As you can tell, this blog of mine is now simply a platform to unveil my “end of the year” lists. I’ve moved twice this year across country, and along with up-in-the-air jobs and freelancing storyboards, I haven’t had the motivation/time to dedicate myself to my film criticism. That’s a real shame because this year there have been some truly great films, films which are challenging audiences to reevaluate the form itself. Looking back to last years list, I’m amused by some of my choices. American Hustle, for example, I now consider to be a rather empty film with all the makings of a great one. Who knows what films will be considered classics 20 years from now. Recently I’ve become all too aware of the dangers of “over-hyping”, with every good movie being hailed as a “modern classic” or a “future cult film”. We are so steeped in nostalgia and the desire to artificially create it (hence the studios remaking countless old classics) that we inadvertently halt the process itself. Young filmmakers now have this mentality to “instagram” their films, instead of reacting to our modern world through their lenses. Of course if done right, evoking the past can be both stunningly beautiful and (most importantly) relevant, and there are a few films this year that accomplish this. In fact, I would be so bold as to declare 2014 as the Year of the Pulp. That dark, violent, exploitative 80’s melodramatic goodness certainly made the rounds this year, and I couldn’t be happier. Now just like last year I will be including “companion” films along with my actual top 25, both to offer interesting double-feature options and as an excuse to talk about other films I loved this year. Also there have been a number of critically-claimed films I haven’t been able to catch this year, either because they weren’t playing near me or are just coming out now such as Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice (arg!), A Most Violent Year, Mommy, Whiplash, Force Majeure and so on. I try, ok guys!!! In any event, lets get started!
I thought I would both begin and end this list with a good old-fashioned mind-f*ck movie, and in terms of sheer head-scratchiness (its a word now), the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers) sci-fi film Predestination takes the cake. The metaphor of a twisted snake devouring itself plays a vital role in the narrative, and the very construction of the film follows suit. Featuring B-movie king Ethan Hawke (one of my favorite actors) and a truly vibrant and fearless performance by newcomer Sarah Snook, this film has been one of the most difficult films for critics to summarize, since seemingly every bit of information spoils the fun in some way. In very general terms the film follows Ethan Hawke who is trying to stop a terrorist by using time travel, and recruits an unnamed individual to assist in the chase. Vague, I know, but you’ll thank me for it. The first thing to know is that Predestination is NOT an action movie at all, and that by the time the credits role your brain will be attempting to grow new lobes to process what the HELL just happened. I’m 99% sure the film makes zero sense logically, but the ride is so utterly unique that you won’t give a damn. And like any good sci-fi, contained in all the genre trappings is some surprisingly meaty emotional and psychological themes concerning the self-made man, self-love, and, well, predestination. (Catholic Liberal arts degree not required)
Double Feature- THE ZERO THEOREM
Oh Terry Gilliam, you wondrous, enigmatic bastard you. I gotta say, I love it when directors reach that point when they seem to create solely for themselves, without a thought to the audience. That’s not to say the film is cold or confusing per se, but it does march to the beat of its own, completely bonkers and occasionally atonal drum. In the film, Christoph Waltz plays a hacker in a very Gilliam-esque future dystopia who is hired to solve an a proof for human existence and purpose. The rest is all a blur of colors, rants, acid trips, and pizza, but its interesting stuff (with a surprising sadness) and makes great use of a cover of Radiohead’s hit Creep by Karen Souza.
24. THE HOMESMAN
Tommy Lee Jones once again directs and acts in his sophomore directorial effort, The Homesman. Following his mature debut, The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada, his new film portrays an unromantic depiction of the Old West. Devout Hilary Swank (who’s never been better) is hired to transport 3 severely mentally disturbed women crushed by the brutal pioneer life to an asylum, and meets convict Tommy Lee Jones along the way who accompanies her. Along the journey, gorgeously shot with a sharp eye to period detail, we begin to delve into Swank’s loneliness, a woman who could very well be as emotionally damaged as the women she is trying to help. Her apparent iron will is her only defense against her depression and longing, and for a vast period piece to really explore such topics usually reserved for a modern setting in the big city was fascinating to me. There is a twist of sorts in the third act I did not see coming, and will certainly divide audiences. In conclusion, Tommy Lee Jones successfully crafts a Western that still feels remarkably current and relevant, and has a welcomed against-the-grain style that seemed almost anti-Hollywood in its austerity. Yet there is a real sympathy for its characters that carries the film across, and overall this film was one of my biggest emotional surprises and deserves to to seen and discussed.
Double Feature- RUDDERLESS
Both The Homesman and Rudderless observe the breaking point of the human spirit, along with featuring an actor-turned-director (William H. Macy in this case) and a heartbreaking twist. Billy Crudup plays a successful business man whose life shatters after his son is killed in a school shooting. Two years later, he’s living an a boat and painting houses to get by when his ex-wife drops off a collection of his son’s music recordings. Touched by this side of his son he never knew about, he begins performing the songs at his local bar and catches the attention of young musician Anton Yelchin. Filled with beautiful music and nicely understated filmmaking, Rudderless is a strong debut for William H. Macy who plays the bartender, and Billy Crudup is phenomenal in his non-sentimental portrayal of grief and dealing with tragedy. Some critics said that the film was unable to answer some of its emotional conflicts and weighty material, and while that may be true, I felt I was just as unable to solve BIlly Crudup’s character’s emotional damage and internal torment as he was, making the film all the more justified in its subjectivity.
