This list isn’t definitive, but it’s an alphabetical ranking of my favorite films I saw this year. I haven’t seen some films that will probably be awards-show fodder, like “Wild,” “Selma,” “Unbroken,” “Foxcatcher,” “Theory of Everything,” “Imitation Game” and “American Sniper.” I probably won’t get to see those until the new year, so here’s my favorites of what I have seen so far in 2014. Featured photo found here.
Filmed and edited so that it looks like an entire continuous shot, the technical prowess of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) combined with the constant pounding drum snare score from Antonio Sanchez and the ballsy direction of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu made this one of the biggest technical achievements of the year, right alongside “Boyhood.” When you add in a stellar cast, including Michael Keaton doing a very meta turn as a former superhero actor trying to revive his career in a Broadway version of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.
The story is pretty one-note, but Keaton’s performance as a man who truly believes he possesses superhero powers elevates the material. The ending will alienate many viewers, but what the film says about ego, celebrity and whether or not it all matters in the long run is worth contemplating.
If I had to pick a favorite off of this list, it would be “Boyhood.” Richard Linklater is the only director I’ve seen who can take subjects that are so familiar to American life and infuse them with a sense of novelty. I felt like I was seeing parts of my own childhood on the screen while watching Boyhood, even though my own life was pretty different from Mason’s.
A lot has already been written about the unorthodox shooting methods of this film, which encompassed 12 years of summer filming sessions as the actors grew up. Many feel that it was a gimmick; I disagree. The way it was shot is the point of the movie. The passage of time and how growing up changes your outlook on life is what this is about more than anything. Or, as Ethan Hawke’s father figure tells Mason in one of the final scenes of the film, “What’s the point? I mean, I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it, you know?”
Linklater does an excellent job of making something scripted seem improvised, and manages to maintain that feat for almost three hours. This could be a dark horse contender for Best Picture.
This one wasn’t widely seen, which is a shame, because it’s got one of the better ensemble casts in any film I’ve seen this year, led by Brendan Gleeson, who always manages to liven up everything he’s in.
Calvary’s central plot point involves an angry parishioner who, during confession, vows to kill Gleeson’s priest in exactly one week. He’s doing this, he says, because the priest is a good man who doesn’t deserve to die- much like the parishioner didn’t deserve to be sexually abused at the hands of another priest years ago. Eye for an eye, as he says. It’s easy to spot who the parishioner is just off of his voice, but the mystery of who threatens to kill Father James isn’t the point of the film.
“Calvary” is about other mysteries, namely, what exactly defines faith and what constitutes a good life. Father James embarks on his own “Stations of the Cross” journey in the week before he faces his executioner, and it’s funnier than any summary could describe. The black humor mixed in with the pathos that Gleeson and the rest of the cast bring to the screen had me thinking about this film for a long time afterwards.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
I was never a big fan of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise. The reboot a few years ago starring James Franco was better than I expected, but its sequel had no right to be this fun, or this good. I went into “Dawn” expecting middle-of-the-road CGI and a mediocre plot. I walked out marveling at how I empathized with the CGI apes more than the humans, and entertained by the multi-layered, politicized plot.
The best sci-fi says more about what’s going on in the world today than in the fictionalized future. This is no different, as themes of genocide, just warfare, coexistence, political/power structures and ethical medicinal treatment all blend together with some sick 360° camera shots of a bloodthirsty ape hijacking a tank and another one riding a horse brandishing an AK-47. This is a popcorn flick with a lot on its mind, and it’s fun to watch.
The release of David Fincher’s version of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling pulp novel inspired a ton of think-pieces about gender politics and spousal equality in marriage. While all of that may have merit, this film, deep down, doesn’t have as much to say about gender politics as it does Americans’ fascination with pop culture and our proclivity to peer into the lives of others. And, despite the fact that it’s directed by King of Moody Thrillers David Fincher, this is a black comedy.
Fincher was the main reason I wanted to see this, because if it was directed by anyone else, I might not have bothered. The story of a married couple made up of to sick individuals equally as toxic as the other might have floundered under anyone else’s direction. Fincher builds a dirty, gritty, suspenseful and darkly hilarious tone through his camera work and Atticus Ross’s pulsating electronic score. It’s all technical craft and mood, much like reading the book it’s based on.
