Sunday, December 28, 2014
The Ten Best Films of 2014
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
No movie from 2014 was more engrossing, more transfixing, more inherently creepy than Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, which took a basic sci-fi concept (a foreign species, disguised as human, hunts down men for it's own species' nutrience) and produced the most unique moviegoing experience of the year. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her most startlingly daring role, Glazer uses the American movie star as an emotionless cypher combing the streets of suburban Scotland in a hulking white van and seducing men with the greatest of ease. The film's script, written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, doesn't give the film much in the way of explanation or motive for Johansson's character, a nameless being who moves from scene to scene in a stunted daze, waiting for her next victim. Under The Skin's narrative doesn't give the audience a base to start from and only becomes clear as it unfolds, reaching a climax that both chills and shocks in equal measure. In a year where science fiction had many exceptional submissions (Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), it's remarkable that it's a modestly-scaled indie that ends up taking the cake. Skin's mostly hand-held photography (cinematographer: Daniel Landin) and unnerving score (by Mica Levi) also add to the year's best, most brilliant movie theater experience. This is only Glazer's third film and it's his first film in ten years (since his masterful 2004 film Birth). Under The Skin shows both why he should start working more often and why he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, a true master of finding the strange in our everyday lives.
Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Who would've thought that three pre-teen girls would end up being the stars behind the greatest movie made about punk music this decade. Mira Barkhammer and Mira Grosin play Bobo and Klara, respectively, two rebellious youngsters who decide to start a punk band for the sole purpose of pissing a small handful of people off. Without any form of musical training, they recruit the Christian outsider, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), to play the guitar and bring the slightest legitimacy to their rockin' trio. As Hedvig slowly becomes indoctrinated into Bobo and Klara's rambunctious life philosophy, their unnamed band begins to take unquestioned (if slight) form, with an anti-sports anthem that makes up with punk spirit what it lacks in basic chord progression. Lukas Moodysson's latest film goes beyond grrrl power and creates one of the most realistic movies ever made about stirring adolescence. Too often, films about young girls coming of age hang on sexual exploration - boys get to come of age at the movies, girls usually have to cum of age. We Are The Best! avoids all of those pre-designed ideas about girls, and instead focuses on friendship. Not the smoothest friendship by any means, Barkhamer, Grosin and LeMoyne bring an unbridled joy to the film, as we see the girls face sexism from opposing local bands, as well as disruptions from their meddling parents. When another local punk band of similarly-aged boys threatens to tear the girls apart, they respond with a kick-ass performance in what I found to be the most satisfying ending to any movie I saw this year.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
All hail Paul Thomas Anderson. His seventh film is a trippy-dippy journey through a fictional part of Southern California during 1970 with a pot-addled protagonist named 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). A private investigator, Doc wanders through 'Gordita Beach' trying to juggle various cases involving his hippy ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), his current girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), his maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), the ex's millionaire boyfriend (Eric Roberts), a former heroin addict (Jena Malone), her dead saxophone player husband who's probably still alive (Owen Wilson), a sex-crazed dentist (Martin Short), an enthusiastic whorehouse desk girl (Hong Chau) and a self-described "renaissance cop" (Josh Brolin) who's always got his eye on Doc. Inherent Vice is an often hilarious, occasionally melancholy stroll through a period in American history where the Peace & Love 1960's spilled into the Me Generation of the 1970's. Anderson's usual penchant for grim genre stowed away, Vice is Anderson's most light-hearted film since 1997's Boogie Nights, and it's certainly his funniest. The ensemble cast is end-to-end fantastic, led by Phoenix who shows another wrinkle to his seemingly endless range. Backed by phenomenal Robert Elswit's cinematography (shot on 35mm) and a top-notch music score from Johnny Greenwood, Anderson adapts the best-selling novel by Thomas Pynchon and elevates it from an entertaining noir to a brilliant, oddball meditation on the loss of American innocence.
