Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014: My 10 Favorite Films

Galactic guardians, endlessly questing hobbits and deadly hunger games may have featured in the top grossers of the year, but jazz drums, hiking boots and heating oil were the unlikely ingredients of my favorite films of 2014.

Theses movies generally didn't have the biggest budgets, the most creative marketing initiatives, or the hottest stars, but they are the films that stuck in my mind -- and, frequently, heart -- as the best of the year, all wildly different in tone, but equally rewarding as movies.

These are my 10 favorite films of the year:

  #10 - The Imitation Game 

The Imitation Game is a top-notch spy thriller, and on that basis it makes my Top 10 list.  Its merits as  a treatise on the political rights of gays is substantially more dubious, even though it ends with an oddly unconvincing effort to reveal Alan Turing's story as a milestone in gay history.  It is, however, convincing and utterly absorbing as a thriller, a fantastic story told marvelously well, with top-notch performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and, more especially, Keira Knightley.

  #9 - The Theory of Everything  

The Theory of Everything looks and feels like a very proper, very safe Masterpiece Theater version of the life of Stephen Hawking, but it has some sly ideas in its head (quite apart from Hawking's theories, which it never really addresses in any meaningful way): What are the limits of love?  What damage is done when the physical and emotional needs of two people in a relationship are unequal?  It's in these dicey emotional waters that The Theory of Everything finds its real heading.  Filled with remarkable performances, The Theory of Everything isn't quite as emotionally uplifting as it thinks it is -- but is unexpectedly emotionally intriguing.  It floats some curious theories indeed.

  #8 - The Skeleton Twins

Grief and loss are likewise integral to The Skeleton Twins, which places them in a very different context than The Babadook.  In The Skeleton Twins, Milo and Maggie Dean (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) contend with a lifetime of anguish and disappointment that has left them emotionally stunted and confused.  Given the cast, it's no surprise the movie finds levity in their predicament, but what is most unexpected is the way the melancholy mood never quite lifts, even in the made-for-a-TV-commercial moment when the twins burst into a lip-synched version of an uplifting '80s song.  There's always a sharp undercurrent of very real pain in The Skeleton Twins, a recognition that life doesn't get any easier as you grow up.  It's one of the year's hidden gems.

  #7 - The Babadook  

Horror movies typically aren't my thing, but The Babadook isn't a typical horror movie.  It's an unsettling, skillful exploration of the nature of grief and depression.  Those unavoidable human conditions are frequently described as a dark and sinister shadow that won't leave the suffering alone, and The Babadook brings form to that idea.  There have been scarier horror movies, to be sure, but few as rooted in humanity as The Babadook.

  #6 - Force Majeure  

Here's something curious: I didn't care for Force Majeure at all when I saw it.  I found it as slow, plodding and impenetrable as one of the glaciers upon which the family at its core might spend a skiing holiday.  I found it a struggle, at the very least.  But Force Majeure refuses to leave my head. Its exploration of the disintegration of a marriage never really seems to take hold on screen, but it leaves behind a bitter, poisonous aftertaste that would be funny if it weren't so real.  This challenging movie isn't easy to sit through, but if you do, I defy you to forget it.  The more I think about it, the more I think Force Majeure is some kind of weird genius.

  #5 - A Most Violent Year  

Writer-director J.C. Chandor finds a moment in time when businessmen and gangsters met -- and became each other.  New York City in 1981 is in the throes of the worst violence in its history, a backdrop well-suited to the story of a corrupt, soulless immigrant who insists he is neither corrupt nor soulless.  A Most Violent Year is a reminder than movies can be both smart and thrilling, both complex and rewarding, both thoughtful and suspenseful.  Most young moviegoers don't realize there was a time when movies this intelligent were the norm on screen, when both studios and stars gravitated toward them; here's hoping A Most Violent Year signals the start of another such time.

  #4 - Boyhood  

Richard Linklater's unprecedented drama was shot over the course of 12 years, but it's no gimmick; Boyhood has the loose, sprawling, personal feel of a very private life.  Boyhood has the loosest of plots, the beauty is in the casting and the heartfelt, sincere direction.  It's a project that both in design and structure seeks to capture the subtle rhythms and sometimes sorrowful unpredictability of everyday life.  Through the eyes of Mason (actor Ellar Coltrane), Boyhood explores what it is to grow up, to grow aware and, most hauntingly, to grow apart.  Despite a running time of nearly three hours, Boyhood left me wanting to see even more.

  #3 - Selma  

David Oyelowo doesn't simply give an extraordinary performance as Martin Luther King in Selma, he finds the man at the core and lets us see exactly why King and his eloquent, passionate rhetoric became one of the most important figures of the 20th century.  It sounds cliché, but Oyelowo brings King to life in a film that makes every struggle for recognition feel necessary and urgent.  Selma is infinitely more than a historical drama; it's an absorbing, affecting movie that avoids the pitfalls of biography by focusing on one pivotal moment and allowing the whole of a legacy to shine through.  The real accomplishment of Selma, though, is that the film itself is equally good as the performance.

  #2 - Whiplash  

Furious camera work and equally fierce lead performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller make Whiplash one of the most original and exciting movies in a long time.  (Wild edges it out of the top slot for me purely on an emotional level.)  It's a mean, caustic movie that doesn't try to blunt its impact by providing a feel-good ending, though I was intrigued by how many people claimed it was an inspiration; it seems to me more of a cautionary tale about the terribly high price of perfection and its staggeringly low rewards.  The virtuosity and intensity of Whiplash are unnerving.  It's a jolting, stunning film.

  #1 - Wild  

No film moved me with such force and intensity as director Jean-Marc Vallée's vision of a woman who literally has nowhere to go.  In the finest performance of her career (not to mention one of the best acting accomplishments of the year), Reese Witherspoon brings dignity, compassion and humor to her depiction of Cheryl Strayed, on whose memoir the movie is based.  But it's far from a one-woman show, and Wild gains its greatest emotional resonance in flashbacks -- a device frequently misused but here handled with precision -- that give depth to the grievous loss that sent Strayed over the edge and put her on a punishing path.  Wild is a beautiful movie that moved me to tears; it's a film with a generous heart, a quality enhanced by its not-insignificant technical accomplishments.  In 2014, most people seemed to have preferred big-budget outer-space spectacle, but they would have found an far more thrilling experience with Wild, which looks within and finds more grace and awe in a lone woman walking along a trail than all the galaxy's guardians put together could have hoped to impart.

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