Jim’s Top Ten of 2014
For anyone who may be following my (tremendously protracted) Top 10 Favorite Films, you should already be clued into the fact that my Top 10 Films of 2014 list will be somewhat dissimilar from other Top 10 lists you’ll read. Yes, a lot of familiar faces will be on here, but a few motley crew members have also snuck their way in. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t get around seeing many of the films that have populated a lot of end of the year lists (Citizenfour, Life Itself, Inherent Vice, Whiplash), but if you’re reading this list rather than somebody else’s, I’ll have to assume – right or wrong – that you’re doing it because you’re genuinely interested in my thoughts. Either that or you’re a member of my family trying to show me love and support (thanks, Mom!).
Before I get to the main course, let me pay lip service to the Honorable Mentions that didn’t make the cut.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Captivated: The Trial of Pamela Smart
The One I Love
And now, as they say, on to the show!
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
As soon as Peter Quill presses play on Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” dancing his way across a cave on an alien planet, we know exactly what kind of film Guardians of the Galaxy will be: it’ll be unique, it’ll think outside of the MCU box and – most importantly – it’ll be fun. The MCU has been criticized by some for removing the power from the hands of its directors and placing it back in the hands of the studio heads, yet somehow James Gunn was able to infuse this summer blockbuster with his unique sense of irreverent humor while still turning in an operatic adventure story that hit all the right plot and emotional points. We all expect summer blockbusters to entertain us, but Guardians of the Galaxy bucks the recent trend in superhero films that approach their subjects dourly and far too seriously. Plus, it features a soundtrack that’ll be stuck in your head for days.
9. Starred Up
Pretty much the only reason that Starred Up isn’t further up on this list is because I’ve seen almost every other film a lot more recently (with the exception of #1, but we’ll get to that in a little bit). It’s pretty much a given that any independent drama set inside a prison will make it a point to emphasize how broken the criminal justice system is, but what separates Starred Up from your run of the mill independent prison drama – aside from phenomenal performances from Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn – are the parallels it draws between prison and family, another system that can be just as broken and be even more influential on the development of a young man than any societal construct. O’Connell’s performance as a malcontent is so fantastic because of the fine line he walks between being damaged and being irreparable.
Louis Bloom is a product of his environment. It’s not important what factors have led him to the point of pitching his services as an intern to the scrap metal yard to which he’s selling stolen goods; what’s important is that he, as a product of that environment, is now doing something about it. Shaped and molded by any number of unseen social, economic and/or political factors, Louis Bloom is presented to the audience as an amalgamation of many forces, a Frankenstein’s monster created by an uncaring, perpetually progressing city and economy that sympathizes for nobody. The fact that Bloom remains basically unchanged from the beginning of the film to the end is not a weak point of the story, but a strength – a brilliant subversion of narrative convention that emulates Bloom’s adaptation to his environment.
7. Gone Girl
There is a darkness that exists within all of us and David Fincher loves exploring what factors will bring it out of us. Many people who viewed Gone Girl initially saw it as a condemnation of marriage and while I can’t say I particularly blame those people, I will say that I disagree with them. There is nothing inherent about the institution of marriage that warrants it being placed on trial, but the taut thriller does explore how such intimacy and familiarity with the wrong person can destroy you. Fincher again teams with DP Jeff Cronenweth to saturate Gone Girl in a jaundiced yellow that casts a subtle suggestion of sickness and rot over the relationship of Nick and Amy Dunne. It’s not relationships or institutions that are the subject of scorn and cynicism in Gone Girl, but the people who cause them to run afoul.
6. The Lego Movie
It’s totally understandable if anyone were to have responded with skepticism and disgust when it was announced that a movie being made about a popular children’s toy brand was being made into a movie. In retrospect, however, Lego was the perfect toy for the big screen treatment. Themes of individuality and imagination are nothing new for animated films geared towards kids, but what made Lego so rife for adaptation was the potential that exists within each child who picks up a Lego product to be creative in multiple ways. Whether by following the instructions or thinking outside the box, Lego toys still foster creativity, so why not build a film around a product that encourages kids to be creative? The Lego Movie revels in the joy of creativity and succeeds in pleasing both kids and adults with hilarious story that isn’t ashamed of its heart and isn’t afraid to break convention a little bit.
