At the Mediascape Blog, we like to think the movie year ends with the Academy Awards. To mark this year’s Oscars, editors JM Olejarz, Matthias Stork, and Dan Gvozden present their Top 10 lists for 2014.
10. Maps to the Stars
Look, I love weird movies about Hollywood (Mulholland Drive, Barton Fink, etc.) and I still thought Maps to the Stars was insane. When David Cronenberg’s last movie, Cosmopolis, made my Top 10 list for 2012, I said that I liked “how fully it commits to how weird it is,” and that nails Maps too. Whatever late-career mode Cronenberg is in right now, I hope he keeps it up for a while.
1) One of the most body-positive movies I’ve ever seen, 2) a fantastic lead performance of confidence and curiosity by Carla Juri, 3) a fresh, funny, romantic-comedy-ish take on growing up, parents, motherhood, and what it means to have a body, 4) kind of like if the toilet scene in Trainspotting were stretched out to feature length.
8. Inherent Vice
A hazy private-eye mystery that almost makes sense if you squint hard enough. The movie seems to form a trail of breadcrumbs by tossing them over its shoulder at random. For some people it’s frustrating, but if you relax and let the movie wash over you, it becomes a story whose villain isn’t a person or an institution or a powerful authority figure, but causality itself.
7. Stranger by the Lake
A thriller whose sense of dread grows out of its devotion to its setting. At a gay nude beach in France, someone is murdered. We, the camera, never leave the lakeside, which echoes how the men are drawn back to it again and again. They allude to their lives away from the lake, to meeting for dinner, to spending the night together, but we never see it. The murderous threat would vanish if they would just stop coming to the lake, but they can’t. The lake is the whole universe of the movie. And in a way, of the men, too.
Energy just radiates off this thing. Every once in a while a movie comes along that makes editing’s power obvious. See how the length and succession of images drive the movie forward? It’s jazz in shot cutting, as exciting to watch as the musicians themselves.
5. Edge of Tomorrow
The last 20 minutes are Standard Action Movie Finale, but the first 93 are slick, crisp, funny, precise, confident filmmaking with a time-travel twist. The only thing that could make the movie better is if the title had remained All You Need Is Kill. And Bill Paxton is one of the great pleasures of American cinema.
4. The Babadook
A horror movie that’s more unsettling than outright scary, where the monster is inside you and isn’t going anywhere. Plus, the shot composition and attention to sound are amazingly intricate; that this is Jennifer Kent’s first movie only makes it more impressive.
Remember the machine Batman builds at the end of The Dark Knight, the one that allows him to track everyone’s movements and communications around Gotham? Well, it’s real, it exists, the NSA has it, and it reaches worldwide. Whatever your feelings about Edward Snowden, this is only going to become a more important issue the more our lives move online, and Laura Poitras’s movie somehow manages to sustain a tense, suspenseful atmosphere out of a few people talking in a hotel room.
Watching movies based on history can often feel like homework (see: most of the Best Picture nominees this year), but Selma juggles the macro and the personal with remarkable dexterity. It grounds you in the day-to-day organizing while keeping one eye on the national scale. And David Oyelowo’s powerhouse performance (one of those cliché phrases you never want to write until you see an actor like him in a role like this) commands the screen while reminding us that history is made not by bold names in school books, but by flawed, ordinary people.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
It works so well because the aesthetic serves the story to a degree that none of Wes Anderson’s other movies have matched. The story’s scope and layers of remove (a writer relaying what the hotel owner told him of his life pre- and post-war) justify the grandeur of color and persona that suffuses every frame. But there’s a sadness to it, too—it’s not just a hotel that’s fallen into ruin, it’s a way of life, a kind of honor and manners, a vision of a certain world that’s now gone forever.
10. The Raid 2
The sequel is more ambitious in its storytelling than the original The Raid which celebrated its status as a video game on the big screen. The Raid 2 strives for a more cinematic legacy, an undercover cop film with an operatic quality. The story, in spite of its ambition, is fairly conventional. The action, on the other hand, can claim historical significance. The fight sequences are vibrant and electrifying, with every punch sending jolts through the screen. And when Haendel’s Sarabande sets in, it all reaches a level of grandeur unparalleled in modern action films.
9. The Rover
A simple plot with shrewd political commentary, The Rover is a revisionist Western set in a dystopian future that goes beyond the typical genre formula.
8. The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie is, above all, a political satire that builds a mainstream franchise by critiquing everything it constructs. It puts on display the critical scope of self-referential humor. More than that, it works as a unique animation exercise, full of vitality and charm.
The film’s direction emphasizes time. Foxcatcher is a slow film that slowly deconstructs the psychological texture of elitism and aristocracy. The lead performances are gripping and the evolution of the story has a long-lasting effect.
6. Big Hero 6
Disney Animation continues its success story with this beautifully animated tale about a kid, his robot, and a team of superheroes. Big Hero 6 is an amazing follow-up to Frozen.
