Thursday, January 15, 2015

Top 20 of 2014

This year I only saw 92 films. An abysmal effort on my part compared to previous years. I suppose it's difficult to keep up when getting married and buying a house! Nevertheless, there were still a good bunch of movies that I highly recommend. As always, note that these are MY favourites, not the "un-questioned formal masterpieces of the year", but rather, the ones I personally enjoyed the most and look forward to rewatching for years to come. Lastly, the qualifier for this list is the year in which it was widely available for me to view the film. i.e.: Under the Skin and Tim's Vermeer count, but Selma and Inherent Vice do not. 
Honourable Mentions:
Mockingjay: Part 1, The Hobbit 3, Alan Partidge: Alpha Papa
Did not see:
Life Itself, Wild, Big Eyes
Worst movies:
Transcendence, Video Games: The Movie

20. The Theory of Everything
A different movie than I was expecting for good and for bad. A biopic (which I am typically adverse to) about the life of Stephen Hawking that isn't about his studies and breakthrough discoveries, but rather, his personal life. It's a shame we don't get much insight into his research and ground-breaking ideas, but instead, we get a fascinating look at his life and relationship with Jane. This is in fact, her film.  Her struggles and trials in living with such an intelligent mind and his physical obstacles are grounded in a loving performance.  Mirrored against a pretty score by Johann Johannsson (which might as well have been Desplat or Glass), and gorgeous cinematography full of dazzling colour and lighting.

19. Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
The two best ever Marvel films were released this year. They are still doing essentially the same movies, but at least they are stylistically different now. The Winter Soldier is the sequel to my previous favourite Marvel entry. Yet it takes a completely different tone. This plays out like a conspiracy thriller (complete with a Robert Redford character). It's a more mature film and avoids the cornball comedy tangents that you'd find in the Iron Man and Thor movies. But the main asset here is the action. Having watched this a few times now, the action continues to glue me to the screen. From the opening black-ops stealth mission to the highway shootout, this is a great thriller full of strong kinetic punches.  

18. Noah
One of the controversial choices on this list, Noah is a beautiful and sweeping tale of a man losing his mind. Sorry to everyone who thought it was going to be a simple biblical and spiritual affirmation. It treats the bible and this story not so much as a religious parable, but instead as a fantasy epic. One of my favourite directors, Aronofsky, is not interested in focusing on the Christian morals and traditions of Noah and his ark; nor is he denying these themes. He is piecing together elements of the bible, fantasy epics, and melodramas. He is interested in posing the question: if these events did take place (in a fantastical or spiritual sense), what effect would it have on humanity, namely the one man with all this weight on his shoulders? It does delve into the melodrama a bit too much, but it remains powerful and grandiose. The score is great, the cinematography is lovely, the visuals are unique and there is a montage about the evolution of mankind that is the greatest scene of the year. 

17. How to Train Your Dragon 2
This is the year for great sequels (for once). Everything that was great about the first movie is great here.  A sweeping score, majestic aerial thrills, visually pleasing designs and heartfelt friendships. The animation is top-notch and the level of tangible detail in the dragon designs is sumptuous. The colours are vivid and you understand so much about each of these creatures just in the way they look. They have managed to build an epic scope and scale that rivals the finale of the previous film. Alpha dragons are their newest creation, and they are a marvel on the big screen. Most importantly though, the story is perfect. They expand the characters to their logical next step, explore their world further and pull off some hard hitting tear-jerking moments.

16. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson films aren't for everyone. Or if they are, they take a while to warm up to. Initially, I wasn't a fan of them, but after second viewings, they become charming storybooks worthy of comfort food. In this, his latest, we get a peek at the service industry of a fancy hotel. The head bellhop, Gustave, gets caught up in a murder mystery and hijinks ensue. Although I find it to be uneven and not as concentrated as Anderson's previous works, it is one of his funniest. Ralph Feinnes gives a wonderful and comedic performance as the stiff-upper-lip Gustave who occasionally lets his language divert itself from his gentleman-like appearance. And as per usual, Anderson creates wonderful mise-en-scenes composed of symmetry and infinite attention to detail, all wrapped up in an endearing score.

