Saturday, December 20, 2014

Movies: The Best of 2014

These are the films I've seen in 2014 that still stick with me and that I would recommend without reservation. I've seen a lot of what's been released to date, but there are films I haven't seen yet that I'm pretty certain would end up on this list, so I've decided I will be doing updates to this post once I see them and if I decide they merit inclusion (I'm thinking Citizenfour, Dear White People, Foxcatcher, Song of the Sea, and Whiplash might eventually show up here, for example).

In 2013 I did a separate post for each film, but as a result I lost the motivation after a number of posts and ended up not including every film I would've liked to. This year I've opted for the dreaded "listicle" (list + article hybrid), so I can get through it all in one go. It seemed to work for last year's Cinematic Disappointments post (which I may also revise as I've reversed my opinion on one of those four during the interim - for now I'll leave you to guess which one). Additionally, there are thumbnails and blurbs of recommended runners-up at the end of this post.

I'm also experimenting with show-able/hide-able "Spoiler" sections, so that I can discuss aspects of certain movies and not ruin their surprises. Otherwise, I'll try to keep the synopses as cryptic yet intelligible as possible.

As always, words in orange text are links, and the pictures can be clicked to display them at their true size. Special thanks to the folks at the website DoBlu, which is where I got many of the high resolution screenshots you see below.

So, here's my entirely subjective, alphabetically ordered run-down of the best films of the year.

Blue Ruin

One morning, a homeless man (played by Macon Blair) receives information from the local police related to his past, which sends him down a potentially murderous path. The mood swings between melancholy and raging, and when violence occurs, it is brutally realistic.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, and shot on a budget of around $500,000 USD with Canon EOS C300 cameras, it's a gorgeous looking picture, with a tight script, fine performances and an overall sense of verisimilitude and humanity. It moves like a shark: there's not an ounce of fat on it. This is the kind of low-budget film-making that I find inspiring.

Edge of Tomorrow

In the near-future, an alien invasion from forces seemingly able to predict our military's moves before they're made have brought humanity to the brink. That is, until a soldier named Rita Vrataski (the unstoppable Emily Blunt, my hero), through some inexplicable effort later mistakenly credited to technology, is able to single-handedly defeat hundreds of enemy troops in a key battle, earning her the nickname "The Angel of Verdun", or alternatively, "Full Metal Bitch". Bolstered, our forces plan one last massive mission which is to be promoted through the media by Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise), who soon finds himself, through some fault of his own, on the front lines, albeit completely unprepared for combat. He goes, he quickly dies (the aliens are like fast, tentacled, multi-bladed living chainsaws).

He jolts awake 24 hours previous to his death, remembering everything that happened while those around him are living it for the first time, "again". As the tagline goes: Live. Die. Repeat.

Big events, but driven by characters that are fully drawn and with full arcs, male and female; with action but also with emotion and beats of quiet reflection; often intentionally very funny and charming: this what big summer blockbusters should be, but mostly aren't. It's depressing that despite having all this in its favour, Edge hasn't really been seen by very many - hopefully if you're reading this you can remedy that.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

Gone Girl

Did husband Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck) murder wife Amy Dunne (played by Rosamund Pike)? If he didn't, who did?

Masterfully directed by David Fincher, from the wonderfully adapted screenplay by Gillian Flynn (from her own novel - which I've never read), what seems at first to be a simple "whodunit" quickly becomes a much more impressive commentary on marriage, and power, and to a lesser extent, the media. This being Fincher, there's a good deal of misanthropy infused throughout the proceedings. It's human ugliness wrapped in a beautiful visual veneer, and it's also intentionally pretty damned funny.

Pike deserves all of the awards - she delivers my favourite performance of the year.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:


Directed by Christopher Nolan and co-written with his brother Jonathan, Interstellar is an ambitious space adventure that packs an emotional punch and a rousing display of film-making's state of the art. Sometimes its reach exceeds its grasp, but boy, what a reach. A seemingly simple scene of main character Cooper watching a video transmission is a standout (Matthew McConaughey and the rest of the principle cast are excellent). Also exceptional, a consequent docking sequence. Even the pipe-organ laden soundtrack, by frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, hit all the right notes for me.

Best experienced in the biggest theatre you can find (I saw it in its "author-intended" 70mm-film IMAX presentation on the first day of its run and was blown away).

Did I mention the awesome robot? (Best related tweet I read: "Who is your favourite character in Interstellar, and why is it the robot?").


On the eve of bringing his biggest professional project to fruition, a man makes a decision that could jeopardize that project, his career, and every personal relationship in his life.

It is incredible that a film about a single on-screen character, in a car driving throughout the night, talking only to other characters on the phone (and a couple of times, himself), is such a gripping story. Tom Hardy, as the eponymous Ivan Locke, is exemplary, especially when the circumstances have him simultaneously expressing certain emotions verbally, to present a necessary front to those on the receiving end of phone calls that can't see him, and his true emotions visually (for the audience).