23. THE BABADOOK
“If it’s in a word, or if it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” This terrifying slice of maternal horror comes out of Australia and is directed by first-timer Jennifer Kent. (A woman horror director?!) First of all, this film is being marketed as a creature feature, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Its psychological horror with dark/fairytale undertones with a strong emotional backbone similar to Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion. Sharply directed with hues of dark blues and blacks, the story centers on Essie Davis (who absolutely kills it) and her son after the sudden and violent death of her husband. The son, Samuel, has become disturbed and begins testing his mother with his outbursts of violence and anger. He then finds a kid’s pop-up book called The Babadook (replicas of which are now selling like hotcakes to horror fans) and the chilling character within starts appearing around the house. Like an Edward Gorey illustration, the film has an almost gothic feel to it, with its monster reminiscent of Slenderman or Max Schreck. Now I do want to say that the film is being called the greatest horror in the last 5 years, a masterpiece, blah blah blah. I actually thought it had its share of issues, especially relying on some obvious horror cliches. I still absolutely recommend it, and although I wasn’t crazy about it the first time, it has definitely grown on me. That being said, watch it with someone, wait till they go to bed, then start crooning in a raspy voice, “dook, dook, DOOK!!” from behind their door. A true test of friendship.
22. MAPS TO THE STARS
Films have often taken a swing or two at Hollywood, but never with such blatant loathing and grotesqueness. Cronenberg has never been a particularly subtle director, but he goes to knew vile heights with this condemnation of the film industry. Think Game of Thrones in SoCal. The Hollywood elite try to hold onto their sanity until the past (in the form of a burnt Mia Wasikoska) shows up, pealing back their facades until all that is left is fire, pain, and a body count. Julianne Moore is at her best as “the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown”. Truly Oscar-worthy performance, much better than her role in this year’s Still Alice. Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, and John Cusack also star, and are all fantastic. Lies, incest, secrets, drugs, all are laid bare with surgical precision as Cronenberg applies his particular brand of body horror to an entire industry. His work is famously cold and detached, almost alien, yet he always knows the best stories to apply his perverse aesthetic to. He completely understands himself as an artist, and Maps to the Stars is pure Cronenberg. (Practically all the gifs I could find for this movie are of Robert Pattinson… sigh)
Double Feature- STARRY EYES
A true companion piece to Maps to the Stars, Starry Eyes is a Faustian tale of a wannabe actress who would do anything to be a star. After many failed auditions, she finally breaks down in a bathroom stall, pulling out her hair and screaming. Then suddenly she gets a call back. “We liked what you did in the bathroom. Do it again.” The metaphor is obvious, with the film industry’s reputation for offering glory and fame in return for, well, your soul. A bit of Eyes Wide Shut and Black Swan, this notion of dark, cultish factions secretly controlling the entertainment industry has become its own genre, with Escape from Tomorrow from last year covering similar ground. Psychological horror morphs into body and slasher horror by the third act, and while the ending is easy to see coming, it’s still nonetheless satisfying in its grotesque beauty.
21. THE ROVER
Post-Apocalyptic Earth has never been such a downer. Following his operatic crime thriller Animal Kingdom, director David Michod creates a harsh landscape in the Outback where water and fuel are a luxury, and compassion is a product of a world long gone. Guy Pierce is at his most scruffy as Eric, a drifter who has his car stolen and hunts it down across deadly terrain and cutthroat towns without any thought to his own survival. Mildly mentally-disabled Robert Pattinson is along for the ride, and over the course of the film they form a strange bond based equally on fear and paternal sympathy. This is an atmospheric film, establishing a lived-in feel and grit that gives Eric’s journey heft. The violence comes quickly and brutally, and in a world where only the cruel survive, the film ends with a tenderness that offers a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately it may be too little too late though for this world.
Double Feature- YOUNG ONES
Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones mixes arthouse with the post-apocalypse genre for an unusual and unique tale of adulthood, ancestry, and betrayal. Constructed like a John Steinbeck novel, the film is composed into “acts”, with each act tackling the turning points of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s life in a world where water is as precious as gold. Michael Shannon plays his father, Elle Fanning his sister, and Nicholas Hoult her boyfriend. Filled with countless details and brilliant world building, the film spans years and plays out with Shakespearean panache.
As if it were an undiscovered masterpiece from Poland’s New Wave cinema, Pawel Pawlikoski’s breathtaking Ida captures not just the look of 60’s Poland, but the cinematic and emotional tone of great European filmmakers such as Bresson and Tarkovsky. Now some will argue that the film is artsy-fartsy European hogwash. B&W? Check. Very little dialogue? Check. Long shots of faces doing nothing? Check. You get the idea. Yet films should be judged on their own merits, and every artistic choice made in this film makes total sense. The film follows an orphan novitiate nun who, before taking her vows, goes to visit her aunt for the first time, which leads to a gradual discovery of her family roots and their ties to WWII. The story is surprisingly focused, and at a mere 82 min runtime the film manages to convey a broad spectrum of emotions and themes. Ida was brought up in the convent, and throughout the film begins to question her religious calling, which seems perfectly sane given the fact that she was born into it without out choice. Characters are often shot in the far corners of the frame, as if they must fight for the screen. This creates a sense of unseen presence, whether its God or the ghost of WWII. Beautiful stuff.
Double Feature- LOCKE
Famed British writer Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) crafts a tight one-man film in Locke, a story of a man who, like Ida, is forced to come to terms with his past and decide what direction his life will take. The film literally begins with him at a literal crossroads, and in choosing one direction the film slowly reveals who this man is and what he must do. The whole film is shot in or around a car and inside that car is Tom Hardy. 85 min of Tom Hardy talking on the phone? Count me in. He is my favorite actor working today, and I have never seen a performance by him where he has not is some way changed both his look and his voice. Now this film is being called a thriller by critics, and that almost killed the film for me, because it is basically a dramatic monologue, with various famous British actors playing the voices of the people he calls (such as Ruth Wilson from Luther, and Andrew Scott from Sherlock). Great drama and performance.
