Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Only "Best of 2014" List You'll Ever Need

Finally, the most important Best Films of 2014 list: Mine

But that's not really an accurate title as I make no claims to these being the actual best films of 2014. Rather, these are the films I took the most pleasure from watching and find myself eager to revisit again. And as solipsistic as that may sound, that's all that really matters to me.

The list is no particular order because I hate ranking movies. That’s lame.

Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Miles Teller is Andrew, a drummer who wants to be the next Buddy Rich. J.K. Simmons is Fletcher, his music teacher who wants him to be the next Buddy Rich. What could go wrong?

Oh how about everything. “Whiplash” is about the world’s worst teacher ever, as Fletcher seems to take some sick delight in terrorizing Andrew in the name of education and the kid bizarrely begins to feed off of it, growing more and more obsessed with becoming a legend. Fletcher swears he’s pushing Miles to make him truly great, but he’s probably just a dick.

Damien Chazelle directs it like a thriller and there’s never a dull moment. 

Pull quote: Finally, a film where J.K. Simmons yells.

Begin Again (dir. John Carney)

I’m sure many would argue this film is too slight to belong on a list like this. Well guess what buddy, this is my list, not yours! And as slight as the film may be, “Begin Again” is truly sweet and delightful in a way few movies nowadays. Keira Knightley plays a songwriter down on her luck who meets Mark Ruffalo, a music producer down on his luck and the two team up to reverse their fortunes. Both actors give wonderfully honest, naturalistic performances and it’s the kind of film where you wish every scene lasted longer because it’s so enjoyable just watching them interact.

“Begin Again” is a film whose pleasures are hard to describe in words so check it out. I dare you.

Pull quote: Kiera Knightley sings! Adam  Levine grows a beard!

Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit)

A group of friends get together one night for a dinner partyb ut when a comet passes by, strange things start to happen (see “Night of the Comet” for further evidence of the problems comets may cause). The friends soon realize there’s someone else lurking around their house and it knows an awful lot about them.

I won’t reveal too much more but there is a scientific explanation and it doesn’t really help our poor heroes. James Ward Byrkit directs the film with a rare economy as the flick races towards a sad but ultimately inevitable conclusion. 

Pull quote: A cautionary tale about the dangers of dinner parties.

Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

Yeah, big shocker, right? Well guess what, this movie’s really good. Nay, great. “Boyhood” is a monumental achievement and probably the best film ever made about the passage of time (yes, even better than “Back to the Future”). Linklater directs with a remarkably steady hand and makes a 2 ½ movie with no plot fly by. Pretty much every sequence is great and you could convincingly argue this is the greatest anthology film ever made. Much has been said about Ellar Coltrane as the titular boy and it’s all true. His essential low-key good guyness reminds me of more people I know than most other teen characters.

And the final shot is about as beautiful a moment as there will ever be in a film.

Pull quote: 12 years in the making and they still couldn’t afford to film a car chase. The hell is this?

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (dir. Isao Takahata)

Everybody’s all in love with Hayao Miyazaki. Oh, it’s so sad he’s retiring, no more Totoro, etc. Well guess what nerds, Isao Takahata is the real genius at Studio Ghibli and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is better than anything Miyazaki’s ever done. The film tells the story of Princess Kaguya, a girl born from a split bamboo tree to poor peasant parents who decide to raise her to become a true princess. Well, Princess (her first name is actually Princess) doesn’t really want to be a princess, she just wants to live in her rural home but she soon finds herself trapped in a royal hell.

“Kaguya” is animated in a style far different from any other Ghibli joint; the sketchy, spare art style recalls Japanese folk art and the watercolor backgrounds are lovely in a way no CG flick could ever even attempt. Takahata directed one of the all-time great downer films, “Grave of the Fireflies” and this finale is depressing and tragic in a whole new way. This film is like nothing in the Ghibli canon and a fitting final film for the venerated studio.

Except it’s not. “When Marnie Was There” is. Ah well.

Pull quote: If your kids loved “Frozen,” they’ll love this princess movie even more!

The Book of Life (dir. Jorge R. Gutierrez)

The most exhilarating animated film of the year comes from the mind of Jorge R. Gutierrez, who has been battling to get this film off the ground for over a decade. Thankfully for him (and us) Guillermo del Toro fell in love with the project and managed to trick somebody into putting up the dough.

“The Book of Life” is a bright, absurdly stylized epic about the love that lives beyond death set and the burden of living up to our ancestors. Gutierrez is aware that this may be his only movie ever, so he jam packs the film with everything he loves. But the film never feels overstuffed and he manages to juggle all the elements with a sense of wit and style. Very few movies are as joyous and raucous as this one and it’s the perfect tribute to the Day of the Dead. 

I think. I’m not from Mexico so I don’t really know.

Pull quote: Gringos welcome!

God Help the Girl (dir. Stuart Murdoch)

I have no idea who or what Belle and Sebastian is but their front man knows how to direct. “God Help the Girl” will probably be dismissed by most as a by-the-numbers “coming of age” flick but it really isn’t. The film tells the story of Eve, a young woman institutionalized for an eating disorder and showing very little sign of improvement. But she escapes one day and finds herself among James and Cassie, two up and coming musicians, who convince her to join them and exorcise her demons through song. 

