Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014 Year in Review Part 3 - The Best Movies of 2014

Well Space Monkeys, it is now time to finally close the door on 2014.  Time for me to finally put out the Best Movies of 2014 list.  It was an interesting roller coaster of a year, lots of ups, just as many downs.  I wound up going to E3, I got to go to the New York Film Festival.  Blog posts hit a higher standard of quality than ever before.  But there have been post droughts, I spend the last year trying to find my voice and my purpose in life.  And unfortunately I am no closer.  So best thing to do is ignore my problems and focus on other people's problems.  Thus the magic of movies.

Every year I make one of these lists, and every year I have striven to make the list diverse and interesting.  However, most of the time the Top 10 or Top 15 or whatever number I come up with is essentially just the only great movies I saw all year.  If you read those lists, you read every single great movie I could think of.  2014 was different.  This year I saw more great movies than ever before.  This not only could have been a Top 20, it could have been a Top 30.  But in order to remain true to myself, I had to keep things limited.  There is a wealth of amazing movies in the world, too many for me to see, and far too many to fit on any arbitrary list.

Now as always, this is my list.  My opinions solely.  Therefore you may disagree.  The final ranking as to what made it on the list was what I felt was quality and genius for any reason.  Ultimately then I did not take into account certain other factors.  Like I did not do a count as to how many movies starred White males, how many took into account racial issues, and whatever other business people get mad about.  I did notice that four out of my fifteen films are animated, and you can read whatever immaturity you want into that.  Really all I care about is story, and quality of cinema.  If I am perpetuating cycles of inequality by liking a certain type of movie, I honestly do not care.  When there are movies this good, the world at large might as well not even matter.

Honorable Mentions:

"Jodorowsky's Dune"
"Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier"
"The Babadook"

The list after page break:

15. "Song of the Sea" - "Song of the Sea" is the spiritual successor to 2009's "The Secret of Kells", also directed by Tomm Moore.  Like Moore's last film it is a fantasy animated feature steeped deep in Irish culture and folklore.  Specifically it is based upon the legends of the selkie, a female nymph creature that can transform from a seal to a woman.  I have not had the chance to review Song of the Sea directly yet, but it will be up in the next few days.  That does not change the fact that "Song of the Sea" is an extraordinarily beautiful movie, picturing a brother and sister's journey through a Celtic fantasy land"  part gorgeous fairy tale, part Gaiman-esque nightmare.  Moore uses incredible techniques such as perspective, shading, coloring, and shapes to craft one of the most beautiful animated films ever made.

14. "Nightcrawler" - I have probably spoken too long about Jake Gyllenhaal's creepy, entirely original performance as the sociopath Lou Bloom.  But on the other hand, I have probably not said enough. Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler" is a dark, disturbing, weirdly funny experience, set in the warm sleazy neon nights of Los Angeles.  Though the visuals are akin to "Drive", the tone is not.  Our hero this time is a misunderstood loner, however only because he is an insectoid parasite.  His rags to riches tale exploiting crashes and murders for news B-roll is fascinating, and highly uncomfortable.  One single performance makes "Nightcrawler" work brilliantly, and with a movie this creepy and dark, that was all it needed.

13. "Listen Up Philip" - Alex Ross Perry is a young filmmaker, but one with a great deal of promise.  "Listen Up Philip" is probably the most subdued and least fantastic film on my list, being simply an Indie comedy about a young writer, Philip.  Philip is played by Jason Schwartzman, the ultimate actor when it comes to playing pricks.  Philip wakes up one morning with a grand epiphany:  he's had enough of life's shit and is not going to let anybody forget it.  He tortures his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), he allows himself to be mentored by an even worse more isolated elder writer (Jonathan Pryce).  "Listen Up Philip" switches perspectives three times focused on each of it's three emotionally broken leads.  It's a cruel, deeply literary film.  And who would have thought that watching somebody be a grand champion asshole would be so funny?

12. "Guardians of the Galaxy" - I had a hard time choosing between this and "Captain America 2" for the blockbuster film to make my list. I knew in a year as fantastic for superhero movies as 2014 one had be here, and in a worse year, this list would be about half comic book flicks.  But "Guardians" won out for the reason that it won everybody's hearts:  James Gunn's flashy space opera oozed fun, style, and charm.  A movie about a tree monster, a talking squirrel, and Chris Pratt's reinvention of the Han Solo archetype was everything we could ask for.  The only reason this movie is not higher on my list is the villain:  he was a terrible buzzkill that sucked all the air of the fun room.  Imagine a record playing a fantastic 70s tune, just like the ones this film's soundtrack is full of, and then skipping over to some awful garbage band death metal tune.  That's how he felt.  But you can only suck away energy from a movie with it, and Guardians truly rocked.

