By Luther Elmo
Once a year at Oscar time, I compile my own list for the best films of the previous year. I used to just pick from within the group that had actually received Oscar nominations; however, it soon became apparent that the Academy did not necessarily reward nominations based solely on achievement (gasp, there’s actually politics involved in the process) and many creators who took artistic risks and attempted to be innovative were outright ignored. So today I present my list for the Top 20 Films of 2014.
In my opinion, 2014 was an exceptionally strong year in film. It was difficult to whittle it down to just 20 films, and some films that at one point I thought would certainly be on the list, aren’t. A couple of qualifiers, though. First, there were 323 films listed by the Academy as being eligible for Best Film in 2014. Short answer: I didn’t see them all. Secondly, evaluating films and ranking one better than the other is subjective. Short answer: I have a set of concepts that I appreciate in film — interesting stories and characters that are shown in interesting and innovative ways. So let’s get started with the list…
20. The Theory of Everything (Dir. James Marsh): Marsh, better known for his documentaries (he won an Oscar for Man on Wire (2008)), has assembled a solid film primarily behind the interaction of his two leads: Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife, Jane (both received Besting Acting Oscar nominations). Sometimes it feels like a “Hallmark-plus” film, but it’s beautifully filmed and the two leads are so good, you feel the emotional weight that they carry (Redmayne really captures Hawking’s physical deterioration).
19. Ida (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski): A young novitiate poised to take her vows is sent to meet an unknown family member and learn of her past in 1960’s Poland. Shot in black-and-white film with absolutely stunning use of light, shadow, and frame construction, this film doesn’t waste a single image in telling its story of the aftermath of WWII on the lives of Polish people (only 82 minutes in length).
18. The Imitation Game (Dir. Morten Tyldum): Benedict Cumberbatch gives yet another performance of a tortured genius (he’s previously played Stephen Hawking, Julian Assange, and Sherlock Holmes). This time, he’s Alan Turing, the mathematics genius who was instrumental in breaking the Germans’ Enigma code and helping the Allies win WWII. The film focuses on three phases of Turing’s life: school, WWII efforts, and his post-war troubles due to his homosexuality. I’m not a big fan of bio-pics, but the war efforts are interesting enough to make this one worthwhile. Keira Knightly shows up to collect an Oscar nomination (deserved? meh…).
17. Only Lovers Left Alive (Dir. Jim Jarmusch): Depressed musician-vampire Tom Huddleston reunites with his lover Tilda Swinton (vampire- yes, musician or depressed – no). Instead of focusing on the more traditional horror aspects of vampires, Jarmusch explores the idea that vampires — with their particular length of perspective — are more discriminating in their artistic choices and appreciations (Huddleston constantly refers to humans as zombies — then again, so do I after grocery shopping). Sometimes it feels as if they are too cool and eclectic for their own good; Huddleston collects vintage guitars and has influenced several artists over the years, Swinton’s best friend is the believed-dead poet Christopher Marlowe (a vampire himself), and Huddleston powers his home and car with inventions from Nikola Tesla. Then again, the film does have blood popsicles…
16. A Most Violent Year (Dir. J.C. Chandor): Coming off his brilliantly minimalistic film All is Lost (2013), Chandor presents the story of heating oil company owner Oscar Isaac and his wife Jessica Chastain chasing the American Dream through the violent and dirty world of 1981 New York. To achieve your dream, everyone is going to have to get a little dirty. Acting performances are top notch (is Jessica Chastain ever bad in anything?) and the film is splendidly paced and well written. Unlike 90% of other Hollywood products, I had no idea what would happen next or how this would finish.
15. Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller): Only Miller’s third major film (previously Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011)), Foxcatcher examines the tragic events of Olympic gold-medalist wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and their relationship with multi-millionaire John Du Pont (the film also proposes its own behind-the-scene reasons for why these events occurred). Strong acting performances by everyone — especially Steve Carell in a definite career-changing turn — to go with an excellent script and cinematography.
14. Maps to the Stars (Dir. David Cronenberg): Cronenberg’s best film since A History of Violence (2005), I struggle to explain this film clearly. There’s Julianne Moore (aging actress), Robert Pattinson (limo driver/screenwriter), John Cusack (self-help guru), his wife Olivia Williams (mother-agent to child-star), Evan Bird (said post-rehab child-star), and schizophrenic Mia Wasikowska (recently released from the psycho ward) all orbiting and converging in an apocalyptic manner in this tale of Hollywood. This is a caustic skewering of Tinseltown and its inhabitants — there’s really not a likeable person in the film — and a mesmerizing hodgepodge of drug abuse, incest, ghost story, name-dropping, first dollar grosses, threesomes, murder, and suicide. I can’t wait to see it again.
13. The Raid 2: Berandal (Dir. Gareth Evans): The follow-up to The Raid: Redemption (2011) is the best action film of 2014. There is no drop-off in violence or quality for this sequel, and honestly, Evans might have actually raised the bar to new heights by which all action films will have to compare. The film picks up just hours after the conclusion of TR:R and follows our hero (Iko Uwais) as he joins a small group of undercover cops trying to unearth corrupt police officials. Where TR:R was limited to a single building, TR2:B follows our hero through his undercover work in prison and then infiltrating a large Indonesian crime family. For films like this, action is the plot and there are very heavy dollops dished at a frenetic pace all filmed to perfection by Evans. The ultimate guy’s beer and pretzel movie.
12. Inherent Vice (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson): An adaption of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name by one of the America’s best working directors (The Master (2012), There Will Be Blood (2007), Magnolia (1999), and Boogie Nights(1997)). This comedy follows the exploits of doper detective “Doc” Sportello in 1970 Los Angeles and feels like The Big Lebowski meets Chinatown. The look of the era is perfect (Oscar nominated for Best Costume Design) and the cast is star-studded — Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon and breakout performer Katherine Waterston. The plot is convoluted but the acting, costumes, and cinematography are what make this film shine. I feel this film will grow in regard after more viewings.
11. Interstellar (Dir. Christopher Nolan): Nolan needs no introduction: the most recent Batman trilogy, Inception (2010), The Prestige (2006), a personal all-time top-ten Memento (2000), and Interstellar continues the high-bar of his achievements. Set in the not too distant future, Earth suffers from famine and crop blight while scientists work — not to solve world hunger (they can’t) — but how to escape Earth for another planet. The scope that this film crosses, from the failing planet Earth, to black holes and interstellar space travel, and to other worlds for possible colonization, Nolan creates a sci-fi masterpiece. Wormholes, gravitational singularities, and time as a spatial dimension are easily mixed with equal parts of the human emotions of betrayal, loss, and love. It’s long (three hours), but worth every second of it.
10. Blue Ruin (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier): No film had a better first act in 2014 than Blue Ruin. Macon Blair, as our protagonist Dwight, seems like the most unlikely hero in this revenge flick — he’s unsure, ill-equipped, and certainly doesn’t spout the spiffy lines of a Bruce, Arnie, or Sly, but he is riveting to watch The film certainly has tension, and while the violence is sporadic (and brief), it feels more real than any revenge film I’ve seen before. I only wish the last act had been as strong as its beginning. Still, this is fascinating view to a group of people who live by a different set of rules than you or I.
9. Enemy (Dir. Denis Villeneuve): The story of a Toronto college professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who discovers a movie actor that is his doppleganger. The men appear to be exact opposites — the professor as soft-spoken and restrained versus the aggressive and sexual nature of the actor. That’s about as far as I want to explain this one. The viewer will get more enjoyment in trying to solve the riddle of what you are actually seeing — it’s not your traditional straight forward film. Gyllenhaal is pitch perfect — timid as the professor and then menacing as the actor, yet only his second best performance of the year. Lectures on totalitarian states, lots of spiders, and the biggest “WTF” ending to a film this year.
8. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater): Probably the finest logistical achievement in film-making for 2014. Boyhood was filmed between 2002 to 2013 and presents the coming-of-age story for six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane), son of divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) along with his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linkater — the director’s real-life daughter). The film uses the same core cast throughout filming and we see Mason and Sam actually grow up in front of us (with Arquette and Hawke aging as well), as Mason moves from first grade to his first day of college (where the film ends). The commitment from everyone involved in just making this work is an achievement itself, but story is profound in its simplicity and genuineness, and consistent with other Linklater films, hopeful in its conclusion.
7. Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher): Fincher (Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), and The Social Network (2010)) makes the long awaited adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel of the same name. Gone Girl is a psychological thriller-cum-satire which makes a stronger statement about the media circus of America than it does about marriage (I hope…). Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike (Oscar nom. for Best Actress) are picture perfect in this story of what happens after your wife suddenly disappears. Strong supporting cast, tight script (written by Flynn), and expert directing by Fincher make this flip in traditional roles a fascinating and fun ride.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson): Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012)) is at the top of his comedic game here; excellent ensemble acting, impeccable costumes and props, and the most absurd situations in which anyone has ever placed their characters. Anderson’s camera whips, pans, and zooms, but is always in the just the right (usually hilarious) spot. Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustave) along with Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, and Edward Norton are as strong a cast as seen in film this year — and yes, I’m leaving many out (all the cool kids want to work with Anderson). By the way, Fiennes not getting a Best Actor Oscar nomination borders on criminal. An absolute joy from start to finish.
5. Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle): Fantastic sophomore effort from Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2010)). The story of a music student (Miles Teller) with dreams of being a great jazz drummer and his maniacal mentor (J.K. Simmons) at a competitive New York music conservatory. Simmons is the star here as the abusive music instructor trying to get the most out of his students (he wants to find the next Charlie Parker). His performance is reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, both frightening and funny with the same look or gesture — kind of a one-note performance, but what a performance it is. This story is not complex, it’s executed to absolute perfection, and has the best ending to a film in 2014. I heard someone discussing the films of 2014 and they said (paraphrased), you watch Still Alice (2014) and you want to go kill yourself; you watch Whiplash and you want to go do something…really hard. I think you’ll feel the same way.
4. Birdman (Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu): Michael Keeton (Best Actor Oscar nomination) plays Riggan Thompson, a former film superstar known for playing a comic book character from which this film draws its name. Thompson is years past his prime now and in the process of staging a Broadway play by writing, directing, and starring in his very first theater performance. The acting throughout is top-notch as Keeton is joined by Edward Norton (a last-minute film actor addition that they hope can save this spiraling downward theater production) and Emma Stone as his post-rehab daughter (both received Oscar Best Supporting Acting nominations). Keeton spends most of this dark comedy on the edge of a meltdown (there are several conversations between Thompson and Birdman throughout the film), while Inarritu explores ideas of art and creativity and how they relate to fame and insecurity. You could put this film in any of the top four spots on this list and I wouldn’t have a qualm.
3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Dir. Matt Reeves): Reeves’s sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) picks up ten years after 90% of the world’s population has been killed by ALZ-113, a drug developed by the bad guys from the first film, Gen-Sys Laboratories. A surviving group of humans in San Francisco have ventured north of the city to attempt to resurrect a hydro-electric dam (their fuel supplies nearly exhausted), but instead run into an ape colony led by Caesar, the simian hero of the first film. Ten years later, some apes can talk, most can sign language, and all have a distrust of anything human, especially Koba, one of the chimpanzees that was tested (tortured?) by Gen-Sys in the earlier film. Conflict ensues. The visual effects are stunning (an Oscar nomination) and the apes are its stars. Their expressions and gestures, their movements through trees and buildings, all done incredibly well, especially in the human vs. ape climatic battle. The story told, however, is timeless. How distrust, ignorance and fear will ensure that everyone loses.
2. Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer): This may be the most difficult film to describe on this list. It has only one main character, Scarlett Johansson as The Female (there are no named characters in the film), has the least amount of dialogue of any film I’ve seen in recent years, and gives no exposition or explanation for what the viewer sees. The mysterious and unnamed Johansson is actually an alien that cruises the streets of Scotland in a panel van looking to pick up men and bring them back to her home/delivery point, and as comely as young Johansson is, she’s pretty good at what she does. Until of course, she starts to get curious about these people she’s harvesting and wants to feel and experience what they do. This story is amazingly told through primarily aural and visual images — no dialogue or voiceover explanation. This is what film should be, and of course, it received no Oscar nominations for any category. It’s just not the type of film that the Academy can acknowledge. But if you appreciate innovation in storytelling, this film is worth your time.
1. Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy): This is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy and my choice for the best film of 2014 (the film received a single Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay). Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a small-time petty thief who stumbles into the world of freelance videotographers who film crime scenes and automobile crashes. He quickly establishes a reputation and impresses (coerces?) the late shift local news producer, Nina (played by Rene Russo, the director’s wife). Louis continues to push the envelope, in both dangerous choices and good taste while Nina provides us insight into the harsh and brutal world of metropolitan local news (Los Angeles being the metro of choice in this film). Things continue to escalate until the climactic pay-off, which ends just about the only way that it could. This is Gyllenhaal’s best work to date (another Academy mistake in failing to give him a Best Actor Oscar nomination). Louis borders on being a sociopath while his rapid-fire monologues give insight into how his mind really works. He often says exactly the right thing, but his smile and eyes betray him — he really has no feeling. Gilroy films a dark and distressed Los Angeles, building tension in almost every scene (the home invasion filming and the Chinese restaurant, in particular). Probably one of the scariest success stories ever filmed.
Next time: the top 20 performances of 2014!