Transitional. Tumultuous. Tiring. All words to describe one of the most eventful years of my life. Perhaps that’s why, in contrast to my lists of years’ past, I was more keen to appreciate dramatic, think-y flicks over the clang and clutter of the mainstream Hollywood machine. Once again, better late than never, I present my Top Ten films of last year.
I did not have the opportunity to see two films from 2014 which remained on my must-see list: A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels and Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea. Sometimes even waiting until January can’t produce a complete list, so if either of these films proves worthy, I will post it as an additional entry.
Other films of last year I quite liked: David Wain’s gut-busting rom-com sendup They Came Together, Jon Favreau’s deliciously meta Chef, Alexandre Aja’s clever and unique Horns, Peter Jackson’s epic Middle Earth finale The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, David Ayer’s real, grimy Fury, J.C. Chandor’s crime saga throwback A Most Violent Year, and Michael Cuesta’s poignant and home-hitting Kill the Messenger.
10. 22 Jump Street
Bravo Jump Street series, for showing us that even Hollywood’s worst ideas can be made original and fresh with the right talent behind them. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as writer/star Jonah Hill, are that talent, turning the eye-rolling idea of adapting a forgotten 80’s TV show, into not one, but two uproariously funny, ultra self-aware parodies.
“Nobody gave a shit about the Jump Street reboot, but you got lucky. So now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going,” comments police chief Nick Offerman dryly. “As if spending twice the money guaranteed twice the profit.”
Cue my shit-eating grin.
22 Jump Street takes the absurd, clichéd idea of a same-y buddy-cop sequel and runs, no, skips along delightedly with it. Not only does the film mock the very idea of the sequel, but it uses its predictability to play up a meta-relationship dynamic between leads Hill and Channing Tatum, who’re just two partners who must “investigate other people” before realizing what they’ve already got in each other. If these movies continue on for years to come as 22 Jump Street’s credits suggest, consider my tickets bought and paid for.
9. Exodus: Gods and Kings
2014 proved that America still loves playing the race card, and Ridley Scott’s vastly underappreciated Exodus was an unfortunate casualty of society’s increasingly erratic and irrational views on race. These arguments, easily diffused if one knows even a shred of detail about the way Hollywood works, divert attention from the real issues Exodus brings to light on religion, interpretation, and mythologization.
Gods and Kings is a gritty, contemporary retelling of the myth of Moses (Christian Bale), how he rose up against brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), and led the Jewish people to freedom. Yet refreshingly, the film occupies a closer approximation of the real world, portraying the events of the myth with objectivity, rather than rehashing the larger-than-life tale of religious folklore. And that’s exactly how modern society needs to start viewing its myths – from a more critical, objective, and rational perspective. Best of all, Exodus doesn’t pander to the faith-based market by forcing the viewer to accept the existence of God in the story. Rather, it allows them to come to their own conclusions based on the events that occur – does Moses truly wield the power of God, or is he just schizophrenic?
While its first act does drag, its third more than makes up for it, standing as a powerful look at how faith and religion can drive men insane, destroy nations, and change the world. The always-solid Scott evokes great performances, staging, and direction as always, and while Exodus isn’t his best, it’s certainly one of his ballsiest.
8. A Walk Among the Tombstones
If Non-Stop was Liam Neeson’s finest actioner since Taken, then Tombstones is his best dramatic turn since…wait, when was the last time Neeson made a compelling drama? Perhaps that’s why audiences seeking thrills over thought ignored A Walk Among the Tombstones, a true showcase of the actor’s many talents. Based on the novels by Lawrence Block, Tombstones follows recovering-alcoholic detective Sam Scudder (Neeson) on a mission to find the man, or men, who kidnapped, raped, and murdered the wife of a drug dealer (Dan Stevens), in the process enlisting the help of computer-savvy orphan TJ (Astro). Tombstones is, by most accounts, standard detective fare and won’t win any points for originality. But who cares? It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a really good thriller of this kind, a grisly (yet never exploitative), hard-boiled, plot-driven neo-noir that’s well written, well-acted, and well-directed. Writer/director Scott Frank is wise to keep his original script’s Y2K setting, the perfect backdrop for a grim detective story, and the way he stages the final sequence set to Scudder’s reading of the 12 Steps to Recovery is brilliant editing. Tombstones is a rare subtle, smart film that proves familiar isn’t always bad.