11. "The LEGO Movie" - Like Guardians of the Galaxy this movie also starred Chris Pratt, who at some point bought Hollywood and now rules as its scruffy overlord.  I was not that impressed with "The LEGO Movie" when I first saw it, but over the months it has grown on me.  It was a very clever combination of the mass marketing icons, bringing Batman in the same room as Abraham Lincoln, Gandalf, and an 80s spaceman that just wants to build a SPACESHIP, SPACESHIP!  But while it was a fun movie for kids, it was also a great satire, with the song "Everything is Awesome" ripping right into what counts as musical entertainment these days.  "The LEGO Movie" might be a film made to sell toys and plastic, but it makes a great argument as to why those toys and plastic matter.  But really, I love this movie because SPACESHIP.

10. "Snowpiercer" - "Snowpiercer" sounded like the dumbest idea for a movie ever:  a society fit inside a massive train in the frozen Apocalypse... that just doesn't make any sense.  Well, 2014 showed that even movies with idiotic concepts can still be great, for example, "Lucy".  A joint South Korea and American production, "Snowpiercer" was part over-the-top fantasy of an evil locomotive dictatorship, part action scene (the cave fight remains one of the most brilliant concepts for a fight scene I've ever seen), and part intense drama.  Chris Evans jumped right into the steaming pot to hardboil himself into a dirty, angry, hero, leading an amazing, complex, and fascinating movie.  "Snowpiercer" has a little bit of everything.

9. "The Raid MOTHERFUCKING 2" - Look, "The Raid 1" was the most incredible action movie statement to come out in decades.  There was no way "The Raid 2" was not going to end up somewhere on my Top 15.  We still have the same director, Gareth Edwards, the same human impulse to hurt each, and every ass-punching balls-bursting head-slamming rip-roaring motherfucking awesome action moment that you could ever ask for.  The story is expanded from a simple thriller into a grand "Infernal Affairs"-style gangster epic raising the stakes to the top echelons of the Indonesian crime world.  And this does not feel like a ridiculous stretch, it feels like an organic growth of the events of the first film.  "The Raid 2" combines the pulse-destroying mind-breaking soul-restoring motherfucking GLORY that was the action beats of "The Raid" with a very solid drama.  Visceral thrills do not get better than this.

8. "Only Lovers Left Alive" - Detroit is at this point essentially an undead town, a decaying ruin of a lost society, perfect for the immortal stars of "Only Lovers Left Alive".  In an age where vampire romance usually reminds one of bland Bella and pasty Edward, Jim Jarmusch in "Only Lovers Left Alive" showed us what nosfartu love really means.  Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are centuries-old lovers, floating through the ages with nothing but each other, watching sadly as the world turns away.  They hang with ancient literary figures, they discuss modern music.  These are the ultimate hipsters, because not only did they hear that song first, they probably wrote it too.  You feel in these actors a very soulful agedness, as they watch what might be the final phases of human civilization.  "Only Lovers Left Alive" is a philosophical, powerful movie, compelling and intelligent.

7. "Inherent Vice"- Here is a good litmus test for a film critic.  If they claim to understand what "Inherent Vice" is really about, they are completely up their own ass.  Nobody knows what "Inherent Vice" is about.  Not Paul Thomas Anderson, not Thomas Pynchon, and not me.  But what I do know is that I liked it.  "Inherent Vice" is a bizarre film noir comedy starring Joaquin Phoenix as a dirty hippie detective.  He falls into a conspiracy so huge and so complicated, that you are not really sure if there really is a conspiracy at all, or if everybody is simply stoned.  This was the end of the 1960s, when the world really was a collection of impossibly-complicated conspiracies, when nobody really did know where history would take us, and where Los Angeles really was full of this many freaks and weirdos.  "Inherent Vice " is a film that actively refused to make sense, even while fitting in the trappings of a typical narrative.  It's funny, it's confusing, it won't make any sense, but it feels entirely original.

6. "Gone Girl" - A dark muted color scheme, a low Trent Reznor score, a brilliant directing job by David Fincher.  Whatever, all that really matters is how great Rosamund Pike was as Amy, the missing figure at the center of a modern tabloid media circus that threatens to devour her innocent husband, played by Ben Affleck.  "Gone Girl" is a biting satire not just of professional assholes like Nancy Grace, but of marriage itself.  Fincher unfolds an finely-crafted thriller narrative, opening up new twists and new turns.  A basic missing person case becomes so much more, increasingly more cynical and satirical with every turn.  "Gone Girl" casts a wonderfully twisted view of true love, in a solidly-made compelling movie.