I found Boyhood to be a terribly frustrating experience. I very much wanted to love it as I did Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, which is such an emotionally raw experience. Instead it’s 3 hours of nothing major happening, yet in retrospect I have grown to understand and appreciate it. The film is shot in the same way we remember our childhoods, not necessarily of the huge, life changing events, but of the small moments which seemed unimportant at the time, yet for some reason are the memories that last. In case you don’t know, this film was made over the course of 13 years, with Linklater following child actor Ellar Coltrane as he grows up in a small town. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play his divorced parents, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays Ellar’s sister (who I felt should have gotten more praise critically). There are so many ways this film should have failed, but it all ties together breathlessly, and watching a child grow up before your eyes really does demonstrate the potential film has over other mediums. Linklater stays away from the “big” events of Ellar’s life, resulting in a more nuanced yet oddly less affecting final product. I could change my mind about this after a second viewing. There are some great little scenes scattered about the film, especially Patricia Arquette’s heartbreaking and poignant “I thought there would be more” scene, and Boyhood is truly essential viewing and a film which will be discussed for years to come.
Double Feature: HIDE YOUR SMILING FACES
Like a darker cousin of The Tree of Life, Hide your Smiling Faces is childhood at its most existential. Following a neighborhood tragedy, two brothers begin trying to make sense of the world and its darker truths. Filmed using almost all natural light and sounds, the film teases with subtle imagery, evoking that childhood sense of fear, the fear that you cannot quite put your finger on but can arise at any moment. The older we get, the better we are at disguising our confusion at the world, but for these two children they are defenseless against Nature’s indifference. And yet they have each other. Hide your Smiling Faces is the directorial debut for Daniel Patrick Carbone, and for his first film to display such confidence in tone and subject matter makes me excited for whatever he works on next.
18. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
What makes Guardians of the Galaxy so irksome is how close it got to greatness. As Marvel films become more and more interchangeable, James Gunn (Super, Slither) managed to infuse a sense of adventure and irreverence into his big-budget space opera. And while I don’t want to hold this film to a higher standard, I feel as though Guardians was Marvel’s chance to do something TRULY different, to perhaps make a straight up comedy, or a crude, foul-mouthed Dirty Dozen type of film. Instead we got a little bit of everything and not enough of anything. Marvel’s insistence to make every film into part of a larger story detracts from the film feeling WHOLE, and the obligatory lack-luster villain doesn’t help. And yet the film is on my list, because in spite of everything the film is just damn fun. There are only so many Ida‘s and Hide your Smiling Faces I can watch before I need to see a racoon and a tree fight purple aliens. The film was a risk and it paid off handsomely, plus its been a while since there’s been an actor that the whole world loves and wants to see succeed. Chris Pratt isn’t and I doubt ever will be a great actor, but his appeal is his likeability, a sense of goofy fun. He’s one of the biggest actors in the world right now, and I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t be relaxed having a beer with him and maybe a joint. He’s like Jennifer Lawrence but with muscles. Of course I also have to mention the now-famous soundtrack, with every song being the perfect one for its scene. Using the cassette player to tie Chris Pratt to his Earth origins was a BRILLIANT move, and the whole supporting cast delivered marvelous performances, especially Michael Rooker. (Even Dave Bautista wasn’t bad) Hopefully Marvel will realize that taking risks is usually worth it, and will take bigger ones with Phase 3. (Dr. Strange! Benedict Cumberbatch IS the Sorcerer Supreme.)
17. THE ONE I LOVE
I just realized how many new talented directors have appeared on the scene this year! These are exciting times for independent filmmaking, and Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love proves this. Staring the ever talented Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, and Ted Danson, the film begins with Moss’s and Duplass’s failing marriage. Therapist Ted Danson suggests a couples getaway on the edge of the city, and after arriving the usual indie romance/struggles occur, until suddenly the film does a 180 and the two protagonists are thrown into a trippy alternate universe where the title of the film really comes into play. With touches of sci-fi, the film has a clear message yet is utterly unique in its execution, resulting in one of the more fascinating psychological studies in film this year. I cannot stress enough how consistently impressed I am by Elizabeth Moss,and this film’s complex narrative allows her to give a multi-faceted performance that in a perfect world would attract Academy voters. This film is BRILLIANT and it’s on Netflix, so go on then.
Double Feature- LISTEN UP PHILIP
Well, Listen Up Philip is an indie movie with Elizabeth Moss, so im justified including it as a double feature. Jason Schwartzman plays Philip, a self-involved, egotistical author who desperately tries to get his second novel published. Obsessed with his noble craft and his artistic vision, Philip looses himself in the idea of being a socially elite New York author, and in doing so lets every good thing that real in his life fade away for a fantasy. Jonathan Pryce plays an older, washed-up author desperate to relive his literary glory days, trying to live vicariously though Schwartzman as Schwartzman himself desires to have the renown of Pryce. And yet as the audience we see how empty Pryce’s life is, how all the literary awards in the world cannot make a man happy. Old books offer little comfort as one’s life comes to a close. Listen Up Philip seems to be a rejection of those yuppy indie films that pretend to hold the future notion of a perfect life above all else, while what they really mean is a trendy life.
16. STARRED UP
Perhaps the most brutal depiction of prison life ever committed to film, David Mackenzie’s terrific Starred Up can be a queasy experience. The film begins with Jack O’Connell arriving at the prison, filled with cutthroats, rapists and murderers, and instead of trying to remain invisible he wastes no time fashioning a shiv and making a name for himself with terrifying ferocity. The whole prison is like a cage match, and O’Connell is a rabid dog thrown into the mix. His performance is utterly fearless, and completely believable. You want to believe that the prison system can rehabilitate, yet for the first half of the film O’Connell seems like a lost cause. Then you learn his father (played by Ben Mendelsohn) is also inside with him, and suddenly you begin to realize the type of childhood this boy must have lived through. Equal parts white-knuckle tension and soul-stirring drama, Starred Up pulls no punches literally and figuratively with its characters, portraying them with brutal honestly and heartbreak. You couldn’t get me in the same room as O’Connell’s character if you paid me, but I still feel compassion for him and hope for the best. (SideNote- The British working-class slang is pure cockney, so subtitles are a must.)
