My 2014 cinema viewing experience was quite different from previous years. Although my TV was feeling a little neglected, my daughter certainly was not. It was my first year as a father and, realizing that the amount of viewing hours was to vastly decrease, I tried to focus primarily on those films with a high likelihood of receiving a favorable nod. So you could imagine my disappointment with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) or the incoherent The Book Thief (2014).
Then there are those with trailers that completely fooled me into thinking I was in for a treat. I’m looking at you Comet (2014). Seriously, take two minutes to look at this trailer. It had everything. Sharp dialogue, Justin Long, that girl in that great tv show, and a song now on loop in my office. It started with promise, then at midnight it turned into a decrepit turd full of unlikeable characters and jokes only people in LA would appreciate.
Well to each his own and for my own, I was not able to fill my normal quota for a top 20 list. Sure, I could have seen some more throughout the year and sure, I could have diversified my viewing. Yet, these top 20 were all quality films and either punched me in the gut or tickled my sensitive tear ducts. Please note that I do include some basic plot overviews, but have tried not to give away too much of the story or any significant twists and turns for future viewing gratification. I hope you enjoy. Now without further ado, number 20.
20. Blue Ruin (2013)
Director Jeremy Saulnier chose to continue with the recent trend of the loner anti-hero (possibly with a slight hint of Asperger’s syndrome) who slowly and quietly takes his revenge on those who’ve done them wrong. In Blue Ruin, Dwight’s (Macon Blair) life was completely derailed when his wife was murdered in cold blood by, what appears at the time, a single individual. The murderer was caught, found guilty and served his time in prison. Cut to present day, we find that the murderer of Dwight’s wife is now being released into his family’s care. It is no time to sulk for Dwight. It is time for retribution.
I won’t spoil how or if the revenge takes place. Just know that with Dwight’s own actions, he has put into motion an entirely unforeseen set of events. Events that have slipped beyond his control.
Resembling the tone and grim existence seen in Kill List (2011) by Ben Wheatley, the actions of the anti-hero trigger even more violence and even more chaos. Although the blood and guts aren’t as extreme as in Kill List, you can still feel the griminess. Definitely not for anyone looking for a nice, cuddly love story. Unless you’re into that type of stuff.
19. Chef (2014)
Writer and director Jon Favreau stars as a once-prolific chef, Carl Caspers, in Los Angeles’ culinary scene being held down by his controlling boss (Dustin Hoffman). Frustrated by his lack of creative release, family life, and worst of all, nasty food critic (Oliver Platt), Carl finds himself starting over. Before long, Carl, his buddy Martin (John Leguizamo), and Carl’s son are on a cross-country road trip. Aboard a food truck which allows him to foster his inner creative spark, he may also again realize what is really important in life — his family, life, and of course a perfectly made cubano sandwich.
To its core Chef is a simple delight that gets just about everything right. It resembles a five-star meal being served on a paper plate with plastic silverware. Despite the copious amount of plastic faces and ummmm, breasts, the emotions remain real and by the end of the meal I was wanting to order seconds.
18. Borgman (2013)
Writer and director Alex Van Warmerdam must either have past family strife or some serious trust issues. The main character, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), and his band of drifters are literally unrooted from their slumber by holy vigilantes one day in the woods. They soon make their way to a shiny community inhabited by easily manipulated suburbanites. Borgman has a run in with a husband and gets quite the licking. The wife quickly takes pity and secretly takes in Borgman in the back garden.
As it turns out, Borgman has an unusual effect on people and their families. The purpose of his visit isn’t exactly known, but with continuous biblical themes present throughout, it becomes apparent that Borgman is not your spiritual savior. Instead he is someone who notices people’s unpleasant tendencies and turns this into his advantage.
The calculated and psychotic character also has friends and they’re invited to the party. A party you may want to avoid. Borgman excels at creating an uncomfortable environment. One where you feel like you’re being watched or a hand is about to shoot out and grab your ankle.
