Friday, February 06, 2015

Favorite Films of 2014

I find I’m having trouble putting 2014 away and moving on to 2015. That’s one of the reasons my Top Ten list of movies for the release year is coming so late. It was the best year for movies I can remember since I’ve been doing this. Plus, there are so many movies I’ve yet to get to—most notably the Oscar nominated “Selma”, “The Theory of Everything”, “Whiplash” and “Foxcatcher”. There are so many others I missed, but there were oh so many great ones I didn’t.

It also seemed to me to be one of the most diverse years in movies, where the mainstream seemed to move away from the mainstream. Yes, there were some great mainstream returns, like “Guardians of the Galaxy” returning to the sci-fi space adventure movement. But even some of the biggest successes of this year, like “The LEGO Movie”, would’ve seemed inconceivable—both in execution and content—before this year. True, the box office was way down, most likely as a result of the diversity. And, someone predicted that this would be the least watched Oscars ceremony in ages. That is probably true—again due to the very independent nature of this year’s nominees—however the specialty market box office had a banner year with film after film breaking art house records.

I’m very happy for the diverse and truly original content in this year’s nominees and the entire market in general. Comic books are still dominating the mainstream box office, but I think it is their influence that has lead the rest of the market toward more original programming. Expanding the minds of audiences is catching. I do fear that 2015 will be a let down with its sequel-heavy schedule; but in general, my outlook on where cinema is heading has done a 180 over the past year, and I can’t wait for the future.

Here are my 10 Favorite Films of 2014…

1. Boyhood. There is no movie that hit me as hard as Richard Linklater’s 12-year filming project “Boyhood”. To watch it, you might sit there wondering what all the hype is about it. It’s a long movie, and at about the halfway point I was thinking to myself, “Yes, it’s good, but it isn’t exactly blowing me away.” In many ways, it’s really not supposed to. That’s all part of the point of it. Instead of your typical Hollywood storytelling experience, what you get with “Boyhood” is much closer to a semblance of real life. You aren’t watching a story, but a life.

The movie is far more complex than the facsimile of real life concept, however. After it is over, it hits you just how much these lives in particular touched you. They aren’t just any lives. They are very specific representations of these characters’ lives. We spend about 20 minutes every year in these people’s lives for 12 years, and yet we feel the experience of the time between the times we spend with them as well. These characters make very specific choices in the time we spend with them, choices that shape the entire arc of their lives, and while that is a very crafted aspect of the film, it informs us on how much even the smallest choices we make in our lives effect everything and how those very big choices that we place so much emphasis on, don’t necessarily interrupt or disrupt in the ways we fear, but rather inform who we become.

Of course, the method for making this film is unprecedented in cinema. To use the same cast over a twelve-year period of filming must’ve sounded like madness to anyone who heard about it. It creates an amazing effect to see the actors age naturally over a twelve year period rather than watch them go through a series of make-up and wardrobe changes designed to give the impression of the passage of time. Asking a name Hollywood actress to age on screen over a twelve-year period is a new kind of daring. Many actors won’t look at their work from the previous year, let alone something they did 12 years prior. These guys must look at themselves in the first hour or so of this film and say, “Oh my God, I was just a kid.” Well, some of them were.

2. Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). “Birdman” spoke to me as an actor, a writer, a critic, a father, a vulnerable schlep, and a man approaching mid-life crisis breakdown. The film is like a dance of all the elements that go into filmmaking, all choreographed into this elegant, sad, tragic and comedic nightmare/dream that celebrates life during one of the toughest periods in a man’s life to celebrate such chaos and beauty at once. If all that seems confusing, well… you might not like it, or it might enlighten you onto it’s own meaning and purpose.