Many films try to be Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, and most never get close. Mixing hilarity with tragedy, absurdity with realism, Frank is a film as bonkers as its assortment of bizarre experimental musicians. Domhnall Gleeson is a wanna-be musician who through fate winds up traveling with a band with their own ideas about what music is. This band is lead by Frank, a seemingly bi-polar man of pure artistic freedom and creative brilliance. Or he might just be an nutjob making noises and calling it art. He also wears a paper mache headpiece 24/7 and is played by Michael Fassbender. This may be my favorite role for Fassbender, its so bizarre you can’t look away, refusing to let us put his character into a box. Doing quirky right is near impossible, but Frank manages to strike a balance as the Gleeson tries to make the band marketable while unintentionally compromising their vision. The film really shines when it studies if art is for the sake of the audience or the artist. Their song “I Love you All” could be one of the most emotionally powerful songs in context out of any movie in 2014.
Double Feature- WE ARE THE BEST!
It is quite possible that We Are the Best! is a better film about the nature of music than Frank. Set in 80’s Stockholm, the film follows 2 girls, Bobo and Klara, trying to bring back punk. With zero musical experience, they decide to start a band at their local youth center, and end up recruiting a talented Christian nobody at school named Hedvig, who despite her quiet and mature disposition might be the most punk out of all of them. Mixing middle-school drama with old-school juvenile anarchy, We Are the Best! is a vibrant, free, hilarious, and joyous film the perfectly captures a time and place. There is a naturalism to the performances and script that feels authentic. They may be the adorable in their antics, just don’t let them hear you say it.
14. THE GUEST
After last years horror sensation You’re Next, director Adam Wingard wasted no time improving on his renowned debut with slick thriller The Guest. Starring Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey in a role that would make fans of the show gasp, the film begins with Stevens appearing on the doorstep of a family grieving for their dead soldier son, and claiming he knew their dearly departed he works his way into the family unit. Stevens is utterly charming but behind his eyes there is a madness that is both terrifying and compulsively watchable. The Guest is equal parts Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and John Carpenter’s Halloween, and is pure pulp through and through. Just as The Matrix can correctly be called a modern classic because of its obvious future influences, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has established itself as a modern classic, and The Guest is a clear descendant. Completely self-aware, the film wears its 80’s heritage on its sleeve, and features an absolutely KILLER soundtrack, pulsating with sinister synth syncopations. You are not sure if you should dance along or run the hell away.
Double Feature- COLD IN JULY
Jim Mickle has been giving genre filmmaking a good name with every brilliant film he whips out (Stake Land, We Are What We Are), and his most recent Cold in July is his most accomplished and confident. Based on a thriller book from the 80’s, Jim Mickle in an interview says that what attracted him to the book is how the narrative constantly changes, never allowing the audience to become comfortable in a single genre. After watching countless one-note genre films every year, Cold in July tries something different, constantly morphing from drama to thriller to horror to action. It won’t work for everyone, but it made perfect sense to me. Starring Michael C. Hall from Dexter, the film begins with Hall killing an intruder, only to realize that the intruders father (Sam Shepherd) is a cold-blooded murder who just got out of prison. Now this set up could have been the whole movie, a sort of cat and mouse story, but this barely skims the surface of this films dark, brutal storyline. Like The Guest this film is 80’s inspired and sports a phenomenal synthy soundtrack, and with strong direction and performances, Cold in July is a real genre surprise with style and substance.
13. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Like name-dropping Michael Haneke, saying Two Days, One Night is directed by Jean and Luc Dardenne (The Son, L’enfant, The Kid with the Bike) should be recommendation enough to justify a theater ticket. Starring Marion Cotillard in a Oscar-worthy performance (aren’t all her performances though?), the film is deceptively simple as she desperately tries to convince co-workers to give up their bonus in order for her to keep her job. The set up is simple, but the implications are enormous as she experiences the whole spectrum of human emotions as she begs for her livelihood, bringing her severe depression to the surface. There is no clear “right” actions on either side, since many of her coworkers need the bonus to get by, and must choose mercy or reality. She hates being a victim, yet through no fault of herself she is thrust into a terrible position and much choose to fight or despair. Beautifully filmed with pure naturalism, this is working-class drama of the highest order that observes human nature with brutal honesty and compassion. Life is about fighting, not winning, and Two Days, One Night is a film of such truth that no matter what happens to Cotillard, her struggles are our own and we are better for it. Highly recommended.
Double Feature- STRETCH
Visually, Stretch is the polar opposite of Two Days, One Night, a The Hangover-esque caper that is filled with sex, drugs, and violence, but surprisingly shares many themes with its French counterpart. Directed by Joe Carnahan (The Grey, Smokin Aces) is one of the most fun films to come out this year that no one watched because it didn’t have a theatrical run. Carnahan decided one day to make a bonkers movie for the hell of it, and grabbed some actors who had time off and shot it. He even offered full refunds if moviegoers didn’t like it. Patrick Wilson plays a down-and-out limousine driver who gets one chance over the course of one night to clear all his debts and turn his life around. Co-starring Chris Pine, Jessica Alba, Ray Liotta, David Hasselhoff, Ed Helms, and even Norman Reedus, Stretch, for all its craziness (ghosts, Eyes Wide Shut parties, evil Russian tow truckers) it is about taking control of your future, no matter the cost like in Two Days, One Night. Both are workplace films on opposite ends of the spectrum, and are oddly complementary. Whether you like the film or not, you will never be bored. (Available on Nexflix Instant)
Nolan’s films have always been held to an oddly high standard. It’s as though after reaching his peak as a filmmaker, critics are looking for cracks and weaknesses, ready to pounce. Luckily audiences have been HUGELY supportive of this epic, which is a rare occurrence in Hollywood. Sure sometimes the drama is spread on a bit thick, and I will be the first to admit that sometimes the film, in an attempt make a connection between the fate of humanity and love, simply made a character say as much. (Also calling Damon’s character Dr. Mann… come on) That shows a lack of faith in the audience, and maybe next time Nolan should keep the screenwriting outside the family. Yet a sense of awe is almost extinct, with people recalling the golden age of Spielberg as the last great American epics. Interstellar recaptures that scope like never before. Good sci-fi asks questions, great sci-fi inspires men to seek answers. The antithesis of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar believe that mankind can save itself from itself, and this positive outlook surges through the film in every “all hope is lost” scene. I consider the term “pure cinema” to mean moments in films when every component (acting, story, sound design, music, cinematography…) suddenly work together with such beauty and understanding that it is impossible to look away. Rarely does a film manage to have one such scene. Interstellar has at least 3. (Side Note- I love the scene where David Gyasi listens to a recording of rain to calm himself, then Nolan cuts to a wide shot of Saturn. Gorgeous.)
