Craig’s Top Ten of 2014
After spending the better half of 2014 concocting wild parameters for what qualifies as a 2014 film–which would have ruled out a few of the films in my top ten (including my number one)–I’ve decided to operate under the simple rule that if a film had a wide/limited/internet/theatrical release in the US in 2014, it’s a 2014 film.
Last year I had a pretty hard and fast top ten. This year I’m confident in my number one and two; as for three through ten, if I had to write this list again next week they could all be different. So I’d like to give a shoutout to those films that missed the Top 10 simply because I made the list on a Monday rather than a Tuesday. Inherent Vice, Under the Skin and The Guest are all movies that I know I’ll be watching over and over again for the rest of my life. It pains me that The Babadook and Only Lovers Left Alive are just shy of my top ten. Also, shy of the top ten is Boyhood, an amazing achievement from a director I adore. In addition, there are a few films I’d like to single out that flew under the radar and didn’t get their propers (and since they aren’t on my Top 10, maybe I’m part of the problem): Coherence, The Dog, Happy Christmas and Lyle.
Without further ado (or qualifiers), my top ten films of 2014.
Exhibition is the film I am most surprised to see on my list. It’s wonderful, yes. But it’s also wonderfully simple. There’s not a lot of dazzle to any of writer/director Joanna Hogg’s films, but Exhibition is particularly dry and sterile. Featuring two brilliant performances by non-actors Viviane Albertine (guitarist for the English punk band The Slits) and Liam Gillick (a visual and conceptual artist), Exhibition revolves around a middle aged couple as they prepare to sell their strange, boxy home in London. Exhibition is a delicate concentration on art while also being an all-out assault on traditional cinematic narrative. There’s no three-act structure and all of the conflict is internalized within D (Albertine) and H (Gillick), and their relationship to one another. But the characters (including a brief appearance from Tom Hiddleston) are so lived in and natural that the movie pulses with vitality and life, even in moments of complete stillness.
It’s hard to nail down a cinematic theme for eclectic a year as 2014. But I’m going to take a stab at it. 2014’s (unofficial) theme: “The Price of Greatness”. American Sniper, Birdman, The Imitation Game and Whiplash, all deal with the sacrifices one must make to achieve distinction. But no film splits that theme open more than Bennett Miller’s third feature, Foxcatcher. All three men in Foxcatcher–wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and wealthy wrestling enthusiast (and ornithologist/philatelist/philanthropist) John Du Pont (Steve Carrell)–aspire to greatness. But each achieves greatness differently. Mark works for it. Dave was destined for it. And John buys it. If we are to adopt “The Price of Greatness” as 2014’s cinematic theme, then Foxcatcher is probably the the least subtle example. But then again, there’s nothing subtle about a flabby, middle-aged billionaire who squeezes into a unitard and wrestles fellas half his age. Foxcatcher’s brilliance lies in its atmospheric wonder . Filled with meticulously crafted dread (credit due to cinematographer Greig Fraser) and black-hole level dark humor, the entire film is an existential odyssey meandering towards disaster.
Lou Bloom, the nefarious center of Nightcrawler’s ophidian underbelly, is destined to join the great reprobates of cinematic history. Jake Gyllenhaal–who, for reasons known only to God and her confidants, has existed as a punch line for far too long–is the most frightening thing to happen on screen in 2014. Giving the year’s best performance, Gyllenhaal transforms Lou Bloom from a devious miscreant into a fire-breathing monster of twenty-first century Americana. The spiritual successor to Network, Nightcrawler doubles-down on Sydney Lumet’s 1976 satire of American media as it follows Bloom’s transition from gutter-dwelling creep into journalism magnate. From its outstanding cast (including a career defining performance from Rene Russo), to the beautifully slimy cinematography of Robert Elswit, every choice made by Dan Gilroy (in his directorial debut) and company is the right one, resulting in a piece of modern satire, as biting as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
7. Obvious Child
The last movie I saw about abortion was 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days, the 2007 film about a young woman obtaining a black market abortion in communist Romania. It’s a rough watch. Brilliant, but rough. An abortion movie before that? I’d have to drop back to 1996’s Citizen Ruth. There aren’t too many. There’s not an easy way to portray a topic that has been relegated to cultural taboo. And while 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days is a beautiful film, it probably isn’t (at least for American audiences) representative of the average abortion experience. But writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s romantic comedy Obvious Child is the abortion film that Americans need. Jenny Slate–who has spent the last few years playing delightfully awful humans on TV (see Parks and Rec’s Mona Lisa Sapperstein or any of her characters on The Kroll Show)–is charming as Donna Stern, a young comedian living in New York who decides to terminate an unwanted pregnancy just as she is finally embracing her independence. Obvious Child is a film that shows abortion for what it is: a tough decision, but one that doesn’t have to be vilified, demonized or stifled.The mere fact that Obvious Child exists is a point for honest discourse; the film has a definite opinion, but it’s not interested in becoming the cinematic equivalent of a pair of cable news hoopleheads screaming their opinions at each other. On the contrary, Obvious Child will be remembered for is its sensitivity towards an incendiary topic. While being firmly rooted in the pro-choice camp, the film portrays abortion and the women who have them with grace, dignity and a sense of humor that can cut the tension of almost anything.
