1) Whiplash – Dir. Damien Chazelle (Miles Teller, JK Simmons)
There were certainly bigger films this year, laden with special effects, greater social importance and higher production values, but for me this smaller more intimate tale combined everything thematically that I think makes a film truly great: the will to succeed beyond anything else, and the often flawed techniques and circumstances that seem to inspire greatness.
On the surface the film is about jazz, one of our finest cultural creations, and each frame hums with a silky smooth groove that masterfully hides the pain and anguish that is necessary to survive and thrive in the modern world. JK Simmons, best known for his Allstate ads, masterfully plays the sadistic genius music teacher whose questionable technique makes you wonder whether success if the psychic price his students pay is really worth it. But ultimately it is Miles Teller whose performance as a drumming prodigy carries the viewer to the deepest, darkest places. This film makes you feel uneasy from the very first scene, but I guess “feeling” anything this deeply validates the magic of the Whiplash.
2) Birdman – Dir. Alejandro Inarritu (Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton)
Although we toss the word ‘masterpiece’ around too often for it to have any real meaning, Birdman is one. It is everything you need a film to be. It’s impeccably acted and features perhaps the finest performance of Michael’s Keaton’s career, not to mention a few of the best monologues of the year from Emma Stone and Ed Norton. It’s a true visual feast beginning with a gorgeous, impossibly long, opening take. The lushness of the cinematography is trumped only by the most incredible sound design, featuring jazz drumming and an audible richness that becomes a leading character in almost every scene.
And then there is the story: an ironic, intricate exploration of art and its impact on the human soul. At its core, the film unpacks the superficiality of celebrity in the digital age, but does so in such a graceful yet absurdist way that it never feels like anything less than entertainment, which I suppose is what makes it so special. Although Alejandro Inarritu has more than established himself as one of the most important active directors, this time around you see something both truly modern and seriously grounded, only seen in the very best of films.. I’m not sure there has ever been one quite like this.
3) Nightcrawler – Dir. Dan Gilroy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton)
Although Nightcrawler is a “dark” film, somehow that description undersells how gloriously entertaining it is to watch. This is a story about ambition, deceit, drive and the harrowing consequences that our emotionally callous and short attention-spanned society craves. On the surface this is about what has happened to the news business since Sydney Lumet foreshadowed its moral demise in his 1976 epic “Network.” In it we watch as Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) backs into a job as a freelance cameraman selling crime footage to a desperate local news producer played beautifully by Rene Russo.
But the film is really a character study in how ambition corrupts. Gyllenhaal has never been better, transforming himself into one of the most complicated screen characters since Travis Bickle. He goes from naïve loner into one of the most menacing villains of this decade. It is easy to get sucked entirely into Gyllenhaal himself, but the film succeeds in making some profound statements about modern media and our collective indifference to the shocking state of the world today.
4) Selma – Dir. Ava DuVernnay (David Oyelowo, Common, Oprah)
There is a fine line between historical films that manipulate the audience into experiencing the collective guilt of our forefathers and those that use film to tell a story without overt judgment. Selma is a triumph of both because of the impeccable performances (David Oyelowo is magnificent as MLK) and the accomplished craft by which Ava DuVernnay captures time and place without being preachy or condescending.
Like Lincoln, this film also benefits from focusing on one small chapter of King’s life, rather than trying to tell an entire but necessarily diluted life story. In this specific fragment we see a microcosm of everything King managed to accomplish during a period filled with irrational hate and violence. But more than anything else this is a wonderful film, polished, tense, emotional, but also artistic. It’s also impossibly hard to believe that the Civil Rights movement took place only a half-century ago, and sadder still that there are the remnants still left unresolved today.
5) The Trip To Italy – Dir. Michael Winterbottom (Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon)
Great comedies never really receive the credit they deserve. Comedic sequels receive even less consideration, but occasionally the pattern breaks. There wasn’t a funnier film released in 2014 than this delicious romp through the Italian countryside where two old friends reunite to eat, talk and lead each other through some of the best impression-based conversations imaginable.