15. Gone Girl
David Fincher's latest cynical thriller is a vicious portrayal of the fraudulent personas we put on in relationships. Namely in marriages. It is also blatantly about the power of media and the ways it can spin the meanings of certain events. Who are we when we meet with our friends? our family? in the public's eye? How are we perceived? But it's the thriller mystery aspect that draws you in close to this 'romance'. The selling point of the film is of course Fincher's cold and calculated direction, paired with his recent editor Kirk Baxter. The way that they weave in and out of different perspectives and play with how we perceive the characters is a beautiful reflection of the themes mentioned above.

14. The One I Love
There have been a slew of recent low-budget indie films with Sci-Fi premises to hook in viewers, but most of them wind up being too blasé or hipster-ish (melancholic) to take seriously (Safety Not Guaranteed, Bellflower). This one is different because it truly cares about its gimmick and uses it as a metaphor for relationships. I'd rather not spoil even the plot of the film, so I'll just say that a couple who are stuck in a rut, seek therapy and relaxation at a getaway cabin.  From there, odd things begin to transpire, and they discover that their relationship is more on the line than they thought.  The film is an excellent examination of our identities in relationships (very similar to Gone Girl) and explores the story to its fullest extent. 

13. Guardians of the Galaxy
A much needed 'fresh' Marvel movie that stands out from their catalogue for the better. Equipped with amazing antiheroes, a spicy sense of humour, imaginative designs and creative colour schemes to dazzle the eye. This is the fun and imagination that should have been present in the Star Wars prequels. A space adventure worthy of being a cousin to the original Star Wars trilogy. The characters and performances of Starlord, Drax, Rocket and Groot (sorry, not so much Gamora) are endearing and are much needed additions to the now over-saturated pantheon of movie superheroes.  Its a shame though that this movie still has most of the trappings of the Marvel Movie system: uninteresting villains, a generic score, and a derivative climax. Nevertheless, it's a fun ride!

12. The Imitation Game
I've said several times before, I'll say it again. I'm not a fan of biopics (likely at the fault of Eastwood and Howard), but it makes it all the more pleasing when a good one is made. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a more fragile version of his Sherlock character, and yet more complex. Like many true geniuses, he is an introvert who struggles socially (not unlike Zuckerberg from The Social Network). At its core, The Imitation Game, is a simple character study about a man trying prove his worth, make friends and solve a problem. The stand out of this film is the screenplay. It delivers the crackling snarky dialogue of Mr Turing, the engrossing drama, and the wonderful parallels between his personal life and his job along with the past and present narratives. A perfect balance of character with plot.

11. The Raid 2
Building on the success of the first one, this Indonesian martial arts film goes full sequel. It expands everything to its full potential.  The fights are bigger, more violent and more innovative.  This movie is full of jaw-dropping moments, including a muddy brawl, a baseball bat & hammer fight, a final blade showdown, and one of the greatest car chases I've seen.  So of course, the actors and stunts are phenomenal, but it is the direction that is the biggest improvement from the original. The sequel looks better and more mature and the director shows off almost as much as his fighters. He pulls off some innovative shots (numerous long takes, cameras weaving in and out of car windows on a highway, through invisible stall walls in a washroom) and he honours the fights by keeping at a distance and showing all of the action.  You are never disoriented and he lets you see every kick, punch and breaking bone. The film does add an hour to the original and is certainly less efficient, but the addition of an actual plot and compelling story of the infiltration and takedown of a mafia is a thankful step towards maturity.

10. Tim’s Vermeer
Any great documentary takes a subject that you have no interest in or no knowledge on, and makes you 100% invested in it. This doc invites you into the life of a man who seeks to recreate a famous painting by Vermeer. He (The eponymous Tim) is a historian, not an artist. Tim is under the impression that Vermeer's paintings were made using an ancient camera/mirror technique. So he creates this tool and (having never painted in his life) starts to replicate a Vermeer painting. We follow his process through every step and every painstaking attention to detail and minutiae.  Whether he succeeds or not, you will have to decide for yourself. For this is a true assessment of what qualifies someone or something as an artist or art respectively. 

