Sunday, January 4, 2015

10 Favorite Films of 2014

The year of our Lord 2014 has come and gone. It was the year of successes like The Lego Movie and Gone Girl, and now it may be (unfortunately) known as the year of The Interview.  Nevertheless, I think it was a great year for movies. So let's kick off my countdown of films that left the greatest impression on me from 2014:

10. BIRDMAN (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
While it could be argued that the appearance of the film being one continuous shot is a bit gimmicky (and I somewhat agree), I still enjoyed this movie. I loved the escalating sense of hysteria, the "insider's view" of the theater world, and the protagonist's internal battle between being an actor and being a movie star. Also, even though this isn't actually filmed in one shot, there are very long takes, which the cast had to memorize up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time for. The performances by Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis were impressive even before knowing that tidbit. I'm also a big fan of the drummer. (Now playing in theaters)

9. UNDER THE SKIN (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)
I am so glad that recent years have afforded Scarlett Johansson with increasing opportunities to play roles she is more than capable of dominating. I was afraid we would lose her to mainstream films due to her darned exceptional beauty, but it (thankfully) seems her tastes can't be satisfied just doing RomComs and superhero movies. In Under the Skin, she plays a "woman" who suddenly begins a process of self-discovery, after a few disturbing occurrences. There is an eerie quietude throughout this movie that stayed with me, especially since many scenes take their time. Shot composition, color and effects are remarkably beautiful. Under the Skin is as striking and compelling as it is dark, cold, and ominous. (Available on Video on Demand and DVD)

I am a very big fan of Parks and Recreation, and I think Chris Pratt is a master comedic actor. He handles physical comedy in a way that is both classic and modern, and I can't get enough of it. So when I saw that he was being prepped to be our next big movie star, I was excited because I knew he would never take himself too seriously, and his personality would play a huge part in his success. So, I went into Guardians expecting to like it, and I loved it. This movie lacks a strong villain, but I don't care. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, and Dave Bautista make an oddly great team, which is obviously on purpose. The soundtrack, which was also a huge hit this year, reminded me of the other "Awesome" mixtape in BOOGIE NIGHTS. Both soundtracks even share a song ("Fooled Around and Fell in Love" by Elvin Bishop. I know this is a movie I won't get tired of anytime soon. (Available on VOD and DVD)

7. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (Dir. Justin Simien)
We can thankfully say we've come a long way in race relations in just decades, but to be completely honest, it's just not enough. If the events of this past year haven't shown you that, well...I don't know how else one can be convinced. Since laws in America now allow the same rights for all human beings, we aren't dealing as much with the outlandish, open acts of racism, but instead with the covered, subtle (even subconscious) acts that are harder to expose and explain. I think Justin Simien did an excellent job in starting a conversation about these topics in Dear White People. This was the first time I had the pleasure of seeing Tessa Thompson, who is a dream. She is beautiful, fierce, intelligent and passionate. She easily carries the film although she doesn't have to because the rest of the cast is just as great. This film exposes faults in all sides of the race discussion, and it is done with extreme thought and care. (Available on VOD and DVD)

6. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Many know Joshua Oppenheimer's first documentary attempting to expose the history of Indonesian genocide with THE ACT OF KILLING, which was nominated for an Academy Award last year. Oppenheimer's follow-up takes a different approach than his first, but it is just as powerful. Adi is an Indonesian man whose brother was killed in the genocide in 1965, before he was born. The unusual circumstances in Indonesia force many of these victimized families to live side by side with the people responsible for the murder of their loved ones. So, Adi sees his brother's killers every day. In this documentary, Adi finally confronts the leaders responsible for ordering the deaths of more than 500,000 people. The results are astonishing. (Not yet available on DVD or VOD)

5. WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
Whiplash is a very simple movie and that's why it works. Many advise artists to stick to what they know, which director Damien Chazelle did for his first feature length film. Being a drummer himself, Chazelle wrote and directed the most thrilling film about a jazz drummer I'll probably ever see. Editor Tom Cross does a fantastic job creating moments of incredible tension. Longtime indie favorite J.K. Simmons shines with a performance that lives up to all of the hype, and Miles Teller shines in portraying a character who constantly explores whether it is better to have a happy, fulfilled life, or to go down in history as a game-changer. You can't have both. (Now playing in theaters)

4. INHERENT VICE (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
The plot is convoluted, but does anyone really care? I've seen THE MALTESE FALCON more times than I can count and I still can't tell you all the details. Noirs tend to do that. Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel is a relief for fans who have been in want of a good laugh since BOOGIE NIGHTS. Joaquin Phoenix is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest actors working in cinema today. This film is basically a compilation of his reactions, and I'm okay with that. Although I would have liked to see a lot more of Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin's performance made up for it all. The cinematography by Robert Elswit is beautiful, and along with production design by David Crank, a fictional 1960s SoCal world was created that I came to love. Both the soundtrack and Johnny Greenwood's score are perfect, and this movie has my favorite posters of the year (you should check them out - they are incredible). (Opens in theaters nationwide on January 9)

3. NIGHTCRAWLER (Dir. Dan Gilroy)
If Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors in existence, Jake Gyllenhaal is not too far behind. We knew he could be creepy since DONNIE DARKO, but in this film, he masters a level of disturbing villainy that will be remembered for a long time. I love the cinematography of Los Angeles at night, and the sheer ruthlessness conveyed by multiple characters. This is director Dan Gilroy's first feature film, and I can't wait to see what's next. (Now playing in theaters)

2. WILD (Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)
In my favorite performance of the year besides Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Reese Witherspoon portrays Cheryl Strayed, the actual woman whose memoirs inspired this film adaptation. I initially expected a fairly typical journey of self-discovery through braving the elements and connecting through nature, which I enjoy, but didn't think I would find emotionally arresting. Instead, I found Wild to be an incredibly personal, touching journey; a genuine fight for survival against one's own demons. Each flashback was poignant, and it all felt very real. I was deeply moved by all of Cheryl's struggles, and fought tears because I didn't want to miss a moment of any scene. Witherspoon flawlessly carries the film. I can't wait to see it again. (Now playing in theaters)

1. BOYHOOD (Dir. Richard Linklater)
It has been six months since I saw Boyhood, and I still think about it often. That's why it's my favorite film of the year. I've never been so impressed by a film because I have never seen a film leave so much of its fate in time's hands. And the result was fantastic. Richard Linklater's 12-year production shows a boy named Mason growing into a young man. The cast ages naturally, as production continued. This was a gamble; time is not something any of us are guaranteed, and we can not predict the outcomes. The film is about Mason, so the narrative depended on the type of boy its lead actor Ellar Cotrane grew into. If he grew to be a jock or any other "type", the film would have changed. It's remarkable that he remained as sensitive and contemplative as he seemed to be when he was five years old at the film's beginning. Boyhood also features fantastic performances by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater's daughter Lorelei, as well as a soundtrack that acts as a time signifier, further drawing you in to to film.  (Now playing again in select theaters and available on demand)

This list wasn't easy for me, and I am still second-guessing some of my choices because I enjoyed so many films this year. Honorable mention goes to SO many, but the main ones that I could not go without naming were:

1. SELMA (Dir. Ava DuVernay)
2. LIFE ITSELF (Dir. Steve James)
3. BELLE (Dir. Amma Asante)
4. OBVIOUS CHILD (Dir. Gillian Robespierre)
5. THE SKELETON TWINS (Dir. Craig Johnson)
6. THE BABADOOK (Dir. Jennifer Kent)
7. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Dir. Wes Anderson)
8. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (Dir. Olivier Assayas)

Now, on to 2015...