Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year in Review: Zach's Top Ten Films of 2014

            2014 began with Jonah Hill being nominated for an Oscar in a Martin Scorsese film and ended with Steve Carell likely being nominated for an Oscar wearing Nicole Kidman’s nose from The Hours, while Seth Rogan and James Franco have become ambassadors to liberty, free speech, and democracy around the world.  Meanwhile, Emma Stone is also an Oscar shoo-in and Don Draper still has unresolved feelings for Lindsay Weir.  The lesson?  Trust Judd Apatow.  Even when he’s not tapping into the great acting talent of the 21st century, he’s producing hit TV shows and routinely becoming one of the most entertaining late night TV guests.  Even his teenage daughter is big.  Let’s face it: Judd Apatow owns Hollywood and most of the non-North Korean planet.  Right now, he is to America what Heisenberg was to the Czech Republic in Season 5 of Breaking Bad.  Let’s just be grateful he was prescient enough to have never cast Bill Cosby in any of his films.  In the words of Walter Cronkite, once you’ve lost Apatow, you’ve lost the American people. 
            Sadly, Judd Apatow did not direct any films in 2014 (although the jury’s out on whether he clandestinely went to France and directed Stranger by the Like), meaning that this year’s top ten list may look a little incomplete.  Fortunately, 2014 boasted some high quality, mature, original films although you would never guess it from looking at the highest-grossing films of the year (in case you’re counting, 12 of the top 16 movies were either sequels or remakes, while three of the other four were meant for children and family audiences).  That doesn’t mean that the future for movies isn’t bleak, as Mark Harris expertly articulated a few weeks ago.  Is it possible that when Newton Minow called television a “vast wasteland” five decades ago, he actually instead meant motion pictures?  And once again, this is where you can insert Apatow into this tragic milieu: Although “mature” may be a bit of a stretch, he undoubtedly makes high quality, original films that aren’t franchises or sequels (sort-of) or meant for kids.  In spite of his seeming ubiquity across multiple entertainment platforms, somehow 2014 still needed Apatow’s personal authorial stamp more than any previous year.
            Anyway, on to the business at hand: The ten best movies of the year.  In a year where going to movie theaters has become so irrelevant that Snowpiercer grossed less money at the American box office than Legend of Lemurs: Madagascar (IMAX) and something called Meet the Mormons, I’m proud to say that nine of these ten films were first seen at a theater.  Yes, the tickets probably cost too much and the people who talk uncannily always found a way to swarm around my seat, but I can’t deny that the experience of going to the movies is still worth it.  That opinion may change in the next few years, but for now I can reflect on the films that give me hope for the future.

Total 2014 films seen: 62
“Thumbs up” percentage: 59.67 percent
Movies I haven’t seen that could potentially make this list: A Most Violent Year, Selma, Inherent Vice, In Bloom, Mommy, Two Days One Night.
Movies I’m proud to say I didn’t see: Transformers 4, Dumb and Dumber To, Into the Woods, all of the freaking Bible movies.
Overrated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Chef, Dear White People, Godzilla, Gone Girl, PrideBirdman (not bad, just overrated), Under the Skin (the same).
Underrated: Fading Gigolo, If I Stay, Life of Crime, The Unknown Known.  Truthfully, not a lot of underrated movies in 2014.  Can I include Boyhood with only “99% Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes?
Best Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Best Actress: Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida
Best Supporting Actor: Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Worst Movies of the Year: This is Where I Leave You, Godzilla, The Giver.

Honorable mention: Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 and 2 (Lars von Trier); The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson); Belle (Amma Asante); Love is Strange (Ida Sachs); Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski).

10. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)

This was Full Metal Jacket meets a masochistic version of Mr. Holland’s Opus (with a tiny bit of Black Swan thrown in), and although hopefully few of us have ever encountered a teacher or boss as genuinely sadistic as J.K. Simmons’ Mr. Fletcher, director Chazelle does an incredible job of invoking the fear of public shaming that everyone feels on a daily basis.  Andrew, the talented young drummer played by Miles Teller, feels that fear in the first parts of the film when he’s lambasted by Mr. Fletcher, but soon that fear transitions into the same anger, aggression, and brutality that Fletcher displays in front of his music students.  In a roundabout way, Whiplash is an oddly moral film that asks serious questions about what degrees of sacrifice and personal harm are necessary in order to shape a prodigy.  These aren’t just questions of whether the end justifies the means, but to what degrees professional society permits abhorrent behavior at the expense of collectively turning the other cheek. I especially admired the last scene of the film, which depicts a climatic showdown between the forces of good or evil that isn’t resolved through words or fists, but through music.  Because in the end, that’s all Whiplash is really about, right?

9. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn)

Like The Lives of Others, this is a film that ostensibly dealt with espionage and police surveillance, but was really about how bureaucracies are not only barriers to human compassion, but forge alienation within even its own top members.  This was also a haunting and brilliant final performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a German intelligence agent tracking a potentially dangerous terrorist suspect who has recently emigrated from Russia.  Hoffman’s foil is not the terrorist, but two women – one an immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) who has come to the aid of the suspect, and the other an American diplomatic attache (Robin Wright) skeptical of Hoffman’s rogue and detached demeanor.  Based on a John le Carré novel, the film deals with one of le Carré’s favorite themes, which is how politics get in the way of good old fashioned spy games.  Unfortunately, this fact is truly detrimental for a character like Hoffman’s – a (perhaps ironically) gruff, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking man whose job demands that he remain deliberately aloof from others, himself, and most tragically, even us viewers. RIP PSH.

8. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)

2014’s award for “most divisive film between men and women” shouldn’t go to David Fincher’s overrated Gone Girl (“hysterical” and “outrageous” are adjectives that men and women can agree on), but to this Swedish gem.  It’s the type of film Hollywood studios are probably too afraid to make because there’s not a lot of sex or violence – just dialogue that poses uncomfortably provocative questions about the lengths to which we will go (or not go) to protect those that we love.  It’s also a film about the funny ways that life makes us incapable of forgetting seemingly insignificant things, and as a result, brandishing them to an unforeseen level of importance in our every waking moment.  Is it our job to rehabilitate someone whose gut instinct is to do the wrong thing in a moment of desperation?  Or is the wrong thing to aggrandize that person to the point of extreme guilt and loss of self-worth?  I’ve been intentionally vague about the major plot points of Force Majeure because frankly the plot isn’t the thing that has stuck with me – it’s the questions raised by the plot, and the inevitable personal questioning (“What would I do?”) that make this film unforgettable.

7. Fury (David Ayer)

The previews made it look like another dumb war film not too distant from the likes of Monuments Men, but the truth is David Ayer (whose End of Watch appeared on my 2012 list) has become an intriguing filmmaker who deals with groups of men facing dangerous situations.  This time, it’s the 2nd Armored Division of an Army squadron stationed in western Germany during the final months of World War II, where Staff Sargent Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) commands a five-man unit aboard a M4 Sherman tank.  No, the movie isn’t too radically different from the 1940s war pictures of John Wayne, but some of those films like Sands of Iwo Jima actually hold up pretty well today, and Fury executes the formula of the classical war picture to perfection.  In the post-modern world of the 21st century, it’s become increasingly difficult to make a movie like this – one that isn’t overwhelmed by nostalgia or simplistic and conservative interpretations of American military interventionism, or where the uncouth demeanor of army units is conveniently pushed under the rug.  Fury is successful because like End of Watch, Ayer is most concerned with complex characters and relationships, and the reasons behind why these men are drawn to the heat of battle.  The standout sequence of the film isn’t the climatic shootout, but an extended scene in the middle of the film when Pitt and Logan Lerman find an abandoned apartment and share a rare moment of peace and relaxation.  Fury is a “war film” inasmuch as that it is set during a war, but it’s much more accurate to bestow it with the more revered title of “character study.”

6. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

Like Fury, this was a film I didn’t have a lot of high hopes for going into it, but in the end was rather shocked by how good it really was.  There may not have been a better performance in a 2014 film than Jake Gyllenhaal as Norman Bates Lou Bloom, a loser who starts the movie unemployed but finds a passion for shooting videos at crime scenes and selling the footage to local news.  The movie is an entertaining mix of Taxi Driver and Breaking Bad, showing the ways that an anti-social sociopath is able to find a profitable niche, and quickly move up the ranks through coercion, deception, and extremely questionable professional ethics.  It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Nightcrawler a portrait of modern America where television audiences are addicted to sensationalistic crime from the vantage point of their living rooms (as a TV personality says in the film, “think of our news cast as screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”)  But that message alone would make the film passe; Gilroy seems to be more interested in how getting ahead in America has less to do with genuine hard work than with the ability to manipulate on individual and mass levels.  Nightcrawler may bite off more than it can chew, but with a film this enjoyable and unpredictable, who cares?