Double Feature- THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Combining the cosmic and the heart, James Marsh (Man on Wire, Shadow dancer) utilizes his considerable talents to tell the tale of Steven Hawking. Played brilliantly by the ever-impressive Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything begins with Hawking’s college years at Cambridge in the 60’s, falling in love with Jane (Felicity Jones), and having to watch as his body succumbs to a motor neuron disease. After being told his diagnosis, Eddie Redmayne, instead of breaking down in tears and frustration, simply asks, “What about the brain? Does it effect the brain?” The film is mercifully user friendly when discussing Hawking’s theories of black hole radiation and gravitational singularity theorems, and instead focuses more his marriage and struggles as he desperately tries to hold onto his wife and dignity. Much of the more non-Hollywood-friendly facts of his life are glossed over, yet the performances are so good and heartfelt that you really don’t mind. A bit Oscar-baity, but still an emotional, well made look at one of the worlds most influential living minds.
11. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
What can I say that will convince you to watch this film? Either you like Wes Anderson or you don’t. If you don’t, then every color-coordinated, overtly designed, dollhouse looking, right angled, typeface overlaid, musically cued scene will have you running for the hills. If you do like Wes Anderson, then you have no need of me and you’ve probably seen this film 4 times in theaters. Boasting a cast too numerous to mention here, the film takes place during an end of an era between the 2 world wars, and using a conversation years in the future as a framing device tells the tale of Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the most interesting man in the world. Concierge at the Grand Budapest is his title, but for him its a calling, taking customer service to a whole new level. Countless hijinks ensue, and Anderson combines multiple narratives such as a murder mystery, a love story, a prison breakout, a character portrait, and a nation at war all into a confection of nostalgia. Wes Anderson’s control of his environment is impeccable, and his attention to detail is clearly reflected in his protagonist Gustave. Yet amongst the fond memories of adventure is a sense of sadness for a time gone by, where manners still meant something. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a triumph of old-world romanticism and Wes Anderson has never been better.
10. THE SKELETON TWINS
My favorite crowd-pleaser of the year, The Skeleton Twins bursts with chemistry as long-time friends Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play siblings both on the verge of ending their lives. They haven’t seen each other in 10 years, and a suicide scare brings them together and forces them to confront their lives and choices. Hader manages to avoid most gay stereotypes with his portrayal of Milo, a man in his 30’s who is still living out his highschool years, and Wiig plays Maggie, the “got it together” twin who’s marriage with Luke Wilson is falling apart without him knowing. In fact she could very well be more damaged than Hader, she just hides it better. Luke Wilson surprised me, stealing scenes with his portrayal of probably the nicest guy in the world, Lance. But as we all know, the nice guy never wins. The film isn’t exactly ground breaking, but it combines humor and heartbreak effortlessly and its trio of performers are clearly having so much fun making the film that you cannot help but join in. Featuring probably the best song sequence this year (one of my favorite songs too), The Skeleton Twins is heartwarming without the bad aftertaste, and is a must for SNL fans or lovers of well made indie romcoms in general.
Double Feature- THE BACHELOR WEEKEND
Bro-bonding done Irish style, The Bachelor Weekend is a film that tries to be a stupid American comedy but ends up being a deeply moving film about brotherhood and friendship. Hugh O’Conor is about to get married and best friend Andrew Scott (Sherlock) plans a stag party out in the woods where they can all get in touch with their inner bachelor, but through a series of unfortunate events they wind up getting lost and running through the woods half-naked looking for food and shelter. Much of this is due to the unwanted addition of Peter McDonald to their group, or as he likes to call himself, “The Machine.” The comedy is genuine, and the characters are (gasp) completely 3 dimensional. (3 dimensional characters in a comedy? Preposterous!) As the days grow longer all their deep rooted issues with each other surface, and Andrew Scott shines as he begins to break down. He is quickly become one of my favorite actors, and his work in the film is wondrous, equally heartwarming and heart-wrenching. By the end of the film you may just want to find your friends and give them all a hug, and maybe try out an Irish drinking song or two.
