10. Force Majeure
From the opening shot of writer/director Ruben Östlund's brilliant Force Majeure, wherein our nuclear family of protagonists struggle to look natural while posing for vacation pictures, there's a sneaking suspicion that not all is well. And that's just the tip of the avalanche. Majeure chronicles, down to the nanosecond, the very moment you start looking at someone in a different light, and observes the impending fall-out with grace, humor, and empathy. Lisa Loven Kongsli stars as the matriarch of the family, a woman whose entire trip to the picturesque French Alps turns into an emotional roller coaster, made even more wily when the actions and opinions of friends and new acquaintances become entangled in her story, a neat writing trick that pays consistent dividends. We've seen talky familial dramas before, but what sets Force Majeure apart from the pack is the sheer unpredictability of it temperament. When a scene puts you on the verge of tears, it's immediately followed by a guffaw; when a moment of sudden comedy promises light at the end of the tunnel, the glowing white is quickly blotted out by domineering black. It should become predictable, but it never really does, just how their beyond-posh hotel, and the endless white slops that surround it, never stop conveying isolation and loneliness within their luxury. This was my favorite foreign film of 2014, a movie that keeps rattling around in my brain long after the lights come up.
The best sports movie of 2014, perhaps the best sports movie in years, isn't even a sports movie. The incomparable Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neimann, an aspiring jazz drummer who enrolls at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in order to follow his dreams, only to find a nightmare in J.K. Simmon's Fletcher, an instructor who brings new meaning to the term ruthless. It's a simple story that manages to capture a myriad of themes and ideas in its net, from the dangers of ambition, to the terror of letting potential slip away into the ether. The competitive, fighting-and-scratching-to-get-to-the-top aspects of the film certainly liken it to any number of movies that have taken place on the field, hardwood, or diamond, but its the sheer physicality of the picture that makes you feel like you're watching athletes rather than musicians. Teller, who is responsible for about 70% of his own drumming, scowls, sweats, and bleeds in a way that calls to mind Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta, riding physical torment all the way until it morphs into out-of-body euphoria. Simmons, a newly-minted Oscar winner for this performance, is his match every step to the way, though nothing he does reaches the feral level of Teller's turn; his Fletcher is too god-like to ever be scene suffering for his craft, a muscle-bound, mean-spirited titan able to stop the earth's gravitational pull by simply raising his fist. The editing rips and rages, the music pops and pounds; never have lower stakes felt so life-or-death. This one rushes all the way.
8. The Babadook
Being whisked away to a whole new world is one of moviedom's greatest pleasures, but sometimes its just as captivating to locate new possibilities within the familiar. Jennifer Kent's The Babadook is nothing if not old hat, relaying the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who, after reading The One Book You're Not Supposed To Read, finds her life and home plagued by the mysterious creeper that gives the film its title. I mean... you've seen that before, right? What makes Kent's film so unique is that, despite being a perfectly capable horror outing, the film is more about the crushing weight of grief, and the immeasurable stresses of parenting a young child by yourself. This one is a fright-fest long before the Babadook himself ever shows up, turning the screws of societal pressure and unending exhaustion, Kent's directorial virtuoso wringing dread and claustrophobia out of every day occurrences. Davis is a revelation in the role, as ready to endure standard haunted house trauma as she is the draining minutia of the daylight hours. The Babadook might not make for a relaxing night out at the movies, but it locates strange truths with terrifying honesty where most horror flicks prefer to only say 'boo.'
7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Remember when this movie had the slightest bit of Oscar buzz, and was being compared to The Empire Strikes Back? All that hype and praise seems to have happened a million years ago, but I for one haven't forgotten those damn, dirty apes, the mind-blowing technology that brought then to life, or the thoughtful narrative to which they belong. Laying its scene 10 years after the events of the original reboot, after the simian flu has wiped out the vast, vast majority of mankind, the apes who were freed in the previous installment live peacefully in the Muir Woods, located just outside of San Francisco. Led by the ruminative revolutionary Caeser (Andy Serkis in motion capture), the primates are well on their way to creating civilization, language, and basic infrastructure before a cluster of humans shows up, rupturing their newly found stasis, and putting everyone on edge. Dawn is a blockbuster far more patient and thoughtful than we're used to from popcorn fare, complete with a grandstanding score and intense action set pieces that remind one of the Jaws/Star Wars/Indiana Jones days wherein a tent-pole flick was an event, not just something that comes out every friday from May through August. The motion capture technology is truly next level, even by Avatar standards, bolstered by one of the most resplendent 3D renderings I've ever seen. Long after the doldrums of the summer movie season are over, Apes stands tall as the session's straight-faced champion.
