Aaron’s Top 10 of 2014
This year, the way I put together my top ten list changed. Until 2014, I would strictly use a worldwide theatrical date when considering what qualified, which mostly affected foreign films that opened in the U.S. the calendar year after it premiered in the home country. Now, mostly because of awards voting privileges I’ve received, I figured I would get on board with what most film writers consider – if it opened in the U.S. in 2014, it’s eligible. Looking at my finalized list, this did have direct effects. A few films that regrettably just missed by list are: Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida, Manakamana, Mr. Turner, Selma, and Whiplash. A few films that I even more regrettably didn’t see before making this list: Citizenfour, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Levithan, Song of the Sea, Winter Sleep, and probably many, many more. For the films that did make my list, I feel very strongly about the grouping and placement of my top 5. About ten different films could have realistically been my #6. 2014 turned about to be an insanely deep and diverse year, which is good enough for me to call a great year.
10. Force Majeure
Most movies are about someone (sometimes a normal person, sometimes a super person) making a heroic split decision in the face of danger. Force Majeure is basically the opposite of that. And then the movie spends an hour and 45 intensely breaking down that moment, which inevitably breaks down the family living with such a decision. If the film wasn’t so sharp and so devilishly funny, it would be absolutely excruciating. At the opening of Force Majeure, the wealthy family on a ski vacation in the French Alps seems almost too perfect. Once an instinctual, though rather stupid, decision is made by the family’s patriarch, the entire concept of their family collapses. Writer/director Ruben Östlund takes characters that are bland archetypes by design and gives them extraordinarily complex philosophical and sociological details to work through. It’s not a very easy thing to write or act a realistic argument, and there are a number of them here, all imbued with the complicated themes of the film. It can be really compelling stuff to watch – I often found myself not knowing whom I wanted to side with, even as I’m probably more inclined to side with the man, with our bond of masculinity. There are many other memorable scenes in the film, though, such as a mix-up at a bar that completely dresses down the lead character, and the final bus scene that provide the film with a fantastically dark streak of humor.
9. Gone Girl
I usually try to watch films I consider for my top ten a second time before finalizing the list. Since most of my time watching movies is either early in the day or later in the night, it helps me eliminate all external forces. I also value rewatchability. Of the films on this list that I only happened to catch once, Gone Girl is the one I’m most unsure about. Knowing none of the details of Gillian Flynn’s pop novel, going into the film totally fresh, it was the best thrill ride of the year. Knowing plot particulars doesn’t necessarily change my opinion of a film, but I’m not sure the film’s design would hold up in multiple viewings. Still, David Fincher continues to be one of the world’s most confident directors, showing control of every twist and turn with great precision. There has always been something about Fincher’s look and tone that completely grabs me. He’s perfected it with pulpy scripts over the years to where now this twisty, insane story feels made easy. The best ensemble cast of the year, headed by Rosamund Pike’s brilliant performance, hold up their end, too. Seeing Gone Girl in a packed theater on opening weekend was one of the two best theater-going experiences I had this year.
8. The Overnighters
No documentary I saw this year had me as gripped as Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters. Taking place in a small North Dakota town that briefly boomed and then collapsed after oil was found, the film mainly profiles Jay Reinke, a pastor who has opened his church and home to men who have no where else to stay. The situation is incredibly complicated and controversial in Williston, as many of the locals fear for their safety with strange men, some of whom have violent criminal pasts, hanging around. Reinke is in a tough position. He seems to be doing things out of goodness through Christian principles, but The Overnighters doesn’t shy away from the potential dangers of his decisions. The film ends with a shocking revelation that puts new light on every decision and motive (I wish I could go more deeply on the film’s end here, but it is a turn not worth spoiling). The Overnighters is a fantastic environmental/economical profile of oil and fracking boom towns, a fantastic profile of a sympathetic man trying to be a good person, a fantastic story of community, a fantastic inquisition of religion and faith, and simply a fantastic film.
7. The Babadook
After 2013 proved to be a revitalization of the horror genre, 2014 took a step back. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is the exception. Touted by master filmmaker William Friedkin as the scariest movie he’s ever seen, (I wouldn’t go that far, but…) The Babadook delivers on scares. But it is even more compelling as a human drama, anchored by great performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. I always think that horror films can benefit from a little sadness, though the genre today has been moving further away from this set of emotions. The Babadook is most successful because it is easy to genuinely feel for Amelia and Samuel. Amelia being ignored by society, turned away from her family, becoming emotionally distant from her son, Samuel’s emotional instability, possible developmental disabilities – everything in the film is first grounded emotionally. Once the duo begins to be terrorized by a supernatural force, it is impossible not to feel closer to them than most horror movie victims. You can also choose to read The Babadook without any supernatural events, that all of the film’s events are hallucinations of the characters, metaphors of their own abuses. This reading is completely satisfying only because of the film’s emotional base and commitment to its characters. This also makes it the most resonant horror films in a long time.
