It's nearly obligatory to release a "best of" list at the end of each year. 2014, for me, was not an incredibly strong year for movies, but there were a handful of very good films (and maybe one or two great ones) that found release throughout the past calendar year.
In 2012, I had released a list of my Top 25 films, and last year it was down to a Top 15. Maybe I'm becoming an old curmudgeon as the years go by, slowly becoming that snooty movie critic that most common movie-goers despise. Or maybe fewer and fewer good movies are being made. Perhaps a bit of both.
These lists, of course, rarely have any lasting resonance. They are meant to be easily digestible, read mainly as a means of comparison to see just how closely a particular critic falls in-line with your own personal preferences. Most movie-goers will read these lists with hopes of finding their favorite films listed among the obscure, mostly irrelevant (to them), independent or foreign films that seem to populate many critic's year-end lists. Others will scour over the choices waiting to pounce. "You picked that?!? That movie sucked!"
Surely, my list will produce similar cries of foul and maybe a few agreeing cheers, perhaps both well warranted. They are subjective picks and I assure you that these selections are not meant to be "controversial" or to "raise eyebrows." These are simply my favorite films of the year, reputation and stature be damned.
And with that, I give you my Top 10 Films of 2014:
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "Although the middle of the film - involving a prison break-out - tends to drag a bit, it is nearly impossible not to enjoy yourself when you are watching a director and actors have this much fun on the screen. Ralph Fiennes has rarely been this mesmerizing, and that's saying quite a lot. You'll laugh and feel like you've just experienced something quite important, although you may not be sure why or how it all worked. That's the magic of what Wes has been able to do lately. His brave and original style doesn't always fit the material, but this is his second-straight film - following Moonrise Kingdom - that shows his love of cinema and his mastery of simple story-telling." Why it's on the list: Despite it's early-year (March) release, The Grand Budapest Hotel stuck out as the film I measured all others against as the year went by. Wes Anderson is clearly working in his sweet-spot right now and this latest effort may be his most accessible film yet.
9. The Fault In Our Stars. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "Male critics writing this film off simply as a "chick flick" are hiding behind their own insecurities. The Fault in Our Stars offers up a surprising perspective on life and love, one that shouldn't land as being gender-specific. Despite occasionally succumbing to the trappings of the genre, here is a film that nimbly balances optimism with realism. A rarity, since many films typically choose one perspective or the other." Why it's on the list: A very underrated gem, this film isn't your conventional teenage romance. Shailene Woodley gives a stellar performance and there is a great supporting performance here as well from Willem Dafoe that has largely gone unnoticed. I haven't met a single person who hasn't loved this film, including several fans of the book. This film redefines your definitions of the words "forever" and "always" and perfectly captures the hope and optimism that goes along with youth.
8. The Skeleton Twins. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "Most movies feel like movies. Other times, great movies often feel more voyeuristic, as if we are simply peeking in on real people, dealing with real issues and acting like people we might have encountered in our lives, or, perhaps even reflecting back a bit of ourselves. The Skeleton Twins is the latter sort of movie, a touching contemplation of human emotion and the power of family bond. It's made great not only due to its subject matter, but on how it so surprisingly plays with our expectations." Why it's on the list: We've seen hints of Kristen Wiig's potential range as a dramatic actress, but who knew Bill Hader - a fellow SNL alum - could turn in one of the year's best performances? The movie is funny, but not the brand of funny you might expect from these two co-headliners. There's a great supporting performance here too, from Ty Burrell, another comedian showing dramatic range. Together, this film features one of the best ensembles of 2014 in a film that is never uninteresting and oddly mesmerizing throughout.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "Guardians of the Galaxy is cool and confident sci-fi/comic-book nerdiness all rolled into one. It's one of the funniest Marvel films ever and maybe one of the funniest films of this year. It also has heart, intensity and excitement standing on its own, even though its true purpose is to propel us towards something supposedly greater. They will have to aim real high, because The Avengers now share their Universe with a team of super-heroes that we may care about more." Why it's on the list: It was the year's biggest blockbuster, the rare one that also received massive waves of support from critics as well. Let's face it, the last few Marvel films were starting to feel formulaic, but this film injected a much-needed sense of excitement and fun into the genre. I wrote my review at the beginning of August, but I stand by the notion that it was/is the funniest film of the year. In fact, just thinking about these characters makes me want to go watch it again.
6. The LEGO Movie. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "Breathe a great big sigh of relief, Lego fans of the world: The Lego Movie has done the popular toys proud, by not just honoring the history of Legos and its attachment (pun intended) to many of our childhoods. It has done the unthinkable: The Lego Movie is a sight and sound experience that has managed to capture the very essence of Legos, the imagination inherently present in their existence and the very reason why these simple pieces of plastic have had such immense world-wide popularity since they were introduced back in 1949." Why it's on the list: It's easily the best animated film of 2014 and damn near the best overall film. So many films try to cash in on our nostalgia (and make no mistake, The Lego Movie cashed in as well), but few are able to successfully bottle up whatever it is that made us feel that way to begin with. Here's a children's movie that was loved even more by parents, a film with as much imagination as the toy that inspired it. Rarely do I feel like a kid again, but this was a surprisingly effective trip down memory lane.
