate the story that moves as if taking place in a giant dollhouse with innumerable moving parts. It unfolds in surprising ways and is colored with theatrical images, as if the pages of a gorgeous storybook are being turned in tempo to an equally striking Alexandre Desplat score. Just as outrageous is his cast of 15 Academy Award nominees. Some are regulars in Anderson’s films (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson); while others have only recently joined the club (Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton). Most captivating of all in The Grand Budapest Hotel is Ralph Fiennes, in a career defining performance, which should be remembered for his comedic genius comes Oscar time but, historically and tragically won’t.
2. Under the Skin
Under the Skin is one of those extraordinary movies that stays with you long after the end credits have rolled. Director Jonathan Glazer‘s film (only his third feature in fourteen years after Sexy Beast and Birth) is a gorgeous and haunting piece of film-making that leaves the story’s heavy-lifting to the viewers as it forgoes a traditional setup and instead relies on visuals to clue us in as the story progresses. The details may be elusive, but the steadily absorbing story is clear. In truly an impressive performance, Scarlet Johansson conveys character through nominal dialogue, not in what she says but in how she says it, her shifting tone when her prey is unattainable, and the upward lilting when she discovers an unfamiliar curiosity. Most of Johansson’s accomplishment is done in silence. Her expressions or lack of them, her body movement, and even the life in her eye shifts reveal the maturing enlightenment within. Glazer’s film encourages comparisons to filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, but it’s unfair, as he certainly earns his own due here.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is both one of the most unusual vampire pictures ever made and probably one of the best. The film is elegant, somber, literary-minded, and methodical in its pacing, otherworldly, inexpressibly sad, sometimes very funny and invariably beautiful. The visuals are striking. The soundtrack is full with packed 1950’s pop music. The story is often indirect and his humor is quirky occurring at unexpected moments. It’s in the horror genre, but untraditional. Brilliantly done, Jarmusch has made a film that feels like a wonderful old bookstore. The images of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) driving Eve (Tilda Swinton) around the ruins of Detroit in his white Jag are both eerie and strangely wonderful. Every moment has something remarkable to see or hear or feel. But so much depends on Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the lovers, and their weary, yet passionate appreciation for the world of art and beauty. It is almost impossible to imagine two other performers for the roles.
4. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Birdman is a compelling mix of dark comedy and psychic meltdown with energy throbbing from every frame. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Babel), star Michael Keaton (in a bold performance), and an excellent supporting cast deliver a movie unlike anything I’ve seen before. There’s no arguing with the creativity on display — technical, dramatic and theatrical, it is breathlessly inventive. Birdman takes a while for us to realize that it’s more an intellectual experience than an emotional one with most of these characters being self-absorbed and/or damaged. Tying all of these characters together is Iñárritu’s dynamic, fluid direction and with a cinematographer like Oscar winner (and six-time nominee) Emmanuel Lubezki behind the lens, there was never any doubt that Birdman would be a work of technical wizardry. The cinematography is a character unto itself by time and again achieving seemingly impossible shots that break down the barrier between the screen and the audience. Antonio Sanchez’s jazzy, percussion-heavy score paired with Lubezki’s cinematography create an atmosphere of explosive tension that lingers strongly throughout the film.
Screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Ultimatum) makes his directorial debut with this twitchy Los Angeles thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a creepy loner who worms his way into a career as a freelance videographer, chasing car crashes and murders and selling his footage to a TV news director (Rene Russo) who’s just as ethically flexible as he is. Nightcrawler is a modern-noir depiction of the way we devour our news, but amid the media, it slowly turns its unblinking eye on something darker. A media satire in the spirit of Network and To Die For that takes the slogan “If it bleeds, it leads” to its horrifyingly logical conclusion. It’s a comedy. Anchoring this film is a gonzo and transformative performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, his second one in one year (Enemy).
The film’s beat swings between several moody scenes – and the awkward humour of Teller asking the cinema’s popcorn girl out on a date – to a finale that pushes and pushes until it breaks. Whiplash left Sundance taking away the Grand Jury prize and the Audience award. “I push people beyond what’s expected of them,” J.K. Simmons tells Miles Teller’s character. “I believe that’s an absolute necessity.” It’s a musical that plays like a sports movie. Whiplash is true to its title, throwing you around without exception, yet director Damien Chazelle exerts tight, exacting control over his feverish and often weirdly comic melodrama.
Selma is the story of a movement and it demands to be seen. Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb do an impressive job of both telling the events of one of the most important moments in the American Civil Rights Movement and establishing the climate in which it took place. The movie has flaws, but with such lofty ambition, they are easy to forgive. DuVernay does an amazing job of establishing the tensions surrounding the march as well as establishing what was truly at stake. David Oyelowo’s performance is a solemn anchor for the film, as he embodies Martin Luther King Jr.’s steady drive as his eyes convey the enormity of weight he was under. It is impossible not to get goose bumps as Oyelowo channels King as a master orator. While Selma depicts a piece of history, it feels timely for reasons that should be obvious to anyone. It is hard to see the casual violence of racism here because we realize we are only separated from it by a few decades. As Selma so succinctly demonstrates, we’ve both come a long way and have a long way to go.
Snowpiercer delivers vibrant, engrossing pop entertainment as its climate-disaster and class-war stories play out on a hermetically sealed train. Writer-director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) demonstrates his skills as both showman and auteur in his English-language debut. On a globe-circling train in a near future where a climate-fix backfire has frozen the planet, an oppressive social order has divided passengers — the earth’s only human survivors — into first-class and tail-section categories. As such, they live in obscene luxury or inhuman squalor. This is a solid, distinctive and sometimes exquisitely inspired thriller and the movie has everything from Dickensian horror to contemplative monologues to outrageous social satire — translating into a stimulating canvas, and action scenes feel spontaneous, not injected at prescribed spots. Tilda Swinton as Mason is reason enough to check out the fun and engaging Snowpiercer.
Boyhood is technically an impressing feat, and narratively, it’s a gutsy experiment on which only one filmmaker would ever have taken a chance. Months or years pass in the blink of an eye. Shot over 12 years, with director Richard Linklater (Bernie, Before Sunset) filming scenes with the same young actor (Ellar Coltrane) for a few weeks annually, capturing a boy named Mason as he transforms from a happy six-year-old into weary but hopeful 18-year-old. It’s wondrous to see the cast age 12 years over the course of three hours without the assistance of makeup or prosthetics. Much of the audience focus has been on the boy’s transformation. However what stood out to me was the transformation of the mother, Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette. It’s rare and fascinating to see a real actress allow herself to age onscreen. Boyhood is a singular filmic event.
Director Laura Poitras opens reading Snowden’s initial emails and the events in the hotel room that follow are thrilling, though the film doesn’t play as a thriller. The simplicity of Citizenfour is one of its strengths; it is basically a straightforward documentation of the events that make up this journey: legal proceedings, phone conversations, editorial meetings, testimony in international court—events as they transpire, but that we are invited to witness. Citizenfour is groundbreaking, not so much due to the filmmaking, but due to the extraordinary access. You feel witness to a historic moment in a powerful and visceral way, and feel the danger experienced by the whistleblower and his confident handling of the tense situation.
Edge of Tomorrow – Almost made my list, a hard number 11. See it!
Venus in Fur – More magical realism and an amazing performance by Emmanuelle Seigner.
John Wick – Don’t judge me! They killed his puppy and it is a beautiful looking film.
Inherent Vice – Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin are good fun.
We Are the Best – Just a joyous celebration.