17. The Wind Rises (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki writes and directs a truly complex story about dreams and fulfilling one’s purpose in life. Set mostly in Japan during the years leading up to World War II, main character Jiro Horiko attends an aeronautical engineering school where he meets his life-long friend, Kiro Honjo, and future life partner, Naoko Satomi. During these pivotal years, Jiro learns that planes may be his passion, but Naoko possesses his heart.
A story spanning decades, Jiro becomes the leading engineer of airplanes for the Japanese army. An interesting approach as Jiro is fulfilling his life’s ambitions of becoming the greatest engineer of his time, while trying to grasp that the machines he creates are designed to kill. Fueled by ideas through Jiro’s vivid dreams, Jiro continues to strive to create something more efficient and economical than his previous model. Passionate about his love of flight and his relationship for Naoko, Jiro continues to push himself further and further.
To avoid seeing The Wind Rises because it’s a cartoon would be a mistake. Resembling the angst felt in the Pixar film Up (2009), which made you bite your lip and fight back tears in the first ten minutes, it is the final ten minutes of The Wind Rises that you find yourself trying to make it until the end with dry eyes. It is a great story told for a simple reason — that you should always pursue your life’s purpose and not stop until you find life’s true love.
16. Obvious Child (2014)
The current raunchy queen of comedy, Jenny Slate (Parks and Recreation), stars as a young woman trying to find her break in the New York City stand-up comedy scene. Donna Stern (Slate), seems to be starting her career off on the right footing. She gets gigs and people actually attend. She talks about her day-old underwear and people laugh. Sure, she makes poor decisions, but isn’t that a part of being a comedian? And like a lot of comedians she uses these everyday struggles and translates them into her stand-up routine.
Unfortunately for Donna, certain mistakes turn into nine-month issues. That nine-month issue can then sometimes turns into a blessing. Donna now has some serious stand-up material.
Directed by Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child retains its fresh voice and energetic vibe throughout its entirety. There are a couple of twists and turns that made my eyes roll, but they were quickly put back into place through the witty, wry dialogue. Without a doubt, the best comedy of the year.
15. Enemy (2014)
In relation to the ending, and in my most professional journalistic voice, I’d like to say, WTF was that! I have never witnessed a movie that ended in such a way. The first thing I did after the ending was google what the hell it meant. I was comforted when there were only speculations. A complete curve ball that had me swinging
This is the latest from director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners (2013), which if you haven’t seen then there may be no help for you) teaming up again with Jake Gyllenhaal as the title characters, Tom and Anthony. This dooblebanger film never provides much for answers. It simply provides two separate possibilities, by two people of the same breath with different personalities. The performances by Gyllenhaal and Melanie Laurent are absolutely terrific. Sometimes it’s enjoyable being confused and this mystery walked that line perfectly.
My only take away from Enemy is it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the side of naughty or nice, your natural instincts will eventually take over. For better or worse, you are who you are.
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wes Anderson is a gem. There isn’t a story he can tell that won’t make you smile from ear to ear. Even when — for the first time — he includes violence, nudity, and swearing, the childish and buoyant air remains. I hate to even think that this is my least favorite of Anderson’s, but it is true. It’s to his own disadvantage that his previous films were so great. The Grand Budapest Hotel would without a doubt be an instant favorite if it weren’t for Anderson’s previous classics.
With the likes of Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jason Schwartzman, and Saoirse Ronan, even Ocean’s 11 would raise a cocktail for its stellar lineup. Then to throw an unknown actor to the wolves in Tony Revolori as the young bellboy Zero made for a marvellous experience. At times the amount of famous faces becomes a distraction. Every couple of minutes a new character flashes across the screen and battling to leave an impression.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is about reflecting on the actions of your hero and how those actions molded your future character. Zero sees his hero in the form of the Mr. Gustave (Fiennes), a famous hotel’s concierge. Seen as swooning older, rich women, Mr. Gustave doesn’t see it that way since he really has feelings for those women.
