Another year gone by, and what an odd and largely unremarkable one (at least for me). That’s not to say, however, that there were not plenty of good movies to see. Between two years – this and last – packed with film festivals as well as a summer living in Los Angels, I have racked up a shamefully high film count for 2014.
The final tally: 154. That’s a gain of over 50% from just two years ago. And, mind you, I still have many left to see, although only “Selma” and “American Sniper” would likely have ended up on this list. Impressively, I have actually managed to review all of them (including one for “A Most Violent Year” which irksomely has to be held another month).
I usually try to tie my year-end top 10 list around a theme or a unifying idea, and this year is no different. At the beginning of the month, my films were essentially set (sadly), but I could not for the life of me find a correlation or angle. Then, I read a rather snarky piece by Anne Thompson of IndieWire called “How to Make a Ten Best List in Five Easy Steps.”
Thompson is a highly regarded entertainment reporter, and I value her insight on industry news that provides more thorough coverage than the click-bait titles. At times, though, I find her writing contains a certain aura of superiority that verges on haughtiness. In this reductionist list, which I believe is meant to be in jest to some degree, here are some of her suggestions for top 10 building:
“1. Include a selection of brainy consensus critical faves of the sort that are likely to be Oscar contenders.
2. Add a few popular hits as well to show that you click with the mainstream.
3. Add at least one wild blue yonder arcane title, either foreign or up-and-coming indie, that will leave readers scratching their heads, impressed with your erudition. This proves that you saw way more movies than they did.”
I dismissed the piece at first, and then I told myself that such blind herd mentality was something to which I was not susceptible. I don’t normally drink the Kool-Aid and tow the critics/bloggers party line – I picked “Win Win” and “The Queen of Versailles” as my favorites of their respective years, for heaven’s sake!
Yet I could not shake Thompson’s piece off, for whatever reason. I kept thinking about it and realized that my top picks for the year might not match up with a ton of external validators, but they did meet a certain set of internal criteria. As it turns out, I do have a couple of favorite “types” that rear their heads in my annual top 10 list. These are not necessarily genres or styles of filmmaking so much as they are experiences.
So, without further ado, my extremely self-aware top 10 films of 2014. I hope no one is incredibly offended by me reducing these films to merely what they meant to me, but if you want to read a pure assessment of their merits, click on the title to be taken to my original review.
“The Skeleton Twins”
Directed by Craig Johnson
Written by Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman
Starring Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Luke Wilson
The Stirring Indie Dramedy (ex. “Young Adult,” “Enough Said”)
Few films this year walked such a fragile tonal balance, although “The Skeleton Twins” hardly felt like it was balancing anything. There was no back and forth between comedy and drama, no “on/off” switch for stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig to let loose. Director Craig Johnson brings such an honesty to the film that the two sides of the dichotomy hardly even feel separate at all. Gut-busting laughs and soul-crushing revelations flow as freely as they would in real life, allowing for authenticity and then recognition.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by Nick Hornby
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Thomas Sadoski
Jean-Marc Vallée’s subjective editing style was a nice aesthetic flourish to “Dallas Buyers Club,” and it was just that: an add-on that did little to bolster the film itself. In “Wild,” however, his unconventional montage style finds brilliant expression in a story where past woes and current struggles work in equal measure to push protagonist Cheryl Strayed towards her future. It is perhaps the most potent visual representation I have seen of what it is like to grasp for meaning in our experiences, and it augments the poignant emotional journey brought to life by Reese Witherspoon.
“Like Father, Like Son”
Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, and Yôko Maki
I actually saw this film back in 2013 – I missed it at Cannes but caught its theatrical release in London – and was instantly stunned by its immaculate construction and tender exploration of tough conundrums. Hirokazu captures something both culturally specific and universally relevant as he probes the nature of parenting, child rearing, and fatherhood (three different realms in the film). I suspect this film will only grow in resonance as I, unfortunately, continue to grow in years.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Paul Reiser
The Exciting Emergent Voice (ex. “(500) Days of Summer,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”)
While many cinephiles take great pleasure in anticipating the new film by Nolan/Fincher/Spielberg, there are few feelings more satisfying than seeing a bold new voice burst onto the scene and confidently assert themselves. I can hardly claim to have “discovered” Damien Chazelle, but after the rollercoaster ride of his “Whiplash,” I felt something more than the usual thrill and amazement. This virtuosic talent made me feel hopeful for the future of cinema.
