Monday, January 12, 2015

Top Ten Films of 2014

I can't tell if this was a great year for movies or if it just felt like one because I was able to see so much. Given that I spend most days looking after two toddlers at home, I'm pleasantly surprised at how easily I was able to keep track of the past year's notable films. I wrote more about this a while back, but streaming services like Itunes, Netflix and Vimeo (that's where you find the really under the radar stuff) have made theatrical releases less and less essential for getting a movie to the masses. I hope that the movie theater experience doesn't ever disappear, but the convenience of these alternatives is impossible to resist for someone in my position. With that in mind, it's time for my ten once again.

10. Interstellar
Christopher Nolan is one of very few directors who has had enough commercial success that studios will go along with any film he wants to make and he makes sure to use that privilege. This three-hour science-fiction epic is the most ambitious blockbuster in years and treated audiences to some truly jaw-dropping images of the cosmos. Like Gravity did last year, Nolan uses digital effects judiciously and the galactic vistas of this film never look fake and when paired with Hans Zimmer's majestic Philip Glass-esque score, these scenes offer a breathtaking experience in the theater. As with a lot of the director's work, Interstellar engages the brain as well as the eyes. Not just any movie can mine tearjerking drama from Einstein's theory of relativity. This is Nolan's most personal and heartfelt work and even the flaws (the dialogue and characterization can get pretty spotty) seem to add to that feeling of seeing an artist known primarily for grim superhero dramas suddenly start wearing his heart on his sleeve.

9. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Studio Ghibili's Isao Takahata has never been as well-known internationally as his co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki. It could be that his films are a little less accessible - they're typically slow-paced and often very sad. Yet with his first film in over a decade, Takahata has again proven himself to be a tremendous artist, bringing an ancient Japanese fairy tale to life with a gorgeous charcoal/watercolor aesthetic while also deconstructing the harmful attitudes often found within these tales. When an older couple finds a mysterious baby girl inside a bamboo stalk, they believe she is destined for greatness. However, having to leave a simple life in a village for a "noble" life as a princess leaves her desperately unhappy. There is nothing romantic about royalty here, only the heartbreak that comes from being forced to conform to culturally accepted notions about the role you're supposedly meant to play. There are rumors that Studio Ghibli's days are numbered. This beautiful, innovative, intelligent and moving film is reason to desperately hope that is not the case.

8. The Sacrament
A gripping, devastating and heart-stopping tale of a mysterious cult that's heavily influenced by real-life events (although still technically fictional). A journalist, along with his cameraman, tracks down his sister at a commune in the jungle called Eden Parish. Director Ti West specializes in slow-burning tension and he spends the entire first half making the viewer wonder if Eden Parish, unlike the cults that obviously inspired it, just might be a great place after all. When the mysterious leader who goes by "Father" (Gene Jones, in an Oscar-worthy performance) shows up for a taped interview in front of his followers, you both fear and admire him at the same time. But when the ugly truth finally comes out, your worst fears are realized and the film turns into a terrifying roller-coaster. The other films on the list have more innovative qualities than this genre piece, but none of them dragged me to the edge of my seat in the same way.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Many people are getting sick of superhero films, even those of us who grew up with comic books, but I'll always be in the mood for a movie of any genre that's as satisfying as Days of Future Past. Let's count off everything Bryan Singer accomplished with this one. Adapting a legendary, influential comic book story for modern audiences while maintaining its 1970s setting. Creating a terrific link between Singer's past X-Men films and the newer series that began with the underrated X-Men: First Class. Most importantly of all, using the time travel plotline to completely undo the events of the horrendous X-Men 3. Comic books do this kind of thing all the time, it's called a "ret-con" and more often than not, they're not particularly popular with fans. I don't anticipate too many complaints about this one. Days of Future Past took a series that had gone way off the rails, totally rescued it and made me psyched for the next movie. If anyone still has any doubts about how cool this movie is, check out the already famous "Time in a Bottle" scene with Quicksilver on YouTube. You're welcome.

6. Birdman
It's hard to believe that such a surreal, weird movie is one of the front-runners for Best Picture, but then again, Hollywood is a sucker for stories about showbiz and director/co-writer Alejandro Gonzales-Innaritu has delivered a vivid portrait of an artist's fragile ego. One minute, washed up actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is getting a pep talk from the superhero he once played about his risky Broadway debut, the next minute that same deep voice is ripping him a new one. As has been noted many times by now, Michael Keaton once played a superhero himself. The movie has a few casting gags like this, including Edward Norton playing a notoriously difficult method actor and a few Mulholland Drive references around the Naomi Watts character. The camerawork is also a star - about 20 minutes in, I realized I hadn't noticed any cuts and sure enough, most of the movie is designed to look like one single take. With that wacky percussion score thundering in the background most of the time, Birdman was a truly unique movie experience. Innaritu has primarily specialized in bleak dramas like Babel and 21 Grams, so his apparent gift for dark comedy is definitely a surprise, but a welcome one.