5. Life Itself (Steve James)

Ever since his death in April 2013, I’ve asked myself the question, “What would Roger Ebert have thought of this film?” (Hold that thought for a second).  So what would Roger have thought about the documentary made about his own life and influence?  OK, OK, I’m sure he’d recuse himself from officially reviewing it, but not without first admiring James’ skill for balancing Ebert’s passion toward film with his complex relationships with friends, family, and certain professional TV colleagues.  There was no way I wasn’t going to love this film, but I was surprised at how little of Life Itself actually dealt with movies (this is also true of Ebert’s autobiography from which much of this film is drawn).  Who cares whether Roger really liked Robert Altman and Mike Leigh but didn’t like David Lynch and Adam Sandler?  Those who are interested can read his archived reviews.  What doesn’t show up in those reviews is a man whose alcoholism nearly led him to a personal and professional collapse; whose personality led to unhealthy competitiveness; and most importantly, how his marriage and his battle with cancer at the end of the life transformed him into a better man.  Sure, he was giving out a ridiculous amount of four star movies toward the end, but that’s because Roger Ebert loved movies and loved life.  If the movies really are a machine that generates empathy, as he beautifully states in the film, there could be no greater empathetic portrait of Roger than this exceptional documentary.

4. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell)

So remember that question I alluded to above, about which 2014 movies Roger Ebert would have liked?  I would make the argument that he would have named The One I Love his #1 film of 2014.  Roger loved movies like this, and it’s easy to see why: Movies that challenge conventional definitions of story and character, and movies that aren’t afraid to be completely daring and experimental even if the result might appear gimmicky at first (let’s remember that Roger’s #1 film of the last decade was Synecdoche, New York).  Earlier on this list, Force Majeure was a film I didn’t want to spoil too much of, and it is the same thing here; all I can say is that The One I Love stars Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss as a couple experiencing great difficulties in their marriage, and are recommended by their counselor (Ted Danson) to take a mini-vacation for a weekend to a remote cabin in the country.  That’s all folks, I’m sorry.  Once you see this film, you’ll understand why going into this movie with any partial notion of its story thwarts the total experience that it gives its viewers.  It is funny, sad, unpredictable, moving, frightening, and above all else, completely and utterly original.  I’ll also say that it’s a lot like Force Majeure in the way that it causes you to rethink meaningful personal relationships, and whether putting up with someone’s flaws and blemishes is ever really worth it in the end.  This is also the kind of movie that most American audiences probably won’t like (P.S. That’s probably a good thing). And you probably won't stop thinking about it.

3. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)

Inviting comparisons to the Coen Brothers, Brian De Palma, and Abel Ferrara, Blue Ruin began as a Kickstarter campaign, was shot for under $500,000, and grossed under $1 million theatrically.  And as anyone who has seen the movie can attest to, the visuals are on par with any multi-million dollar behemoth manufactured from the Hollywood studio factory output.  Of course, Blue Ruin is more than simply impressive visuals and special effects; the film tells the harrowing story of a vagrant named Dwight (Macon Blair) who is forced to carry out an act of vengeance upon hearing that a murderer has been released from prison.  For much of Blue Ruin, we remain in the dark about Dwight’s real motives, but the movie is so suspenseful, taut, and engaging that the backstory almost takes on secondary importance.  When light is finally shed upon the facts leading up to the film’s startling climax, Blue Ruin reveals itself to be a story that deeply questions the motives behind vigilante justice, and the ripple effects it causes.  There are also moments of very dark humor too, and the movie’s beguiling final line is the dialogue equivalent to the spinning top at the end of Inception.  Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair are serious talents on the rise, and movies like Blue Ruin serve as reminders that American independent cinema is not totally dead yet.

2. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)

The most important movie of 2014, if for no other reason than that it captures history in the making, as it profiles the week leading up to Edward Snowden’s infamous interview and outing as the NSA whistleblower in June 2013.  If Islamic terrorism was the defining issue of the 2000s, than cyber-security and cyber-terrorism are making a strong case as the defining issue of the 2010s, and Poitras’s documentary explores the ways in which it is misunderstood and misrepresented by both governments and mass media.  Although Poitras believes that Snowden’s actions were justified, she is not an apologist and Citizenfour does not necessarily absolve Snowden but rather points to the problematic circumstances that led to Snowden’s release of classified NSA documents.  Like Michael Moore and Barbara Kopple, Poitras is successful at making audiences rethink their unquestioned loyalty to a country that is so hypocritical and corrupt in its policies at the highest levels of governance.  It may go down as “the Edward Snowden documentary,” but the truth is, in wake of The Interview fiasco and looming threats of compromising online security by rogue hackers, Citizenfour is the most unexpectedly relevant and important film of 2014.  It captures not only history in the making, but suggests what kind of future we will see if transparency and public access are discarded for the sake of upholding “national security.”  Snowden and others rightly suggest that what we need security from most is our own government.  Quick, someone call Seth Rogan and James Franco!