Of course, so much of this hinges on Michael Keaton’s performance as an aging movie star attempting a last ditch career comeback by producing, writing, directing and starring in a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. While many have pointed out that Keaton’s own career mirrors his character’s as a former superhero star whose light faded somewhat, his performance goes beyond one of ultra realism and sinks quite deeply into surrealistic waters. Keaton makes us believe it all, even when he’s levitating several feet above the floor of his dressing room and moving things with his mind.

I feel I must also add that in any year that doesn’t include the film “Boyhood”, this film is the best film of the year hands down. In fact, choosing one to be the best between the two is like some form of torture. These two movies are not only the best movies of this year; they are the best movies of this decade and the last. They may be the best films released in my lifetime of consuming cinematic delights. There were a few from when I was too young to see them in the theater that might enter into debate with these, but no films have delighted me as much as these two in their release years.

3. Inherent Vice. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is a movie that might seem to some observers to be less than what it is. Its drug-addled attitude gives it such a laid back outlook that I could easily see some viewers thinking, “Is there anything happening here at all, or is it all just some hippie mumbo jumbo?” That’s certainly what Josh Brolin’s anti-hippie detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen would want you to think. But like everyone else in this movie, he’s playing Joaquin Pheonix’s pothead P.I., Doc, and the audience as any good noir should.

“Inherent Vice” is as twisty and intricate as Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, with a hero as saturated in its own drug culture mindset as “The Big Lebowski”; but it is a wholly original take on the film noir genre. Unlike the typical comedy temptation on the premise of a pothead P.I., Phoenix doesn’t turn his hapless hero into an idiot. He’s obviously a smart and capable person, but his drug haze makes his world more mysterious and hazy than it needs to be, and yet without his appearance of incompetence he might seem more of a threat to the rather influential forces he’s up against.

Anderson handles the material with his typical filmmaking skill, and yet this movie feels more relaxed than any of his previous efforts. Just as the Oscar-snubbed Phoenix here, Anderson never seems to be trying with his direction. The movie just happens, which is an aspect of the lifestyle he’s depicting, so it’s a fitting approach to the material. He captures source novelist Thomas Pynchon’s out there characters and scenarios but never seems to be trying to push some sort of stylized approach on the audience. The result is a full-fledged noir experience populated by the most interesting set of characters and circumstances ever to grace the genre.

4. Nightcrawler.  Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” acts as a scathing indictment against the media and the methods they use to get the news all in the name of ratings and sales. It also contains one of the year’s greatest performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a video journalist who pushes the line of affecting a story past the moral and journalistic standards of acceptable parameters, at times actually creating a “better” story than the one presented by the natural course of a story’s development.

Beyond Gyllenhaal’s exceptional performance, Rene Russo also provides a career performance as a morning news producer willing to turn a blind eye to the clearly sociopathic tendencies of Gyllenhaal’s freelance service. Her exclusion from most of the awards nominations was one of the great crimes of the awards season process this past year. Her actions paint the news media as a willing accomplice in their freelancers’ arguably criminal actions with a fall back of plausible deniability by not employing these videographers on staff. It is a frightening and creepy atmospheric film that will leave you revisiting that feeling every time you tune into your local morning newscast.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel. To call Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” “a raucous and rollicking heist adventure” is to totally redefine all those terms within the Wes Anderson universe, which has no cinematic equivalent. It is, however, exactly the type of place for which the aforementioned words were created to define. For his latest cinematic creation, Anderson has fully embraced his unique vision without shame and created a cinematic amalgam of those aspects he finds most intriguing to see on screen. It’s almost as if he’s created a stop motion live action film, if that makes any sense, which it most certainly does not, and therein lies Anderson’s genius.

The movie is a story told within a story told within another story. A famous author tells a story of the time he met an old man at a famous hotel who tells him a story about the man who once ran that hotel and why he came to no longer run it. If that sounds like a long route to take to the coast, perhaps that is Anderson’s point. It is the journey that is more important than the destination. And what a journey its is involving as it does a horny old woman, a priceless painting, a murderous scoundrel, a revolution, a fair policeman who must perform his duty, a secret organization of hotel managers, a prison break, the strangest chase scene ever filmed, a young romance and a pastry van, and, of course, a lobby boy. How could this not be one of the best films of the year?