5. Selma
This was always going to be an important film - after all, it's the first theatrically released movie where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is played by an actor and not archived footage - but I can't imagine the cast and crew expected it would emerge at a time when the persistence of America's systemic racism has become so overwhelmingly clear. Ava DuVernay's dramatization of the protest march from Selma to Montgomery walks a thin line between being inspirational and deeply discouraging when you realize that the 1960s atrocities depicted in this film haven't gone away. Racially motivated bombings? Still happening. Voter suppression? Having a major comeback thanks to the Supreme Court. Police attacks on unarmed, nonviolent demonstrators? Do I even have to ask? Needless to say, it's an opportune time to revisit this history and Selma places a welcome emphasis on the work involved to make change happen as characters discuss using politics, the media and the legal system in fascinating detail. For all his grand oratory, the real Dr. King is said to have been an introvert and what I really liked about David Oyelowo's performance was that he captured a careful, thoughtful side of the man while still killing it when it's time to give a big speech. Selma steps into a few well-worn Oscar bait cliches and it's already gotten a lot of flack for portraying President Lyndon Johnson as a dithering crank who had to be dragged kicking and screaming before he signed the Voting Rights Act, but as a cinematic interpretation, it raises the stakes of this moment in history in a way that only movies can. This is the right film at the right time.

4. The Internet's Own Boy
By the age of 25, computer genius Aaron Swartz had already invented the Creative Commons License and co-founded the site Reddit, two major moments in the short history of the internet. What happened that ultimately led to his self-inflicted death in 2013? This gripping and emotionally intense documentary chronicles his burgeoning activism and the tragic consequences that came as a result. A tireless advocate for freedom of information, Swartz hacked into the MIT database and uploaded a massive amount of academic journals to the internet at large, believing that the results of college research belong to everyone, not just students who have paid to browse the collection. He was arrested and in the long run-up to his trial, prosecutors made no secret of their attempt to make an example of him to discourage other potential hackers with less benign intentions. Terrified by the possibility of 50 years in prison and a $1 million fine for what was a victimless crime, Swartz was ultimately pushed to the brink and beyond. The film nicely summarizes the complicated issues at hand, even though it's never a secret that the filmmakers side with their subject, but what stays with you is the tide of emotion that builds throughout. For many of the people interviewed, the wounds have not healed and you can't help but question a government that would cause this much pain and anguish over something that was, in the grand scheme of things, a trivial offense. In keeping with what Swartz stood for, the entire film can be watched for free at the Internet Archive.

3. The Babadook
2014 was a fantastic, perhaps even transformative year for independent horror and this Australian masterpiece was the best of the lot. If the Academy Awards weren't so biased against horror, Essie Davis would be a front-runner for Best Actress as a struggling mother still coping with the sudden death of her husband while trying to raise an extremely difficult child. Things begin to go very bad when the family starts to encounter a monster with a very goofy name who is first introduced to us during an insanely creepy sequence of pop-up book art. The Babadook is highly creative with its scares, including a bit where the monster (who looks like a Victorian-era Freddy Krueger) is seamlessly inserted into an old Georges Melies silent film. Director Jennifer Kent evokes the early work of Roman Polanski by focusing intently on the heroine's troubled mental state, giving the film a brilliant ambiguity. In this case, the non-supernatural interpretation of the film's events is far scarier.

2. Virunga
The best documentaries tell stories that are just as exciting and powerful as fiction and this one has a magnificent story to tell. The region in the Congo known as Virunga is both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is supposed to grant it international protection. Despite that, the park has spent years under siege by Soco International, a British oil company dead set on pillaging the oil reserves within Virunga's borders. Several segments of the film showcase some undercover journalism and several of the oil company employees are caught on tape expressing contempt for the people on Congo and planning to take advantage of the region's unrest by inciting militant anti-government groups to siege the park, which is the last refuge for wild mountain gorillas. The behavior of Soco showcases some of the worst of humanity, but the park's rangers more than make up for it. Many come from violent upbringings but have found purpose protecting the gorillas and are ready to die protecting them. With its powerful story, beautiful nature footage and haunting music, Virunga is an amazingly powerful documentary. It also happens to have the most jaw-dropping pre-credits text you're ever likely to see.

1. Boyhood
I don't feel especially creative putting this one at the top, given that it's shown up on almost every critic's list (even critics who don't normally agree with one another), but every so often you come across a movie that's such a huge accomplishment that all you can do is just bow down. Filmed intermittently for 12 years, Richard Linklater's brilliant movie invites us to watch star Ellar Coltrane go from age 6 to 18 right before our eyes. The effect is amazing and draws us deep into its gentle story which always feels small-scale and intimate despite its nearly three-hour length. Mason (Coltrane) goes through the ups and down of adolescence and sometimes struggles with his relationship to both his divorced parents. His mother (Patricia Arquette) exhausts herself trying to make ends meet and has lousy taste in men, and his father (Ethan Hawke) is well-meaning but can't always be counted on. The subtle performances of the actors and Linklater's ear for dialogue lend a lot of authenticity and while it is clearly a personal film for the director, its success indicates that many in the audience have found it personal as well. A beautiful, innovative movie that will likely be ripped off a few times but never truly duplicated.

Honorable Mentions: Life Itself, Snowpiercer, The Imitation Game, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Enemy

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