What at first seems like a sloppy, amateur attempt at making a horror film quickly fixes itself and leaves you grasping for answers. As a comet closely passes by Earth, strange things begin to happen to a group of friends during a dinner party in Los Angeles. Are these hallucinations or have we entered an alternate reality? Is your partner really your partner? Are these meatballs really meatballs? Wait, did you have a blue pen or a red pen before you left the house?
Coherence was like a poorly aged bottle of wine. At first it was a little austere and tight, but after letting it breath for half an hour the juice starts to loosen up and before long it is just perfect. It may not be your typical horror flick, but it does keep you guessing and it does keep you on your toes. Is there anything else you’d really want from a horror film?
12). Whiplash (2014)
It took director Damien Chazelle five years to follow up his film festival darling premiere Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Here he chooses to again dive into the world of jazz, music and youth hood insecurities. Both Whiplash and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench focus on a young man devoted to his craft but unsure about himself. Both characters are utterly the same except they play different instruments.
In Whiplash, Andrew (Miles Teller) is a young and potentially brilliant drummer driven to make something of himself. Attending his first semester at a prestigious music program, Andrew catches the eye of instructor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and is quickly included within the core band. The two have, we’ll say, a complicated relationship. Fletcher isn’t the warmest and coziest of educators. You’d be within your right to call him a prick. A prick, but an effective prick (see here for a quick look at the prick-y-ness). Fletcher never ceases to challenge his students through intimidation, mind games, and copious amounts of vulgar language.
Whiplash certainly has its shortcomings, but these are easily forgotten with the movie’s two most memorable scenes. The third act provides those two scenes. The concluding drum solo lasts over nine minutes and ends in such a spectacular fashion, I needed to see it again. Bravo Damien Chazelle. Your first film (just watch the trailer and tell me it doesn’t look great!) had my toe tapping, but this had my whole body moving.
11). Snowpiercer (2013)
This was a film that if I saw it as a teenage boy (perhaps around the time of the The Matrix (1999) and Fight Club (1999) were released) I’d have been a devout fan. The energy and creativity lifted this film beyond the screen. Snowpiercer is an analogy for climate change, greedy corporations, and the lavish lifestyles of people who can afford to live in ignorance. We step aboard the Snowpiercer, a train run with renewable technology that houses the last remaining humans. Each section of the train houses a different class of people. Obviously the people at the back are the poor working class while those in the front continue to repress those towards the back.
We follow the anti-hero, Curtis (Chris Evans), as he and the other poor citizens attempt to hijack the Snowpiercer. As the team of hijackers ascend the train we peel away different components of the remaining humans and are confronted with the frailty of their humanity. A terrific cast of side characters and a memorable casting of Tilda Swinton as the train’s dictator, make for a fun and memorable train ride.
Ultra-violent, uber-stylized, oozing of irony, Snowpiercer has it all and more. It was the summer’s blockbuster deserving of your attention.
10). The Babadook (2014)
Bonkers doesn’t begin to properly describe The Babadook. Visually, it reminds you of a bedtime story, but mentally it throws you in the looney bin. Distressed mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), thinks her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman – who resembles an odd looking Mick Jagger and that’s saying something) is simply acting out. Claiming he sees a monster that influences his strange behavior, Amelia and Samuel find themselves isolated as a family. Soon manifestations become something tangible that’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
I really would do The Babadook an injustice by going any further. All I have to say is, go into this one blind. Director Jennifer Kent did not get the acclaim she rightly deserved for this soon-to-be cult classic. Essie Davis also gave a performance that sticks with you for days afterwards. To repeat, go into this one blind.
9). Night Moves (2013)
Director Kelly Reichardt continues to foster thought-provoking characters. In Night Moves, she imagines how three environmental terrorists would go about blowing up a dam to send a message to the general public about the general lack of interest in their environment.
I wish that this could have been a show on HBO that would have gone season after season. Instead, I had to quickly come to the realization of character’s actions. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) team up to send a message that has unintended consequences.