Most would hesitate to label Nicolas Cage’s career as anything other than ‘wildly inconsistent.’ But undeniably, when the actor hits his mark, he hits it with shocking resonance. In his best performance since 2009’s The Bad Lieutenant, Cage plays Joe, a mysterious southern laborer who begins taking under his wing local boy Gary (Tye Sheridan), who’s in need of both a job and a father. Director David Gordon Green captures some breathtaking, genuine southern imagery in a film that feels born and bred of the region. This is a place that raises generations of people succumbed to temptation and indulgence, including Gary’s abusive alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). With Gary, Joe seeks to right his own wrongs and set the boy on the right path he himself has too often strayed from. Like a dirty, rural Gran Torino, Joe is quiet and poignant, traits which carry over into one of its leading man’s best roles.
If I could halt time for a week, I would spend that week delving into the many layers, puzzles, and intricacies of Enemy. Easily one of the most dense, complicated films of this year many years before it, Enemy deserves hearty praise for its ability to pull an audience into its web (pun intended) of complexion. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the dual role of Adam and Anthony, two very different men that nonetheless look the same. But why? How? Enemy is an examination of self, identity, relationships with women, and really big spiders. But it’s also an exploration of totalitarianism and domination, not in the form of physical dictators, but, through societal patterns and motifs, inevitable human nature. Are we doomed to repeat our same mistakes without even thinking about it? These and many, many more questions will be asked of viewers, thought we never feel taxed by them, only challenged.
Enemy is shot with a mesmerizing, beautifully-lit gold aura, supplemented by focused performances and a subtle, haunting score, adding up to some of the most memorable imagery of recent memory. Enemy demands you to think, scattering clues throughout the film to suggest deeper metaphorical truths than its surface narrative might suggest. Yet the film’s answers are never too out of reach, and allow intelligent audiences to come to their own interpretations when all’s said and done. Watch the film, then delve deeper with these two great analyses.
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past
The latest installment of the rejuvenated X-franchise feels plucked directly from the Saturday morning cartoon vein, when this week, all your favorite characters travel back in time, meet their younger selves, then team up with each other to save the present. I mean that, of course, in the best possible way – Days of Future Past is a lot of fun, but what sets it apart from all the old cartoons is how deftly it juggles so many characters and subplots in one epic overarching narrative. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to First Class-era 1973 to prevent Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from using Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to create an army of sentinels, which threaten to plunge the present, last seen in The Last Stand, into a dystopian future. Featuring all A-listers at the top of their pulp-game, not only does Days of Future Past bring full-circle each of its many character arcs across the series’ 14-years-and-growing lifespan, the film proves even more entertaining and intelligent than any of its past installments.
Credit Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, and Matthew Vaughn, perhaps the only talent capable of fixing the X-franchise, as well as the major turnaround at home studio Fox, all of whom have finally realized the potential of the subgenre, and helped create one of its finest and most sophisticated entries. More, please.
I’ve always found Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to be one of the most terrifying aspects of space travel. Mere hours to the traveler equals years, decades to everyone he/she knows and loves back home. Interstellar might be one of the first films to confront that pain, the pain of seeing your friends, your family, all moving on without you. In the film’s most heart-wrenching sequence, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) receives a video message from his daughter, now aged the same as him, and watches her relate to him all that he’s missed in the mere days he’s been away. Cooper cries openly, and I’m not too proud to admit, I’m holding back tears too.
Those are the kind of emotional cords Interstellar strums perfectly between its sophisticated, occasionally overwrought narrative of a group of scientists travelling into deep space to find and colonize a new world for humanity. Sophisticated and overwrought is Christopher Nolan for you, who’s also consciously channeling some great influences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, right down to the soundtrack. Look past the breakneck pacing and regular leaps in logic. Interstellar is a better emotional ride than a logical one, an ambitious, complex film which bears a profound sense of wonder missing from most films today.
3. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Journalist types who’ve hailed Birdman as “Michael Keaton’s comeback,” congratulations, you’ve been had by the very film you’re reviewing. Yes, Keaton did play Batman, and yes, he hasn’t been in a lot of high-profile movies since then, but to suggest a parallel there between him and his character is missing the point. Birdman seeks to subvert, among other things, journalists who sensationalize and critics who critique based on expectation rather than art itself. Birdman is, in part at least, about the ways commercialism hinders that art.
Riggan (Keaton), former ‘Birdman’ actor of the 90’s, is now seeking a career in Broadway, struggling against an audience who cannot take him seriously. Among his obstacles are Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor impassioned by his own vision for his character, and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who sees her father as a failure. Riggan hears the voice of the Birdman character in his head, a voice of temptation and doubt. My favorite scene comes when Riggan aimlessly wanders the streets of New York, and in his mind, Birdman is flying right behind him, amidst CGI-fueled chaos of a giant robot bird attacking the city. Breaking the fourth wall, Birdman flies up to the camera and taunts, “This is what you want, isn’t it?!” And for many audiences, it is.