A feel-bad movie for the ages, Nightcrawler is the type of film that I want to gleefully recommend to everyone I know, and then remember that not everyone gets as much pure joy out of such a sinister experience. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a fast-talking, cliche-spilling drifter who's always looking for his next big score. Such an opportunity presents itself when Bloom runs into a camera crew filming the aftermath of a horrific car accident, and decides to try his hand in the business. First-time director Dan Gilroy's script may go a little over the top, but as any local news broadcast will attest, there's more than a kernel of truth in his pitch-black comedy, as Nightcrawler plunges into the sociopathic worldview one must harbor to find success in this dastardly racket. The true accomplishment of the film, however, comes in the form of Lou himself, both as presented on page, and as played in a career-redifining performance by Gyllenhaal. Stripped of his muscle-bound boyish charm, the actor appears as an ill-norished shadow of himself, employing enough ticks, mannerisms, and verbal tricky to completely disappear into the character. The supporting performances are strong, and Robert Elswit's cinematography is predictably marvelous, but the real draw here is just meeting Lou, a psycho who joins the likes of Travis Bickle and Norman Bates as one of cinemas most compellingly malicious oddities.
5. Under the Skin
What if I told you that, despite having died the better part of two decades ago, there's a brand-spanking new Stanley Kubrick movie in the world, ready to unnerve, unsettle, and fascinate with the best of them? Would that interest you? No, Kubrick's literal, singular genius will never be seen again, but that doesn't mute the thunderous echoes of his work in Jonathan Glazer's other-worldly, slow-burning, psycho-sexual sci-fi masterpiece Under the Skin. Playing out like a remake of Species designed to win Oscars, Scarlett Johansson stars as an often-mute extraterrestrial prowler along Ireland's idyllic countryside, picking up strange, aroused men who she then harvests for a mysterious purpose. Glazer's script, written alongside Walter Campbell, favors visual communication over clunky dialogue, providing the viewer with enough surreal, beautiful, and terrifying imagery to pour over for weeks. Much credit goes to Daniel Landin's sumptuous cinematography, as well as Mica Levi's merciless, hair-raising, spine-tingling score. But even with a star as luminous as Johansson in front of the camera, this is truly Glazer's movie, guiding this loopy, mind-bending nightmare with expert aplomb, and refusing to ever loosen his grip.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Go ahead, get all of your laughter or sneering out of the way; I'll wait. No, Guardians isn't exactly the lofty fare that one usually finds near the top of a Best of the Year list, but at the end of the day, isn't a fully-enjoyable, masses-pleasing action adventure quite a bit more rare than an equally good biopic, or straight-faced drama? In a world inundated with this type of material, Guardians managed to rip a hole into the summer box office, representing the first time a non-sequel, live-action blockbuster has managed to cross $300 million since the first Hunger Games back in early 2012. Chris Pratt fits this material like a glove as Peter Quill, a thief who unwittingly becomes the leader of a rag-tag band of criminals who must work together to save the universe. The premise is built out of one cliche after another, but James Gunn and Nicole Perlman's script is well aware of this fact, and has fun with it at every turn, molding this Marvel Studios juggernaut into the single funniest movie of 2014. That's not to say that the visuals don't pop, as the production team concocts one imaginative, candy-colored set piece after another, its cavalcade of effects proving both ecstatic and bombastic without ever becoming exhausting. Guardians of the Galaxy isn't a perfect film; I wish its climactic action sequence ended a bit differently, and Marvel's annoying reliance on MacGuffins remains in full-force. But this was the most fun that I had at a movie in 2014, a light-yet-big hearted blast that sent the opening weekend audience into a fit of applause when I first saw it back in early August. That crowd obviously hadn't seen a movie of this size and scale forgo gloom-and-doom and commit to wall-to-wall bliss in a long time. Neither had I, as the face-splitting grin that I wore out of the theater would readily attest.