5. "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" - This movie is sad... Isao Takahata decided to make a bigger tear jerker than "Grave of the Fireflies" and Jesus wrist-cutting Christ, did he ever.  Foregoing Studio Ghibli's usual anime forms for a heavily stylized animation similar to Japanese minimalist paintings and charcoal sketches, "Princess Kaguya" looks absolutely amazing.  Nobody manages to cast more love into characters than Ghibli, and a new art style changes nothing.  It is in some ways the depressing answer to last year's "Wolf Children", which gave us an relatively pleasant picture of parenting magical children.  This one shows how terribly it can end, how no matter what you do, sometimes you just cannot make your children happy.  Lessons like this are hard, but this is a hard world.  No matter how beautiful the animation, there are some very awful truths "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" dares to explore.

Also as it turns out, the Buddha is a prick.

4. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson is a director who makes movies only for Wes Anderson, in a patented Wes Anderson style that nobody other than Wes Anderson could ever hope to understand.  "The Grand Budapest Hotel" features his typical quirks:  obsessive symmetry, bizarre comedy moments, complicated characters, children who never emote, and of all things, stop-motion, into what may be his best film.  "Budapest Hotel" is ultimately a movie about the death of an elegant charming pre-War Europe that may never have really existed other than in the mind of author Stefan Zweig, all of it embodied in Ralph Fienne's suave, granny-chasing Monsieur Gustave H.  Like many films on my list, it is not just one thing, but a combination of genres, all of it mixed together in that Wes Anderson view of the world.  Nobody Wes Andersons like Wes Anderson.

3. "The Wind Rises" - Technically this movie came out in 2013, but only for a week in Manhattan, so I don't care, it got a proper release in 2014, so I'm calling it a 2014 film.  It wasn't on my 2013 list, so it has to go somewhere, right?  My list, my show.  "The Wind Rises" has been threatened to be the final movie from one of the greatest directors of all time, Hayao Miyzaki.  But after watching it, you will desperately want him not to truly retire.  This is a highly fictionalized account of the life of the inventor of the Zero Fighter used by Imperial Japan in World War II.  Miyazaki embraces his love for flight, for engineering, and for the creative process, honoring this engineer as a fellow creator.  The lovely storyline is made of details mostly entirely made-up.  However this is done to tick off Oscar-friendly boxes like "The Imitation Game", rather to mix in Miyazaki's other inspirations and enrich the story into something tragic and lovely.  This is a poetic ode to the Golden Age of Flight, and a triumphant statement on the importance of art, be that medium tools of destruction or another beautiful anime film.

2. "Boyhood" - Yes, the movie took twelve years to make.  That is gimmicky and all, but that alone is not alone what makes "Boyhood" one of the most incredible films to be released not just in 2014, but any year.  Effectively plotless, more or less structureless, "Boyhood" feels less like the record of one boy's life, than a reflective pile of memories.  This is how we view our own lives, not as a stream of cause and effect, but as individual moments that haunt us years later.  Richard Linklater's film transports us across the years between 2002 and 2013, with every year feeling immediate, important, and cohesive to a greater whole.  Ellar Cotrane is fine as the lead, Mason Jr. but it his parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who put out some the best performances of the year past.  "Boyhood" is an important milestone in that it feels like the very first film to be about my generation, and our experiences, be them "Dragonball Z" on Toonami or growing up in the age of Facebook or growing up in an uncertain future.  "Boyhood" is an impressive feat, editing together a diverse collection of seemingly random scenes into a moving commentary on life in the 21st century.

1. "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" - "Boyhood" is going to win Best Picture this year.  But I really do wish that "Birdman" actually stood chance.  (There is rumbling buzz that it might actually pull an upset.)  This is really an incredible piece of filmmaking:  fun, hip, energetic, and wild.  Which is amazing considering the source.  Alejandro Inarritu is usually the kind of filmmaker to create dry, dreary dramas.  Now he's making a madcap comedy, starring a schizophrenic actor, played by Michael Keaton (resurrecting his career in grand style), tortured by his superhero past.  Keaton's character attempts to resurrect his career with a pretentious stage production, gambling his fortune, his artistic credibility, and his sanity on the success and failure of this show.  But somewhere in his psyche there is his old blockbuster persona, demanding he just throw on the cape again and be Birdman.  The film is a meticulously choreographed collection of long takes, edited together so soundly that it appears to not have editing at all.  The soundtrack has the same feel, seeming to just have been a single percussion jam session then thrown into the film.  "Birdman" has the sensation of a stage play, but the tone of a metafictional comedy.  It is the movie where Raymond Carver meets Bob Kane at the intersection just a half mile from Charlie Kaufman's favorite restaurant.

"Birdman" is a film that feels like nothing I have seen before and probably will remain completely unique for a very long time.  Without a doubt the best movie of 2014, and a very strong contender for best movie of the decade.

And with that, I'm done with 2014.  2015 is already well underway, but the real movies will not begin to get released until February.  With that, let us this year proves even better than the landmark annum that was two-thousand and fourteen.

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