6. Fury. A good war flick has become as rare as a good western, but when one like “Fury” comes along, it makes the wait between them well worth it. “Fury” combines all the great elements of a good war flick, including some of the tensest battle sequences seen in some time. It follows a tank crew in the dwindling days of World War II. The Allied success is all but inevitable, but the Germans aren’t just giving up. The diminished U.S. tank divisions means that Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s tank must run many of their missions without the support necessary for a reasonable possibility of success.

Writer/director David Ayers places his audience right in the thick of it, in the claustrophobic environment of a U.S. tank through the character of Norman Ellison, a typist recruited due to a lack of trained personnel. The characters are fully fleshed out here, unlike many recent war films. Ayers allows us to understand the psyches of these men as no other war film has. Collier is a caring leader, who exemplifies the necessity to become another type of person in order to survive their time in the tank. His treatment of Ellison seems harsh at first but is designed to provide this man under his care the best chance of survival. I’ve never witnessed a war film that so successfully understood what it meant to be placed in the situation we ask of our soldiers at a time when there is no choice. “Fury” contains all the power of its title at a more intimate level than is normally found in a depiction of war.

7. Under the Skin. Every year it seems I under value a movie when I initially see it, and in the weeks after I’ve written my review, it works in the back of my mind until I’ve decided I should’ve given it much more praise. This year, that movie was Jonathan Glazer’s odd British sci-fi flick starring Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin”. My hesitancy against going all out in praise of it is rooted in the film’s very, very strange nature. It is about an alien life form (Johansson), who consumes sexual partners to maintain her human appearance. She eventually rebels against this necessary way of life for her and finds the tables turned on her by this choice.

Now, I’ve provided a synopsis here that cannot possibly convey the style and originality of this movie. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone read that description and said to me, “What? No, you’ve got it all wrong.” And perhaps I do. The ambiguous nature of the film’s plot is not a strike against it, however. What Glazer does here is provide a movie of pure atmosphere. It is a haunting and chilling atmosphere that rebukes the often formulaic take Hollywood places on alien invasion, or like I said, perhaps she’s not an alien at all. She may be some form of demon. I don’t know and it’s far from important because what this is really is a cinematic contemplation, rather than a plot. It is beautiful and frightening. It is perfect in its way.

8. Gone Girl. David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” may be the most disputed picture on my list. Many have praised it, while others have balked at its preposterousness. I agree that its plot pushes the bounds of unlikelihood to the edge of absurdity, but I’m not so sure it isn’t supposed to, since it is about a great absurdity that we have just accepted in our society—the media’s ability to reshape the news in any way they feel will be most appealing to the lowest common denominator. “Gone Girl” is an indictment against the American media in very much the same way as “Nightcrawler”, although it approaches the subject from a completely different angle—that of the people it affects rather than from the perspective of the abusive media system.

The movie is nearly impossible to discuss without revealing perspective-altering spoilers, so I will not discuss the plot here. Instead, it is Fincher’s style and approach that is the key to the film’s success. Like his Academy Award-winning “The Social Network” or “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” his visual style reflects the dark nature attached to the psyches of the characters. Fincher’s camera gives us only the perspective of those characters most greatly affected by the actions of the police authorities and the media. The detectives involved in the case are only approached from a technical angle. They are even reluctant to say out loud just what they think about the people they’re investigating, while the media is given no voice whatsoever. As such we experience the events in much the same way as the people who are most greatly affected by them. Our perception is exaggerated and biased just as theirs are, giving the audience freedom to judge the characters on the very terms with which they judge themselves. It’s a remarkable effect crafted by a remarkable filmmaker.