Known for her dry and straightforward approach to storytelling, Reichardt builds the tension between characters through basic interactions and simple observations. Without the need for special effects or excessive violence, Night Moves draws its conclusion through a punch you saw coming. You just didn’t realize how hard it would hit.
8). Deux jours, une nuit (2014)
Two steps forward and one step back. Marion Cotillard plays a young mother, Sandra, for the legendary Dardenne brothers. Sandra has seen better days. Dealing with the emotional complications of a recent undefined incident, Sandra is told her position at work is being eliminated. Given the social mindset of business in France, Sandra is somehow able to get management’s agreement that a final vote will determine whether her position is terminated or she stays, but her co-workers forfeit their annual bonus. The people who will be voting to keep Sandra or receive their bonus will be her co-workers. With only two days and one night, Sandra needs to get to work. One by one, she goes to each co-worker’s residence pleading her case.
As with all Dardenne brother films, the dialogue and emotional weight of the film becomes so real it becomes tangible. The vulnerability sits on your tongue as Sandra maneuvers her way from colleague to colleague. The pace and debates keep you intrigued on just who will vote for her and those that will allow their actual needs for the money to overshadow compassion and solidarity. Deux Jours, une Nuit takes on several issues. There is sexism, mental illness, and racism all intertangled within the dialogue and drama. A fine couple hours to challenge yourself to see if you’d vote for Sandra if put into her coworker’s shoes.
7). The One I Love (2014)
What a creative idea for a film. A troubled couple are ordered by their marriage counselor to cohabitate in a remote couple’s resort as they attempt to rekindle their relationship. The couple, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are committed to trying to become a better couple. Once settled into the resort, the two quickly realize that the resort holds a strange secret. A secret that at first seems slightly odd, but more or less harmless. Eventually they realize that secret becomes a whole lot more malevolent. But are they together in escaping this resort or are they destined to split?
The One I Love is honestly a great story. Never once do you see it progressing down the road the film choose to take. The original plot had me looking towards the end, imagining the crazy ending. Then when the end came, the entire plot was turned upside down. It was just brilliant.
It may seem like a simple rom-com, but it has much more than that. After every scene you are shifted into a different story with a different outcome. Never once are you allowed to find your footing. If you aren’t careful, you may never leave.
6). Ida (2013)
The Polish film Ida, by director Pawel Pawlikowski, balances its story terrifically. The harmony between the sparse dialogue, cinematography, and the space created amongst the story present the most finely executed story apart from my number one film.
Ida (Agata Kulesza), a novitiate nun, is only days from taking her vows, before is sent to see her only living relative, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska). During Isa’s visit she learns the dark history of her family during the Nazi Occupation of Poland. A history that would crush even the most hardened spirit.
The story remains candid and the feelings are honest. Trying not to give too many details away since the film runs under 90 minutes, it needs every surprise and heart-shaking twist to remain effective. Shot in black and white, resembling its characters, and resisting the urge to show flair, Ida builds its foundation on the ability to make choices. An ability some didn’t have in the past.
5). St. Vincent (2014)
Rookie Director, Theodore Melfi, was handed the golden egg by getting to direct Bill Murray in the leading role as Vincent. Vincent is the grouchy neighbor we all wish we had growing up. Someone who luckily becomes your babysitter, takes you to the track, lets you eat junk food, curse all you want, and most importantly not do your homework. Single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) has no choice but to leave her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) with Vincent everyday after school.
St. Vincent is the normal hollywood pretending-to-be-indie film, but it does hit its mark and create genuine emotions. It goes to show that the best comedians are also those that can make you cry. The miserable Vincent has a side no one sees with exception to little Oliver. The two help each other through their difficult times and you begin to see the endearing side of the freindship.
There isn’t anything I can say to entice you to see this film any more than this sneak peak, of Bill Murrary doing his best Colin imitation.
4). Boyhood (2014)
Not many more positive things can be said about Boyhood’s director, Richard Linklater. The man has continued to invent ways to tell captivating and original stories. The patience and foresight that it must have taken to create Boyhood is astounding.