5. Gone Girl. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "This is riveting, brutal subject matter that not only thrills, but sheds light. It's a character study and a crass portrayal of American media rolled into one. It's cat and mouse action dipped in intellectual mystery. It's a damn good time at the movies." Why it's on the list: I didn't read the book, but I've heard from many that they were pleased with this adaptation. But I think the real treat of this movie is for those of us that hadn't read the book. Not knowing where this movie was going made for one of the most pleasant thrill rides I've been on at the movies in quite some time. Rosamund Pike's performance - and the character of Amy Dunne - are truly amazing. For me, Amy Dunne will go down in cinematic history alongside the likes of Hannibal Lecter as one of the most deviously riveting characters ever to grace the screen. She was that good.
4. Birdman. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "Keaton gives a tremendous performance, as does the entirety of the ensemble, most notably Edward Norton as the pompous, destructive mega-star who is threatening to ruin everything Thomson has going. Keaton though, is the only actor who could ever play this role, since our knowledge of his personal career is what makes the movie click. It is darkly funny and very aware of itself. It also has a lot to say about celebrity, media and even criticism. As one person puts it in the film, "Criticism is something people do when they can't achieve art," or something like that. Another character tells us that "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige." The movie is so hard on critics specifically, that I feel there may be a portion of us who take these jabs as insults. I take them as insightful criticism of criticism itself, an area that movie-makers and writers rarely venture into and one that I found to be spot-on." Why it's on the list: It was one of the most interesting films of the year and perhaps the most unique movie on this list. It's "one continuous shot" might have been a gimmick, but it created a strange atmosphere that perfectly complimented this eccentric group of characters. It was as if the camera was haunting Keaton's character right alongside that of his Birdman persona.
3. Nightcrawler. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "But where Nightcrawler is most effective is when it is providing commentary on and portraying the modern state of news media, as a cutthroat wasteland void of morals or moral obligation. The film itself sensationalizes things, pushing the plot and its characters past realistic limits. The horror is that these limits have been tested and bent for the past few decades, so the actions on screen are ones we can buy into as plausible progressions. Images that yesterday were deemed unacceptable to show on live television to mass audiences have become today's lead story." Why it's on the list: Gyllenhaal gives a career-best performance and breakthrough writer/director Dan Gilroy creates one of the year's most unforgettable films. Those that say that it does not accurately portray modern news media are missing the point. It's the very purpose of the film to linger just beyond what we think is plausible, but it works for that exact reason...that we can see the events of this film happening in real life. That's a scary proposition, in a film whose main character lives by them.
2. Boyhood. (read the full review).
What I had written about it: "Don't go into Boyhood if you are looking for a Summer blockbuster, for cheap thrills, diversion and/or familiar melodrama. Do see it if you like the sort of film that will move you. Boyhood is a trend-setting, ground-breaking film and one of the best films of this year. Better yet, it will be hard to imitate, unless we're all willing to wait another twelve years to see if someone else can pull off something similar. Such a simple film, to possess this much magnitude." Why it's on the list: There is no question that Boyhood is an extraordinary film. It is a directorial feat that may go unmatched, in terms of patience and orchestration, having taken 12 years to shoot and put together. A multitude of things could have and should have derailed this film, but instead it turned into a perfect coming-of-age story, unlike we've ever witnessed over the course of one film. At around three hours in length, I felt like I could have continued watching it for hours and hours beyond where it left off.
1. Whiplash. (no full review available).
Why it's on the list: I had missed Whiplash when it was first released in theaters and only caught up with it as we entered the end of awards season. There has been tons of buzz surrounding JK Simmons's performance in this film, who is a shoe-in to not only gain an Oscar nomination, but I think a win for Best Supporting Actor. It's the role of a lifetime, a cutthroat music professor, reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey's legendary drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Although Simmons looms large over the entirety of the movie, it is the performance of Miles Teller that really makes things click. In premise, Whiplash is very simplistic, but in the hands of writer/director Damien Chazelle, it becomes a powerful, artistic and thrilling masterpiece. It's fitting that the instrument at the center of the film is drums, because the entire thematic structure of Whiplash is about things banging and clashing into one another at dizzying speeds. Boyhood may have the edge as a directorial achievement or in building a story, but no other film in 2014 could quite match the electricity surging through every frame of Whiplash.
So there you have it! What are your thoughts? What did I get right? Wrong? What did I leave out? Post your thoughts and comments below, and we will see you in 2015!
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