Top 10 Films of 2014

Here are my cinematic highlights of 2014.

1) ‘Boyhood’

When I saw ‘Boyhood’ back in July, I was certain that I had seen the best movie of 2014. This was one of the best movie-going experiences of my life. A boy and his family grow and change over the course of a dozen years, but in ways we’ve never seen. That is because director Richard Linklater filmed this story for weeks at a time over the course of a dozen years with the same core cast. No lookalikes plugged into roles. This has never been done within a narrative framework in the history of cinema. The film’s ambitions are matched by its execution. ‘Boyhood’ unfolds like a documentary truth. It is a pitch-perfect living time capsule – one that channels the flow of real life. The cumulative sensation of caring deeply for this young man and the people around him ultimately sneaks up on you with a surprising punch. You truly feel as though you have gotten to know these people, and that they are real. You don’t just watch ‘Boyhood’. You’re in it. You’re wondering where the time went. Where the former versions of these characters had gone. It may be years before any other filmmaker can match the achievement of ‘Boyhood’.  Available on Blu-Ray January 6th.

2) ‘Mommy’

Next: motherhood. Montreal’s Xavier Dolan has created a masterpiece with ‘Mommy’. Single mother (Anne Dorval) barely copes with her violent, out of control teenage son (Antoine-Oliver Pilon) who is suffering from extreme ADHD. Their love-hate bond is complicated by the arrival of a traumatized neighbor (Suzanne Clément) who inserts herself into their household. All three actors deliver electrifying performances (hands-down best performance of 2014 goes to Anne Dorval). I was stunned to realize Dolan is only 25 years old; ‘Mommy’ feels like the work of a master filmmaker. The unconventional 6X6 (or 1X1) framing aesthetic makes the emotions pop out more. It isn’t gimmicky for the sake of being gimmicky; Dolan said he chose this ratio so we’re locked into the eyes of the characters. He gets the camera up close to his actors and lets them rip. Nothing about ‘Mommy’ is predictable; this was made clear when a character reaches out and pushes the film’s aspect ratio to fit the whole screen. My heart broke for these characters. Many positive adjectives can and will be used to describe ‘Mommy’, but for now, I’ll just settle on one: “beautiful”. French with English subtitles. No Blu-Ray release date as of yet, but it will be playing as part of Canada’s Top Ten program at TIFF Bell Lightbox January 3rd.

3) ‘Like Father Like Son’

Next: fatherhood. Are you noticing a theme here? Heartbreaking scenario: six years into raising their only child, a young couple is told that their son is not theirs at all – a hospital error switched two baby boys at birth. The couple meets their biological child for the first time as well as the family that raised him. What happens next? ‘Like Father Like Son’ will be an especially tough watch for many parents but the questions posed by the film are universal in nature. There are no easy answers here. Especially in a patriarchal society like Japan, in which the momentousness of blood ties cannot be overstated. This moving drama from master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda follows the relationship between these two families over the course of a year, documenting the rhythmical pattern of their lives with such care and empathy that even miniscule changes to their routine have unsettling impact. Kore-eda never judges his characters or their actions. Everything about the film (performances, tone, pacing, editing) is outstanding. This is filmmaking of the highest order. Japanese with English subtitles. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.

4) ‘Whiplash’

‘Whiplash’, directed by Damien Chazelle, tells the story of a jazz drummer student (Miles Teller) whose relationship with his teacher/conductor (J.K. Simmons) ends up being a kind of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ hell. Call it ‘Full Metal Julliard’. Chezelle is 29 year old, and like Xavier Dolan, he has the chops of a master filmmaker. ‘Whiplash’ features the best supporting performance of the year (J.K. Simmons) and Miles Teller confirms his status as one of the best young actors working today. The editing feels urgent and jagged, cutting and panning with the beat of the drum – it feels like jazz itself. This is a movie with a lot on its mind; it has a lot to say about artistic demons, and the cost of ambition. There is a compelling argument to be made here – that greatness springs from adversity and sometimes we need to manufacture adversity in order to make people great. Sweat pours, blood spills, chairs are hurled, discourtesy abounds. The movie plays out like a percussive piece. Explosive. Unrelenting. Alive. ‘It truly is a great movie. Maybe because it knows a thing or two about what greatness means. Available on Blu-ray February 3rd.

5) ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Wes Anderson is now one of my favorite filmmakers and I think this is because he has one thing most filmmakers lack – an original vision and one that is expressed seamlessly. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is his most ambitious undertaking yet. A new lobby boy (newcomer Tony Revolori) at a 1930s era luxurious hotel assists the concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is contending with the aftermath of receiving a priceless piece of art from one his late clients. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is a story about stories; or, at least how it provides weight to something seemingly meaningless. For those hoping that Anderson would take a new direction, this isn’t the movie where he does what you want him to. His distinct visual sensibilities remain intact, and he continues to elaborate on familiar themes, and present us with eccentric characters – they appear silly on the surface but contain a lot of depth. This is one of Mr. Anderson’s funniest movies, yes, but it is also his most serious as his characters are lost to history and that sense of loss reverberates across time. I was charmed (as I usually am with this filmmaker’s work) but didn’t expect to be as moved as I was.  This delightful picture appreciates in value with each revisit. I’ve seen it three times already. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.

6) ‘Inherent Vice’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel about a stoned private investigator getting to the bottom of a convoluted plot that I can’t even begin to describe is maddeningly brilliant. This is a movie that goes aggressively against what most viewers expect from contemporary cinema. It pays homage to ‘The Long Goodbye’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’, and yet it seems to be as personal and distinct as anything Anderson has ever made. Anderson’s films are about the end of an era – ‘Inherent Vice’ is about the end of the hippie/stoner era. He is embracing this period by making a picture as hazy and confused as his characters. This first-rate ensemble includes Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, and Martin Short among others. Robert Elswit’s muted photography and period recreation are outstanding. I would be lying if I said this was an entirely coherent picture. Anderson is exploring new territory here; it is a risk, but it pays off in tumultuously funny ways. As Jaoquin Pheonix’s character says early on “Thinking comes later”. Don’t worry about making sense of its impenetrable plot and savor the moments of inspired lunacy. Currently playing in limited release (Cineplex Varsity Cinemas).

7) ‘Interstellar’

Christopher Nolan’s visionary space-faring epic, ‘Interstellar’, is a simple story told with grandiosity. It is filled with terrific performances, masterful special effects, and is all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the meaning of life without providing any easy answers. ‘Interstellar’ engaged me intellectually and emotionally. Matthew McConaughey, in one of the best performances of his career, plays a father who leaves his family to pilot a mission of finding a habitable planet to relocate Earth’s population. He travels through space, time, and dimensions. There are wordy scientific discussions about the space-time continuum, quantum mechanics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, intergalactic technicalities, the existence of higher forms of intelligence, a wormhole which functions as a portal to another galaxy, and the immeasurability of love. And, it is all entirely accessible to the layman. This is an event movie, one that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen with the best sound system possible. Unabashedly sentimental, thrilling, bold, and beautiful; to be sure, this is one of the most ambitious films ever made. Available on Blu-ray March 10th, but it is still playing in theaters, which is where it should be seen.