9. The LEGO Movie. “The LEGO Movie” was another that I hesitated to get fully behind with a four star review until later in the year. Frankly, its meta post-modern take on family cinema with the manic pace of a child’s imagination was a lot to take in at first. However, its irreverent humor, deep heart, and spot on recreation of the imagination of a child make it one of the best American-produced animated movies in years. Not only that but it is also layers in levels upon levels of social commentary that doesn’t pull its punches in front of the children.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been the minds behind some of the most irreverent adult cinematic humor (“21 Jump Street”) and children’s humor (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”), both of which I enjoyed immensely. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that combining those previous outlooks into a family merchandise movie that spans the generation gap in the way LEGO products have for the past three decades would produce such stellar results. Lord and Miller are able to place typical family fare themes—such as being yourself and accepting who you are—in with irreverent humor and pop culture references that reach back to the youth of most of today’s children’s parent’s childhoods (wow, that’s a lot of ‘s’es). The results are an infinitely entertaining film that truly speaks to all ages.

10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It is rare that a blockbuster style action flick can so concisely convey social commentary at an equal level to its action output. Often times science fiction dabbles in both worlds—the cerebral and the visceral. Usually the results will linger more in one direction or another. Somehow, with the latest in the “Planet of the Apes” franchise, Matt Reeves finds a balance in the middle of the action-packed and the thought provoking.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is like a schematic drawing of every battle torn conflict throughout human history. It shows us how good intensions often cannot overcome the passions and fear that drive most violent conflict. Following in its predecessors’ footsteps, it is a reflection of human prejudice, deception and oppression told through the sci-fi premise of a “what if?” involving apes developing human intelligence. At the start of this film, the conflict has yet to fully develop between man and ape, but as is often the case with two different societies thrown into co-existence, both find a need for dominance even when most of the leaders on both sides strive for reasonable action. As is often the case with science fiction, the conclusion drawn by the filmmakers here is not the happy ending everyone desires.

Special Jury Prize
Life Itself. Roger Ebert is the reason I do this. Not only film criticism, but this particular ritual of listing my ten favorite films of each year. He often seemed to detest the idea of choosing one movie, or ten, above all others in any given movie release year. Yet he did it every year. I remember one year he wrote five separate top ten lists (Mainstream, Animated, Foreign, Documentary and Independent) so he didn’t have to whittle it down so much. He would also give out Special Jury Prizes every year, a distinction inspired by his frequenting of film festivals during which special jury prizes are awarded by the panels so the don’t have to single out just one top prize winner. For Ebert’s lists it would usually just mean that these are ten more movies you need to watch.

One of this year’s must watch movie for me was “Life Itself”, a documentary about the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. Based on his memoir of the same name, the film is lovingly directed by “Hoop Dreams” helmer Steve James. In what began as a documentary honoring Ebert’s life, health problems having to do with a long ongoing battle with cancer turned the film beyond a mere tribute to Ebert’s life and also into a document of his death. While intended only to replicate the nostalgia of his book, James and Ebert and Roger’s wife Chaz turned the camera on Roger’s final struggle against cancer. Handled with the utmost compassion for his subject, James masterfully intercuts Ebert’s final struggle with a life that seemed to be lived beyond the bounds of most. While Ebert shaped the cinematic tastes of generations, he was busy living the lives of what seemed multiple generations. The film is a moving piece of cinema, which makes it the most fitting tribute to the ultimate herald of cinema.

The Next 10.
It is rare that I see so many good films in a year. This year it seems stranger as I saw less films and put less effort into seeing the very best of them than I have in five or six years. The workload at my paying job increased this year and I had an unexpected addition to deal with in the form of my forth kid. What comedian Jim Gaffigan says about raising four children is quite true, “Imagine you’re drowning and someone hands you a baby.” I felt myself being torn away from my cinematic disease this year. And yet, it was one of the best years in movies in decades. Almost every one of the next ten movies could find itself at almost any spot (save for the top two) on my top ten list on any given day, so “The Next 10” really is a misnomer. Perhaps I should just call these “10 More Options.”

