This year’s top 10 movies list marks the fourth I have published publicly. As always, this is a reflective project, and not just in the sense that it represents a chance to look back on the year’s best films. Steve and I are constantly revising how we classify films.
That never-ending discussion is vitally important to us because I think we share the desire to be as intellectually honest as possible when writing about art that other people have bravely chosen to put out in to the universe. It is the least we can do. It is why we decided to stop putting ratings in our reviews. And it is why my top-10 list is in a state of constant evolution. When I first started this exercise, I posted a list of the 12 (not 10) best films of 2011 on an entirely different site. Last year, I decided to stop trying to compose my list with the “best” films and to just focus on my favorites. “Best,” I decided (with considerable encouragement from Steve), was trying to be objective about something that is almost completely subjective.
This year, again with encouragement from my partner here, I’ve done away with an attempt to rank my list of 10. This is partly because we’ll be naming our No. 1 on a podcast soon to be recorded. But it is mostly because it feels like the right thing to do. Everything about this is arbitrary enough without layering in relative comparisons between wildly disparate films.
I suppose if I follow this logic to its endpoint, I might end up talking myself out of doing the list altogether sometime in the 2020s. Maybe. But serious as I try to take this task, it’s important to understand how fun it is to look back at a year’s worth of movies – another year of highs and lows – and relive the best. You end up reconsidering the ones on your list, but also the ones that don’t quite make it. The inescapable conclusion is that anyone contending that there weren’t any or many good films in a particular year isn’t spending much time looking.
As of this writing, I’ve seen 87 releases from 2014, a number that will surely swell further in the coming weeks. Of those 87, the ones that narrowly missed this list are impressive. I couldn’t find space for the chilling cool of Under the Skin or A Most Wanted Man or the pitch-black humor of Blue Ruin or Cheap Thrills. There’s no room here visual stunners like The Immigrant, Ida or Birdman. I couldn’t find a spot for the unadulterated fun of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Obvious Child or 22 Jump Street. Here’s hoping that’s enough of an apology. Now on to the list.
In its own weird, gross, funny way, The Boxtrolls is about the politics of fear. It is about a police force overreaching and persecuting an out group, those lovable, trash-collecting Boxtrolls. And it is about how that overreach is tolerated by a population that is all too willing to allow itself to be distracted by frivolity. This makes it sound like the most serious kids movie ever. I promise it isn’t. It’s great for the whole family because, as always, Laika Studios’ stop-motion animation is a visual delight and because the eclectic group of voice actors (hello, Ben Kingsley and Tracy Morgan) bring life to a really funny story. It was a great year for animated films, but this one stands above the rest.
For as much buzz as it wound up generating, director Richard Linklater’s decision to film Boyhood in twelfths so that star Ellar Coltrane could grow up before our very eyes is in many ways the least impressive thing about it. Quiet and unassuming in its tone and its ambition, Linklater captures what it is actually like to grow up. This sounds simple – a plain task – but it represents a monumental challenge, with the traps and clichés of scores of other coming-of-age stories waiting on the periphery. What I most love about Boyhood is that it is not really even a coming-of-age story at all. It is about the adult revelation that a great many things are frustratingly out of our control and that we’re all just kind of winging it. Linklater has a gift for telling stories of which you feel you could be a part. Who doesn’t feel like they could have attended the light-tower party in Dazed and Confused? There is a humility and inclusiveness to his films that is all his own. Boyhood is his masterpiece, and I think it will end up winning Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.
Director Bennett Miller’s deliberate inconclusiveness and questionable accuracy in telling the story of John du Pont’s murder of Dave Schultz has caused more controversy than I imagined possible when I first saw Foxcatcher. Most of it seems to miss the underlying point of a film that never aims to be a true-crime thriller or an authoritative docudrama. What makes it so captivating is that it is about two men who find the American dream itself satisfying. Du Pont and Mark Schultz, Dave’s brother, are different breeds of American royalty, the former an heir to one of the country’s greatest fortunes, the latter an Olympic gold medalist. Both somehow end up deeply alienated and are drawn together as a result. Du Pont’s patronage doesn’t buy fulfillment for him or his patron. There’s no question meant to be answered by Miller, just a series of whys and hows. Foxcatcher is not conclusive, but it is memorably provocative.
