Steve's 10 Favorite Movies of 2014
Welcome, everyone, to my top 10 list for 2014. I’ve done six of these before – 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008 – and it’s arguably the most enjoyable thing I write all year. Quick note: I’ve seen a ton of movies this year, but not Mr. Turner, A Most Violent Year or American Sniper. We’ll never know if any of those would’ve made my list, but here are the ones that did:
John Michael McDonagh has a way with words, and Brendan Gleeson is his mouthpiece. The burly Irish actor’s late-career surge is fueled in part by the two features he’s starred in for McDonagh, and Calvary is a brilliant leap for both men. It’s much darker than The Guard but manages to somehow mix humor into the haunting tale of a priest awaiting his execution at the hands of a molested parishioner.
McDonagh has another feature coming with Gleeson entitled The Lame Shall Enter First, about “a paraplegic ex-policeman in London who has developed a hatred for able-bodied people and who gets caught up in a new investigation after one of his friends is murdered.” I’ll be first in line.
From my review:
Much as Richard Jenkins and Frank Langella made the unexpected leap to leading man at an older age, Gleeson has become a full-fledged master at his craft. It began back in 2008 with the Colin Farrell resurgence project In Bruges, written and directed by John’s brother Martin. He followed that up by charming us all as a stone-faced hedonist cop in The Guard, the aforementioned first feature from Calvary‘s McDonagh.
And here, he perfectly embodies a conflicted priest who isn’t quite sure where his particular brand of religion fits into modern society. He mocks the other priest in his parish for lacking a backbone but allows doubt to creep into his voice when asked about the complexities of “thou shalt not kill.” He cares for his daughter deeply but can’t seem to understand how, despite being physically present, he abandoned the family after his wife died.
Gleeson, sort of like an Irish Bill Murray, has a comic darkness to him. His weathered face betrays a weariness that’s often played for laughs, especially in previous films by the Brothers McDonagh, but in Calvary he’s been worn down beyond humor. A past that’s not his own has come to claim revenge, and he’s forced to confront his own buried demons in the process.
It was excruciating to decide which big-budget blockbuster would find its way onto my list for 2014. I had one spot left and Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to pick from. It was almost impossible to choose.
While the other three were fantastic in their own ways (it was a great year overall for tent-poles) I had to go with DotPotA. It’s the rare reboot that feels inventive and fresh; who would’ve thought a movie driven by CGI apes who speak primarily in sign language could contain so much character development and emotion? It’s a testament to director Matt Reeves, his screenwriters and the exquisite motion-capture cast.
From my review:
More than anything, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the Andy Serkis show. Caesar’s facial expressions, his interactions with other apes, the loving gestures towards his wife and children; these are all Serkis. His work as Gollum, while impressive, always seemed a bit too cartoonish for all the praise heaped upon it, but he leaves no room for criticism here. Despite numerous scenes with no spoken dialogue, Serkis’s physical gifts add life to his creation and expertly convey his increasingly human-like emotions. The man is a master of his craft and will hopefully be considered as such when awards season rolls around.
Because these movies would not work with makeup or monkey suits; they’d be equally embarrassing with a pack of fully computer-generated apes. After years of soulless CGI sucking all the joy out of Hollywood blockbusters, this near-perfect union of human emotion and digital imagery may end up being our saving grace. But that’s only half the battle; it takes an Andy Serkis to make that union something really special.
Now the subject of unexpected criticism – Andrew and I saw director Bennett Miller speak at a post-screening Q&A in November and he made it sound like Mark Schultz was a valued contributor – Foxcatcher remains one of the most haunting films of the year. There’s an undercurrent of fear that surrounds every scene; even if you don’t know what will happen, you feel like anything could.
Couple that with terrific work from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as John du Pont, Mark Schultz and Dave Schultz, and you don’t need much else. Each actor understands exactly what Miller wants from them, especially the latter two. Carell gets the showy physical transformation and creepy character, but Tatum and Ruffalo need to weave an unconscious bond between each other around a growing reliance on Carell’s du Pont. And they nail it.
From my review:
Tatum, still trying to shake his pretty-boy image, appears to be game for anything. It’s no surprise that he nails the intense wrestling scenes, but the moments where Mark melts down emotionally, or the depths of desperation in his face as he struggles for a way out of this situation he’s created, show the Jump Street star’s full range for maybe the first time. Meanwhile, Ruffalo demonstrates once again why he’s maybe the most dependable actor in cinema today; beyond reassuring as the older brother-turned-father, he exudes the quiet confidence of a man who’s finally found his place in life. He’s the glue that holds Mark together and the man du Pont wants to be; this makes him an enemy who threatens their bond, something Dave’s unshakeable demeanor won’t allow him to realize until it’s too late.
Miller presents a surprisingly ambiguous account of what occurred between the younger Schultz and du Pont. It must’ve been quite tempting to portray the aging ornithologist, philatelist and philanthropist as a monster with no morals or qualms, but instead we see a quiet, sad man with mother issues and a nurtured inability to coexist with others. That, plus a mostly nonexistent score that leaves certain scenes bare and exposed, asks us to draw our own conclusions. Or, at the very least, not sensationalize the actions of a disturbed person beyond what they are: appalling, yes, but stemming from a place that we can at least attempt to understand.
Blessed with a terrific cast and a compact narrative, Fury plunges into well-worn terrain but still manages to assess the bonds of war in an understated, intriguing fashion.
Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf and Jon Bernthal star as the crew of a World War II tank, five men with very little in common besides the waning battle against Hitler. Director David Ayer allows us a brief glimpse at what their interactions might be like after the war: curt, aggressive, drunken, dismissive. But when they’re in that tank fighting against the enemy, they’re a courageous, committed, well-oiled machine.
It’s a visceral, dark film. With little left to fight for, and knowing that their ties will soon fray, they fight for each other. It sounds uplifting on paper, but the final product straddles the line. Not enough war films find that kind of lofty, ambiguous middle ground.
From my review:
There’s no grand mission in Fury; no war-turning endeavor that drives our characters. They’re a step above grunts but still no more than cogs in a bloody machine; the war’s about to end but Hitler hasn’t surrendered, so the Allies are throwing more and more men at the Germans in an attempt to force a resolution. This subtly colors everyone’s actions; while pockets of the opposition are giving up all around them, they press on from town to town and risk their lives in a sort of deadly dreariness.
Ayer packs his film with an abundance of gore and enough action to almost strain credulity. Heads explode; bodies are crushed under tank tracks; men are burned alive. And there’s been much discussion about the green and red “laser” trails that illuminate each side’s firepower volleys, but according to the writer-director’s research this is legitimate tracer technology used in that time period. Ayer seems like the kind of filmmaker who relentlessly pursues his gritty vision, but he’s also not afraid to employ a subtlety not found in your typical war movie.
The only documentary on my list, Life Itself is a triumph. It covers the final months of Roger Ebert’s life while flashing back to his upbringing, his Pulitzer Prize, his relationship with Gene Siskel and how his marriage changed his life. I used “his” about a dozen times in that last sentence; that’s because Life Itself is profoundly, 100% about Ebert. He was an intelligent, egotistical man, but one with the talents to back up his bluster. Those don’t come along very often.
It’s hard to watch at times; Ebert practically demands that director Steve James document his slow descent into death, day by day. There are numerous interviews with Ebert’s wife Chaz, who presents a strong front but slowly comes to accept that her husband is ready to move on. And this is all wonderfully mixed with Ebert’s successes: how he overcome alcoholism, his gradual respect and then love for longtime partner Siskel, his embrace of up-and-coming directors who never forgot the boost Ebert gave them. It’s a life of ups and downs, of major victories and solemn sadnesses. We should all hope for such a rich, deep, fulfilling existence of our own.
My feelings echo Andrew’s in his sterling review: “A life well-lived is one where many, many people wish they could have just a few more moments with you, whether through Twitter or a movie review or a gut-wrenching documentary. I’d say Ebert’s was well-lived indeed.”
Jenny Slate, most well-known for her season on Saturday Night Live and appearances on the Comedy Central series Kroll Show, became a force to be reckoned with in the comedy world thanks to this movie where she gets an abortion.
That’s an odd sentence but this is an odd movie, in the sense that it’s never been done this way before. Abortions are a serious topic, and cinematically they’ve always been treated them as such. But in Obvious Child, the obliviousness and uncertainty of the situation are mined for jokes that feel neither lowbrow nor insulting. Making a decision like this must be harrowing, but Slate and writer/director Gillian Robespierre portray it as sort of a passage into adulthood. Obvious Child proves adept at finding a silver lining where most people would never look.
From my review:
Slate [has] finally gotten a chance to show off her range in Obvious Child – [she’s] on screen for 100% of its 84 minutes – and she doesn’t disappoint. You may have heard it described as “the abortion movie,” which is technically accurate; the plot revolves around bookstore clerk/standup comedian Donna (Slate) and her decision to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. But in a welcome change of pace, Robespierre and Slate don’t spend much time debating the moral aspects of getting an abortion; they’re chiefly focused on how Donna handles it, and how the people around her respond to the news.
She’s not afraid of getting the abortion as much as concerned about what her uptight mother might do once she finds out. It’s not anxiety about how the guy will respond to the announcement so much as fear over committing to a relationship that starts in this kind of way. Donna never really wrestles with her decision; her conscience doesn’t face off against the logical parts of her brain. She’s committed to what she believes is right and defuses the gravity of the situation with well-placed humor when necessary, which makes the moments when she’s overwhelmed by emotion that much more powerful. It’s quite the potential tightrope for a movie to navigate, but they walk it with unparalleled smoothness.
Not many movies have the balls to start off with an explosion that kills several young girls, but not many movies are about the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Selma makes tremendous use of David Oyelowo as a fiery Dr. King, along with Tom Wilkinson’s stubborn Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth as the horrid George Wallace. And one can only imagine how awkward it must’ve been in between takes for the unknown actor playing the registrar who had to dress down Oprah Winfrey’s character for attempting to vote.
But all in all, Selma is a masterpiece. It’s a brilliant dramatic recreation of an event that many have only a passing recollection of, and it’s practically necessary viewing in our “post-racial society” where people of authority are committing the same violent misdeeds that their forefathers ignorantly embraced 50 years ago.
From my review:
Director Ava DuVernay has created an uncompromising powerful work of art that forces its audience to pay witness to a series of terrible atrocities. No punches are pulled; the attacks on Dr. King and his associates are presented as brutally as possible. Every thwack from a club to a head reverberates loudly; every kick sticks in your stomach. And they should; these were horrid acts committed by shameful, violent people. There are no gray areas in Selma, nor should there be; there’s equality and ignorance, right and wrong.
By focusing on a moment in Dr. King’s life rather than the whole, writer Paul Webb allows us to examine the man in a detailed and nuanced fashion. His flaws – a rocky marriage with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), a bit of hubris, his occasional fears about pressing forward – are presented without flinching. We’re given a slice of the pie that’s meant to both inspire and forebode; we all know how the story of Dr. King ends. Selma is a celebration of what he accomplished, but it’s also a reminder of how much is left to do. Despite the Herculean efforts of a brilliant, unique individual and his passionate devotees, we’re reminded that the pain and suffering of the 1960s persists to this day.
The first English-language film from South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer is utterly insane. It imagines a future where the world has frozen and the only survivors populate a world-navigating train called, you guessed it, Snowpiercer. The train has adopted a class system: rich people in front, poor people in back. Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer play the leaders of a tail-end rebellion, and what they discover as they navigate to the engine room feels both outrageous and picture-perfect.
Andrew’s assessment of the film’s bloated length and ho-hum dialogue is relatively accurate, but neither critique bothered me that much (and I’m typically quite a groaner at horrible dialogue). I loved the claustrophobic feel, the insane achievement of packing an entire world’s worth of sets into a train, the blunt action and the originality of it all.
It’s not that Snowpiercer breaks entirely new ground, but it does take its apocalyptic ideas to the extreme. Not only are the elite wealthy, they have goddamn aquariums and picturesque classrooms and fresh sushi. Inside a massive, life-sustaining train. And for all its craziness, Bond somehow creates a world that feels real. That’s something worth celebrating.
Not many people would’ve predicted that 2014 would be the year of Scarlett Johansson.
Lucy made $458 million worldwide, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took in $714 million, and oh yeah, Under the Skin was the most thought-provoking, challenging, hypnotic film of the year.