The greatest animation director ever, Hayao Miyazaki infuses his bio pic The Wind Rises about Japan’s national treasure Jiro Horikoshi with Studio Ghibli’s unique brand of fantasy elements and beautiful imagery.

Jon Favreau proves that formula can be great in his fun road trip picture about a gourmet Chef who gives up his posh gig after a bad review to open a mobile Cuban sandwich truck and spend more time with his kid during summer vacation.

Best Foreign Language Film nominee Ida explores the repercussions of the holocaust on the survivors of a Jewish family who hid from Germans in a remote Polish community through the eyes of a Catholic nun who only learns of her Jewish heritage just before taking her vows.

Ernest & Celestine, a Best Feature Animation nominee from last year (along with “The Wind Rises”), tells the family friendly tale of a Bear and a Mouse who break all the traditions of their respective worlds and learn to live as friends rather than enemies.

We discover that a war movie can be just as thrilling without all the shooting and explosions with The Imitation Game, which tells the true story of Alan Turing, hired by MI6 under commission by the British military establishment to break the Enigma code machine used by the Germans during World War II.

Revenge is rarely as brutal and haphazard as it is in the bleak indie Blue Ruin about a homeless man stirred into action when the killer of his parents is released from prison.

Christopher Nolan brings his meticulous logic to the cerebral science fiction tale in Interstellar set in a future when the world’s food supply is fast running dry and a bold attempt to find an new planet on which to subsist is attempted by a small NASA space crew.

By far the best of the franchise so far, X-Men: Days of Future Past takes its cues directly from the comic book in a time traveling tale that tackles issues of prejudice and intolerance in a smorgasbord of special effects and superpowers.

Proving the Marvel formula for superhero cinematic success is far from a fluke, Guardians of the Galaxy put adventure and fun back into the space opera subgenre in this adaptation of a formerly obscure comic book superhero team.

Cinema continues its path toward becoming a truly international art form in Snowpiercer, where South Korean Bong Joon-ho directs a cast of Americans, South Koreans, Brits and Russians in this joint Korean-American production of a French comic book adaptation about an unlikely but ultimately invigorating future-set adventure in which the only surviving members of the human race after a climatic frozen apocalypse survive in a train that traverses the planet in a never ending loop.

The 10 9 Worst
Even in a year when I didn’t get out to the cinema as often as usual, it’s impossible to avoid bad movies. I think I might’ve been spared some of the worst because of my lack of effort in trying to see the most talked about movies. As such, only the first four films on this list are truly terrible, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend any of the others to anyone either.

Is it a surprise to anyone other than Michael Bay that I found Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever to be the worst movie I saw this year?

I’m as shocked as anyone to find that Transformers: Age of Extinction does not hold the top spot on this list, but I still wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Which historian said that a ridiculously accented Kiefer Sutherland and his opposition to a Romeo & Juliet style romance was a bigger deal than Mt. Vesuvius erupting and destroying the ancient city of Pompeii?

“I feel the need… the need for… Oh, no. Wait a minute. The moment has passed.”—Anthony “Goose” Edwards upon seeing the video game-inspired actioner Need For Speed.

Will someone tell the makers of Dark Mountain that the Blair Witch called and said she is sorry she ever started this trend.

While I will advocate until I’m blue in the face that an American film company should never make decisions based on the desires of a paranoid dictator with a penchant for the dramatic, I would not press anyone who didn’t want to lose two hours of their life for no good reason to watch The Interview.

Thankfully, it seems The Expendables 3 will be the final bow for this steroid celebration of 80s action stars broken free of the nursing home.

Into the Storm proves that “Twister” wasn’t the worst tornado disaster flick Hollywood could make.

While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is certainly the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that could be made from this comic book material, it unfortunately is the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that could be made from this comic book material.

No comments: