List: Top 30 Films of 2014


Usually I separate my year-end list into two posts and write about each film represented. However, I’ve run out of time this year, so I’m sadly going to unceremoniously plop the whole thing right here, right now. There’s a lot I still haven’t seen (Selma being the most glaring absence, and unfortunately car trouble has prevented me from getting to it anytime in the next week plus).

Even though I’ve got my Top Ten By Year project, for current years in film, I’ve never taken to the idea of a top ten. It’s the scale to which everything is strapped to (I cannot tell you how many times in December I have to see/hear someone say “I liked it a lot, it just won’t make my Top Ten” or, the worst, when someone sees something missing from a Top Ten and says “you didn’t like this?”). Because with Top Tens as the standard, it’s like nothing exists outside of them. And I hate that. So I like to spotlight an eclectic group of 30. It gives me room to have fun, and it’s a number I still find myself struggling to whittle down to despite giving myself such room to work with.

Other Year-End posts for 2014 films:
What I’ll Remember About the FIlms of 2014
Top Fives of 2014

Some Blind Spots: Selma, Love is Strange, Goodbye to Language, American Sniper, Dear White People, Norte the End of History, Closed Curtain, The Strange Little Cat, Mr. Turner, The Rover, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Beyond the Lights, Wild, Still Alice, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Leviathan, A Most Violent Year, Laggies, A Letter to Momo, Top Five, Begin Again, etc)

# of 2014 Films Seen: 99

30.Birdman (US, Iñárritu)

29. Night Moves (Reichardt, US)

28. Cheap Thrills (Katz, US)
A sledgehammer of a black comedy chamber piece; blunt, lean, and mean. Two friends (Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) in separately desperate monetary circumstances; dire straits are busy aligning with long-time-no-see when a wealthy couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) who get off on having the working class under their thumb gradually ushers them into a night of dares in exchange for increasingly large sums of money to whoever performs the assigned task first. Craig’s all-in decision, which mirrors Pat Healy’s performance, ignites a power play between the two friends, as Vince’s (Embry) initial enthusiasm wanes and escalating frustration sets in. There is a ton of class warfare here, not just between the two pairs, but between Craig and Vince. To the characters in the film (save one), human worth is equated with economic and educational standing. That callous reasoning comes shockingly natural to the players involved. David Koechner’s buddy-buddy exterior masks a sinister edge, and his improv abilities make Colin’s suggestions seem on-the-fly even though they aren’t. I love Sara Paxton (her performance in The Innkeepers is one of my all-time favorites, the most underappreciated performance in years), so I wish she had more to do here, but it was enough to see her and Healy together again.
(Originally posted here)

27. Vampire Academy (Waters, US)
Basically, fuck everyone. Why? Because lo and behold there’s a lot that works about Vampire Academy, and despite its box-office flop status and universal pans, I believe the film will slowly but surely find some kind of audience.

Its main detractor is that it suffers from the kind of Adaptation Inflammation that tends to plague adaptations of world-building heavy YA films. This one even has the nerve to throw terminology as onscreen text, like a trippy test review session. The harder the  world-building efforts (also taking into account its low budget), the more everything feels inconsequential as opposed to realized. So there’s an unfortunate dwarfing effect from the get-go. As if the exposition weren’t enough, Vampire Academy makes the mistake of acting like the start of a movie franchise so are endless extraneous elements and characters that have no bearing on the story at hand, and are there to assuredly set up  future installments that will only exist in the books. So there is no shortage of dead, and undead, weight.

World-building skeletons with a side helping of complicated etymology exists in all self-serious YA franchises. But Vampire Academy blends (to inconsistent results) that skeleton with the playfully bitchy high school lampoon act its makers (Mark Waters of Mean Girls and Daniel Waters of Heathers) are known for. But instead of the latter subverting the former, they end up feeding off each other til there’s not much left.

But on second thought, I’d say there’s quite a bit left. Yes it’s a mess, but damn if it isn’t an entertaining and sardonic mess. Zoey Deutch alone is a real find, heavily recalling both Ellen Page and a young Lauren Graham, with constantly varying and left-field comic sensibility. She can be annoying and a bit much, but I found her Rose Hathaway badass and lovable, an antidote to the furrowed brows and self-sacrificing heroines of dystopian and supernatural worlds. It would be a travesty, yes a travesty, if we don’t see a lot more of her in the future. Lucy Fry as Lissa is quite memorable too, regal and fluttery; good enough to make us forgive weak screenwriting that flat-out says NO to the transition and logic of character motivation.

For all the bland-boy romance (and let’s be honest, so many female-led films suffer from Bland Boy Syndrome), the friendship between Rose and Lissa (Fry) comes first. It is never lost for a second that they have the most important bond, in sync and connected forever. They are soulmates. Lissa even gives a speech at the end where she’s all ‘I wish you all could have your own Rose Hathaway, I’m the luckiest gal in town’. And Lissa, and the film, even make room for welcome and timely commentary on slut-shaming.

All in all, I wanted to stay in this world. I even want to pick up the second book and give it a try. Mark Waters and Daniel Waters drown a bit in the fold of YA, but with the help of Zoey Deutch they manage to come up for air quite often. The results allow teenage girls to have all kinds of non-judgmental sexual yearnings in a PG-13 world, with snarky growing pains winning out over the arduous and usually meaningless weight others of the same cloth so often bore us to tears with.
(Originally posted here)

26. Inherent Vice (Anderson, US)

25. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan)
Hayao Miyazaki goes out on a majestic grace note, giving us something he’s never done before while remaining identifiably him; aeronautical fixations, concerns over the impact of human intent (albeit too tiptoeing here), languid pacing. There is no filmmaker I love more than Hayao Miyazaki, and so it was very emotional once this film reached its end. The realization that I’d seen all there is to see of his work for the first time hit hard. That this was it.

More than any other films, animated or live-action, I just want to step into the worlds, fantastical or reality-based, Studio Ghibli’s animation team creates. They are skies to ground corporeal within their own creation. They are complete and inspiring. This is no different. The Wind Rises might be his most visually appetizing film (then I re-watched Princess Mononoke three days later and realize that statement is more a suggestion). From the sheen of the planes to the chug-chug of the trains to the crackle and fire of the earthquakes and those inimitable color spectrum spanning skies. The wind brings all of it together, used as a common denominator.

Miyazaki takes on the standard biopic, replacing the bullet points with poetic airs. Sure, things happen, but they aren’t used to strum forward. In fact, the film halts later on and turns into a weepie melodrama, a move I fell in love with (although Naoko abandons her current residency one too many times and is more of a prop than I’d like). Not something from Jiro’s actual life, the fatalistic romance sets up the sacrifices Jiro makes in order to innovate and create beautiful things. And I think that compromise can in a gentle way represent all of the real life compromises that make up a great deal of the film’s post-release controversy.

I will say that while I don’t think that some of the naysayers are completely off the mark here, I don’t quite see how it is Miyazaki’s responsibility to address these issues. He has a very clear and distinct focus here. The film swirls around Horikoshi’s quote “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful”. Miyazaki is a bit too forgiving of Jiro because on a basic level, he connects with him.

Miyazaki uses film to concentrate on what hope he can see in the world and what soulfulness he can find in his characters despite being a pessimist at heart. Obviously the downplaying of certain key issues isn’t in his purview, although the essay he released, and his well-known pacifist status, when the film came out in Japan speaks to where he stands politically (where he always has). So he’s catching it from all possible sides here. It would have been very easy for Miyazaki to concentrate on the bigger issues, and he isn’t this wistful man who ignores them, but it’s simply not his MO here. Nor should it have to be. People who want it to be are looking for a completely different film than the one they got. I see the downplaying as speaking to a bigger problem, one that is far more evident in where Miyazaki places the Germans in relation to the Japanese within the story.

That said, it was frustrating to see Miyazaki walk up to the issue of beautiful innovations used for unspeakable atrocities at the very end without actually doing anything. I would have liked a bit more at the end, a conversation that felt thought-provoking and irreconcilable perhaps rather than tossed off the way it is.

But I really loved this. A big step up from Ponyo; a mature and understated swan song that sums up everything I love about this man whose work I’m going to miss so so so much.
(Originally posted here)

24. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, US)

23. The Boxtrolls (US, Annable/Stacchi)

22. Like Father, Like Son (Koreeda, Japan)

21. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night  (Amirpour, US)

20. Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, US)

19. Life Itself (James, US)

18. Palo Alto (Coppola, US)

17. John Wick (Stahelski/Leitch, US)

16. “Olive Kitteridge” (Cholodenko, US)

15. Belle (UK, Asante)
Belle is much more than the following sentiment, but all the same; Amma Asante’s gratifying yet subversive period piece makes my heart go pitter-patter. Some may scoff at the love story (indeed a few reviews I’ve read knock it down a peg for just that) but what about how sweetly investing it is? The adorable abolitionist with unshakable moral footing (Sam Reid) is so steadfast that he amusingly dips into caricature at times. It becomes part of his charm, as does Reid’s slight woodenness. More importantly, Amma Asante gives a mixed race character the otherwise non-existent pleasure of participating in British aristocratic romance with all the heart-racing and letdowns of love and its foibles.”
(Full review here)

14. The Immigrant (Gray, US)
“Some stories are familiar for a reason. James Gray posits this with regularity. Unfashionably leaning on lush (but not, critically, romanticized or glossy) classicism that seems to either envelop the viewer or leave them cold (depending on your predilections), Gray focuses on the precise juxtaposition of operatic scope against intimate human struggles (or more precisely, the latter cradling within the former), largely of the criminal and familial. His films are about what goes on in the confined living spaces of down-and-out working class New York. Again, I can only speak to the three Gray films I’ve seen but there are so many similarities between them in both structure and focus. All three begin with an arrival and end with a departure. The protagonist makes it through, but everyone else is fair game. Joaquin Phoenix’s simmering penchant for producing hidden layers of agonized and doomed empathy are capitalized, casting him in roles that position him as a dubious obstacle, revealed as someone riddled with complexity on top of complexity. Accidental deaths abound. Familial connections increase the tautness. Critically, each James Gray film is near-obsessed with the act of choice.

The Immigrant is a constant balancing act. Shots often walk right up to the tip of overtness. The final image, for example, is on the fence of that line; obvious but packing a majestic wallop of visually splintered destinies — parting, but forever connected. Darius Khondji reconstructs the rich haze of period films, but steps back from gloss. The feeling that someone can slip through the cracks and fog is easily within reach, the lower class a world all its own. The aforementioned familiarity plumbs the depths of clarity and oft depicted material, but is also used to narratively veer ever-so-left or right. Characters we think we’ve got pegged (‘hey I recognize that type; the wayward prostitute, the pimp with a temper, the knight in shining armor’), we don’t, but not in acts of narrative subversion. The familiarity of ‘types’ merely allows Gray to pull back the layers, reveal them as human beings stuck in a system. Against each other, yet mutually dependent in their low placement on the totem pole.”
(Full review here)

13. White Bird in a Blizzard (Araki, US)

12. Gone Girl (Fincher, US)

11. Whiplash (Chazelle, US)

10. The Babadook (Kent, Australia)
“It is altogether rare when a horror film works as equal parts psychological character excavation and a genuinely scary piece of cinema (to be fair, not all horror aspires to both). In Jennifer Kent’s debut film The Babadook, the two are bone-chillingly inextricable by making a grief-ridden mother-son relationship the nucleus from which a storybook monster’s infiltration is born. Statements like this are not usually in my deck of words, but after seeing this heartbreaking and deeply disquieting tale of woe, it is hard to deny The Babadook‘s status as the best horror film of the decade so far.”
(Full review here)

9. Force Majeure (Östlund, Sweden)

8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan)

7. Coherence (Byrkit, US)

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, US)
“Wes Anderson’s most densely plotted film by more than a considerable margin, complete with a Matryoska doll structure that heightens our awareness of storytelling and how the passage of time imprints the past through the act of looking back. The director’s detail-oriented aesthetic and centered formalism continues to turn what was once stylistic affectation into his own purified visual language. He almost exclusively speaks in push-ins, right angles, three aspect ratios, horizontal and whip pans, presentational framing, miniatures, hand-stitched props, matte backdrops, etc. And this time around, he quite literally creates his own nation, a 1930’s Eastern European pastiche, with historical parallels of the time that purposely recall the ways in which Old Hollywood often depicted the ‘foreignness’ of Europe as an unspecified blanket of antiquated charm. Outside of Hollywood influences, such as the particular brand of dizzying energy, Powell/Pressburger looms heavy over all.”
(Originally posted here:)

