Published on December 31st, 2014 | by Dan Gvozden0
Top 10 Films of 2014
2014 has been an excellent year for independent cinema and artists with distinct and unique voices. Nine of my ten choices are from writer/directors and have a clear and unique authorial vision. It pained me to leave so many great films off my list, a list that I feel could be completely reordered and still reflect my feelings about 2014. There are a number of titles that I still wish I had seen to consider for this list, but as with any “best of” list this is based of an incomplete sampling.
Please watch the my video of my Top 10 Films of 2014 (text included below).
Edge of Tomorrow
When I first saw the trailer for Edge of Tomorrow I thought, “This film looks disastrous.” Images flashed before me with little context and the story seemed nearly impenetrable. The film’s box office take seems to reflect this confusing marketing, so much so that the film was retitled to Live. Die. Repeat for its home video release.
Hopefully with this new marketing the film will find its audience because I found it to be the most entertaining film of the summer and one of the most refreshing takes on the science fiction genre in some time. Tom Cruise plays against type as a cowardly Major William Cage, who is forced to don an ExoSuit in the battle against the Mimics, a force of seemingly unstoppable alien invaders that resemble killer Koosh-balls.
Through a series of events, Cruise gains Bill Murray’s powers of repeating the same day over and over again, except this time the daily restart is triggered by his death. Edge of Tomorrow quickly takes this video-game concept and has tremendous fun with it, killing Cruise hundreds of times as he slowly learns to become a hero. The real surprise of the show is his costar Emily Blunt, as a battle-hardened military hero who takes Cage under her wing. Their relationship is treated with real care and allows Blunt to embody a truly empowering female character complete with a mechanized Cricket bat to destroy her enemies.
Director David Fincher tried his best to take a stab at the gender expectations and sexual dynamics of married life in his Gone Girl but was far less successful than Swedish director Ruben Ostland’s Force Majeure. This dark comedy places a Swedish family in the French Alps on a picturesque family vacation. The film opens with the family posing for the perfect picture, a forced expression of their less-than-perfect family dynamic.
When a man-made avalanche threatens to destroy their lodgings, the split-second reaction of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) seemingly reveals his cowardice nature. The effect this avalanche and Tomas’ reaction has on his marriage, through the eyes of his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli), is more disastrous than the avalanche itself. The film continues to deconstruct their marriage until its absolutely stunning finale that relocated my stomach to my throat for its entirety.
The Trip to Italy
The Trip quickly became famous for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s hilariously accurate impressions of Michael Caine and their ensuing competition to prove theirs the more precise of the two. Those who watched beyond this YouTube clip found a film with a wonderfully truthful portrayal of male friendship, specifically just how competitive two friends can be.
The Trip to Italy offers more of what made The Trip so wonderful: the food porn, witty banter, beautiful scenery, and camaraderie are all back. However this time the roles of the two friends are flipped. Brydon’s jokes quickly reveal a hidden insecurity that manifests itself in ruinous ways as the two tour the Italian coast.
I laughed myself silly throughout the film until that very humor gave way to a richly dramatic core that elevated the film far above the original. If Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon plan to travel to another European location for a third film I will book a ticket to join them in a heartbeat.
Birdman flies high on the back of its incredible ensemble cast consisting of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts. Keaton soars back to his former glory as Riggan Thomson, an actor seeking to restart his career by directing and starring in a Broadway production, after he quit portraying the superhero Birdman over two decades prior. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera portrays the film in a single shot, digitally edited together, to capture Riggan’s slow descent into madness. As a secondary effect, this camera technique allows Birdman’s actors to disappear into their characters in long, theatrical scenes that build and build until the tension becomes downright dangerous.
The line between reality and imagination continues to blur as the world of Riggan’s theatrical production completely takes over his mind. Only as Riggan races through Times Square in his underwear are we given a brief glimpse that a world exists outside of the looming opening of Riggan’s show.
I suspect that Ida is one of the most beautiful and moving black-and-white films that has ever graced the medium. The film tells the story of a young Polish woman named Ida who is intent on taking her vows to become a sister of the church. To do so, her Mother Superior orders her to investigate her past and learn of the fate of her parents through her estranged aunt. Agata Trzebuchowska’s Ida and Agata Kulesza’s Wanda Cruz take an odd couple road trip through 1961 Poland to reveal the fate of Ida’s parents, who are revealed early on to be Jewish. The trip awakens Ida to the world around her and casts serious doubts on her future with the church.
Ida stunningly portrays post-World War II Poland and challenged my pre-conceived notions about how innocence and knowledge intersect with each other. The photography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal is perfectly framed throughout the entire film and pushes extreme compositions meant to assert the presence of God on his parishioners.
In the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series, Richard Linklater chronicles the lives of Jesse and Celine in real-time, checking in on them every nine years. With Boyhood he shot several minutes of film every year for the past twelve years to tell the story of Mason Jr.’s (Ellar Coltrane) growth from the age of six to eighteen. This portrayal of time is a monumental achievement that took patience and persistence on the parts of everyone involved in the production. The result is no trick; Boyhood poetically captures the quick slippage of time and how little decisions can alter one’s life. When young Mason Jr. is playing with saw blades I seized up with tension over how one wrong move could forever alter his life. Time has never been portrayed in a visual medium like this and for that reason, emotionally, technically, and intellectually, Boyhood is such a tremendous success.
Damien Chazelle’s debut feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) showcased a youthful energy and unique vision for capturing the magic of musical performance. His second film Whiplash shows that he is a director who has grown in innumerable ways since his first film. Miles Teller portrays a young jazz drummer whose drive to become the best lands him a spot at a prestigious music conservatory and in a band with an abusive conductor played by J.K. Simmons.
The two deliver their best performances as they clash both inside and outside of the classroom. To what lengths and costs will both Teller and Simmons characters go to for perfection? The climatic duel between the two in the final scene hints at a destructive and dark answer and packs more firepower than any war film could ever muster.
Every generation a film comes along to reflect culture’s misplaced values or misunderstanding of where importance should lie. From Travis Bickle to Patrick Bateman, film audiences have regularly been introduced to characters that exist to exploit, intentionally or not, the holes in society. Regardless of their actions, often quite monstrous, these characters’ choices are championed as success stories. Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom is no different. After a close encounter with a deadly after-hours accident on the freeway, Lou becomes obsessed with the idea of joining the ranks of Los Angeles’s “nightcrawlers,” cameramen who chase after police reports of grisly crimes for footage they can sell to morning news programs. “If it bleeds it leads,” is the mantra here and these stations are willing to back up their words with a hefty sum of money.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou is the most interesting character this year and my absolute favorite performance. Coupled with cinematographer Robert Elswit’s nighttime photography of Los Angeles, Nightcrawler presents a terrifyingly twisted perspective of capitalism played out to an extreme. Lou manipulates and disposes of his partners with such ease and numbness that each scene of the film feels like a trap just waiting to be sprung.
When Nightcrawler culminated in one of the slickest shot and performed car chases I’ve ever seen, the audience of my theater burst into spontaneous applause. How’s that for a success story?
The Grand Budapest Hotel
After my disappointment with Moonrise Kingdom I felt like the time had come for Wes Anderson to try something new with his directorial choices. I felt he had mined his particular style for all the charms and surprises that he could. That said, I love to be proven wrong. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson doubled down on his signature style for what might be the most Wes Andersonian film he has ever made. To that point, The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most successful film to date that utilizes all the different directions his career has taken him and blends them all together in one delicious package, complete with a cherry on top.
Ralph Fiennes’ Monsieur Gustave is just a joy to watch as his gentlemanly front gives way to fits of expletives and physical violence. When he and his lobby boy, newcomer Tony Revolori, go on the run with a painting from one of Gustave’s deceased customers the film opens up to a grand chase through mountains, hotels, trains, and prisons that is consistently hilarious, thrilling, and even scary; there are sequences of this film that feel like lost Hitchcock short films.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the film that reinvigorated my desire for more of Anderson’s distinct aesthetic just when I was ready to label it played out.
Under the Skin
When I first left Under the Skin I was a bit flummoxed. The film is an unapologetically unique experience from a perspective that I’ve never seen a film take before. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human skin that roams the Glasgow countryside and shopping malls searching for male prey to seduce. The filmmakers attached hidden cameras to her van to capture real men interacting with Johansson before she takes them back to her apartment. What happens in the apartment has to be seen to be believed but know that her intentions aren’t exactly pure.
Under the Skin is unique as its story is told as if an alien stepped behind the camera to direct it. The imagery of motorcyclists driving through the night and Johansson prowling through a dance club is abstracted and sleek, as if all emotion and human folly were extracted. A baby screams for its parents on a beach and Johansson walks right past it, uncaring and unsympathetic. This perspective applies to Mica Levi’s unsettling score featuring atonal strings and dancing electronic sounds that skip from speaker to speaker. It is an experience that got under my skin (pardon the expression) and never left me. Months later I find myself thinking more and more about Under the Skin as the most purely cinematic experience I’ve had in the theater this year. That’s not to mention that the film presents a strong commentary on female body image and what it means to be human in a way that is truly haunting.
Combine all of these elements and Under the Skin stands out as an experience unique to cinema and my favorite film of 2014.
Alan Partridge, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Calvary, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Enemy, Foxcatcher, Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy, Happy Christmas, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Interstellar, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, The Lego Movie, Life Itself, Obvious Child, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Skeleton Twins, Tim’s Vermeer, We Are the Best!, Wild, X-Men: Days of Future Past