6. Force Majeure
I’ve been married for almost four years, and while I’m certainly in no great rush to have children, the specter of a future child is always looming quite large in the forefront of my brain. Some days I feel like I’d make a pretty good dad. But most days (especially the ones where I eat entire sleeves of double-stuffed Oreos and play Battlefield 4 for hours on end) I feel as ready to be a parent as I do an astronaut. And Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure is an expertly crafted domestic comedy that preys on the part of my brain that keeps telling me I’ll never be ready to be a dad. When an avalanche threatens to bury Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his family, Tomas runs away rather than protecting his wife and two children. But when the snow settles and the avalanche proves to be all bark and no bite, Tomas must reckon his split-second decision with his paternal scruples. And so must the audience. Is Tomas a bad husband and father or just a coward? Both? Neither? I’m not sure. But in a year where all of the Academy’s Best Picture nominees feature men as impenetrable forces of the masculine ideal, Force Majeure’s dissection of the macho mystique couldn’t hit the zeitgeist at a better time.
There is perhaps no film in 2014 that I owe a bigger apology to than Jean-Marc Valle’s Wild. I know, I know, as a critical movie-goer, I am meant to divorce preconceived notions of a film when I walk into the theater. But it was difficult for me. With Reese “Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am?” Witherspoon carrying a film that, on its surface, seemed to rehash the privileged, white American bullshit of Eat, Pray, Love, I couldn’t help but let my cynicism creep into my experience. But I’m glad my cynicism is wrong more often than it’s right, because Wild isn’t the shallow self-discovery movie that I (and whoever cut the trailer) thought it was. Witherspoon is astounding as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who sets out to hike one-thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in order to reclaim a life that has become a victim to regret. It’s a film whose brilliance rests with Witherspoon, who gives 2014’s most physical and vulnerable performance. But what sets Wild apart from the kind of film I thought it was, is that it is actually interested in what a broken life looks like when it starts to get put back together. Cheryl is a woman whose life is fucked up and can’t be fixed with a glass of wine in a third-world country. And because Wild allows her to be fucked up, it also allows her to be whole again.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a Cap’n fanboy. Even further disclosure: I adore Ed Brubaker’s run of Captain America, which includes the Winter Soldier arc. So maybe Captain America: The Winter Soldier had an unfair advantage from the very start. But holy ghost! Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a boat-load of fun. In the sequel to 2011’s cut-and-paste origin story, Steve Rogers comes face-to-face with a retro-fitted version of Hydra, a meaner, uglier Hydra, one that is operating right under Cap’s nose. Though the action sequences (including the best fight sequence of the year, wherein Cap takes on a fleet of baddies in a five-by-five elevator car) are outstanding, Winter Soldier works just as well, if not better, as a spy-thriller. The Russo Brothers (whose work on sitcoms and middle-brow comedies wouldn’t make them the obvious choice) turn in the best Marvel film since The Avengers and certainly the best solo Avenger film to date. Captain America: The First Avenger had the noble yet unenviable job of navigating through tired superhero origin story tropes. But The Winter Soldier came ready to tell a superhero story. If Captain America: The First Avenger was a wet mound of clay dropped onto a broken pottery wheel, The Winter Soldier not only fixed the wheel, but churned out the most ass-kicking vase you’ve ever seen.