That's right folks, it's a musical. A real, honest to God burst-out-in-song musical. And fuck man, I don’t know, I think the songs are pretty damn good. They run of gamut of joyful exuberance to melancholy longing and fit the style of the film perfectly. Of the many musicals released this year, this is by far the strongest (sorry Steve old buddy, I’m sure “Into the Woods” is better on stage).

Pull quote: It’s not as irritating as it looks, honest!

Birdman (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrittu)

From the man who brought you the monumentally depressing “Babel” and “Biutiful” comes a weirdo comic thriller about a washed-up actor’s mental breakdown. Michael Keaton gives one of the finest performances of his career as Riggan Thompson, the former star of “Birdman I-III” who’s written, directed and starring in a Broadway play in a desperate attempt to regain some sort of relevance. But alas, nothing is going right for him, from working with a prim donna method actor (Edward Norton), dealing with a rebellious assistant/daughter (Emma Stone) and weathering an angry critic’s (Lindsay Duncan) vicious notices. Oh, and his alter ego Birdman keeps talking to him.

Inarritu directs with a surprisingly deft touch, as his arthouse sensibilities elevate what could just be a generic “backstage comedy” into something transcendentally absurd. Emmanuel Luzbeki’s free floating camera and Antonio Sanchez’s relentless drum score combine together to create a truly inspired picture of madness and by the end you’ll feel a little crazy yourself. 

Pull quote: Get excited for the eventual Birdman Cinematic Universe, or BCU.

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

“Inherent Vice” is many things: a film noir, a 1970s corruption expose, a stoner flick, but most importantly it’s a film about how nobody knows what the fuck’s going on. Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, a beach bum private eye who finds himself in a deeply complicated conspiracy that may-or-may-not actually be a conspiracy. But he plows ahead to the best of his (impaired) ability.
After the grim “There Will Be Blood” and confounding “The Master,” it’s a pleasure to see Anderson kick back a little and have a little fun. “Inherent Vice” is by no means a comedy, but it’s arguably the lightest film he’s ever made and ultimately a film about damaged people trying to heal themselves in a world that may be more damaged than they are.

It also features Martin Short as a drug-crazed, jailbait lovin’ dentist, which is something you don’t see every day, but I don't live in Canada so I can't really confirm this.

Pull quote: Joaquin Phoenix’s hair at first seems really ridiculous but then the more you watch it, it becomes kinda cool.

Big Eyes (dir. Tim Burton)

It seems fitting that Tim Burton, a poorly-received artist as of late would make a film about another poorly-received artist, Margaret Keane, the creator of those paintings of creepy big eyed children. But here’s the thing; Burton doesn’t care about accolades and neither does Margaret. Margaret loves her paintings, no matter how despised they may be by the critical intelligentsia  and all she wants to do is be able to express herself freely. “Big Eyes” is about her struggle to reclaim her art from her shameless huckster of a husband, Walter Keane. 

“Big Eyes” is a truly wonderful, offbeat biopic, alternating moments of joy and levity with sadness and horror. Amy Adams plays Margaret as a quite figure, stoic on the outside but constantly in pain, the only evidence of which can be seen in the eyes of her sad children. Christoph Waltz is also amazing, shedding his overly-wordy persona from his Tarantino films and embracing a character that manages to be both utterly charming and utterly evil, often within the same sentence.

Burton directs with a quiet confidence as he stages each frame of the film for maximum storytelling clarity. Along with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, he’s created one of best looking movies of the year and the fact that NO ONE has noticed this is an absolute crime. In an era of bland, dull-looking movies, “Big Eyes” is a breath of fresh air (“Inherent Vice” as well).

Mark my words, twenty years from now, "Big Eyes" will be considered one of the defining movies of Burton's oeuvre. 

Pull quote: Yes, yes, your jokes about Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are hilarious, just watch the damn movie, OK?

Other Fine Films I Saw This Year: 

Big Hero 6, Selma, Foxcatcher, The LEGO Movie, 22 Jump Street, Guardians of the Galaxy, Godzilla, The One I Love, Nightcrawler, Magic in the Moonlight

Movies Released in 2014 That I Would Still Like To See (During This Year, Which is 2015)

The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Babadook, Force Majeure  

Best Movies I Just Saw This Year That Weren’t Released Theatrically This Year 

Only Yesterday (dir. Isao Takahata, 1991) – An animated movie about a young woman remembering her childhood. Way more compelling than it sounds.

Cleanflix (dir. Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, 2009) – Those guys who censor movies for “family viewing” turn out to be real weirdos. Who’da guessed it?

Zero Dark 30 (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) –Not only is it a dark rumination on the nature of vengeance, but a kickass thriller as well. Bigelow Bigelowns.

Broadcast News (dir. James L. Brooks) – Still incredibly prescient after all these years. 

Ace in the Hole (dir. Billy Wilder, 1950) – A poisoned pen valentine to journalism and hucksters everywhere. Unbelievably mean and funny as hell.

Surveillance (dir. Jennifer Lynch) – A dark, twisty thriller told in a tight, economical style. 

12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet) – The greatest courtroom thriller ever doesn’t even take place in a courtroom.

Joe (dir. David Gordon Green) – Nicolas Cage’s finest performance in years is in a film that’s told very simply and very well. 

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne) – This is a low-key gem that captures the tensions inherent in any family reunion. Good shit.

Freeway (dir. Matthew Bright) – A hilariously psychotic take on “Little Red Riding” that just never lets up. Easily Reese Witherspoon’s finest performance.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Andersen) - The greatest filmed lecture ever made and essential viewing for any movie buff.

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