Spanning 13 years of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) life from age five through 18, Boyhood simply Captures the subtle life altering events within a boy’s life. Mason quite literally grows up in front of our eyes. Beginning as a curious little boy whose eyes are larger than his forehead, to an unkempt, laidback teenager trying to find his place in the world, we view Mason’s progression into molding himself to find his place in this world.
The story never deviates from simplicity. The story never allows anything other than actual life events affect a child’s life. Boyhood allows your imagination’s preconceptions to manifest and believe that something horrible must be around the corner. However, after every corner of Mason’s life, we are only encountered with a kid who is shaped and curious about what his future holds. Some say Boyhood was a little slow, and dare they say boring. But during my viewing, I was amazed with how Linklater simply captured the tiny private moments from my own life on screen.
3). The Lunchbox (2013)
The Lunchbox asks whether you can fall in love with someone you’ve never met. Writer and Director Ritesh Batra introduces us to the widowed, aging accountant Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) as he prepares his company’s books before retirement. Just prior to clocking out, Saajan is introduced to the young and lively Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and is given the task of training his replacement. Saajan likes to keep to himself and would rather rub curry in his eyes than to train the youngster. Each day as Saajan avoids Shaikh, Saajan receives his lunch through the famously efficient Dabbawalas of Mumbai. The lunches get mixed up and he now receives the homemade lunches cooked by the lonely housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur).
The two begin leaving notes for one another in their daily deliveries. They share ideas, comments about their day, and eventually, their feelings. It is a rather simple story, but one where the actors shine. Before long both characters have lit a fire in their companion and begin to plot a rendezvous.
It is the story that resonates through the cooking, note passing, and excruciating waits between each meal. My only recommendation for viewing The Lunchbox is to not watch on an empty stomach. You have been warned!
2). Love is Strange (2014)
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been together for the past four decades and formalize their relationship by getting married. Their family and friends share the experience and toast to their happy day. The two are meant for eachother. Soon after the wedding though there are repercussions from the marriage and the two are forced to live apart from one another until they find cheaper housing. Ben stays with his nephew and wife, while George sleeps on the couch of his neighbors. Ben’s environment is confusing as he is sleeping in the same room as his nephew’s teenage son. George’s living quarters are regularly used for late-night drinking and parties. The two soon begin to miss one another and long for when they will again be together.
By the start of the third act you realize that this story is so simple, and so real, this could be anyone’s family. Yet you are waiting for the shoe to drop. When it does you are devastated. Director Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange snuck up on me, and without realizing how vested I was in Ben and George, I wanted nothing more than to see them back together again.
I have to say that Love is Strange may be some of the best LGBT cinema of the past couple decades (alongside the Peruvian Undertow (2009) and Brokeback Mountain (2005)). It doesn’t focus on the couple being gay or blame the transgressions for their love for one another. It only focuses on how one’s love for the other can create a place of belonging and need.
1). Birdman (2014)
Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is an aged movie-star best known for being the face of a superhero franchise called Birdman. After three movies and an offer for a fourth, Riggan chose to walk away. Now we find him trying to reinvent himself and prove to everybody that he is a truly gifted actor. To achieve this feat, he is financing and is starring in a broadway play that is set to begin in the coming days. Just prior to the soft-premiers of his play he hires a well-respected, slightly psychotic stage actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Method acting by both, Riggan and Mike soon turn them against each other and the sides of the theatre began to expand trying house these two expanding egos.
Riggan’s temper and insecurities rage as he attempts to juggle the show, his fresh out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), one nasty critic, and Mike’s hilarious attempts at sabotaging the show. Before long we feel like we’re in a fever dream we cannot wake up from as the camera tracks Riggan’s every move. Fueled by the voice of Birdman in his head that is becoming a little too real he begins to question whether his method acting has taken over his brain.
Birdman excels in every fashion. Michael Keaton plays a self-deprecating role that basically mocks himself from his Batman days. Keaton gives it his all and reminds us that he is more than just a suit of armor. The humor is quick and the camera never flinches, truly a memorable piece of cinema gold.