After much debate, here are my choice for the Top 10 Films of 2014
10. CITIZENFOUR Just watching this chilling documentary feels like an act of treason, but this Edward Snowden exposé makes the case that not all forms of treason are the same. Sometimes, we are forced to castigate our government for the greater good (In fact, that’s the primary reason this very country exists in the first place). Citizenfour feels modest on the surface; much of the film simply documents Snowden initial interviews and the explosive aftermath. But Snowden proves to be a subject who is thoughtful, captivating, and (what many news outlets fail to illustrate) human. Snowden navigating life as a fugitive and the world’s biggest news figure is some of the most gripping moments in film this year. And it’s the electrifying exploration of the nature of privacy, secrecy, government overreach, and the roles of media and journalism that makes this film the most important documentary of the year.
9. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HIM & HER Despite what I said about The Imitation Game, I usually give points for audacity, if a film is courageous enough to attempt something that has never been done before. For first-time writer-director Ned Benson to tell the story of the deterioration of a marriage from the two perspectives in two separate films is unequivocally an audacious move. Harvey Weinstein infamously bought the rights to the films and had the two parts edited into one movie, which subsequently destroyed all of the magic (and audience interest as well). Fortunately, both original films were eventually released. Each standalone film is solid by itself, but only after seeing both chapters and witnessing the same scenes from different perspectives (and memories) does the film achieve fascinating emotional depths. For a first-time filmmaker, every choice feels remarkably confident. And in terms of our two charismatic leads, James McAvoy is his usual dependent self, but it’s Jessica Chastain who truly shines.
8. THE IMITATION GAME If you’ve been following the annual awards race/circus, you may have repeatedly heard the same complaint raised against The Imitation Game: that it’s formulaic and that we’ve already seen the “difficult genius” bio-pic many times before. But I would argue that we should be recognizing the difficulty of working within the confines of a genre and yet still creating something laudable. There’s nothing particularly innovative going on here, but every moment is designed with a steady hand and nuanced attention to our “difficult genius”: Alan Turing. The story of the creation of the first computer and its role in winning WWII is interesting enough in itself, but it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s tragic performance that truly elevates the film. We wish director Morten Tyldum would have delved deeper into Turing’s struggles with his sexuality, but what’s left is still a deeply satisfying look at a hero betrayed by the very world he saved.
7. THE LEGO MOVIE Somehow, some way, what is essentially a 100-minute toy commercial became easily the best animated feature of the year, which is clearly a testament to the genius of the writer-director team, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). What could have been a mindless money-grab turned out to be an intelligent, heartfelt, and wildly funny adventure. Much of the credit should also go to the animators, who embraced the physical restrictions of Lego blocks and created some of the most inventive visuals ever witnessed. We can debate the merits of the ending/framing device (and lament the fact that the theme song was stuck in our heads for weeks), but there’s no doubt that this movie starring a ragtag group of yellow-faced figures was one of the year’s biggest surprises.
6. FURY By now, it seems like every possible WWII movie has already been made. But in Fury, writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch, Training Day) strives to do what makes some war films great: take the biggest war in history and dare to go small. What separates Fury is not massive battle set-pieces stretching from horizon to horizon but the smaller, quieter moments that make war so harrowing. Whether it’s cleaning up a disembodied face or forcing a teenager to execute a Nazi or even the stunning “two-tank tango”, Fury paints a devastated world with intimate but gut-wrenching strokes. Rather than focusing on the more conspicuous aspects of the clash of nations, we follow a dysfunctional brotherhood within the claustrophobic confines of a single tank. And to experience the world through the eyes of a teenage military typist (Logan Lerman) thrust onto the front lines was an inspired touch.
