Sunday, February 22, 2015

My Favorite Films of 2014

The trouble with living in the Midwest is that by year’s end I haven’t had a chance to see everything  I wanted to see from the year prior. Films trickle inward from the coasts, and even then their presentation is often dubious. For instance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice was a prime example of why I wait to put together my list and I missed it because I think it was only open for about a week. My 19 year old self would have been there opening night, but my 29 year old with three or four different hoops to jump through in order to see a movie, it takes a real above and beyond effort to see everything I want to see. An effort I frankly just don’t have anymore. I see the films eventually. I put them on hold at the library or they pop up on Netflix, but they don’t make the list! What a shame!

The year end list is important to me for some reason. I love putting it together the week of the Oscars. It’s a ritual, undertaken merely to exercise the film loving muscle in my body that I’ve been honing since I was 16 or 17 and saw Mulholland Drive. Checked out from the library. From there I became obsessed. I spent whole summers holed up in my basement bedroom watching stacks of films. Submitting to an entire history of a medium. I had strict rule: Watch, at the very least, a film a day. I usually squeezed in two or three a day in addition to working 16 hours a week at AMC where I squeezed in movies after shifts, 11AM matinees on days off, and saw some films in a piecemeal fashion during ushering shifts. It is that good and pure obsession that I am trying to pay homage to. 

15. Neighbors
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Obligatory new dad pick. The plot’s a little goofy, but the characters—new parents desperately trying to salvage the cool people they once were—are great and full of heart. That’s actually par for the course for Stoller, whose The Five-Year Engagement and Forgetting Sarah Marshall get to be silly, raunchy, and moving all at once. It’s a delicate craft. Sure the gags are great, but the scene where Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s characters are trying to have sex and their baby keeps turning around in her bouncy chair to stare at them and the characters having to abandon the act via the weirdness was one of the truest things I saw all year.

14. The One I Love
Directed by Christopher McDowell
Caveat emptor: Watching this film with your significant other is going to lead to a heavy conversation about your relationship. I don’t want to spoil anything, because watching this film unfold is a treat (as are the performances of Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss), but if you’re on shaky ground with the special man or woman in your life this incisive look at marriage might tip you one way or the other.

13. Jodorowsky’s Dune
Directed by Frank Pavich
I finally put myself up to watching The Holy Mountain this year. How I made it through film school without seeing Jodorowsky’s infamous masterpiece is beyond me. Rosie had gone to bed early and I had a couple hours to kill, pulled the trigger, and sat rapt soaking in one of the weirdest artistic statements I’ve ever experienced. It’s a brilliant and evocative piece of art that belongs in a museum. I also read Dune this year, primarily because this documentary had come out and I wanted to imagine the novels setting with a Jodorowskian palate. It was magnificent. David Lynch’s adaptation is dogshit, and really, it’s not his fault. It was the 80s and he tried. The studio interfered, but some of those effects are inexcusable and it’s all so cheesy and incomprehensible you wish they’d just abandoned it all together. Jodorowsky’s Dune plays like salt in the wound. Look upon that gorgeous and fucked up concept art and weep. Oh, what could have been! Fortunately, the film isn’t merely a glimpse of a great film we the people were deprived of, but a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a madman.

12. 22 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
21 Jump Street looked funny enough, but only when looking up The Lego Movie did I put together the pieces that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were the masterminds behind the tragically short-lived MTV cartoon Clone High. A show I watched religiously the ½ season it was on. A show that cemented the groundwork of what would become my adult sense of humor. Which is to say, a well-timed dolphin squeak will basically have me hyperventilating on the floor. These guys, Jesus Christ. I can’t even. We watched 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street back to back and I was sore the next day. From the clever usage of professional man meat Channing Tatum to the constant tongue-and-cheek lampoonery of sequels to that goddamn “Suns Out, Guns Out” tank top, 22 Jump Street is not only the year’s funniest film, but one of the funniest films I have ever seen. If Lord and Miller don’t already have the keys to the comedy kingdom (which, based on the success and overall wonderfulness of The Lego Movie, they probably do) this needs to be arranged.

11. Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
This one was sort of a perfect storm of “Things that are right up my alley.” Here’s a list within the list of why I loved Birdman: One, I love all of Iñárritu’s films. Two, I love Raymond Carver. Three, I love me a good behind-the-scenes showbiz movie. Four, the acting is amazing (though I’d say despite all of the praise Michael Keaton is getting he is upstaged by Edward Norton and Emma Stone). Five, it’s a technical marvel that plays with the form of cinema in a unique and, most importantly, fun way. Six, it’s incredibly heady but also incredibly funny which makes for a deep richness. Seven, did I mention Emma Stone is amazing? She delivers a monologue midway through the film that is such a showstopper the director should have cued the film to burn on screen before correcting it. Eight, it was an experience that left me rapt in my oversized chair in the squeaky, overpriced cinema suites chairs at AMC and it’s so rare to go to the movies these days and have an actual Experience it’s worth noting here.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn
James Gunn may be known for peddling filth as a part of the Troma Entertainment cadre, but the way he has you both weeping and IDing with Star Lord in the first five minutes of the movie is nothing short of masterful. From there, Chris Pratt and a terrific supporting cast deliver what is easily the best, most entertaining and most emotionally satisfying Marvel movie yet.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Without a doubt, Only Lovers Left Alive was the coolest film of 2014. It was the sort of cool that only Jim Jarmusch can deliver as probably the coolest director in the business. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are electric as a pair of vampires living out their eternal days (or nights, I suppose) in a languid way typically associated people living in opium dens. Jarmusch cleverly sets the scene in the dying city of Detroit against the town’s rock and roll history and it’s just a marvelous film to let wash over you with its gorgeous visuals and incredible score.