5. Snowpiercer (South Korea, Bong)
“Bong Joon-ho, and only Bong Joon-ho, would have a film that features its protagonist tripping on a fish, in slow-motion no less, during an axes-out action scene. Bong, and only Bong, would make a film that allows the wildly divergent performances of grim revolutionary Chris Evans and villain-out-of-a-Roald Dahl book Tilda Swinton to successfully play off each other in the same space. And how many filmmakers would make a blockbuster that has the audaciousness to suggest, especially since the film itself thrives off a directly parallel narrative structure of rigidity, that structural disbandment isn’t enough; that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch may be the best solution to humanity’s suffering?”
Full review here:

4. Starred Up (UK, Mackenzie)

3. Listen Up Philip (Perry, US)

2. We Are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden)

1. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK/US/Switzerland)
Image-centric storytelling, with roots in experimental cinema, that distances itself from mankind. Birth to death, human as alien, alien as human. Firmly divided into two parts, routine and the failing quest for basic human pleasures, with the key transitional scene being Laura’s (nobody has any names, including Laura, but she’s billed as such so it’s just easier for me to follow suit) (Scarlett Johansson) encounter with a man with neurofibromatosis. Before that, she goes about her business, luring and leading men into an abstract and oily black digestive space. There’s no connection between her and her body, her victims, or feelings. But gradually the loneliness starts to sink in, and with it the isolation that humans may experience. She begins to seek out basic human pleasures like eating, sex, and companionship, inquisitive and nervous like a child. She knows she needs something, but is unsure how to go about it.

When Under the Skin ended, I felt like I’d been scooped out from the inside. It’s one of the saddest and loneliest films I’ve ever seen. Scarlett Johansson is mainly a presence for the first half, removed and captivating. And then in the second half she is heartbreaking; confused, yearning and unfulfilled. The final minutes, in which she is pursued by a man in the musky never-ending forest, is so palpable; you can feel her fear. Predator to prey. The second she desires the human instinct she loses so much agency. She becomes vulnerable and susceptible, her lair further and further away, unable to reconcile that yearning. We sense the irreparable loss of that center, her time dwindling. My boyfriend found something peaceful about the one-with-the-snow ending, but I didn’t. I just can’t; it’s not in my nature.

The formalism contributes to a new withdrawn perspective of ourselves, as something Other and incomprehensible. The thick Scottish accents further that distance, as does Mica Levy’s slinky and exotic high-pitched string score, and the sound design where much is compressed and blanketed over. Take for instance, as an example of said withdrawn perspective, the way Glazer shoots the scene on the beach, in which attempted rescue causes a chain reaction of familial death, a wailing abandoned baby as sole survivor. Laura, and thus we, take all of it in at once and for what it is (death) with unfeeling coldness. The discrepancy between what is happening, and how we see it, is very disturbing. And then Laura murders a man with a rock, and it’s the opposite of how murder is usually depicted in film. There is no close-up, no sound effect, and no clear view because Laura is crouching with her back to us. The impact of the scene is that there is no impact, and that lack of impact in turn translates to its own unique impact for the audience.

The film does not pass judgment on Laura. As she observes us, we observe her, and ourselves through her. Another layer to this is gradually added when Laura begins to observe herself, in a successive set of mirror scenes as she considers her new form. This observation becomes out-of-body in the end. No mirror is needed in her last moments. There’s certainly an angle on femininity, female sexual power, what it means to be a woman, and examining the male gaze, but I can’t parse through what I take from that with one viewing.

Generally, I think more filmmakers and producers (and let’s be honest, audiences perhaps most of all) need to put their trust in the communicative power of the image (and in viewers), especially since it’s what the medium inherently is to begin with. Under the Skin hypnotically uses impressionistic imagery and Scarlett Johannson’s face as narrative (there is very little dialogue overall) for a final product about existential isolation and irreconcilable cognizance that I haven’t been able to shake all year.
(Originally posted here)

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