9. Fury
I like Brad Pitt WWII movies. This journey of a tank crew ploughing and surviving through the war is an intense yet beautiful action film. It may be blunt and not have much to say on war (war is hell and will warp young minds), but it is a thrill ride full of shocking moments and memorable scenes. The chilling score undercuts hellish scenes of war and violence, while the director and cinematographer give us visuals and stylizations that makes this feel different than other war films. The film is full of unforgettable set-pieces that drag our characters from one horrific battle to the next: a chilling quick opening scene, an unbearably intense dinner scene, a kinetic tank battle, and an "all for glory" shootout. And for once, I enjoy a Shia LeBeouf performance. 

8. Interstellar
A film that is getting too much flack for not being 'good enough', is simply a great and powerful film with flaws. As always, I will embrace ambition and artistic visions over perfection any day (hence why this is ranked higher than The Imitation Game). This SciFi film is a large-scale tale about the exploration of the universe in search of a new home for the doomed inhabitants of Earth. Script-wise, it's not Nolan's strongest film, but it is his most beautiful. There are exquisite shots of wonder and awe, paired with the permeating (albeit overplayed) theme of love. Perhaps after all of the great yet cynical films this year, I am pleased to support an ambitious work of beauty and optimism. Speaking of which, Hans Zimmer (the film's true star) delivered another fantastic score full of blastissimos and ethereal majesty.

7. Under the Skin
A creepy film. An odd film.  A challenge to its audience. A beautiful piece of art. A film Stanley Kubrick would have made were he still alive today. With very little dialogue, this is a film told (as it always should be) through images. An alien comes to earth (supposedly) and takes the form of a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson of course). She may or may not have sinister plans to seduce and destroy men, but then she has a change of mind and seeks to live her life as a normal human. Only to discover that our species is no better than hers. This is a powerful film with unforgettable images. Once you see them you can't unsee them! Built upon strong direction and a commanding tone, Under the Skin is a meaningful parable on the savagery in this world and a powerful exploration of feminism. 

6. Birdman
Michael Keaton plays an actor (not unlike Michael Keaton) who is famous for a set of superhero 'Birdman' movies he did a long time ago (not unlike Keaton's Batman movies), who doesn't get any respect as serious actor (maybe like Keaton). So he sets out to direct and star in his own play on Broadway in a calculated move to raise his level of 'artistic integrity' and prove everyone wrong. The story itself, with its biting commentary on art vs fame is reason enough to enjoy this film. But the thrill and enjoyability for me is the direction. The entire film is shot in one continuous take. Sort of. There are going to be cuts here and there for logistic reasons, but the director and editor hide them away so as not to attract attention to them. The actors all do a magnificent job at performing these long and complex scenes. Thankfully, this gimmick serves an actual purpose: to help put us in the shoes of a live performance of his play, while simultaneously delivering a hybrid statement on the 'plays' vs 'movies' motive throughout. This could easily be higher on my list were it not for a few 'odd' scenes near the end involving Birdman himself and the final scene. Perhaps a rewatch will sort that out for me.

5. Boyhood
Similar to Birdman, this is a film wholly structured on top of a filmmaking gimmick, but in the end, it amounts to much more. In this case, novel director Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over the course of 13 years. This is nothing new for the documentary world (as seen in films like Hoop Dreams and the Up Series), but this is a long-term first for fiction movies. The story follows a young boy as he grows up from age 5 to 18 using the same actor and supporting actors. Never drawing too much attention to what time period we are at, Linklater threads his narrative in a smooth fashion which creates a lifetime diary of events that can affect our upbringing. For me, I don’t find the boy’s story to be very strong (particularly in comparison to the somewhat similar Tree of Life), but that’s life: a simple series of moments that may or may not mean much to us while they happen, but they certainly shape who we are. More compelling is the growth and story his parents. As the film chronicles his maturity to age 18, we simultaneously experience his their growth, allowing for more depth and a complete lifetime tale to be told within the film. Each of them mature to a next logical step. One can’t help but think of the cyclical nature of life, in that once the boy grows up, he will experience a path not unlike his father and have to churn out his own direction.