Finally there is proof that Marvel Studios can make movies with more than a little bit of heart. Large swaths of director James Gunn’s film border on inane, but to focus on the details of the plot is to rob yourself of the sheer joy of Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana trading quips as a chaotic space action story unfolds. I’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy twice now, and each time spent most of it with a stupid grin on my face. This isn’t the best film of 2014, but it is the most fun and it will probably have the longest shelf life. It is easy to imagine showing this to my heretofore unborn children 10 years from now, and it’s easy to picture them cackling with delight as every “I am Groot” is delivered.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest was the toughest to include. There is Steve’s negative review of it for starters. There is the fact that it has only had 24 hours and change to marinate in my brain too. Finally, there is the fact that this is a hard film to, I dunno, justify. I’ve seen it only once, and I’m still not quite sure what it is driving at, though I have a few ideas. As my partner argues in that review of his, that might be an unforgivable sin. I keep coming back to the fact that I laughed – like, really hard and really often. Steve’s measured warning allowed me to disconnect from the plot just enough to get extra enjoyment out of multiple scenes where, as a friend put it, Josh Brolin blows a banana like he would want to be blown, and a whole bunch of other bizarre, hilarious situations in between. It’s not really about the mystery, and more about a hippie P.I. running in to just about every kind of weirdo along the San Andreas Fault. Not that I would know – ahem – but, for me, Inherent Vice is the closest a film has ever come to simulating being stoned. It doesn’t do this with trippy, pscyhedelic visuals, but instead with confusion, misdirection, lingering fog, mumbled lines and hints of meaning – sometimes where there probably isn’t any at all. I suppose I might regret putting it on this list, maybe even soon. For now, I’m still coasting off the contact high of seeing this in the theater.
There’s a voice in my head that I can’t fully quiet. It tells me that a film critic putting a movie about a really famous film critic on this list is way too insular. Not many people outside of the film community will care enough to sit through a whole movie about Roger Ebert. His life’s work and this film about the end of his life are nothing if not a monument to his honesty -- to a clear sense of who you are and what you like. It would be a disservice to Ebert’s memory, then, to leave it off. Yes, this is superficially a documentary about the world’s most famous film critic. It is really about the tragedy of death. No matter when it comes, you will always wish you had done a little bit more. You don’t have to know a thing about Roger Ebert to take that message to heart.
I am supplicant before director Gareth Evans. When I first saw The Raid: Redemption, I was of course amazed by the spectacle of pencak silat, the Indonesian martial art form that was the backbone of Evans’ film. I lauded its simplicity, but also wondered if this all wasn’t very sustainable – if action taken to its logical endpoint wasn’t a bit fatiguing. And now here is The Raid 2, a film that proves that, at least when Evans is directing, that idle concern is misplaced. There’s much more of a plot to The Raid sequel, and while it is not crafted with the expertise of, say, the Coen brothers or the intricacy of, say, Christopher Nolan, it does open up Evans’ world just enough to up the ante in the visual dazzlement department. It’s all about the fight scenes in The Raid 2, and there are multiple sequences – I’m thinking particularly of the muddy jailyard brawl and the pristine, antiseptic showdown in the kitchen – that would qualify as the
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I wouldn’t have predicted that a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic would be the most visually stunning film of the year, but that’s just what Selma is. Director Ava DuVernay’s attention to detail and her use of subtle symbolism, often in negative space, lend extra power to a story that doesn’t really need it, but is the better for it anyway. Her framing of shots and selective use of movement reveal her as director in complete command of her craft. There is, of course, a sad relevance to this story as America continues to struggle with the legacy of its original sin. I’d prefer to focus on the timeless qualities of DuVernay’s work. Selma is not perfect (I thought the dialogue was forced and the second half of the film had pacing issues), but it is made with immense care, great spirit and total honesty. Those traits overshadow any minor flaws.
There’s irony in Top Five being the Chris Rock film for which his fans have long been waiting. It is his declaration that he has made peace with stand-up comedy being his strength. I’m not particularly bothered to be so much like my protagonist Andre Allen, he seems to be saying. All this means, I think, is that Rock is not interested in being something he isn’t. Cool. That signal should be a comfort to us, his fans. What separates Top Five from his previous efforts is his willingness to be that honest and personal, and his decision to go that way while prowling the streets of Manhattan with Rosario Dawson. It bottles the energy his comedy specials without the fatal mistake of trying to elongate a bit from one.
If you’re director looking to make a great sports movie, I’d suggest forgetting about Hoosiers and starting right here. This might even be the best sports movie I’ve seen, even if it has nothing to do with sports. It even has a foul-mouthed coach (J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher) and a dramatic climactic performance. Sure, director Damien Chazelle’s film is about jazz drumming, and along with it comes a bunch of talk about Charlie Parker, but Whiplash has the kind of frenetic energy and physicality that would fit better on a football field or ice rink or under a basketball hoop. It is about the great cost of pursuing greatness, and in calculating those costs it purposefully distances its viewers from the main characters. This isn’t for you, it says, and not just because you lack talent. This isn’t for you because you have to be more than little crazy to want this.