Another year, another sensational film about African American history that we had to outsource in order to accomplish. 12 Years a Slave and Selma have almost nothing in common besides that troubling detail, the latter film reaching across the pond for both its screenwriter, and the majority of its spectacular cast. While this is unfortunately emblematic of Hollywood's general cowardice, it would be a crime to let hand-wringing take center stage away from such a mammoth accomplishment. David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr., who, as the film opens, is receiving a nobel peace prize, having already added a sturdy number of legendary accomplishments to its resume. His focus turns once more to the American south, where, despite being legally allowed to vote, a slew of bigotry and yellow tape continues to deny black men and women of their right to turn in a ballot. As thunderous and impactful as the repercussions of these events became, the movie manages to remain a small, focused gem, observing MLK's passionate, radical paradigm, and the way it effects all those around him. Oyelowo is astonishing in the lead, delivering speeches, commands and condolences with limitless firepower, and just as much grace. It's the standard sort of biopic you've seen before, only packed with greater performances, higher stakes, and brilliant direction by the Oscar-robbed Ava DuVernay, who takes us back to a time and place we'd like to forget, but need to remember.
When the credits rolled on my first viewing of Birdman, I was wholly unsure how I felt about the flick, and only knew that I needed either a cup of coffee, or a nap. Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is downright exhausting on your first go around, the intensity of Emmanuel Lubezki's long-take cinematography, paired with Antonio Sanchez's drums-only score, whipping you around from place to place, liberally toying with your emotions all the while. It's a gamble of a film, but as last night's Best Picture win giddily informs us, the dice roll came up 7's, and produced a film with nearly unmatchable re-watchability. Michael Keaton is clearly addressing some skeletons in the closet as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up actor who takes his fame's dying glow to the New York stage, attempting to adapt a Raymond Carver short story, and encountering nearly every imaginable problem along the way. Simply put, this is one of the best acted films I have ever seen in my life, Keaton leading a brigade of towering turns from the likes of Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan. At once a thorough dissection of egomania, a display of technical mastery, and a gut-busting comedy, Birdman is a thrill ride that doesn't need superheroes, explosions, or special effects to stand as one of the most sweat-inducing cinematic entries in recent history (well, ok... maybe it needs all of those things, but you get what I mean). This is as pure as cinema gets, a story that could only be told through this medium, captivating minds and imaginations with every rollicking frame.
If you can't tell from the above paragraph, I kiiiinda dig Birdman, and wasn't the least bit disappointed when it took home the hardware at last night's Academy Awards. As a matter of fact, I toyed with the idea of having an outright tie for the top spot on this list, but didn't want to aggravate the incalculable masses that attend this blog. Simply put, I've never had two movies so closely contend for my favorite of the year, but when it's all said and done, I have to pick the one that spoke to me on an unnervingly personal level, Richard Linklater's 12-year odyssey Boyhood. Ellar Coltrane stars as Mason, a child whom we meet at age six, and watch grow until he's 18, and ready to head out to college. Nothing earth-shattering ever happens in Boyhood's narrative, but perhaps that's because Boyhood itself seems to tip the world off its axis, employing time as its play thing as we watch the core four actors age before our very eyes, over a decade of life and experiences condensed into 160 minutes. The actors are all good-to-great, and Linklater's eye is sharp and thoughtful in its observations, but the treasure here is the concept itself, and the the time-traveling journey it creates. Many have balked at the film as being more of a gimmick than a real movie, but I'd like to entertain the possibility that it's neither. The unrelenting realism the picture creates pins it in some strange middle-ground between documentary and narrative filmmaking, conjuring up an experience unlike any other in the history of the medium. We all only grow up once, but Linklater's gently extraordinary work takes us back to that jubilant, scary, confusing, and formative time in a way that's nothing short of magical. It might not have won Best Picture, but history's going to have an awfully tough time forgetting Boyhood.