Written and directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke
– and –
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain
I know it is kind of cheating to declare a tie, and I really cannot even take full credit for the corollary between these two films (thanks Josh Oakley). In their respective films, writer/directors Richard Linklater and Christopher Nolan explore the reaches and boundaries of cinema like no one else did this year. “Boyhood” looks for meaning in the small, the everyday, and the banal, while “Interstellar” searches for it in the grand, the cosmic, and the uncharted. Each has a few narrative hiccups or a brief detour into cliché, sure. Yet overall, they both moved me in ways that I struggle to explain – and I almost do not really want to figure out why. In an investigation of what makes us human, I felt enriched and alive as I sat transfixed by beams of light.
Directed by Laura Poitras
Before “The Interview” nearly caused World War III, there was only one film – to my knowledge – that a filmmaker risked their life and livelihood to bring to audiences. Laura Poitras found herself on the no-fly list after making “My Country, My Country” during the Bush administration, and her latest film about the overreach of the American security state as exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden led to internal calls for government censorship. While it is a common refrain among movie lovers that film can serve a greater good for society, only Poitras can really claim to have done anything of that sort this year. Her bravery is our benefit as we can now have a more informed conversation about what kind of country we wish to be moving forward.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and Riz Ahmed
The Blistering Social Commentary (ex. “Shame,” “Blue Jasmine“)
Around October or November, I fervently claimed that TMZ should be Time‘s person of the year for 2014. They broke the story about Donald Sterling that led to his immediate ouster, and they posted the Ray Rice video that sparked public outrage. Americans no longer want information for their news – they also want blood. No film better skewered this insane mentality than Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler,” a vicious satire of media culture that also functions as a savage excoriation of hollow careerism. Gyllenhaal’s raving mad performance, ironically enough, traps us into proving the movie’s point: we cannot turn away from a bloody, violent disaster in progress.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Gillian Flynn
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, and Carrie Coon
The Smart Adult Blockbuster (ex. “The Social Network,” “American Hustle”)
I devoured Gillian Flynn’s compulsive page-turner of a novel in a single day in summer 2013, which accordingly led to it taking the #2 spot on my most anticipated films of 2014. David Fincher’s film provided what seems impossible for most screen adaptations of beloved literary works. It replicated the experience of reading the book, much thanks to Rosamund Pike’s dementedly cerebral performance. It was mesmerizingly cinematic, perhaps Fincher at his most meticulous. Most importantly, it explored new territory within the material rather than just providing a carbon copy of the book.
“Two Days, One Night”
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione
American cinema has not stopped exploring the effects of the global recession, to be clear. But the film that explored its ramifications with the most cogent logic and emotional force came from the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Their latest tour de force, “Two Days, One Night,” offers an economic landscape as seen through the concerns of ordinary factory workers deliberating whether or not to help a down-and-out colleague. Their choice between taking a bonus or retaining the salaried position of Marion Cotillard’s Sandra illuminates a contemporary moral quandary of captivating complexity. This is not just a cold intellectual exercise, though, as their verité style invites identification and then a sweeping sense of sympathy for their reluctant hero.
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Ric Menello
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner
I have been waiting 22 months to unabashedly gush about this film, which I truly believe will ascend to a treasured position in the American cinematic canon. In Cannes, I walked out of the first screening of “The Immigrant” convinced I had just seen one of the greatest movies ever made. My conviction has yet to waver since then, even in spite of some savage reviews from the international press and a lack of confidence from the film’s distributor. The Weinstein Company’s lack of care for introducing audiences to James Gray’s masterpiece has converted ordinary movie buffs like myself into warriors for the cinema, who will now have to fight to secure a place for “The Immigrant” in the history of the craft.
Sure, the film boasts many impressive attributes that contributed to the success of many other titles on this list. It is beautifully shot, carefully written, delicately directed, and soaringly performed. What sets “The Immigrant” apart is Gray’s scorn for ironic distance and unashamed embrace of the need to feel. Before most cinema lovers knew how to break down a shot or analyze thematic subplots, I suspect many like myself were drawn towards the form because it touched something deep within us. This is a film that fulfills one of the most noble possibilities of the cinema, which Roger Ebert eloquently described as “a machine that generates empathy.” Watching “The Immigrant” was truly a transcendent experience for me, one that reminded me why I watch them in the first place and why I hold the best ones so close to my heart.
Again, these were the films that moved and inspired me the most in 2014. I do not claim that they are the “best” in any absolute sense, for everyone brings something unique to their movie viewing. I would love to hear what films touched you this year in the comments! (If they happen to match some of mine, then I might just rejoice all the more.)