6. The Guest
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have quickly become independent film’s wonder couple. You’re Next was a smart, fun horror throwback – also the kind of film that could easily be a one-hit-wonder. The duo returned with The Guest, a film that has the same energy and twinge of nostalgia but little else in common. In ways The Guest feels more like a knock off than You’re Next, but its patchwork of 80s psycho thrillers and millennial action flicks chemically combine into one of the most fun movies of the year. And it knows it, too. Wingard’s direction is flashy without overreaching and Barrett’s script has all the right tones, but really, the film lives and breaths with Dan Stevens’ performance as “David”. I’ve never seen Downton Abbey, so Stevens was a fresh face to me – I understand that from his performance there, his turn in The Guest would be just as surprising. Stevens has a difficult task, needing to play a different role to charm every character he comes up against. Similarly, he tricks the audience as well. The conceit of the film is right up front, given the nature of its influences, most viewers will know exactly where the character is going from the beginning. Still, he’s so absolutely likeable, even when he’s terrifying.
5. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
In college, the first cinema studies course that I really loved was an introduction to the films of Japan. More than any other film culture, Japanese film uses every aspect of its cultural history. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a wonderful embodiment of this, with elements of fantasy, nature, humor, tragedy, romance, quest, history, and tradition in the jidaigeki. The supposed last film of Studio Ghibli’s second banana Isao Takahata, it might be the best work from the prolific animation company. I’ve written on a few of Takahata’s films for this site – I appreciate his delicate touch while being emotionally complex. He was usually the more grounded side of Ghibli, but he spreads out a little for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya with its expansive, highly entertaining story. You can’t talk about this film, though, without talking about its amazing animation. I’m not someone that complains when technological advances pushes out the old ways of movie-making, but this is a prime example of the possibilities and, frankly, the necessity of hand-drawn animation. I was with all of you decrying the omission of The Lego Movie from Oscar contention, but not at the expense of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the best animated film in years.
After my first viewing of Boyhood, I thought it could be the most disappointing movie of the year. I still really liked it, mind you, but with my love for Richard Linklater (his last two films both ended up on my top 10 list) and the gushing love it was receiving in its early screenings, I was looking for best-of-the-decade type stuff. I’ve found the film, though, to grow in my mind once I’ve stepped further away from some of the film’s flaws to only consider the greater meaning of the film and its production. I am ten years older than Mason is by the film’s conclusion, just young enough to recognize all of the cultural stamps but just old enough to have a different perspective on them. I absolutely love the way Linklater is able to use popular music, films and other cultural events as a shorthand – every song and reference instantly reminded me of where I was at this time. No other film can achieve this so perfectly. Boyhood isn’t just the best realization of time on film, it’s damn near time travel.
3. Blue Ruin
Jeremy Saulnier’s fantastic debut is as emotionally and aesthetically complete as any film this year. No other film was able to make me tense and make me laugh as much as Blue Ruin. Even though its fairly simple high concept narrative (“the deconstruction of revenge”) has been done a million times by now, Saulnier’s ability to create a great scene keeps it feeling fresh. Each time Dwight faces off with one of the Cleland clan is more memorable than the last, ultimately ending up in one of the most shocking finales of the year. There is a perverse joy in watching a normal schlub desperately try to wash his hands of this situation while only digging himself deeper into the muck. With Dwight’s bumbling nature in this ultra-bleak world, it’s really a miracle that the film never feels in danger of falling too far into camp. Blue Ruin is so confidently shot and paced that the comparisons to early Coen Brothers doesn’t feel blasphemous.
First of all: Jake Gyllenhaal. Nightcrawler isn’t the first time he’s shown this, but it’s probably the best argument that he’s a character actor at heart. He’s always felt a little uncomfortable as a traditional leading man, but as an inherently uncomfortable character like Louis Bloom, he shines. There is a glorious progression to the character. When we first meet Bloom, he has the tools and willingness to make it, but it isn’t until he dives into the morally ambiguous world of freelance news videography that he finds real success. I wouldn’t quite consider it his calling, more the vehicle of his choosing – if Bloom found work on Wall Street or the drug industry, it wouldn’t necessarily be all that different of a rise. Then again, we’ve seen those films. Nightcrawler is able to be both ridiculous and gripping, often at the same time, mostly because of Gyllenhaal’s committed performance. I could never predict what lengths Bloom would go to, could never agree with his decisions, but could never doubt those choices were true to the character. In a year with many great pulp films (a few have made my list this year), Nightcrawler stands as the craziest, most WTF, best of them.
1. Under the Skin
Looking back at my top 10 lists from the past few years makes me realize that I guess I like science fiction. I never really considered myself as a sci-fi diehard growing up more on the horror slant, but from Cloud Atlas to Gravity and now Under the Skin, I guess I can’t deny it. I haven’t read Michel Faber’s novel, but hearing the description of what Jonathan Glazer and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell chose to use and leave out, it sounds like most perfect adaptation. Under the Skin has all the information you really need – there is an alien on Earth, harvesting humans (in this case, male bodies). The lack of other information may frustrate some, but do we really need to know the master plan or need an explanation of what is really happening in the black room? Instead of a pure intellectual approach to science fiction, Glazer sticks with style, tone and emotion (thinking back on it, you can say the same about Cloud Atlas and Gravity, so the trend has been refined). I absolutely love all of Glazer’s filmmaking decisions, especially the hidden camera set-up, letting star Johansson interact undercover with real-life potential victims. Not only does Johansson hold her own in what must have been a difficult task, but it provides the raw energy that gives Under the Skin its unique feel. The film’s first half hits all my visual pleasure centers, then pivots for a beautiful and strange third act of personal discovery. Overall, Under the Skin’s alluring soundtrack (the best of the year), beautiful cinematography, and bold storytelling pulled me into the blackness right along with those poor Scottish saps.