3. Life Itself
It seems fitting that I get a little personal while talking about Steve James’ Life Itself, the documentary highlighting the life and death of Roger Ebert, cinema’s most transcendent thinker and man whose late-life personal revelations became as defining as his film criticisms. I’m a person whose life has been graced with crippling bouts of anxiety and obsession, usually revolving around what my death will look and feel like. And as hyperbolic as it sounds, Life Itself was a cathartic moment in my futile struggle to conquer death. While the film has a lot to say– mostly filtered through Ebert’s experience with film (obviously), race, friendship and family–nothing in Steve James bio-doc hit me harder than seeing Ebert’s humble, dignified, and graceful march towards death. But Life Itself isn’t about a good man dying. It’s just about a good man. Just as Ebert can’t be defined as only a film critic, only a writer, only a husband, or only a cancer survivor, he can’t be defined by death either. And as strange and morose as it may sound, Ebert’s death was beautiful, a spectacle that Ebert himself didn’t want to miss out on.
Selma is the most audacious film of 2014. Which, by itself, doesn’t mean much; American Sniper is an equally audacious film, that happens to be dumber than a sack of nickels and as racially sensitive as a YouTube comment thread. But Selma’s audacity is nuanced. As history marches on and Martin Luther King Jr. becomes more of an idea than a man, it is easy to forget that he had a favorite food, probably stubbed his toe on the kitchen table and did all of the other things that make even remarkable people surprisingly relatable. Selma is an intimate portrait of a flawed man on his way towards immortality.
At first I was as angry as anyone at the Academy’s snubbing of Selma. When the film walks away with its single Oscar for Best Original Song (calling it now, willing to take counter bets), the snubbing narrative will only grow more contentious. But, you know what? Good. The Academy doesn’t deserve Selma. Director Ava DuVarney made a film that defies you to forget the struggle it portrays. It’s a film that deserves to be remembered as a portrait of how far we’ve come and a reminder of how far we’ve yet to go. What Selma doesn’t deserve is to become The Academy’s mascot of a post-racial Hollywood that doesn’t exist. I’d like to thank the Academy for ensuring that Selma’s greatest legacy won’t be a trophy.
1. Blue Ruin
I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin twice this year, but this is the first time I’ve put fingers-to-keys and tried to write about it. And it’s really, really hard. What do you say, in two-hundred words, about a film this good? It’s a simple film that packs so much heart, energy and excitement into its ninety minute run time, that if it were a duffel bag you’d need a second person just to zip it shut. In just his second feature film, Saulnier turns in as mature a meditation on violence and revenge as I’ve ever seen. Macon Blair plays Dwight, a solemn drifter who decides to, and then does, kill the man recently released from prison for murdering his parents. But Blue Ruin is a revenge flick that defies every expectation. The revenge? The catharsis? The moment of reprieve? It comes ten minutes into the film and is as graceful and satisfying as drinking a glass of warm beer through a pasta strainer.
Blue Ruin isn’t about revenge at all. It’s a study on the very nature of violence. The only thing Dwight and his adversaries–a family of racist hillbillies–agree on is that an eye for an eye is the only meaningful form of justice. But Blue Ruin, a film choked with nightmarish, inelegant violence, doesn’t operate under the same ethos. Instead, it lets the natural cycle of violence and revenge play out until the bitter end, each moment heightening the one before it. And what’s left is an unsettling, simple film. One that should be easy to digest, but isn’t. The best films are hard to shake, and there are moments, images and sequences of Blue Ruin that will rattle around in my brain forever.
10. American Sniper
9. Open Windows
7. Jamesy Boy
4. The Purge: Anarchy
2. Drive Hard
1. Better Living Through Chemistry
Gotta agree with your #1. Blue Ruin was great.
That’s a great assessment of Wild. I went in to it riding that same cynicism boat, but came out surprised and pleased. It had a few places where I thought it was going to veer into that privileged, white American BS specifically with the brother and husband characters, but the director showed the right amount of restraint in those moments. Nice list and write ups.
I really liked Wild too and semi-regret not including it on my list. It just didn’t feel like part of the story I was trying to tell with my picks this year. It’s all about that personal branding shit, son!