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

I don’t want to say what everyone else has already said, so let’s look at what has been overlooked.  First of all, this is an incredibly well-written motion picture, which gets forgotten because much of the dialogue was written on nights prior to shooting, which for some unknown reason makes it less admirable from a critical perspective.  It’s not the type of movie that readily contains inspirational speeches, but Ethan Hawke explaining the Beatles Black Album, Brad Hawkins’ description of his military service in Afghanistan, and Patricia Arquette’s speech at the very end of the movie are three examples of extraordinary dialogue – dialogue unmatched by any other 2014 film. Then there’s Ellar Coltrane, whose performance may be less flashy than Hawke’s and Arquette’s, but is no less astonishing.  Watching this movie, especially in the second half, I couldn’t help but thinking: “There is no way this is acting.  This is the way this kid actually is.”  I love how Coltrane’s character, Mason, is unconventional and doesn’t conform to our normal expectations of what a 21st Century American teenager “should” be.  He has piercings, likes photography, and doesn’t play for the football team.  He drinks and smokes, but is in no way a bad kid.  Boyhood doesn’t show him going to prom or getting his first kiss or getting expelled.  It also doesn’t show weddings or funerals or those other rudimentary markers of significant events in our life.  It shows a father taking his kids to a baseball game, and a mother attending a college class to prepare for a new career.  It shows a son riding a bike and a daughter singing Britney Spears.  It shows a high school graduation party.  The events are of such little significance, and yet we glean so much from observing them. 

Boyhood reminded me of two lines of beautiful dialogue from other movies.  The first is spoken by Wallace Shawn at the end of My Dinner With Andre: “I treated myself to a taxi.  I rode hom through the city streets.  There wasn’t a street, there wasn’t a building, that wasn’t connected to some memory in my mind.  There, I was buying a suit with my father.  There, I was having an ice cream soda after school.”  Boyhood reminds you that it’s the little things we remember so much more than the Important Life Events.  Is it weird that riding my bike to the local lake when I was 10 years old remains a much more vivid memory than my grandfather dying?  Boyhood doesn’t think so.  The second line comes from a much more unlikely source – You’ve Got Mail: "The odd thing about this form of communication is that you're more likely to talk about nothing than something, but I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings."  That is the way I feel about Boyhood.  The movie is so profound precisely because it is so mundane.  It does not deviate from that strategy for a moment because it has tremendous self-assurance in its story and characters.  When the movie is over, the cumulative effect is overwhelming.

If movies are indeed machines that generate empathy, like Ebert said, then Boyhood is perhaps the closest experience I have ever had into being transported into the life of another person.  It is almost insulting to think the breadth of that experience can be reduced to a handful of words of a film review, or for that matter a handful of minutes captured by a camera.  All I can really describe is the way I felt watching it, which was profoundly and deeply moved. Not moved to the point of tears, because that is not the intention of Boyhood.  It restrains from manipulating viewer emotions too dramatically.  We feel for Mason, Samantha, and their parents because we feel for the important people in our own lives.  And by the end of this film, they have become precisely those people.  Linklater has said that Boyhood is about the ambiguous time when "growing up" turns into "growing older."  Although you may not see it, every scene in Boyhood is a small component of that larger paradigm shift -- that shift which is so notoriously difficult to pin down in real life, but so much more translatable in great literature and art.  Why is that?  Charles Bukowski said the difference between art and real life is that art is more bearable.  Boyhood blurs those lines with extreme precision and uncanny nuance.

Thoughts?  Disagreements?  Omissions?  Why are you still reading this if you haven't seen Boyhood yet?  Let me know below.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you liked nightcrawler!! Its such an awesome movie! Jakes performance is amazing and Oscar worthy.

    Fury was another one that I loved and they both will be in my top ten.

    Whiplash was great too.

    I think boyhood could be a clean sweep for number one this year!!
    I gotta get started on me!