I wasn’t alive for the release of “Star Wars” in 1977, but I think “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the only film that comes close to capturing that crazy, batshit-insane lighting in a bottle quality that “Star Wars” had. The plot is standard fare, right down to the MacGuffin that will destroy the world if put into the wrong hands. But director James Gunn manages to make it fresh by assembling a cast that includes Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper and setting it to a great 70s-80s soundtrack. I was smiling from the opening sequence set to “Come and Get Your Love” until the crazy post-credits scene with Howard the Duck. If this is the future of Marvel Studios, I’m cool with it.
In terms of sheer awe, Interstellar takes the cake this year, hands down. It’s a spectacle. If you haven’t seen this in IMAX, do it now. Christopher Nolan’s tale of a farmer/astronaut/engineer who is chosen by NASA to find a planet to inhabit after Earth destroys itself is a technical marvel grounded in reality. The finale may be a bit too schmaltzy for some viewers, and while this isn’t Nolan’s best work, in my opinion, it’s certainly his most human. The organ-heavy score by Hans Zimmer doesn’t hurt, either.
I first became a fan of Mark Duplass when I started watching “The League,” when he played the aptly titled Pete, who is stuck in a state of adolescent arrested development as the commissioner of his fantasy football league. After exploring his other work, I found he’s actually a pretty good serious actor as well (“Safety Not Guaranteed”). That serious streak continues in this offbeat romantic comedy, co-starring Elizabeth Moss and Ted Danson.
Duplass and Moss play a couple looking to revive their marriage after a series of fights and betrayals, and decide to go to a retreat cabin to work on their relationship, as per the suggestion of their therapist (Danson). They check in, have some dinner, drink some wine, smoke some pot…and then things get weird. Like “Twilight Zone” weird. Saying any more would spoil the entire third act, but what starts out as a weird premise becomes completely off-the-wall by the last frame, and it’s a riot to watch. In the end, “The One I Love” isn’t a romcom— it’s sci-fi with romcom tendencies, and it says a lot about the people our significant others are vs. how we want them to be.
This is one of the most offbeat comedies released this year, and some people will love it, while others will hate it. “They Came Together,” clearly inspired by “Airplane!” and other spoof films of its ilk, isn’t as good as those spoof films, but it’s just as self-aware. The plot centers on a dinner conversation where Paul Rudd’s and Amy Pohler’s characters tell their dinner dates the story of how they met, which lampoons every romcom trope in the book, from the initial loathing of each other to the inevitable scene where the male protagonist asks his friends what he should do about his relationship (staged to a pitiful game of pickup basketball where nobody makes a shot). One joke in particular, where Rudd’s character tells the bartender, “You can say that again,” is a master class in a joke going from funny to unfunny, to dumb, then funny again, then hilarious. It’s comedy nerd heaven.
Another film with amazing editing. “Whiplash” is the story of a young jazz drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) who wants to become “one of the greats.” He realizes this doesn’t happen without practice, so he tries to catch the eye of Fletcher, the ruthless jazz band instructor at the Julliard-esque music academy he attends. Fletcher, played with a fantastic sense of the mercurial by J.K. Simmons, decides he wants to include Andrew in his ensemble. Once the two begin working together, it starts a volatile teacher-student relationship where Andrew will do anything for Fletcher’s approval, as long as his drumming improves. Simmons steals the show as a profane, insensitive manipulator who believes that “the worst two words you can say to someone are ‘good job.’” Teller finally cements his status as a dramatic actor here, if last year’s “Spectacular Now” didn’t convince people enough.
And the editing. Just like the varying tempos of the music that the characters play, the camera starts, stutters and lingers at all the right moments. The final scene is a roller coaster of emotions, culminating in the two characters’ final understanding of one another. I expect Oscar nominations for at least Simmons, maybe both him and Teller.
Exactly what a sequel should be. Funny, an improvement on the original, and not afraid to make fun of itself.
As I wrote earlier, this was some of the most unexpected fun I’ve had at the movies this year. It really is awesome. And, not coincidentally, made by the same team that directed both “Jump Street” films.
If all you know of Jenny Slate is her grating Monalisa character on “Parks and Rec,” like I did, go see this one immediately. Not very many people can mine a film about abortion for laughs, but look no further than Slate’s stand-up monologue at the end of the film to see the pathos mixed in with the humor. It also doesn’t really have an agenda; it just tells a story, which is always refreshing.
It’s one of the few original sci-fi films of 2014, and it nearly falls apart in the third act by some crazy Deus Ex Machina mind tricks. But, it’s got two of the best fight scenes of the year, plus a pretty chilling monologue from Chris Evans.