9. THE IMMIGRANT
The Weinstein Company really dropped the ball on this one. James Grey (Two Lovers, We Own the Night, Little Odessa) has been one of the most mature American filmmakers around, and The Immigrant is easily his greatest yet, a complex story of survival and love set in 1920’s New York. And yet the film was barely in select theaters, and slipped onto VOD without almost any marketing. Its truly bizarre, because with the right marketing this film could easily be an Oscar contender, sporting gorgeous cinematography and stellar performances from Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. Cotillard arrives to New York with her sister, but at Staten Island they are separated and alone in the big city without money, she is taken in by pimp Joaquin Phoenix and is forced into prostitution. Yet he begins to fall for her, right before his handsome magician cousin (Jeremy Renner) arrives with his traveling performers, putting all three of them into a conflicted love triangle with no easy way out. The story delicately paints a tale of the industrial age swept up in romance, betrayal, and subdued passion. Despite the sheer size of the film’s environment and period, James Grey keeps the film tight and focused, forgoing the obligatory sweeping CGI shots of bustling 1920’s New York for on-the-street realism. Nothing is glorified, yet the amber hues he works with give the film the look of an old photograph, which adds an almost magical quality to the raw human drama unfolding. The era is recreated exquisitely, and featuring a stunning final shot, The Immigrant is a haunting and mature work that has a quiet greatness and dignity that I hope more come to discover. (Available on Netflix Instant)
Double Feature- MR. TURNER
Timothy Spall grunts and “gufahs” his way into our hearts with his depiction of the great landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Like The Immigrant, Mr. Turner takes what should be a straightforward narrative and adds nuance, approaching its subjects in a surprisingly harsh and unforgiving light, yet softens the bite with its breathtaking environment and tone. Veteran director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year) is complete artistic control, crafting a film that refuses to follow the usual paths these types of biographies travel, jumping from one significant event to the next. The film is long (2 and 1/2 hrs) yet focuses on small events, traveling to the shore, arguing with his dad, finding a place to sleep. When the film begins Turner arrives home and promptly gropes the maid (its consensual), but it definitely sets the tone that this portrait is not going to whitewash anything. For all his outer grit you get the sense he is a lost soul, yet Mike Leigh refuses to give us the obvious scene where he paints and cries and we see how vulnerable he is. Framing and constructing shots that could be right out of one of his paintings, Mike Leigh presents an artist in all his faults and conflicting passions, and asks the audience if his art was worth the pain. Yet with reflection we discover that its the other way around, that this tortured man used art to stop the pain, and even to give it a face.
8. GONE GIRL
Gillian Flynn’s book Gone Girl was one of the few I read this year, mainly to see what all the fuss was about. Talk about a page turner. David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, The Social Network) is known for his razor sharp direction, mechanizing every aspect of a story, with him arranging each piece precisely like a watchmaker. Gone Girl is perfectly suited to his tastes, and so unsurprisingly its amazing. With a constantly changing narrative like Cold in July, the film follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who arrives home to find his wife (Rosamund Pike) gone. Bolstered by Trent Reznor’s unnervingly static score, Fincher keeps the surprises coming and even though I’ve read the book there were scenes that left my jaw on the floor. There is a definite pulpiness to the film that Fincher keeps to allow us accept some of the more ridiculous plot points, but it is Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy that steals the show. The film certainly has a few opinions about marriage, but whats hilarious is to watch critics call the film sexist yet interpret the film’s themes completely differently. (SPOILERS) I find is funny that we finally get a phenomenal FEMALE villain and immediately bloggers are falling over themselves saying how its a step backwards for women in film and other such bullshit. (END SPOILERS) Stupid and wrong. Gone Girl is possibly the worst date movie ever, but it is pure dark, twisted entertainment with a sardonic twist that had me craving for more.
Double Feature- THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM
Originally director Ned Benson made two films subtitled “Him” and “Her”, each from the other character’s perspective, but of course he was forced to combine the two in order to make money at the box office. The film follows Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as separated spouses who were unable to cope after their son died. (We never learn how he died.) Both waiting for the other to make a move, they slowly start spending time together trying to see if its possible for them to find their connection after so much time and pain. Like Gone Girl, the film focuses on a broken marriage and asks what’s the breaking point. Both actors kill it and add richness to their characters. The film’s material has been covered before, and yet it treats it protagonists with such care and sensitivity that it feels fresh and exciting.
7. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Perhaps Jim Jarmusch’s (Ghost Dog, Dead Man, Broken Flowers) most accessible film, Only Lovers Left Alive manages to make a case that there is still a bit of blood left in the vampire genre. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston (the most androgynous actors out there) play vampires named Adam and Eve living in Detroit. I know, it already sounds awesome. Detroit is already a deadland, so the setting is perfect for Jarmusch’s signature style of large empty spaces and dead things. Hiddleston is a musician who helped the early classical composers like Mozart and Vivaldi with their works, yet still gets excited by Jack White. His passion for music is barely holding off suicide, so Swinton arrives to reconnect with her lover. Traveling the world has sustained her interest in living, yet both of them are beginning to think dark thoughts. Blood is obtained from a blood bank, since with all the blood diseases now biting a human could lead to contamination. The film has an effortlessly cool vibe, with a amazing soundtrack and beautiful people in sunglasses reminiscing about the 17th century while sipping on type 0 at the pier at night. The best vampire film since Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive mixes bloodsucking monsters with jazz, and made me want to go to there.
Double Feature- GRAND PIANO
Clearly a Brian De Palma fanboy, Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano is a brilliantly self-contained, fast-paced, and ridiculous thriller with an absurd premise that the film treats with utter seriousness. Elijah Wood continues his involvement in quality genre films as Tom Selznick, a renowned concert pianist who during his comeback performance into the art world gets a death threat saying, “Play one note wrong and you die!” The red dot of a sniper’s scope on his chest convinces him the threat is real. Grand Piano is just a great time, filled with some brilliant camera work and a cameo by John Cusack, it was one of the best visual thrillers I’ve seen all year. (Available on Netflix Instant)
One of biggest surprises for me this year, Calvary stars Brenden Gleeson in the best performance of his illustrious career. Playing a small town priest, Gleeson is told in confession by a man that he was molested by a priest as a child, and will therefore kill Gleeson by the end of the week, despite Gleeson being innocent. After all, someone needs to pay. Instead of trying to figure out who this man was, Gleeson begins a sort of pastoral journey through his Irish village, coming across all manner of sinners. It’s as if Gleeson needs to see if he has done enough for his parishioners, if his life calling has made any difference at all in their lives. There is so much nuance to his portrayal that we are constantly guessing his motivation, allowing us to learn who this man is through the people he’s touched. One of the most beautiful movies visually I saw all year, the film makes excellent use of its windswept environment and makes for one of the most emotionally impactful experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s as if Gleeson takes on the sins not just of his village, but of the entire Church, and the film asks whether or not forgiveness is an answer. No ideologies are pushed, but instead we are stuck looking at the events that unfold and wonder what our own role is in ending violence. Starting small is always a good idea. (Side Note- The Madonna imagery at the end was heartbreaking)
Double Feature- ROAD TO PALOMA
Road to Paloma also deals with sins of the past, yet approaches the material differently. Jason Momoa (Kal Drogo and soon to be Aquaman) stars and directs as Wolf, a Native American drifter who is traveling to a sacred place to bury the ashes of his murdered mother. The film is mostly gorgeous motorcycle porn, but the performances are surprisingly good (including actual wife Lisa Bonet from the Cosby Show) and the directing was actually quite stunning, especially for a actor known for playing silent muscly dudes. In an interview Momoa said the film is a response to the many murders that happen every year on tribal land which are never investigated by the police. Clearly this was a passion project for Momoa, and I’m a HUGE fan of his, so if you interested please check out Road to Paloma.
