Written by Markus Robinson, Edited by Nicole I. Ashland
It’s that time of year again! Where I run down my list of my Top 10 favorite (or, the Top 10 Best) films of this past year. I usually lead in with something funny or creative, but it’s New Year’s Day and I have stuff to do, so without any further ado:
10. Birdman: Directed by one of my favorite directors of the past decade (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) and filmed as if shot in one continuous 119 minute long-take, “Birdman” is saddled with a more than interesting premise (a washed up actor attempts to put on a Broadway play in order to get back into the limelight) and an even more ironic leading man, with Michael Keaton playing said actor, best known for his role as a superhero (Birdman…not Batman). Sadly the story doesn’t live up to its potential. But who the hell was paying attention to the story, with all that world class direction flying around. Truth is, this is a film which made it onto this list on the merits of its direction and performances alone. Likely to sweep every visual category at the Oscars, all in all this may be a pity ranking, with “Birdman” taking the place of “Top Five” (the Chris Rock “Stardust Memories” film which (direction aside) is a better version of “Birdman”) on this list. In my opinion, it’s not a wild curiosity as to why “Birdman” never garnered any traction with anyone not knee deep in the film scene. But, on the other hand, did I mention that this was the BEST DIRECTED FILM OF THE YEAR?!
9. Frank: If you would’ve told me that a quirky film starring Michael Fassbender wearing a rather large paper mache head, playing a tortured musician striving to make the perfect avant-garde album with his band, which consists of eccentric misfits, would make the list of my favorite movies of the year, I would’ve told you that you had severe mental issues. But beneath the weirdness, “Frank” is a dark and comedic look at mental illness, with by far the best soundtrack of the year. Did I do a good job of selling it?
8. The Rover: The only film on my list that I’ve heard referred to as boring and/or pointless and one that took me completely by surprise, which I almost didn’t see after reading such negative reviews from critics I actually respect. “Rover” is one of two films on this list that ever since I saw it, I can’t seem to get it out of my head (in a good way). It’s set ten years after a seemingly global economic collapse, where during one hot Australian afternoon, odd circumstances spurred on by a group of outlaws who steal Guy Pierce’s car, set this gruesome revenge story into motion. This gorgeously filmed picture contains the spirit of classic minimalist westerns, where the good guy and bad guys are basically interchangeable and the heat causes people to do awful things. “The Rover” also includes one of my favorite performances of the year, from Robert Pattinson of all people.
7. Enemy: A film that once upon a time held the number 2 spot on my list, but due to the sheer amount of list-worthy films which came out during the year (and an unfitting early year release date) this indie Jake Gyllenhaal film which could be likened to a Lynchian episode of “Wife Swap” or a Cronenberg re-telling of Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper”, take the seventh spot on my list. “Enemy” is a film adapted from Jose Saramgo’s critically acclaimed novel by screenwriter Javier Gullon, but ultimately brought to the screen by Denis Villeneuve, who you may know as the director of 2013’s “Prisoners”. The film follows an awkward history professor (Gyllenhaal) who by happenstance discovers he has a double…or a twin…or a copy (also played by Gyllenhaal). It takes him a while, but the professor eventually decides to confront this man who shares an uncanny resemblance to himself, which leads him down an abstract and quite disturbing road. While this Twilight Zone-esque plot does sound interesting, the key to understanding the movie lies more within its images; images which range from the macabre, to the voyeuristic, to the dreamlike and sometimes even to the visually indecipherable. For many “Enemy” may be a movie that doesn’t work unless you see it twice, which is a tough sell. If “Prisoners” has a touch of an homage to David Lynch or David Cronenberg encased in a sort of big budget, big name, pill pocket (if only to make the film more palatable for the masses) then “Enemy” (even though it also stars Jake Gyllenhaal) is just the opposite; a total surrealist waking-dream that is on the surface hard to swallow, then slowly lures you into its web (like a spider would a fly).
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: I knew this movie was going to be something special after the first 10 minutes came and went without the appearance of a single human and all I could think about was how so emotionally taken I was with watching Caesar’s ape community interact with one another (mostly through sign language) that I could’ve sat through an entire feature length film with no human interference at all. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is full of “WOW” moments. By this I mean, I was so blown away with how the script (full of fabulously crafted Shakespearian themes) came together so wonderfully with a healthy portion of visuals punctuated by CGI textures and visceral direction from Matt Reeves (Let Me In) that I literally uttered the word “WOW”, out loud at least a dozen times throughout my viewing experience. If I sat most teenagers down in front of the 1968 classic, “Planet of the Apes”, it wouldn’t take long for them to openly disregard the fantastic premise, underlying themes of racism and a delightfully dark ending that most big budget films nowadays couldn’t possibly get away with, simply because the look is very dated and the camp factor is very 60’s centric. With 2001’s Tim Burton remake, we saw an instance of millions of dollars thrown into a production, with the end result being a film that is still panned across the board, to this day. But with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (directed by Rupert Wyatt) and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, what we are witnessing is this same (if not similar) premise, based on the ridiculous notion that apes can now speak, but this time it’s done in such a way that not for one moment during either of these films (both of which apes speak, and one of which apes ride horses and shoot firearms) are things perceived as campy or unintentionally silly. That is the reason why these new Planet of the Apes remakes work. It’s not so much the million dollar visual effects or the overall entertainment factor. It’s the fact that a packed theater, filled with people from all walks of life, sat and watched a two hour movie where apes talk, and not one of them snickered.