I can't recall seeing a film where such a seemingly innocuous phrase as "you have an incoming call" has created such tension and dread in the main character and in me.

Visually stunning, especially considering the seeming limitation of one-actor/one-"location", writer-director Steven Knight has created a work that's ultimately quite moving.


Looking for a career path, an autodidactic and highly motivated young man named Louis Bloom finds opportunities in the exciting arena of local television news! Did I mention he's a sociopath? Hilarity ensues! The gross, dark kind of hilarity. An American Psycho kind of hilarity.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the dialogue is terrific, and Bloom's lectures, seemingly synthesized from ubiquitous online entrepreneurial types, soar in a "performance-of-the-year" by Jake Gyllenhaal. This is one quotable character.

My main critique of the film is that it could be somewhat sleazier in execution, as occasionally it's a little too clean when it needs to be truly grisly (compared to the aforementioned Blue Ruin or Gone Girl, for example).

Slick, smart, swift, and highly entertaining.


Based on a French graphic novel, the story of Snowpiercer is simple, like a fable or a storybook: the world has become deathly frozen, and all the survivors live on an impossibly long, perpetually moving train. The poor and downtrodden live at the back end, while the rich, who control the system, live at the front. After continuously enduring mistreatment and terrible living conditions for as long as they've lived aboard the train, Curtis (played by Chris Evans) and the other tail-enders decide to make a run for the engine car: viva la revolución.

Directed by Joon-ho Bong, the film has lots of surprises, a terrific self-aware performance by Tilda Swinton, and the production design throughout is clever and often beautiful. In certain ways it reminded me of the films of Terry Gilliam, though not so comical.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

The Grand Budapest Hotel

A writer who routinely visits the now-fading Grand Budapest learns the history of the hotel and the legend of concierge Gustave (played by Ralph Fiennes), as told by the now-aged Zero (the younger version of the character with the most screen time played by Tony Revolori), Gustave's co-adventurer and the hotel's new lobby boy.

Written and directed by Wes Anderson, Grand continues his trademark use of vibrant colours and formal staging, but extends that to a "pop-up book" illustration style for some scenes, notably establishing shots of certain locales, or action sequences (a foot chase in the mountains comes to mind). It's charming, good-natured, and contains a very sweet romance, between Zero and Agatha (played by Saoirse Ronan). The adventure is detailed and the characters are engaging such that Grand can be enjoyed repeatedly.

The Lego Movie

In what is quite possibly the best animated movie of the year and the best comedy of the year, everyday construction worker Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) has his world turned upside-down when he learns he may be the prophesied saviour of the world -- in this case, a world made entirely from Lego. Visual and verbal jokes come fast and furious throughout picture, which is to be expected from co-writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. They have both a predilection and a knack for this kind of comedy.

On top of that, the film is an artistic and technical marvel of computer animation, eye candy of the highest order. If you want to peak behind the curtain on how it was created, you can watch this excellent making-of produced by the folks at fxguide.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

Under the Skin

A strange young woman drives around Scotland in a white van, seducing single young men to come back to her abode, where stranger, sinister things occur. As time goes on she begins to question who she is, and the façade she's presenting to the world changes her in ways she could never have imagined.

This film sticks with me in part due to a sequence I'll call simply "At the Beach", which I found completely unsettling on first watch, and even bothers me to a degree all these months later whenever I recall it.

Directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer, the film is like a long, vivid nightmare, and I'd even suggest it's the best horror film of the year. There's almost no dialogue, and some of the imagery is equally beautiful and perplexing. The subtext (mostly) has some pretty grim things to say about the relationships between men and women. It would be amazing and well deserved if Scarlett Johansson were to be nominated for acting awards based on this nuanced lead performance. Also, that eerie soundtrack!

That said, it's creepy as all get out, and not for everyone. I like that it rattled my cage.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

Recommended Runners-up

Here's a host of others that are not quite at the same level as the aforementioned, but are still worth recommending (clicking the posters will take you to their disc catalogues on Amazon):

A small-town drama of broken systems in modern Ireland, focussing on the Church.

Light and fun, where cooking is a battleground for art versus commerce, artist versus critic.

Compellingly weird doppelgänger story in Toronto, with a disturbing final shot.

Music, and the myth of the fine line between genius and madness. Funny and sad.

Documentary about the highly influential sci-fi epic that was never made.

A solid debut by writer-director Jennifer Kent, with a killer pop-up book.

A slow-witted Brooklyn bartender is caught up in the criminal underworld.

A clever tribute to '80s horror movies that escalates to pure bonkers mayhem.

Couples therapy meets the Twilight Zone. Elisabeth Moss is terrific.

It's like the Godfather II of martial arts movies, with more hammers and baseballs.

That's it for now. See you next year!

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