8. Frank
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
I think a lot of why I loved this movie is tied to when I watched it. I’d just had surgery, I was zonked out on hydrocodone and feeling incredibly strange. I instinctually picked Frank to watch off the Netflix queue and something about the combination of all those things made it a movie that has really stuck with me. It’s a beautiful and brutal depantsing of the kind of social media fueld hype machine that makes music so insufferable these days. Domhnall Gleeson is excellent as the obnoxious, talentless, tweeting weasel that infiltrates Frank’s band and the scorn he draws from the rest of the group is a source of great humor. Michael Fassbender wears a big paper mache head for most of the film but that doesn’t make his turn as a brilliant, mentally ill musician any less stirring. It’s a poignant look at the Daniel Johnstons of the world and the suffering that leads to that great, weird, outsider art we all love so much.  

7. Calvary
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
The films of John Michael Mcdonagh’s more famous brother Martin (2008’s In Bruges and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths) always make my year end list, so I’m not surprised that talent flows freely in the family McDonagh. Anchored by Brendan Gleeson’s tremendous performance of a good priest in a small seaside town spending a week getting his affairs in order before he is to be murdered on a beach to atone for the sins of the Catholic Church. It sounds bleak, and while there is certainly a storm cloud hanging over this film, there is a fair bit of humor and heart to balance out this magnificent character drama. 

6. Snowpiercer
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Sometimes it’s the weird ones that really stick with you, and boy oh boy, is Snowpiercer a weird one. It’s also probably the most fun I had watching a movie last year. It also features Tilda Swinton’s best performance in a year where A.) Tilda Swinton was in almost every single movie and B.) Tilda Swinton straight-up killed it in every single movie she was in (See Also: Only Lovers Left Alive, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Zero Theorem being her other three films this year, each one featuring a totally different side of this phenomenal woman). In Snowpiercer, she’s the one keeping a ragtag group of peasant people (led by Chris Evans, in fine form here) from fighting their way through the titular train’s class system to the engine room where they plan to take control of humanity’s last salvation in the frozen and environmentally devastated remains of Earth. God bless this new wave of Korean directors bringing their insane, inventive flourishes to English language cinema.

5. Interstellar
Directed by Christopher Nolan
I’ll be honest, that this film’s central heartbeat centers around a father-daughter relationship rather than a father-son relationship is what made Interstellar so deeply resonant with me. It would have still been a fine modern space exploration epic if they’d gone the father-son route as scripted. I’m biased, with my own baby girl and all, but it’s more heartbreaking that way and I was weepy numerous times during the film’s span. It’s master stylist Christopher Nolan’s most emotionally devasting work to date in addition to being his most technologically marvelous. It’s a wondrous film to behold, and while it’s a bit all over the place prone to switch genres or throw wild metaphysical stuff your way at the drop of a hat, the not-knowing-what-the-hell-is-gonna-happen-next was a big reason I was so thoroughly entertained and moved.

4. Ida
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
A beautiful, transcendent, amazingly photographed film about uncovering uncovering the horrors of one of humanity’s darkest hours. Holocaust films come and go, but the  hushed and heartbreaking journey of young nun-in-training Anna discovering her Jewish heritage (and her birth name and the fate of her family) on the cusp of taking her vows tells a side of the atrocity that we haven’t really seen before. Frames of this film are burned into my brain, courtesy of the striking black-and-white cinematography of Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, always leaving the subjects low in the frame and leaving a great deal of negative space to symbolize any number of things. The weight of history, the room to ascend to grace and acceptance, a setting where the world is threatening to completely overtake its characters. It’s austere and incredible work, punctuated by any number of times the camera comes to rest on Agata Trzebuchowska’s eyes that cut right through the celluloid and into your soul. Maybe I’m biased, having spent film school writing papers about the quietly devastating films of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Seijun Suzuki, but on the strength of Ida I think Pawel Pawlikowski has earned a seat amongst those greats and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

3. The Battered Bastards of Baseball
Directed by Chapman Way and Maclain Way
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Ken Burns’ 10+ hour long Baseball series. It’s a very informative series on the whole history of the game. It’s also stuffy and full of blowhards like George Will who will talk your ear off about the purity of the Great Game of Ball. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a magnificent counterpoint to the Burns series, in that the legends it touts are dudes you have never heard of. Dudes with outlandish facial hair and unsavory lifestyles. It’s a look at baseball outside the establishment, and this chronicle of the short-lived Portland Mavericks cuts to the heart of what baseball really is: A childrens’ game played by grown-ass men for the sheer fun of it all.

2. Whiplash
Directed by Damien Chazelle
How Damien Chazelle didn’t garner a nod for Best Director escapes me, because there was no film better helmed in 2014 than Whiplash. The tension Chazelle builds in this student-becomes-the-master piece is so tight and so thick it’s almost unbearable to watch at times. When the whole thing crescendos with the undisputable best scene of the last year, it’s electric. Whiplash is bound to be a lasting parable of the price of greatness.

1. Boyhood
Directed by Richard Linklater
While it sure is nice to see a salt of the earth guy like Richard Linklater garnering so much praise for his most recent effort, it’s nicer that 2014 produced a film everyone could agree on. Not only did Linklater quash any notion that the film (shot over 12 years) would be a gimmick, but said “gimmick” only ended up making for a transcendent filmgoing experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The closest thing I can think of is Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series or Linklater’s own Before…, but where those films pick up a number of years after the last, watching Ellar Coltrane grow up in the span of three hours is magical. 

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