8) ‘Nightcrawler’

Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut about the underground world of L.A. freelance crime journalism will rightfully be labeled a cinematic classic. I want to see more movies like this – deliciously twisted, dark, satirical, and brilliant. Cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots Los Angeles in a way that makes it pulsating and Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career against that sensational background as a sleazy nocturnal news chaser who is prepared to cross any ethical boundaries in order to succeed. Pluck this movie, and it vibrates. ‘Nightcrawler’ feels like a throwback to classics such as ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Network’, and ‘Blow Out’ but this expertly scripted story has a lot to say about where and what we are now. Gyllenhaal’s bug-eyed Lou Bloom presents himself as likeable and motivated but he has an insatiable drive and is a destructive force. His madness intersects with the absurdity of a broadcast medium that manipulates viewers into living with a false sense of insecurity. ‘Nightcrawler’ is as much a psychological thriller as an examination of a fractured economy and the extremes people are willing to go to for success. The film maintains a sense of dread and discomfort during its entire runtime. Currently playing at Scotiabank Theatre; available on Blu-ray February 10th.

9) ‘Foxcatcher’

Bennett Miller follows up on ‘Capote’ and ‘Moneyball’ with this grim and unrelenting biopic. Two brothers, both former Olympic wrestling champions (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) develop a fateful friendship with paranoid schizophrenic billionaire John duPont (Steve Carell). As Miller proved in ‘Capote’, and ‘Moneyball’, he is able to draw the best performances out of his cast.  Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are terrific, but it is Steve Carell who delivers a game-changing performance. Carell makes a striking physical transformation but it is his croaky voice and line delivery that will really creep you out. This is an expertly rendered, meticulously detailed piece of work; a slow boiling study of patriotism, winner obsessions, male ego, and the growing disparity between rich and poor that builds and devastates, dealing with the emotional uncertainty of its characters. This harrowing enigma of a movie explores the belief that winning in sports or on the battlefield is the only thing that matters, as well as how the rich exploit and control the poor as sport, robbing them of their decency at the cost of achieving success. An important, exhilarating and darkly fascinating film, ‘Foxcatcher’ makes for a good companion piece with ‘Nightcrawler’. Currently in limited release, and coincidentally shares the same BluRay release date with ‘Nightcrawler’ (February 10th).

10) ‘Life Itself’

From Steve James comes ‘Life Itself’, a vivid portrait of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. When ‘Life Itself’ went into production, Roger believed himself to be cancer-free with no reason to suspect the end was nearing. Roger’s death halfway through filming shapes ‘Life Itself’ in a way that could not have been part of the original conceit. The film is a celebration of a man’s life and an unflinching depiction of his physical decline. Roger said he didn’t want to be associated with a film that sweetened who he was – he wanted it to be open and honest. I believe he would have loved this movie. There are moments in ‘Life Itself’ that are nostalgic (the love story between Roger and his wife Chaz), times where it is light and funny (the love/hate story between Roger and his longtime ‘At The Movies’ cohost Gene Siskel), and occasions where its fly-on-the-wall approach makes for a difficult watch (painful images of Roger in rehab). ‘Life Itself’ isn’t just a documentary about a film critic; it is a wonderfully intimate account of a life well lived right up until the very end. Ebert once described the movies as “a machine that generates empathy.” ‘Life Itself’ convincingly proves that statement.  Available on Blu-Ray February 17th; also premiering on CNN January 4th at 9 p.m. ET.

Honorable Mentions: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, ‘Force Majeure’, ‘Gone Girl’, ’Ida’,  ‘Locke’, ‘Mr. Turner’, ‘Selma’, ‘The Raid 2’, ‘Top Five’, ‘Under The Skin’

Best Undistributed Film: ‘Hill of Freedom’, ‘Out of Print’

Themes this year:

–        Space/Time (either the passage or manipulation of it): ‘Interstellar’, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, ‘The Theory of Everything’, The Grand Budapest Hotel’, ‘Boyhood’, ‘Life Itself’

–        The Struggling Male Artist: ‘Mr. Turner’, ‘Top Five’, ‘Birdman’, ‘Listen Up Philip’

Even Distribution of Quality Films: 2014 was less back-loaded than recent years. In the last two years, the vast majority of entries on my Top 10 list were films that were released in the last eight weeks of the year. In fact, only two titles released in November and December cracked my Top 10 list this year.

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