Directed by Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras' incredible access to Edward Snowden in the days leading up to his leak of NSA practices is one of the biggest scoops of any journalist in American history. The footage she captures of the whistleblower's steel rebellion transform itself into fearful paranoia is the core of the year's best political thriller. Snowden knew that the information he was sharing would bring him ungodly attention, that he may even be arrested. He stands firm in his belief that he did the right thing in informing the American public as to just how tenuous their privacy actually was. But as CITIZENFOUR continues on, we see his firmness start to buckle as the ever-growing monster that he hoped to expose takes its aim at him. Poitras is smart not to canonize Snowden, even while admitting a form of empathy. The information that he gave her uncovered a very sobering reality concerning how our government used the threat of terrorism to grant themselves access into our own private information. The film's message is bleak, made all the more troubling by Snowden's eventual, expected villainization by the national media and his consequential entrapment in Russia where he is being granted a one-year asylum. As polarizing a figure as Snowden is to the American public, CITIZENFOUR displays him as ultimately idealistic, possibly naive and incredibly willful. Enough time has passed so that the public knows that Snowden is not just an enemy of the state, but Poitras' film stipulates - and makes a convincing argument - that it may be too late for Snowden and for us.
Directed by Wes Anderson
On the surface, Wes Anderson's eighth film may seem like his most slight - the fictionalized version of Eastern European countries, the whimsy of Alexander Desplat's score, the over-the-top performances - but The Grand Budapest hotel is indeed one of the filmmaker's most thoughtful, melancholy meditations on humanity that he has ever created. The movie takes place in the Republic of Zubrowka, a snowy Eastern European kind of city that houses the famed Grand Budapest Hotel, a resort known for its high swank and customers with deep pockets. The Grand Budapest's most treasured asset is its maniacally committed concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), an effeminate but suave lady's man who loves charming all of the elderly women who come to stay. When one of the hotel's most beloved patrons (played by Tilda Swinton) is mysteriously murdered, Gustave becomes a prime suspect and must run for his life against the dead woman's temperamental son (Adrien Brody) and his homicidal goon (Willem Defoe). With the help of his equally dedicated lobby boy (Tony Revolori), Gustave hopes to clear his name and keep the Grand Budapest afloat. Set against the backdrop of the oncoming World War II, Anderson's charming way of dealing with the historical settings including the eventual Cold War presents a universe unlike any seen in Wes' prior films. Above all, it's the performance from Fiennes that makes Grand Budapest such a wonderful experience. The actor's incredible range is on full display as he melds Anderson's usual blend of absurdist humor and somber emptiness. It's the best performance in a Wes Anderson film since Gene Hackman's incredible work in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
This might be cheating a little bit, since this was technically Chile's Oscar submission from last year, but it never got an official American release until January, which is when I saw it. So considering all that, I'll say it's safe to put it on the list. Though Gloria is good enough to be amongst the best films of any year. Paulina García stars as the titular Gloria, a woman heading toward the end of middle age but still partying like she's in her twenties. Her children, cemented in their own lives and responsibilities cannot take much time for their lonely mother who still quixotically hopes to find love on the dance floor. When she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a sensitive man of similar age, she thinks she may have finally found someone who shares her lust for the golden years, but when Rodolfo's own insecurities and past begin interrupting their newly blooming romance, Gloria has to confront a part of herself she didn't realize still existed. American dramas rarely tackle the issues of the middle-aged as colorfully as you see here, as Garcia gives such a funny, bare performance that is equal parts tender and heartbreaking. Co-written and directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, Gloria is a film made with a wonderful spirit, unafraid to display the naked (literally) truth of the beginning of advanced age.