5. Two Days, One Night
The Dardennes’ newest film grounds the broader context of socio-economic plight in a series of utterly affecting vignettes about life … their films always feel simple and relatable, while they tackle serious, complex issues.
Birdman is a meta-narrative about the making of art and it is entertaining as such, but what makes it stand out is the film’s spectacular central performances and a strong commitment to visual experimentation.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is a roller-coaster ride unlike any other this year, and the best superhero film to date.
The most beautifully photographed film of the year and a nuanced examination of faith and post-war trauma.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s magnum opus, The Grand Budapest Hotel interweaves history and fiction in a whimsical tale about a world gone by. Decorated with the director’s signature formal flair, the film is a brilliant dissection of a critical time in Europe’s past, told through a unique perspective, that of the active bystander.
2014 has been an excellent year for independent cinema and artists with distinct and unique voices. Nine of my ten choices are from writer/directors and have a clear and unique authorial vision. It pained me to leave so many great films off my list, a list that I feel could be completely reordered and still reflect my feelings about 2014. There are a number of titles that I still wish I had seen to consider for this list, but as with any “best of” list this is based of an incomplete sampling.
Please watch the my video of my Top 10 Films of 2014 (text included below).
10. Edge of Tomorrow
When I first saw the trailer for Edge of Tomorrow I thought, “This film looks disastrous.” Images flashed before me with little context and the story seemed nearly impenetrable. The film’s box office take seems to reflect this confusing marketing, so much so that the film was retitled to Live. Die. Repeat for its home video release.
Hopefully with this new marketing the film will find its audience because I found it to be the most entertaining film of the summer and one of the most refreshing takes on the science fiction genre in some time. Tom Cruise plays against type as a cowardly Major William Cage, who is forced to don an ExoSuit in the battle against the Mimics, a force of seemingly unstoppable alien invaders that resemble killer Koosh-balls.
Through a series of events, Cruise gains Bill Murray’s powers of repeating the same day over and over again, except this time the daily restart is triggered by his death. Edge of Tomorrow quickly takes this video-game concept and has tremendous fun with it, killing Cruise hundreds of times as he slowly learns to become a hero. The real surprise of the show is his costar Emily Blunt, as a battle-hardened military hero who takes Cage under her wing. Their relationship is treated with real care and allows Blunt to embody a truly empowering female character complete with a mechanized Cricket bat to destroy her enemies.
9. Force Majeure
Director David Fincher tried his best to take a stab at the gender expectations and sexual dynamics of married life in his Gone Girl but was far less successful than Swedish director Ruben Ostland’s Force Majeure. This dark comedy places a Swedish family in the French Alps on a picturesque family vacation. The film opens with the family posing for the perfect picture, a forced expression of their less-than-perfect family dynamic.
When a man-made avalanche threatens to destroy their lodgings, the split-second reaction of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) seemingly reveals his cowardice nature. The effect this avalanche and Tomas’ reaction has on his marriage, through the eyes of his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli), is more disastrous than the avalanche itself. The film continues to deconstruct their marriage until its absolutely stunning finale that relocated my stomach to my throat for its entirety.
8. The Trip to Italy
The Trip quickly became famous for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s hilariously accurate impressions of Michael Caine and their ensuing competition to prove theirs the more precise of the two. Those who watched beyond this YouTube clip found a film with a wonderfully truthful portrayal of male friendship, specifically just how competitive two friends can be.
The Trip to Italy offers more of what made The Trip so wonderful: the food porn, witty banter, beautiful scenery, and camaraderie are all back. However this time the roles of the two friends are flipped. Brydon’s jokes quickly reveal a hidden insecurity that manifests itself in ruinous ways as the two tour the Italian coast.
I laughed myself silly throughout the film until that very humor gave way to a richly dramatic core that elevated the film far above the original. If Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon plan to travel to another European location for a third film I will book a ticket to join them in a heartbeat.
Birdman flies high on the back of its incredible ensemble cast consisting of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts. Keaton soars back to his former glory as Riggan Thomson, an actor seeking to restart his career by directing and starring in a Broadway production, after he quit portraying the superhero Birdman over two decades prior. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera portrays the film in a single shot, digitally edited together, to capture Riggan’s slow descent into madness. As a secondary effect, this camera technique allows Birdman’s actors to disappear into their characters in long, theatrical scenes that build and build until the tension becomes downright dangerous.
The line between reality and imagination continues to blur as the world of Riggan’s theatrical production completely takes over his mind. Only as Riggan races through Times Square in his underwear are we given a brief glimpse that a world exists outside of the looming opening of Riggan’s show.
I suspect that Ida is one of the most beautiful and moving black-and-white films that has ever graced the medium. The film tells the story of a young Polish woman named Ida who is intent on taking her vows to become a sister of the church. To do so, her Mother Superior orders her to investigate her past and learn of the fate of her parents through her estranged aunt. Agata Trzebuchowska’s Ida and Agata Kulesza’s Wanda Cruz take an odd couple road trip through 1961 Poland to reveal the fate of Ida’s parents, who are revealed early on to be Jewish. The trip awakens Ida to the world around her and casts serious doubts on her future with the church.
