Monday, January 26, 2015

2014 Year End Report: The Top Ten Films of 2014

A strong year this year – I had a very hard time narrowing this down to top 10, and then deciding on the order of these 10. But here is where I’m at – at least for right now.

10. The Guest (Adam Wingard)
Out of all the films released this year, The Guest’s failure to become a genuine hit mystifies the most. This is one of the year’s most purely entertaining films – a brilliant homage to John Carpenter – a funny, scary, chilling, sexy and thrilling little film. Dan Stevens delivers an excellent performance as a vet with impossibly blue eyes, that are also chillingly dead, who shows up at the home of one of his fallen comrades. He is welcomed into the house as a kind of replacement for their dead son – and he immediately makes his presence felt – drinking with the father, being a gentle source of emotional connection for the mother, teaching the teenage son to defend himself, and as a source of sexual confusion for the older sister (an excellent Maika Monore). Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett (who teamed up for last year’s funny, scary home invasion movie You’re Next) – the pair play off Carpenter brilliantly, but add twist after twist to the movie, infusing it with subtext about America's returning warrior class. But above all, the film is just pure entertainment –brilliantly constructed, acted, scored – leading to one hell of a finale. This will be a cult hit for years to come.

9. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylon)
Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s Winter Sleep is a long (three hour, twenty minute) allegory/character study of an upper class man, who has had everything handed to him, who believes himself to be a beloved kind, benevolent man, full of wisdom that everyone needs to here – when in reality he is an asshole that no one – not his much younger wife, not his seemingly kind sister, and certainly not the poorer members of his community, can stand. Ceylon takes his time with the film – ever so slowly building this man up, and showing us what a self-delusional ass he really is. Haluk Bilgnier delivers one of the great, unsung performances of the year as this man – the character may have no idea who he really is, but Bilgnier certainly does. The film has as its centerpiece twin conversations – that stretch out for nearly 30 minutes each – where it becomes painfully clear that not everything is as simple as the lead character wants to believe it is. The film is probably simpler than Ceylon’s last film – the brilliant Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – but despite its running time, it is also more accessible, and by the end quietly moving. A deserving winner of the Palme D’or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

8. Selma (Ava DuVernay)
It’s hard to make films about historical icons and have them come across as real people and not just icons. One of the many accomplishments of Selma, is that director (and uncredited writer) Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo do just that with Martin Luther King. He is great when he is delivering speeches (written especially for the film, since they did not have the rights to King’s actual speeches) – showing us the skilled orator everyone knows. But he’s equally good in the quieter scenes – in particular a martial argument with the best dramatic pause in recent memory. But that’s just one reason why Selma is one of the year’s best – others include how DuVernay handles the big moments on the march itself – various bloody conflicts with police (including a breathtaking, and violent conflict on a bridge). I also loved how DuVernay never loses site of the fact that while King was the most well-known person involved –he was hardly the only one, and how she makes room for many different voices to be heard. The film is brilliantly shot by Bradford Young, and acted by the whole cast – and most significantly shows just how great DuVernay is as a filmmaker. I cannot wait to see what she has up her sleeve next.

7. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the year’s great performances as a shifty eyed sociopath – a con artist of a sort, who discovers his true calling cruising the streets of Los Angeles with a camera to get the most violent, bloody and disturbing images to sell to the highest bidder in newsroom across the city – and that bidder always being Rene Russo, an aging producer, on a short term contract, willing to do anything to drive rating up. The film is a dead on send of today’s media (as they seemed all too eager to confirm with regularity this year) – but it functions even better as what writer-director Dan Gilroy calls a “capitalist horror movie”. Gyllenhaal is a one man corporation, spouting business speak that others use as positives, but making it seem chilling and inhumane – which it is. He learns what he needs to do to succeed – and then does just that. A chilling film, brilliantly shot by Robert Elswit, and written and directed by Gilroy in his debut. Best of all is Gyllenhaal – who once again outdoes himself, which he seems to be doing with regularity these days.

6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a film that has simply grown in my mind in the months since I first saw it – so much so that I am now almost convinced that it may be his finest film to date. It centers on two centuries old vampires – Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton – who have been in love for centuries, but are currently living apart. He in a dilapidated mansion in Detroit – where he’s hiding out, after becoming a rock star, and she in Tangiers, just relaxing. He has become a cynic – hating humanity for how they have let their culture fall apart, their ignorance, their inability to recognize genius. She is much kinder and forgiving of humanity – for all the great things he has done. This is the film that only an older artist could make – one that has the wisdom of years lived – which is what fascinates Jarmusch most about the vampires – not their blood thirst, but in how much they have seen over the years. The film is short on plot – because it doesn’t really need one – it is content to watch these two. The film never sinks into outright cynicism – Swinton’s warm presence, and a brilliant sequence near the end, where the pair listens to a beautiful singer. Jarmusch has been somewhat flailing in recent years – not making much, and when he does it’s something as opaque as The Limits of Control – but has regained his footing here in perhaps his best film – and certainly his most haunting.

5. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Foxcatcher is perhaps the darkest film this year – a film about American exceptionalism that highlights the difference between class. It is a slow burn of a film where the characters repress so much, don’t fully say what they really think. Channing Tatum gives a career best performance as Mark Schultz – Olympic Gold Medalist wrestler, living in the shadow of his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). They are both talented wrestlers – but Dave is well spoken, charming and likable – and Mark is quiet, brooding and somewhat awkward. A wordless practice match between the two at the beginning them tells you everything you need to know about their relationship. Mark sees a chance to come out from other that shadow when he is approached by John DuPont (Steve Carrel), an extremely wealthy man who wants Mark to train on his estate, and assemble their own team. DuPont is a monster – but a quiet one, full of self-delusion and given to self-aggrandizement – but he’s rich. Mark falls under his spell, and then out of it – and then Dave comes in, and sets off a series of events leading to tragedy. Bennett Miller has only made three films in the past decade – Capote, Moneyball and now this one. He has control over every shot, every cut, every moment in the film – and every little gesture in the film speaks volumes. This is a quiet film, a dark film, a disturbing film – but also a great one.

4. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Gone Girl was arguably the most talked about film of the year – and with good reason. It is a pitch black comedy and satire, posing as a thriller, that has a lot to say about marriage – and the roles men and women force themselves to play in them. The two main characters are Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike), a married couple, whose relationship was in trouble when she goes missing – and the media firestorm that builds around him, as everyone thinks he is guilty of murder. Affleck has never been better than he is here – he is perfectly cast as a man who has no idea what the hell is going on. Pike is even better as the masterpiece who sets out to destroy him, for his perceived failings. Gone Girl is an extreme example of marriage – and how we are all playing roles at various times, even if we never quite realize it. The characters allow themselves to buy into the roles they feel they are supposed to play in their lives. Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn – doing a masterful job of adapting her own novel, stripping out everything that doesn’t fit in with what Fincher wanted to highlight – play at it all at a heightened reality – and overheated thriller and pitch black comedy with the best score of the year, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which subtly underlines the sickness in this film. The film is incredibly entertaining – but gets deeper every time I look at it.

3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was an incredible act of faith on his behalf – and on behalf of his cast, crew and backers. Yes, we have seen films like Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel’s series, or the Michael Apted Up series, which also followed the same people over the course of years. But never before have we seen this type of film – which follows one family through more than a decade of their lives, where everyone goes through the normal, everyday changes that we all go through. Linklater has always been a filmmaker who looks at the quiet moments in life, that don’t seem like much at the time, but end up being the most important ones in our lives. That is what Boyhood does – there is nothing overly profound about a single moment in Boyhood, but when the nearly three hour film is over, the cumulative effect is quietly profound. The acting is excellent – yes, the two pros, Ethan Hawke and especially Patricia Arquette as the parents, have the best roles – he as he goes from an irresponsible, absentee parent, to someone who has accepted like in the middle, working class, and her as she picks up the pieces of her life again and again, to try and make things better for herself, and her family. Young Ellar Coltrane has a fine presence – he is often quiet, often observing, often listening as one adult after another gives him advice as to how to live his life – although none of them have it figured out either. Boyhood is, obviously, not my favorite film of the year – but it is the only one this year I am positive people will still be talking about decades from now. It is a great film.

2. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice has more plot than just about any film of the film – and yet, I don’t think it is about that plot at all. Yes, it’s fun to try to piece together the various interconnected investigations that the lead character – a stoner, P.I. named Doc (Joaquin Phoenix). But what Inherent Vice is really about is that very specific time in American history – when the idealism of the 1960s was slowly giving way to the reality of the 1970s, without quite sinking into cynicism. It got to be impossible for a true believer like Doc to continue to believe what he once did – but he really has where else to go. In some ways, Doc has two soulmates – the one he wants, his ex-old lady (Katherine Waterston) – was his dream girl, who left him cold, sending him into a spiral of self-pity, and the one who truly is most like him – a square jawed cop named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) – who acts like he hates Doc, but truly loves him in a dark, twisted way. They pair need each other – and mirror each other. All this sounds rather dark – and it is – but Inherent Vice is also one of the most enjoyable, ridiculously funny films of the year. It is also an assured writing and directing effort from Anderson – the film seems to be spinning wildly out of control at times, but Anderson, adapting a brilliant Thomas Pynchon novel, keeps things under control at every level. Another masterwork by Anderson.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the biggest and best Wes Anderson film to date. It expands Anderson’s worldview beyond the houses and dysfunctional families that have been his subject up until now, and paints everything on a much grander canvas. The hotel itself is a masterpiece of set design – in fact, it’s two masterpieces of set design, in that the brightly colored utopia of the scenes in the 1930s, are contrasted against the drab, institutional look in the 1960s – sets literally built on top of the hold ones, as if it were a real hotel that just underwent renovations. We have seen this type of set design – and costume design, and makeup design, and cinematography, and score and every other brilliant technical aspect – in Wes Anderson’s films before – but never to this scale. He has outdone himself this time. But if The Grand Budapest Hotel were just a technical achievement – and it is an amazing one – it wouldn’t rank as my favorite film of the year. Neither would it rank as the year’s best if it were just an amusing, hugely entertaining comedy from Anderson – I’ve long been a fan of his work, but have never had one of his films at the top of one of my annual top ten lists before. What makes The Grand Budapest Hotel different – and better – than anything Anderson has made before is that underneath the brilliant surface of the movie, lays a serious core. This is a film about the refusal of the main character not to give into the barbarity all around him – but instead to believe in the goodness and beauty he wants there to be. It is a naïve belief to a certain extent – it certainly does not work out for the main character in the film – but an important one. In the year’s single best performance, Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave H. – the concierge of the legendary title hotel, located in Eastern Europe in 1933. Fascism is on the rise – and in later scenes, set in the 1960s, Communism is there as well – both of which threaten to destroy everything he holds dear. But he refuses to let it – which makes him a rather unconventional hero. The Grand Budapest Hotel is about that belief in something beautiful – and how it’s worth fighting for. This is one of the year’s great entertainments, one of its funniest comedies and one of the best technical achievements. But it is also what all great films are – greater as a whole than the sum of its parts. It is Anderson’s masterpiece – and for me, the year’s best film.

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