What a nasty little film. Recalling such films as Network or Taxi Driver, Nightcrawler is a film of pure ambition, and the horrors it can birth. Jake Gyllenhaal lost 30 lbs to create the character of Lou Bloom, a LA bottomfeeder who gives the term “opportunist” a darker new meaning. A creature of the night, Lou begins involving himself in the world of crime journalism and through hard work and terrifying focus begins making a small name for himself in the LA news world. Photographing horrific car crashes or shootings pays the bills, but never satisfied he begins going to new extremes to get exclusives. The weight loss gives Gyllenhaal a skeletal, grim-reaper face with bulging bug eyes that reveal an unchecked hunger for more. The direction is slick and the film is just as focused as its, well, antagonist. Making a film where your central character is a villain is near impossible to do, but Nightcrawler keeps Lou’s character so enigmatic that by the time we realize how malicious he is we can’t turn away, like watching a car crash.
There is a moment in Joon-ho Bong’s (Mother, The Host) stunning Snowpiercer that I am positive was intended just for me. It occurs when Chris Evan and company are fighting through the upper class freight cars and wind up in a steam room cabin. A gut-wrenching prison-style brawl occurs, and as the camera hovers over the casualties Al Bowlly’s Midnight, the Stars, and You begins softly playing. Of course this song was made famous by its use in my all-time favorite movie, The Shining, capturing the horrors of the Overlook Hotel with a haunting elegance. There is no reason for the song to play there, and its as if in post-production Joon-ho Bong looked at his sound designer and said, “What else can we add that will make Nick from Glendale, CA love this film even more?” The film is a masterpiece. It takes place on a train traveling across a frozen and dead Earth, carrying the last of humanity. Over the years a class system has evolved, with the lower-class inhabiting the tail of the train, and the farther up you go the higher the class. This is a purely conceptual film, presenting its totally unrealistic world without apology. Refusing to suffer at the hands of the upperclass anymore, the back of the trail stages a revolt, led by Chris Evens, Octavia Spencer, and Jamie Bell. Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and John Hurt join the cast as other players in this fight for humanity’s soul. The film is not afraid of the bizarre, and orchestrates one of the most unique and visually impressive action films in recent memory. (Available on Netflix Instant)
3. UNDER THE SKIN
A film that is finding its way onto practically every top 10 list, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin has been compare to Kubrick’s best works. Like Kubrick, Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) understands that film has no need of dialogue being a primarily visual medium. That’s not to say that Under the Skin has no dialogue, but it very well could have considering it’s tale of a predatory alien discovering the truths about humanity is told purely through images. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien (we never learn the name of anyone in the film) who arrives on earth, replacing another alien and taking her place as a seductress, luring human men into her lair in order to do…. something with them. This continues until an interaction with a particular man (one of the most amazing scenes of any film this year) leads her to start feeling empathy, even sympathy. These feelings terrify her, and she has no idea how to define them. Glazer manages to film Earth from the perspective of an otherworldly being, and after leaving the theater it took me a while to shake the feeling that the world around me was a hostile and foreign environment. So much of the film is abstract that there are different interpretations of the events which unfold. It took Glazer 10 years to fully develop the film, and it remains one of the most singular cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. Impossible to define or compare to (The Man Who Fell to Earth?), and featuring the most pure sinister scores I’ve ever heard, Under the Skin will divide audiences (plenty of people walked out of my screening), but most truly great film do. (Side Notes- The scenes in the truck were filmed with hidden cameras and real interactions with townspeople, and the beach scene may be one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen.)
Double Feature- BORGMAN
Anyone who loved Under the Skin will adore the brilliantly strange Borgman. Like a wackier Funny Games, the film never stays still, moving from one bizarre scene to another. The plot is difficult to describe. A unknown man with indeterminate intentions escapes from his home (its a hole in the ground) and is chased by a priest and men with guns to upper-class household, where he worms his way into their life and slowly turns their everyday lives into suburban nightmare. Macabre and unpredictable, deciphering what it all means is part of the fun, if it means anything at all. If you like Haneke, Lanthimos, Ken Russell, odds are you’ll love Borgman.
2. BIRDMAN (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
I’m really not sure what more I can say about Birdman. Go see it? Why haven’t you seen it? ARE YOU MAD?! It’s rare that you get to see a perfect movie, a movie that is called every positive adjective and hyperbole by critics and deserves them all. Of course now there are a few critics popping up calling the film overrated, but that is to be expected. (Plus the film has thing or two to say about critics). Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a man made famous for playing a superhero called Birdman in the 90’s, who now is starring, writing, and directing a stage production in order to reaffirm himself as a “real” artist. Of course the film is about Keaton’s relationship with Tim Burton’s Batman films, and how they affected his future career. Filled with possibly career-best performances by Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts, Birdman is one of those films that is about everything, life, love, career, fears, art, etc. Yet it never feels preachy, partially because we are so mesmerized by the seemingly single take that spans the whole film, but mostly because for all its magical realism the film is grounded with phenomenal writing and irreverence. It covers deep themes while also having Keaton run half-naked through times square, in the same way that Shakespeare (an obvious influence of the film) was able to pontificate about things of the highest order all contained in a screwball comedy. There is so much I want to praise about this film, and I could go on and on, but just see it for yourself if you haven’t already and then try to express your praise in a single paragraph. I dare you.