It’s an alien invasion movie with barely any aliens, let alone an explanation as to what they might want. It’s terrifying in its sparseness, and it all feels fully realized. Director Jonathan Glazer, who created so much fear out of Ben Kingsley yelling “no” in Sexy Beast, has meticulously crafted a slow nightmare that eventually ensnares Johansson’s character in its web. I’ve mentioned my disdain for "needing" to see a movie twice, but Under the Skin is one that you’ll feel compelled to revisit.
From my review:
[Johansson] masterfully portrays a character that’s as confused and unsure as her audience. Through little more than facial expressions, she comes across as understanding her mission and its importance but also feeling an odd fascination towards the human race. It might be pity at first, when she stumbles upon a deformed potential sacrifice who perhaps doesn’t deserve his fate, or maybe she just wants one of these false connections to be real. But alas, her alien body cannot handle sex nor cake. And, as always, aliens who try to become human end up encountering tragedy.
The acting is mostly a one-woman show, but it’s the accoutrements that make Under the Skin shine. I’m not going to mince words here: Mica Levi’s score is one of the finest in cinematic history. I walked out of this film the same way I left There Will Be Blood: in stunned awe at how much the music set the tone for everything onscreen. The dread invoked in the first hour, of not knowing what’s going on, ceases to exist without the unsettling strings and eerie tones put in place by Levi.
And Daniel Landin, the director of photography, deserves just as much praise. Long shots of the Scottish wilderness, lingering glimpses of Johansson’s calm-yet-doubting face, every single moment we spend in the sacrificial alien chamber; Landin and Glazer take the quiet and fill it with visual gorgeousness, populating the screen with a detailed, lush world that we can barely understand.
Finally, there is Whiplash. How can a movie about a burgeoning jazz drummer be so gripping, so fraught with peril? It’s because writer-director Damien Chazelle, as all good auteurs do, makes it about something more. It’s about commitment, about obsession, about the inability to accept failure. It’s about two personality types who can barely exist in the same room yet still inspire each other to new heights. It’s about the dark side of teaching, and the tragedy of yearning.
J.K. Simmons has already won a Golden Globe for his performance, with an Oscar (hopefully) not far behind. That’s a testament to what a goddamn force of nature he is; even as Whiplash is overlooked for other awards, it’s impossible to fully ignore what he’s brought to the table, and what Chazelle has created here. The sky is the limit for this kid, and anyone who comes into contact with him.
From my review:
Chazelle imbues every musical performance with an unbearable tension. Even the ones that go well are frightening; you’re either waiting for Neyman to collapse or for Fletcher to create some new challenge that the young student must face. Even when the maestro isn’t present, his ghost haunts Neyman and pushes the kid to inch further and further over the edge. By the end of the film, every marathon session ends with blisters bursting and blood dripping down Neyman’s hands. All Fletcher asks is that the blood is wiped clean from “my drum set” before they proceed.
Meanwhile, Chazelle shoots each scene as if it’s a thriller where the murderer is right around the corner. Especially during the performances, where we frenetically leap from one instrument to another, from a shot of the sheet music to the faces of the musicians themselves as they aim for flawlessness. While Neyman might be the shakiest of the bunch, Chazelle makes it clear that everyone in the band is playing for their lives. That might be an exaggeration on paper but it’s real in the world of Whiplash; whether they whither or bloom with Fletcher’s booming outbursts, their musical futures are surely in his hands.
It all builds to a masterfully staged finale where the two come together as equals for the first time. But the connection that’s forged isn’t one of joy but begrudging acceptance, and in meeting Fletcher’s standards Neyman has pushed himself so far beyond where mere mortals might go. It’s what they both wanted, but it’ll also be fleeting. There will always be new heights to reach for, new challenges and struggles that don’t allow for happiness in the traditional sense. Is it worth it for those brief shining moments when perfection is attained? Most people would probably say no, but in Whiplash it’s what they live for.
The aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie and Edge of Tomorrow were all beyond entertaining and provide a glimmer of hope for future Hollywood blockbusters. I didn’t love Boyhood as much as the rest of the critical community (or the Golden Globes) but I applaud its uniqueness and found it to be deeply profound at times. Nightcrawler and Frank feature two of the more exceptional performances of the year from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender, respectively. And Force Majeure finally proved that, yes, you can make an entire movie about the emotional aftermath of a near-avalanche.