Ida stunningly portrays post-World War II Poland and challenged my pre-conceived notions about how innocence and knowledge intersect with each other. The photography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal is perfectly framed throughout the entire film and pushes extreme compositions meant to assert the presence of God on his parishioners.
In the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series, Richard Linklater chronicles the lives of Jesse and Celine in real-time, checking in on them every nine years. With Boyhood he shot several minutes of film every year for the past twelve years to tell the story of Mason Jr.’s (Ellar Coltrane) growth from the age of six to eighteen. This portrayal of time is a monumental achievement that took patience and persistence on the parts of everyone involved in the production. The result is no trick; Boyhood poetically captures the quick slippage of time and how little decisions can alter one’s life. When young Mason Jr. is playing with saw blades I seized up with tension over how one wrong move could forever alter his life. Time has never been portrayed in a visual medium like this and for that reason, emotionally, technically, and intellectually, Boyhood is such a tremendous success.
Damien Chazelle’s debut feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) showcased a youthful energy and unique vision for capturing the magic of musical performance. His second film Whiplash shows that he is a director who has grown in innumerable ways since his first film. Miles Teller portrays a young jazz drummer whose drive to become the best lands him a spot at a prestigious music conservatory and in a band with an abusive conductor played by J.K. Simmons.
The two deliver their best performances as they clash both inside and outside of the classroom. To what lengths and costs will both Teller and Simmons characters go to for perfection? The climatic duel between the two in the final scene hints at a destructive and dark answer and packs more firepower than any war film could ever muster.
Every generation a film comes along to reflect culture’s misplaced values or misunderstanding of where importance should lie. From Travis Bickle to Patrick Bateman, film audiences have regularly been introduced to characters that exist to exploit, intentionally or not, the holes in society. Regardless of their actions, often quite monstrous, these characters’ choices are championed as success stories. Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom is no different. After a close encounter with a deadly after-hours accident on the freeway, Lou becomes obsessed with the idea of joining the ranks of Los Angeles’s “nightcrawlers,” cameramen who chase after police reports of grisly crimes for footage they can sell to morning news programs. “If it bleeds it leads,” is the mantra here and these stations are willing to back up their words with a hefty sum of money.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou is the most interesting character this year and my absolute favorite performance. Coupled with cinematographer Robert Elswit’s nighttime photography of Los Angeles, Nightcrawler presents a terrifyingly twisted perspective of capitalism played out to an extreme. Lou manipulates and disposes of his partners with such ease and numbness that each scene of the film feels like a trap just waiting to be sprung.
When Nightcrawler culminated in one of the slickest shot and performed car chases I’ve ever seen, the audience of my theater burst into spontaneous applause. How’s that for a success story?
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
After my disappointment with Moonrise Kingdom I felt like the time had come for Wes Anderson to try something new with his directorial choices. I felt he had mined his particular style for all the charms and surprises that he could. That said, I love to be proven wrong. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson doubled down on his signature style for what might be the most Wes Andersonian film he has ever made. To that point, The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most successful film to date that utilizes all the different directions his career has taken him and blends them all together in one delicious package, complete with a cherry on top.
Ralph Fiennes’ Monsieur Gustave is just a joy to watch as his gentlemanly front gives way to fits of expletives and physical violence. When he and his lobby boy, newcomer Tony Revolori, go on the run with a painting from one of Gustave’s deceased customers the film opens up to a grand chase through mountains, hotels, trains, and prisons that is consistently hilarious, thrilling, and even scary; there are sequences of this film that feel like lost Hitchcock short films.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the film that reinvigorated my desire for more of Anderson’s distinct aesthetic just when I was ready to label it played out.
1. Under the Skin
When I first left Under the Skin I was a bit flummoxed. The film is an unapologetically unique experience from a perspective that I’ve never seen a film take before. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human skin that roams the Glasgow countryside and shopping malls searching for male prey to seduce. The filmmakers attached hidden cameras to her van to capture real men interacting with Johansson before she takes them back to her apartment. What happens in the apartment has to be seen to be believed but know that her intentions aren’t exactly pure.
Under the Skin is unique; its story is told as if an alien stepped behind the camera to direct it. The imagery of motorcyclists driving through the night and Johansson prowling through a dance club is abstracted and sleek, as if all emotion and human folly were extracted. A baby screams for its parents on a beach and Johansson walks right past it, uncaring and unsympathetic. This perspective applies to Mica Levi’s unsettling score, featuring atonal strings and dancing electronic sounds that skip from speaker to speaker. It is an experience that got under my skin (pardon the expression) and never left me. Months later I find myself thinking more and more about Under the Skin as the most purely cinematic experience I’ve had in the theater this year. That’s not to mention that the film presents a strong commentary on female body image and what it means to be human in a way that is truly haunting.
Combine all of these elements and Under the Skin stands out as an experience unique to cinema and my favorite film of 2014.