The Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part I)
2014, as an overall year in film, was for me not as strong as some others in recent memory. That isn’t to say 2014 was by any means a bad year in film, as there were plenty of films on this list and several others that aren’t which represent some very singular cinematic visions. This was very much a year of ambitious filmmaking, and these ambitions were met with varying degrees of success. Perhaps that’s why 2014 is a somewhat lesser year in film for me; I saw a lot of films that aimed so high and achieved so much, but then dropped the ball in significant ways that left me at the very least slightly underwhelmed. This is reflective of my feelings towards Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”, which I had high hopes for yet finds itself on the outside looking in of my top ten list. Two honorable mentions that nearly made my list are Ana Duvernay’s “Selma” which was unfortunately and notably overlooked by the Oscars, and James Grey’s “The Immigrant”, which nobody has talked about but is on Netflix and you should totally check out.
But alas, without any further adieu, here are my first five selections for the top ten films of 2014…
10) “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (Dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu)-
For many, my placing this film at the bottom of my list is far too low. “Birdman” has received near universal acclaim and is being hailed by most as a masterpiece, not to mention winning Best Picture at the Oscars recently. While there is a lot I do like about “Birdman”, I find myself somewhat more reserved on the film than others. The thematic terrain, which centers on an exploration of artistic ego, felt a little shallow and heavy-handed to me. I found the scenes which dealt with this theme more directly to be abrasive and like they were from a very different, much more self-serious film. However, the cinematic achievement of “Birdman” and the one-take illusion is very impressive both as a purely technical achievement while simultaneously giving the film a real vitality. The decision to use an entirely percussion-based score was ingenious and also provides to the unique energy of the film. This is to say nothing of the acting in “Birdman”, which offers a great central showcase for the unique and so often underutilized talents of Michael Keaton, who really shines in the role of a washed-up former movie star. Even better in the supporting ranks are Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter, playing against type in a much darker role than is typical of her, and Edward Norton, who steals the film as a difficult method actor in a role that, like Keaton’s, bears certain similarities to the actor playing the part.
9) “Whiplash” (Dir. Damien Chazelle)-
In spite of my slight reservations with “Whiplash”, writer/director Chazelle’s sophomore/breakout feature was unquestionably one of the sharpest and most vibrant film experiences from this past year. The film raises an interesting discussion about properly cultivating raw talent in a pupil, even if it takes that central idea to a sometimes far-fetched extreme. That extreme is personified in the character of Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons in an Oscar-winning performance), a jazz conductor by way of drill sergeant who occasionally felt like more like a caricature than a fully fleshed-out human being. Those characterization issues are mostly overcome by Simmons’ electrifying performance. This is a terrific showcase role for a so often unsung character actor, and Simmons’ doesn’t miss a beat (pun intended). No less compelling is Miles Teller, the true star of the film, as Fletcher’s drumming protege/victim of verbal abuse Andrew Neiman. Teller, who delivered a breakout performance two years ago in “The Spectacular Now” only continues to prove here that he is a young actor worth paying attention to. “Whiplash” also provides some surprising cinematic heft for a modestly-budgeted indie, particularly in the appropriately jazzy rhythms of the editing (also Oscar-winning). This film really marks Chazelle as a filmmaker to watch out for.
8) “Wild” (Dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)-
I didn’t much care for Vallee’s previous film, the Oscar winning “Dallas Buyers Club”, although I blame that much more on that film’s problematic script/main character than his direction. Working with much better material here, he delivers both a singular cinematic vision and a film that resonated deeply with me on an emotional level with “Wild”. The films’ splintered, flashback-heavy storytelling takes some time to adjust to, but once it settles in, “Wild” builds to moments of deep emotional catharsis. Sheryl Strayeds’ story of an average woman undergoing an existential crisis may seem slight to some, but the film taps into themes of grief, remorse and the desire to improve oneself that are universally relatable. Much of the film’s emotional impact is owed to the incredible central performance by Reese Witherspoon. Even though Witherspoon is an Oscar winner and a well-known movie star, I still found this performance by her to be revelatory in many ways. While she’s been good in films like “Election” and “Walk the Line”, Witherspoon has never shown the vulnerability and emotional nakedness she does here, as well as an unwavering commitment to such a complicated female character.
7) “The Imitation Game” (Dir. Morten Tyldum)-
This film is a perfect example to me of why I don’t buy into the notion of “Oscar bait”. On paper, “The Imitation Game” bears a number of superficial similarities to another 2014 Best Picture nominee, “The Theory of Everything” (british biopic subject, overcoming adversity, brilliant genius, ect.). In spite of those similarities, I thought “Theory” was pretty bland, but I loved “Imitation Game”, proving that execution is everything. “The Imitation Game” is a conventional piece of filmmaking that hits familiar emotional beats, but it executes this formula so well that I couldn’t have cared less. That execution starts at one of the best scripts of the year (and an Oscar-winning one, at that), which imbues the film with clever, whip-smart dialogue and a strong sense of its characters. That sense of character helps to inform the brilliant central performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Neither the script nor Cumberbatch’s portrayal try to soften the abrasive qualities of Turing in any way, which I think is an admirable risk, since the film also needs Turing to be a sympathetic character. It’s to the credit of Cumberbatch that he manages to find the emotional layers in this prickly character and to make us care about him. The supporting cast (which includes Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and an excellent Keira Knightley) is also uniformly strong.
6) “A Most Violent Year” (Dir. J.C. Chandor)-
In only three features, J.C. Chandor has proven himself a filmmaker who’s impossible to pigeon hole (stylistically, at least). His first film, “Margin Call”, was driven entirely by its dialogue and large ensemble cast, whereas his follow-up, “All is Lost”, was a one-man show for Robert Redford with virtually no dialogue whatsoever. While impressive in their range, neither of Chandor’s previous films managed to engage me. With “A Most Violent Year” however, the third time has proven to be the charm. Chandor again completely changes stylistic gears in offering up this story of a business man with one foot in legitimacy and the other in much murkier territory and the moment at which those disparate worlds come clashing together. Although the film dabbles in gangster film conventions, Chandor is contemplative and thoughtful in his direction and pacing in a way that’s reminiscent of films from the late 70’s. “A Most Violent Year”, which is set in the Reagan-era early 80’s, captures this not-often-explored historical period in vivid detail, thanks in large part to the sun-kissed yet chilly cinematography by Bradford Young. Oscar Isaac, who was outstanding last year in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, again plays the lead here and reaffirms his exceptional charisma and talent. No less gripping in a supporting role as his wife is Jessica Chastain, every bit Isaac’s equal when the two are on-screen together.
Next week, I’ll reveal the rest of my list with my personal top five films from last year.