And therein lies the Unexpected Virtue in Ignorance. We as an audience use film to shroud ourselves from reality, escape from the harshness of challenge. We want that robot bird to fight Birdman because we don’t want to think, we want our movies quick and vapid, sensational and empty. What we don’t often realize is that the true artists out there are spilling blood, suffering, bearing their souls out trying to bring their art to life. And even when media sensationalism begins to overshadow the art itself, in the end, artists will take whatever exposure they can get, so long as their work gets seen. That’s the tragedy Riggan faces, and the one all true artists do too.
Birdman is shot and edited to give the impression of being captured in a single take, like its own longform Broadway play. It’s also funny, clever, and one of the most original movies of the year, commenting on success, failure, and scandal, all set to a smooth, jazzy soundtrack. Birdman is the type of movie that, the more you’re willing to think about it, the more you’ll get out of it. Which is why most people raised on the Hollywood machine won’t get it.
2. Gone Girl
Of all the films this year that slyly held a mirror up to society, only Gone Girl had the balls to reflect the realest, rawest flaws in all of us. Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) is accused of killing his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The media is quick to paint him guilty of the murder, the 24-hour news cycle’s endless speculation fueling deeper and deeper anti-Nick sentiment. Yet what follows midway through the film, if it hasn’t already, will blow your mind. Suddenly, this is a film about something bigger than just a murder.
I offhandedly described Gone Girl to a friend as the anti-relationship movie. While it could certainly fill that role neatly, Gone Girl is moreso a brilliant social satire of marriage, relationships, and how men and women think, feel, and perceive each other, all in the foreground of a global, salivating audience ready to feast on scandal. We watch as gender-biased newscasters (hello Nancy Grace lookalike) are quick to judge. We cringe as we learn the truth behind the murder. We’re intrigued to see how Nick uses the media to share his own perception of reality. And we’re crushed to learn the shocking and disturbing conclusion he chooses to settle on. It’s an ending which, while unrealistic on the surface, remains all too real on a metaphorical level. And just like that, Gone Girl is about how the guns we hold to our loved ones’ heads aren’t just made of metal, resulting in the little metaphorical deaths we all face in relationships, the lies we tell our friends, our family, the world, even ourselves, that everything is okay.
Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn, adapting her eponymous novel, create a genuinely twisted, terrifying murder mystery, set to a minimalist soundtrack and featuring pitch-perfect direction from Fincher. Gone Girl is simply a damn good film with a powerful message to send to the world – gender politics makes liars, even murderers, of us all.
There are two directors whom I believe have come the closest to portraying absolute naturalism in their work. The first is Terrence Malick, crafting pieces that seem to mirror nature to a T. The second is Richard Linklater who, while a more traditional narrative filmmaker, is no less talented at conveying, not in words but pictures, what it means to be human.
When I first discovered Linklater in the simple, beautiful Before Sunrise, I felt a remarkable connection to the filmmaker. Dialogue from Ethan Hawke’s character, wherein he expressed desire to create a TV show running 24/7 and portraying the real, unedited life of an ordinary man, mirrored some of my own idle thoughts on using film to depict life, love, legacy, and how they are each affected by the passage of time. And over the past ten years, Linklater has been working in the shadows to do just that – create a sort of video time capsule, a chronology of some of the most vital years of a man’s life, illustrating with stunning accuracy how it feels to grow up and make connections with family and friends amidst a complicated world of adult problems.
Boyhood, a film which gathered its cast and crew once a year every ten years to shoot scenes for the film, realizes almost all of its ambitions. My only nitpick stems from something I think Linklater hadn’t counted on – the change in his lead Ellar Coltrane, playing the principle boy lead Mason. By the time the film begins to explore Mason’s teenage sexual dalliances, Coltrane seems to be straying from where the script intends to take his character, and all I can think about is, “Are we sure this kid even LIKES girls?” Props to Linklater for sticking to the template, but I suppose this is just one of the little ways the passage of time doesn’t completely work in the film’s favor.
All the same, Boyhood transported me back to a consciousness I haven’t occupied in years, seeing the world through bright, curious, unseasoned eyes. It excels at ushering us back to a time when life just sort of happened all around us, a time when we were simply along for the ride, learning and watching, before finally standing up and discovering who we really are. Linklater has an innate knack for making even the simplest of life’s moments profoundly meaningful, and Boyhood proves his most vital film yet.