4. Enemy
While making his great film Prisoners last year, Quebec director Denis Villeneuve simultaneously made this exquisite doppelganger film. My man Jake Gyllenhaal plays a History professor who leads an ordinary and boring life. Then, after watching a movie, he discovers an actor who looks exactly like him. The film progresses with a slow burn from there as we follow Jake tracking Jake in a cat & mouse game of obsession. Gyllenhaal is extremely careful and subtle playing two separate roles. The score is beautifully twisted with a unique orchestration. And the director films Toronto like I’ve never seen before, thus creating a character out the city itself. It is a perfect puzzle film wherein you always understand what is going on, but are never quite sure what each detail signifies. [What are those spiders doing?!] Yet it creates tension and drives curiosity; putting you in the shoes of the main character. The ending certainly leaves you questioning what truly happened. There are a handful of possibilities and dozens of online essays and articles on the speculation thereof. I have my own thoughts, but I’ll leave it to you to decide.  

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
I think this is the first year where the overwhelming releases of sequels actually pays off to have most of them be great (Dragon 2, Muppets 2, Raid 2, 22 Jump Street) or even better than their originals (Apes, Mockingjay, Hobbit, Captain America, Xmen). Apes 2 (for brevity’s sake) is just fantastic. The faults of the first film are eliminated (Malfoy and Franco), and the humans are dialled back to secondary characters instead of 50/50. This is the apes’ story, most notably Caesar. It is a tale of the fragility of peace, difficulties of leadership, inevitability of conflicts between factions, and the necessity of being a flexible civilization. Admirably performed by the great Andy Serkis and animated to an uncanny perfection, Caesar’s character arc is a strong one and has become one of my favourite characters in recent years. This is a good looking film that shows even the technological advances over the past few years for motion-capture and computer imagery. They no longer need to film mo-cap in a studio, they can do it on real locations and it pays off. The score is also an improvement, bringing on Giacchino to emulate the classic Goldsmith music. A live-action film which barely has any humans, and has us watching apes doing sign language for the first 15 minutes. This is comforting to know that the big blockbuster system supports this type of ‘originality’ (yes, I'm aware it’s a sequel & reboot).

2. Nightcrawler
With his hot streak of performances of late, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers his best in Nightcrawler. His Lou Bloom is a monster, a self-made capitalist, master manipulator, smooth-talking negotiator, awkward, sociopathic, polite, wide-eyed, thriving creation of the world he lives in. He is a result of the inundating media and corporate greed that surrounds us. A performance and character not unlike and on-par with DeNiro’s Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver). Nightcrawler is the story of how Lou (aimless yet determined) decides to start a career in late-night guerrilla news camerawork. Filming accidents, scenes of distress, and crimes, he treats it like his art and elevates his footage and himself up the corporate ladder in search of being the best. The film is a critique on our news media and of capitalist attitudes. The direction is beautiful and bold (the final chase sequence is remarkable) and the film lights up nighttime Los Angeles in a way that rivals Michael Mann’s Collateral. This is an engaging film anchored by a stellar performance and I can’t wait to watch again. If it leads, it bleeds.

1. Whiplash
Nightcrawler is a true masterpiece, so what could top it? How about a film tailor-made for me, and not nearly as cynical. Whiplash is the story, quite simply, of a jazz drummer in music school who seeks to be the best. No conflict there, except that his teacher and mentor is (for lack of a better term) a prick. A conductor who wants nothing more than to push his students to their extreme so that they can become the very best. A conductor who knows no other way of doing this, than to lash out at the musicians verbally and sometimes violently, but mostly mentally. It may sound depressing and unbearable to watch, but this in fact, is absolutely exhilarating and a joy to watch. It’s a character study of two ego-centric musical geniuses who battle against each other. Not because they hate one another (perhaps initially), but because they understand each other too well. They both want the same results and both are willing to go extra mile to get there. Both leads turn in stellar performances: the victimized yet determined Miles Teller who actually does a lot of his own drumming, and J.K. Simmons who chews the scenery and demands your attention at every moment. Much of the actual performing and musicianship is accurate for once in a film about music. And of course the music soundtrack itself is sweet. The director grips you all the way through this tight and efficient film and doesn’t let you go until the final snare hit. The final concert in the movie is a masterclass in music video editing and shot so kinetically, you’d think you were watching the final game in a sports film. I’m going to keep an eye on this writer/director who clearly loves music. His previous film Grand Piano, is a fun thriller not unlike Phonebooth (but on a piano), and his next film is supposedly about a jazz pianist!

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