5. Boyhood: Described on IMDb as “The life of a young man, Mason, from age 5 to age 18”, the plot is simple beyond belief. But when writer/director Richard Linklater uses the same actors throughout, actually filming the main character (played by Ellar Coltrane) and his supporting cast (most notably: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Linklaters own daughter, Lorelei) at specific ages during an actual 12 year span to tell this story, his concept begins to distinguish itself from the pack. That said, great premises and concepts are a dime a dozen. But why this film is ranked so high has everything to do Linklater’s ability to make take this concept and inject a story that results in something profoundly touching, insightful and genuine (“genuine” being the key word). “Boyhood” addresses the mountain of issues which afflict adolescent males, without (for the most part) seeming forced or contrived. In fact, I think people will be stunned at how uncontrived and unsaturated with explosive watershed moments (usually built into a film with the sole purpose of manufacturing pathos) this film has. And it’s those genuine moments and small touches of reality throughout, which allow it to connect with audiences despite the lack of cancer revelations or sudden deaths.
4. Dear White People: A movie which follows the lives of four completely different college students, who just happen to be black, and their experience at an Ivy League college; centering around a militant “sista” who broadcasts a radio show entitled “Dear White People”. Admittedly, “Dear White People” isn’t for everyone; at times too Spike Lee for the mainstream. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is the most socially important film on my list. Shining an unrelenting light on everything from the rules of black tipping, to the utterly ignorant mentality that black people can’t be racist, to the “problem” with being gay in the black community; while some will take this as a film which bludgeons one over the head with “black people, good, white people, bad” shaming tactics, in my opinion, this is an explosive satire which exposed the countless American manmade constraints which claim white people are different than black people. “Dear White People” was a forgotten niche film in 2014, which in the years to come will take its rightful place as an important African American film with real things to say.
3. Calvary: Another film nobody saw, “Calvary” opens with a self proclaimed “hell of an opening line”, in a confessional, a “good” Priest (played by Brendan Gleeson) is informed by a mysterious parishioner that he is going to kill said Priest on the following Sunday. The Priest is obviously shocked and confused by this statement and as the mystery man makes his leave, we are left to wonder who would want to kill a Priest; and on a Sunday, no less? This event is then followed by a series of Bunuelian conversations, taking place within the following seven day period, with a series of lively characters in this small Irish town; the conversations touching on the Catholic Church’s stance on faith, capitalism, homosexuality, interracial affairs, child molestation, adultery, forgiveness, suicide, rape and murder, all within a 100 minute runtime. With more symbolism than you can shake a bible at, “Calvary” is a film which is meant to be dissected and redissected…and redissected once again. Understandably, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea, maybe coming off as far too brutal in its satire. That said, I don’t care; this is my list. “Calvary” is a dark comedy taken to its satirical extreme. It’s like a modern day Luis Bunuel film, with a touch of “High Noon”; my kind of movie.
2. Nymphomaniac (Vol: 1 &2): Not at all a “pornographic” film in the most common usage of the term, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1” tells the story of a man (Stellan Skarsgard) named Seligman who discovers a very badly beaten woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) named Joe lying in a gutter. After taking her home, she suddenly begins to recount her younger years as a nymphomaniac, segmenting each graphic memory into chapters, with each chapter meant as an attempt to express the reasoning’s and methods behind her condition. All the while Seligman sits at Joe’s bedside fascinated by her tales of sexual exploits and responding with a sort of Freudian analogy after each one. The introspective meditations between these two characters serve as a classroom-like psychoanalysis respite between the sequences of explicit visuals; utterly brilliant! While “Vol. 1” has a ton of interesting theories about adolescent sexual motivations, it will unfortunately be judged on its visual shock value; challenging audiences as to whether or not they are truly uncomfortable with the naked body. “Vol. 2” however is more about challenging audiences’ sexual theories. If one sees a naked body on screen, one can always turn the channel. But once you hear a theory that may contradict your own morality, you either must metaphorically cover your ears or let the idea marinate inside of you, challenging views that you may hold sacred. And in that way “Vol. 2” is more antagonistic. But this is what von Tier does best; shoves taboo ideas into your face until you either walk out or open yourself up to a dialogue. There isn’t much more I can say about this film, that will convince those who haven’t already seen it, to seek this film out. Let’s just put it this way: Lars von Trier is my favorite writer/director and “Nymphomaniac” is the greatest film he has ever made. Hence, its prestigious spot on this list. Oh and yes, I am regarding these two films as one, only because this was the original intent.
1. Whiplash: “Whiplash” is a about a drum student, Andrew (Miles Teller) who attends a prestigious music conservatory with dreams of becoming “one of the greats” in the world of jazz percussion. His talent and sheer desire lands him in the class of the most notable jazz instructor on campus, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons); an emotionally and (at times) physically abusive man who militaristically and controversially pushes his students past their limits, in his quest to stop at nothing to find the next great jazz musician. This is a film which is either a lesson in how not to be content with mediocrity, or an examination of an abusive relationship. Whatever it is, experiencing the journey Andrew takes throughout as he decides whether to travel down a path which may lead to fame and isolation or the path which leads to a normal life, but away from his obsession, is fascinating. OK, so this is embarrassing. I originally had found slight fault with this movie. I even went so far as to go on a well respected podcast “Out Now with Aaron and Abe” (look it up) and voice my issues with “Whiplash”. But since that day I haven’t been able to shake this movie. In fact, I actually went so far as to sneak into this film at least two more times after exiting much more forgettable movies, just to experience that final sequence once more. It was only then that I came to grips with how electrifyingly layered this film is and how much of a triumph these performances were. And while “Nymphomaniac” and “Whiplash” could undoubtedly be interchanged as my official “favorite” of the year, “Whiplash” takes my top spot because my obsession with it has now become a real problem. Two, three four…
Just missed my list: Top Five, Life Itself, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Lego Movie, Coherence, Gone Girl, Edge of Tomorrow
My list of the Worst Movies of 2014, coming soon.
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