Directed by Dan Gilroy
The performance that Dan Gilroy gets out of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler is equal parts funny and garish, the most uninhibited that the young actor has ever been. He plays Lou Bloom, a possible sociopath with a talent for turning on a blinding smile when the time calls for it. On a whim, Lou decides to take up a job as a "stringer", a freelance news journalist capturing local news footage in the night when all the union men have gone to bed. If it bleeds, it leads - and Lou takes this cliché to heart, manipulating crime scenes and even allowing horrible crimes to happen so he can get the quality footage. Lou mostly deals with Nina (Rene Russo) a TV news exec under pressure to goose ratings for her flailing news show and she appreciates Lou's extra effort. As Lou's unethical behavior at crime scenes become more and more encouraged, Lou's limits become more and more expanded. Hiring a poor young man named Rick (a brilliant Riz Ahmed) to be his unpaid "intern", Lou is equipped to run a two-man operation, seeking to take the local news world by storm. Nightcrawler's political views are apparent but not indispensable to the film, it wears them proudly but more than happy to stay mostly as a haunting character study. And this is where Gyllenhaal truly shines, embodying the overflowing antisocial behavior, always keeping Lou Bloom at the exact tipping point and never more or less. It's an incredibly measured performance within a film that knows how to use it. This is Dan Gilroy's first feature film, but he's the brother of writer-director Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, a talented family indeed. Nightcrawler showed that he already has the screenwriting chops to make a fully realized film.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Cheryl Strayed's memoir from 2012 was a smash hit for the famed essayist, which allowed her to expose her own troubled past as a form of catharsis. When the rights to the film adaptation were purchased by Reese Witherspoon, it was easy to be cynical about the story's rougher edges being smoothed out for a movie star's vanity - but Witherspoon is completely unfiltered here, unlike any other performance in the actress' career. Strayed's memoir focuses mostly on her own personal quest to hike through the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border through the Western woods and desert, into Canada. The script, written by Nick Hornby, splits time between Cheryl's harrowing, three-month trek through the woods and her tortured past, which includes her crumbling marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Director Jean-Marc Vallée creates such a wondrous visualization of Cheryl's inner torment, a truly cinematic interpretation of depression that is rare in contemporary American films; Vallée attempted this with last year's Dallas Buyers Club, but this film is much more suited to those cinematic tastes, less dependent on linearity. But the film's truest source of power comes from Witherspoon, who gives one of the best performances of her career, displaying Strayed's journey toward the light at the end of the tunnel. What makes Wild special is that Vallée, Hornby and especially Witherspoon understand that the story's power comes not from the light, but the tunnel.
Directed by Doug Liman
This movie started as All You Need is Kill then hit the theaters as Edge of Tomorrow and is now being distributed on DVD and Blu-Ray as Live, Die, Repeat. Whatever this movie may actually be called, it certainly is the best Summer blockbuster that I got around to seeing. Bourne Identity director Doug Liman does what few studio directors would have had the courage to do, and that is craft this sharp sci-fi action film as an engaging comedy, a sort of Groundhog Day meets Halo. Taking Tom Cruise in his best leading role since 2004's Collateral and placing him alongside the consistently wonderful Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow (the title I'm settling on here) finds pockets of sweetness where you wouldn't expect, and has the guts to be a big-budget action film that relies on more than just mindless action sequences to keep its audience entertained. Cruise is a PR man for the military which is trying to fight off a violent alien species and stave off extinction. When he's forced into becoming a soldier, he incidentally ingests the alien's trait which allows him to relive the same day over and over until he can discover the key to killing the species and saving Earth. Every day, Cruise must re-introduce himself to the war hero played with marked skill by Emily Blunt to gain help against this apparently unstoppable group of aliens. Cruise shows off why he was once the most beloved movie star in the country, but the chemistry between him and Blunt goes well beyond the usual Cruise-and-leading-lady routine - Blunt has the skill to match wits with the gargantuan movie star, and she shows why she may be the most under-appreciated asset in the movies today. Edge of Tomorrow is old school in its escapism and it's leading man appeal, and it's that quaintness which stood it apart from the rest of the Summer action films.
Directed by John Michael McDonaugh
John Michael McDonaugh's grim meditation on the rotting fish that is the Catholic church is one of the most chilling films I witnessed this year. The always tremendous Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a good-hearted priest living in a scenic Irish town populated with religious hostility. The film opens with Father James sitting in the confession booth, being threatened by a faceless man who promises to kill him in seven days time. In those seven days, Father James explores the town and speaks with it's sordid collection of misanthropes, including a smarmy butcher with a history of domestic violence (Chris O'Dowd), a cynical doctor (Aidan Gillen), an eccentric millionaire (Dylan Moran), and a brooding mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé). In this time, he also gets a visit from his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly), who's just as shocked as anyone at the constant antipathy that Father James is met with by the entire town. McDonaugh - the brother of award-winning playwright and fellow filmmaker Martin McDonaugh - directs his second film here. His first film, The Guard, was mostly a vehicle for Gleeson, but Calvary is a true artistic statement. It's thoughts on Catholicism and its deep-rooted, symbiotic connection to Ireland stretch far beyond the usual declarations of religious corruption. The film understands how a culture can be undone by its own dogma, and it's the truly good-natured, like Father James, who usually face the biggest brunt from the blowback.