Thursday, February 5, 2015

2014 Top 10

No fancy introduction this year; let's just get right down to it...

Have to give an honorable mention to the short film Recursion, a trippy, frenetic time-travel story that does more with its small budget and limited visual effects than many Hollywood movies. It's like nothing you've ever seen before and is a lot of fun as well.

10. Beyond the Lights. I get the feeling that this film slipped through the cracks, even though I saw ads for it everywhere, and if so, that's a shame, because it was a genuinely well-made and at times, even moving, story about what it means to be a modern celebrity. Gina Prince-Bythewood got a pair of outstanding performances out of stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver, who felt real and relatable every step of the way. I hope this finds a second life on video, because it totally deserves one.

9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Those damn dirty apes continue to amaze. In this era where it's no longer enough for a blockbuster film to be a hit - it has to spawn a universe of its own that can generate spin-off films - this new series of Apes films are way better than they have a right to be. Even though we "know" where this story will end up - the reality of the 1968 original film - the path it has chosen to get there still leaves room for surprise and suspense, and like much of the best science fiction, has something to say about the world we live in now. Matt Reeves took over for previous director Rupert Wyatt well, but there's no question that Andy Serkis and WETA Digital are the true stars of this franchise. They give it scale, they give it spectacle, but most of all they give it heart.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Give Wes Anderson credit for creating this lively, stylized and original world that is heavily detailed and visually splendid, yet still retains a degree of artifice. In a way, one could consider this a throwback to the days of Old Hollywood: a star-studded spectacle in a central location that feels like a world of its own, resembling reality but not caring too much if the seams show or not... and having all sorts of fun letting the actors do their thing within the setting. You can't go wrong with a movie like this.

7. Boyhood. Think about what it must have taken for Richard Linklater to even conceive of making a movie like this over twelve years. Think about all the things that had to go right: proper editing, consistency in film stock, consistency in plot and characterization, consistency in performances from his child star, Ellar Coltrane, keeping Coltrane invested in making this movie over such a long period of time... It was a hell of a journey. Linklater's best films have always had that high degree of difficulty to them, yet they've remained remarkably accessible and unique. It's great to see this indie film maverick achieve the recognition he has with this movie, and when he wins the Best Director Oscar, it'll be truly earned.

6. Obvious Child. I didn't really think Jenny Slate would get Oscar-nominated for this movie, but I kept hoping anyway. This indie comedy got a whole lot of love, and deservedly so. Writer-director Gillian Robespierre took on the tall task of making abortion funny, and she succeeded, with a film that's neither condescending nor preachy, with a delightful performance from Slate at its heart. Always nice to see films like this do well.

5. Nightcrawler. It's hard to say that this one came out of nowhere, since it's not exactly an indie movie the way Obvious Child or Boyhood are indie films, but it does feel kinda like the sleeper film of the year - and it's a marvelous one. Dan Gilroy's film is a 21st-century Network with a darkly alluring character at its heart, a true product of our 24-hour news media culture, embodied to creepy perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal in what may be his greatest performance to date. Kudos all around to everyone involved with this excellent movie.

4. Under the Skin. One of the weirdest and most unique science fiction movies I've seen in many years, from Scarlet Johansson's bold performance to the bizarre score to the unique filming techniques to the understated yet creepy visual effects. Jonathan Glazer makes this alien infiltration yarn vague, yet leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and I admit, this is one time where I feel fairly sure I've got most (not all) of this story figured out. It's certainly a movie that invites repeat viewing, and not just for ScarJo's heavenly body, either. Even if I didn't have a grasp on it, I think this would still make my list. This will have a long life as a midnight movie, that's for sure.

3. Whiplash. Ooooooh, boy, thinking about this one still gives me the shivers! Damien Chazelle knew all the right buttons to push with his tale about one young man's struggle for musical immortality, and he got two outstanding performances out of J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in the process. Intense is not the word to describe it! Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this movie is that it was shot in only 19 days. When you consider how Teller had to learn to play jazz and how Simmons had to embody his character to such perfection and how Chazelle had to shoot the drumming scenes - yes, this was based on a short film of Chazelle's, but still - it's a miracle that they were able to accomplish what they did in such a short period of time. 

2. Selma. An emotional spectacle as well as a technical masterpiece, Ava DuVernay gives Martin Luther King Jr. the big-screen biopic he deserves, and has deserved for a long time, taking a key moment in his life - the fight for black residents in Selma, Alabama to register to vote without fear of intimidation - and making it the stuff of legend, while remembering the things that made him a man as well. I said on Twitter that Best Picture was Selma's to lose, and while it may not be as clear-cut as that anymore, it won't matter either way, because this is one that film history will look very kindly on, not just as a landmark moment in the still-rising career of a woman director, but as a genuine work of art.

1. Life Itself. I wasn't able to fully express why the Roger Ebert documentary moved me as much as it did at the time I first saw the film. Now, I think, perhaps I can. A major part of it is because I saw my parents in Roger and Chaz: a wife caring for a severely disabled husband, late in his life, unconditionally and (mostly) uncomplainingly. Seeing what they went through couldn't fail to remind me of my father's struggles, and my mother's ceaseless efforts to keep him going a year, a month, a day longer. I feel confident that had they met, my dad and Roger would've had lots of things to say to each other. It's a given that Ma and Chaz would get along famously.

Roger and Chaz were and are famous, which is what drew me to Steve James' film adaptation of Roger's autobiography, but even if they weren't, I believe this would've moved me just the same, because at its heart, Life Itself is a love story, and an extraordinary one at that, the kind that's too good to be true... and yet it is true. I feel privileged that we were allowed to glimpse this story up close, that Roger and Chaz were so willing to let themselves be put into the heart of the spotlight, to a degree that would intimidate many others, myself included. Two thumbs way, way up!


2013 top 10
2012 top 10
2011 top 10


  1. Love these movies! Well, I still need to see Selma and Life Itself. I also wish more persons watched 'Beyond the Lights'.

  2. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Always nice to see that happen.

  3. I've been wanting to watch Life Itself for a long while. I always loved Ebert. I often disagreed with him, but he was always about the joy of watching films, not proving himself right or being the cleverest/snarkiest. Glad to hear it's been worth the anticipation. I particularly liked this tribute to him in case you're interested:
    I didn't like Boyhood at all, but you make a very good argument for it.:) I agree with you on Whiplash, and can't wait to see Obvious Child & Nightcrawler. Thanks for your nice words about my blog in your last post, btw:)

  4. I wouldn't say Roger had a huge influence in my life, but he and Gene Siskel were entertaining, and their passion for movies was obvious. It wasn't until relatively recently that I began to fully understand his impact on film criticism.

  5. Under the Skin was my favorite film seen in the theater last year, though I have woefully far to go in seeing those with Oscar nods. I just loved it so much. Grand Budapest Hotel was a ball. Just watched it again the other day, but it was so much better on the big screen. There are so many details to catch and the visuals are a candy land. If you haven't seen Jodorowsky's Dune, I highly recommend that doc. I think you'd enjoy it as an artist.

  6. Heard about it. I'm somewhat familiar with Jodorowsky. I imagine anything he did with DUNE could only be an improvement on Lynch.


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