5. EDGE OF TOMORROW The death knell for Tom Cruise’s career has been sounding for some time now, but in this science-fiction roller coaster, Cruise does his best to prove his doubters wrong. Armed with an inspired concept (Groundhog Day, but with aliens!) and the talents of notoriously difficult director Doug Liman, Cruise delivers one of the best performances of his career. He’s funny and charismatic while vulnerable and repugnant; rarely do you see major stars allow themselves to be so exposed (of course, a lot of the fun is watching Cruise get killed over and over again). He even lets his female co-star, in this case the great Emily Blunt, be the film’s true badass. But we still have to give a ton of credit to Liman (The Bourne Identity). Even a great concept like this is execution-dependent, and Liman weaves together a highly ambitious, surprisingly intelligent, and tightly constructed thrill ride that leaves you breathless.
4. WHIPLASH This year’s “Little Indie That Could” (after last year’s Fruitvale Station and 2012’sBeasts of the Southern Wild), Whiplash got off to a raging start at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, nabbing both the Jury Prize and Audience Award. This proudly simple two-hander tells the story of a first-year music student with near psychopathic ambition for greatness (the rising star of Miles Teller) and his struggle with his legendary teacher/arch-nemesis/twisted mentor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, the yellow M&M). One of the main challenges of filmmaking is to turn something inherently intangible into something visual and visceral. Writer-director Damien Chazelle accomplishes this feat with surprising confidence and aplomb. We don’t just see the beat of the drum or the sweat on the brow; we feel the blood, the ambition, the anger, the desperation in our very bones. That is the power of cinema, when we breathe and feel every motion and every emotion, every step of the way.
3. THE RAID 2 Forget the plot, because I sure did. I think it’s about an undercover cop infiltrating a multinational mob? It really doesn’t matter. What I do remember: some of the greatest action/fight sequences of all-time, the spontaneous bouts of unanimous applause in my opening-night theater, and the fact that this movie has ruined every other fight scene I’ll ever see. This sequel to the 2011 breakout Indonesian hit is unrelentingly bloody, farcical, and over-the-top. But it achieves something that seems so difficult in this day and age: capturing the visceral, heart-palpitating, cheers-inducing joy of the movies. The Raid 2 is the most beautifully and intricately shot and choreographed action film I’ve ever witnessed (and makes a strangely perfect companion toBirdman). The technical acumen and creativity of violence are astounding (big props to Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man). It’s not hyperbolic in the least to declare that it will be near impossible for anyone else to top what this masterpiece has accomplished.
2. BIRDMAN Oftentimes, if a film continuously makes me aware that I’m actually watching a film, it removes me from and thus diminishes my experience of the story (that’s why I have a hard time enjoying Wes Anderson films, despite considering him an unequivocal genius). In the case ofBirdman and its mind-blowingly ambitious long-take cinematography, I experienced full awareness of the film and its production process from the very first frame. I kept thinking about how every mark-hitting and choreography (of both the cast and crew) had to be more precise than any other film in history, and I kept searching for where they could hide their cuts (normally when they go from interior to exterior and vice-versa). But after just the first ten minutes, I entered a sort of dream state and surrendered myself to Birdman’s enchanting grasp. And that right there is key: when a film becomes a slap-in-the-face reminder of the true magic of cinema. Some detractors have argued that the film does not know what it’s about or trying to say (by usually pointing to the ambiguous final shot), but Birdman transcends what may be usually be regarded as the filmmaker’s confusion and lack of confidence by achieving a higher (but enigmatic) level of consciousness.
1. BOYHOOD The twelve-year production cycle is not a gimmick, as many have accused, but an ingenious mechanism that empowers this film to accomplish something truly original in a world where truly original ideas are often nowhere to be found. Boyhood is a stark exploration of the unabated passage of time, a potent inducement of the awareness of our mortality, and an examination of the seemingly trivial moments of our lives that are so often ignored yet impalpably texture every fleeting moment. It’s an unflinching take on the highest highs and the lowest lows of “normal” life and the people who come along for the ride, for better or for worse. It’s a meditation on our mistakes and regrets, our anger and our agony, and it’s a celebration of our triumphs and our passions, and our journey through the years with the people who make that journey possible. While we watch these characters live out their lives on screen, over twelve years and in 165 minutes, we can’t help but look back at our own. Boyhood may be Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, but it’s the rare and necessary reminder to recognize the masterpiece that is ourselves.