5. Edge of Tomorrow
As far as I know, I am the only person on Earth to have included this little-seen genre exercise on a Top 10 list. Everyone who saw Edge of Tomorrow really liked it, but I loved it. In my mind, this was arguably the smartest mainstream script in all of 2014 in how the narrative progressed despite its repetitious framing convention while blending great action choreography and humor together seamlessly. Edge of Tomorrow embraces its science-fiction conventions without ever letting them overshadow or distract from the interpersonal relationship at the heart of the story, buttressed by great chemistry between and performances from Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise, the latter of whom never ceases to amaze me with how willing he is to play against type.
This is the point in the list where it starts getting harder for me to figure out what to write because from here on in (with the exception, perhaps, of #3) so much has already been written about the titles I’m going to mention that nothing I really say will be unique or have gone unsaid. All I can talk about, I suppose, is what I responded to. With Birdman, what stuck out to me was how far people were willing to go to delude themselves, how committed they were to the creation of some thing or idea that they truly believed would add value or meaning to their lives while overlooking and/or drifting away from the things and people that made those things or ideas worth pursuing in the first place. I wondered at first if Birdman was going to be another indie that was cynical of Hollywood, but I think what’s wonderful about Birdman is how cynical it is towards anyone who assumes that their art, craft or pursuit is THE only legitimate art, craft or pursuit. Fantastic performances all around punctuate a jazzy score and always moving, seemingly unblinking camera that adds elements of both mundanity and immediacy.
3. The Babadook
When I began typing this list, I had originally planned for this and #4 to be switched, but the more I thought about The Babadook the more I realized how much I loved it. This fantastically written, directed and acted horror film stuck with me for days after watching it, its terror magnified by how simple and scaled down every aspect of its production is from its design, its cast and even the design of the titular Babadook. What gives The Babadook such emotional weight is also what brings about the film’s greatest tension: the relationship between a weary, single mother and her young, needy son whose father died on the day he was born. The struggle between the love she feels for her only child and the resentment she feels toward him as a symbol of her departed husband is utterly heartbreaking but never explicitly invoked with writer/director Jennifer Kent instead introducing the terrifying specter of The Babadook as sufficient metaphor for the darkness within Amelia. I got chills just thinking about this movie during the day on a brightly lit subway car surrounded by people.
I saw Selma in a sparsely populated theater on a Saturday afternoon. In the row in front of me sat an African-American family of 5, who sat quietly throughout the film until Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in front of the capital building in Montgomery drew to an end and the credits rolled. What I thought were rolls of laughter turned out to be tears of profound joy at what had just transpired, MLK’s words of “soon and very soon” still fresh in our minds, the memory of what he fought to accomplish and the price he paid for those achievements resurrected anew. The power of Selma lay in not how it deifies King, but how it humanizes him, not shying away from, but instead embracing the fear, doubt and skepticism he experienced during his stance for equal voting rights and surrounding him with a cast of characters whom he supplemented and who supplemented him on his road – both figurative and literal – to Montgomery, Alabama.
It’s not uncommon to see a great film, but it’s a rare occurrence indeed when we walk out of a screening with the feeling that what we just saw was something special, something that would be talked about for years to come, something that would imminently go down in the annals of cinema history as a truly important film. I last experienced this sensation upon leaving Children of Men back in 2006 and didn’t encounter it again until leaving the screening for Boyhood over 8 years later. Like so many important and path-paving films (Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, The Social Network), Boyhood was largely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences come Oscar time, but those of us that love it know that no awards (or lack thereof) could ever diminish or alter what made Richard Linklater’s 12-year experiment such an amazing cinematic experience.