Double Feature- WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?
Just as meta and ambitious as Birdman, Shion Sono’s (Suicide Club, Cold Fish) wacky Why Don’t You Play in Hell is a smorgasbord of cinematic influences. Spanning 10 years, the film focuses on a overly-enthusiastic indie film crew that feel destined to make the greatest film of all time. They end up getting pulled into a vicious war between two rivaling yakuza clans and agree to film their eventual bloody battle so long as they get to orchestrate it. Reality becomes a soundstage as Shion Sono cements himself as one of the most extreme filmmakers of all time, splashing buckets of bloods and throwing body parts at the camera. Just when the film can’t get any more meta we get the final shot that is gloriously on the nose. With a climax that one-ups Kill Bill, the film is a love-letter to the art of filmmaking, in all its spontaneity.
I can count on one hand my truly great theater experiences. I was a fan of Denis Villeneuve work (Prisoners, Incendies) and so after work in DC I walked to the only small independently owned theater in the area that was showing it. It was the afternoon, and there was only one other guy in the theater, if you could call it that (it was the size of a large living room). I ordered a Guinness, sat down, and proceeded to watch a film that could very well be one of my favorites ever made. I love all genres, but deep down psychological horror with strong imagery will always be my favorite. (The Shining, Dark City, Angel Heart…) Anyone who talked to me over the next month can attest that I couldn’t shut up about Enemy. Most critics have called a well-made, possible underrated film, but for me this film is everything. It’s why I love movies. Not since Mulholland Drive has a film dived into the dark psychology of an individual with such intelligence and artistry. With notes of Lynch and Cronenberg, Enemy follows a college professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) living a wasted circular life until while watching a local film he sees an extra that looks exactly like him. This leads him on a nightmarish journey into the depths of his own psyche as he tracks down his doppelganger. As their paths cross and reality keeps growing legs (for real), we are forced to play catch up with the narrative as every new reveal challenges the one before. What makes Enemy work is that all of its sinister imagery and plot twists aren’t just for show but carry immense weight and Freudian meaning, for as the beginning if the film tells us, “Chaos is order yet undeciphered.” With haunting cinematography, a spine-tingling score that transports you to a claustrophobic landscape filled with eyes looking out from the dark, and a stunning dual performance by Gyllenhaal, Enemy weaves a web in you subconscious and then lets the spiders come out to play. (Side Note- Enemy makes the top 5 best film endings ever in my book. Hilarious or terrifying? You decide, either way, you won’t stop talking about it and deciphering it.)
Double Feature- THE DOUBLE
Enemy‘s hipster cousin, Richard Ayoade (Moss from The IT Crowd) masterfully crafts a dystopian world which would make Terry Gilliam proud. Based on the novel by the same name by Dostoyevsky, The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as a shy clerk at a soul-crushing government job and Mia Wasikowska as the girl next door. The authoritarian hierarchy seems hellbent on thwarting his attempts to make something of his life, and as his outlook on life becomes utterly bleak a new co-worker suddenly appears who physically is his double, but emotionally is a vibrant, confident ladies man who always gets what he wants. This clash of wills leads to Eisenberg taking charge of his life as he battles both himself and an unforgiving, mechanical world. Heavily stylized, the film captures Dostoyevsky’s surreal netherworld with a sense of black humor that is more unsettling that humorous. Ayoade puts his Cambridge education to good use, and is definitely a talent to watch. (Side Note- The poster is awesome) (Available on Netflix Instant)
And now to soak it all in with this Supercut.
Films that Almost Made the Cut: Days of Future Past, The Wind Rises, Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Lego Movie, Blue Ruin, Neighbors, Coherence, A Most Wanted Man, Fury (almost a great movie)
Underrated Films: Begin Again, Noah, Space Station 76, Chef, Happy Christmas, Joe, Breathe in, Tom at the Farm
Overrated Films: Obvious Child, Boyhood (still great movie)
Best Horror Films: In Fear, The Canal, The Borderlands, The Sacrament, Honeymoon, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, ABC’s of Death 2, Killers, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Late Phases, Afflicted, Housebound, The Town that Dreaded Sundown
Best Horror Film for Liberal Arts Majors: As Above, So Below (Copernicus, Dante fanboys)
Best films to Watch after a Night of Drinking/Guilty Pleasures: Hercules, Non-Stop, Cheap Thrills, The Raid 2 (insane), Lucy, Dracula Untold, Horns, The Machine
Best Songs: Lost Stars (Begin Again), Wolfcop (Wolfcop) :), Everything is Awesome (Lego Movie), Split the Difference (Boyhood), Heavenly Father (Wish I Was Here), Hal (Only Lovers Left Alive), The Last Goodbye (Hobbit), Miracles (Unbroken)
Delightful Oddities: A Fantastic Fear of Everything, Filth, The Signal, I Origins, The Two Faces of January, White Bird in a Blizzard, What We Do in the Dark, Don’t Blink, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Rigor Mortis
Disappointing Films: Rise of an Empire, A Dame to Kill For, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Jersey Boys, Deliver Us From Evil, Magic in the Moonlight, St. Vincent, Stonehearst Asylum, Dom Hemingway, Transcendence
Best Documentary: Life Itself, Jodorowsky’s Dune (didn’t watch enough docs this year)
Favorite Endings: Filth, Enemy, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Films I Hated: Tusk, Ouija, Horrible Bosses 2, Age of Extinction
Performances that Surprised: Kristen Stewart (Camp X-Ray), Tye Sheridan (Joe), Rose Byrne (Neighbors), actual cannibal Shia Labeouf (Fury), Kim Dickens (Gone Girl), Don Johnson (Cold in July), Chris Pine (Stretch)