Like an old comfortable tweed blazer, Coogan and Brydon shroud what is really the kind of friendship everyone aspires to have in a typical male detachment. Although the film is really about the banal pains and realizations of middle age, it manages to keep things as light as the foamy foodie dishes the travelers are served accompanied by witty esoteric film banter. In the end this is a movie about the gradual cloying decay of aging, and the simple pleasures that compensate and make life worth living along the way.
6) Boyhood – Dir. Richard Linklater (Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke)
More than almost any modern director I can think of, Richard Linklater has always been dialed into the cultural zeitgeist of my generation. From Slacker and Dazed and Confused to the ‘Before’ trilogy, he makes small films built on dialogue and supported by incredible collaborations between a staple of core actors. In Boyhood he just kind of lets the camera roll as young Ellar Coltrane matures from a six year old to a college kid, shooting for a few days every year for a dozen years.
As a film, Boyhood is a solid story well told, but its true genius lies in the vision and discipline required to tell that story bit by bit over a dozen years while watching people grow into themselves without manipulation. Like the brilliant 7 Up series, Linklater lays out a framework, but also lets the spontaneity just happen. There is a magic that transpires, and reminds you that everyday things change ever so slightly within yourself and the broader world around you.
7) Obvious Child – Dir. Gillian Robespierre (Jenny Slate, David Cross, Gaby Hoffman)
Unlike the romantic comedies of the West Coast, this one, set in Brooklyn is both grittier and quite a bit funnier. Jenny Slate is a much better looking female version of Louie CK, and has appeared in a series of killer cameos on such underrated shows as House of Lies, Hello Ladies, and Bored To Death, but Obvious Child officially validates her as a legit leading lady.
In it she plays a struggling standup comic who recently lost her bookstore job, her boyfriend and her overall sense of how to proceed. A drunken rebound one-night stand leaves her pregnant and an emotional mess. As much as the film is littered with these otherwise mundane clichés, somehow the film never feels trite – mostly because of Slate, who like a younger Sarah Silverman, has that raunchy but endearing way. This is a date night film for people who hate date night.
8) Under The Skin –Dir. Jonathan Glazer (Scarlett Johansson)
This is one of the weirdest, most abstractly sexual, and occasionally scary films, in quite a while. In it the always-beguiling Scarlett Johansson plays an alien sent to earth to … well … good question. She roams the streets of Glasgow picking up a series of random men and then most often lures them into bizarre and occasionally beautiful ends.
Beyond ScarJo’s icy cool and sometimes brilliant performance, the film is a chilling experiment in mood and pace always moving toward an ambiguous end. It looks at modern urban humanity through the observant eyes of an outsider, and catches many of the details about nature and our daily lives that we ourselves seem to have managed to lose interest in. This is not a film for everyone, but it is one for those who like strange, dark, and sensual sci-fi.
9) The Grand Budapest Hotel – Dir. Wes Anderson (Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody)
No one makes, or has ever made, films like those of Wes Anderson. He is a miniaturist, who loses himself in the very details most filmmakers can’t even see. He is the grandmaster of style, but never chooses it over substance, and always extracts particularly nuanced performances from his consistently great casts.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in the 1930’s in a fictional Eastern European town, in an elegant hotel that is very much a product of a bygone era. It is an old fashioned caper largely revolving around Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the philandering concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, and his apprentice, the young lobby boy. The kooky plot involves an inheritance, a dead body, and the silly antics that ensue. This is a story within a story, told in flashbacks by Jude Law who we learn had met Gustave many years before as a young man. Anderson’s films always make me wish I could climb into these odd landscapes for a few hours (or days) and bathe in the colorful quirkiness that seems one standard deviation outside of our imperfect world.
10) Citizenfour – Dir. Laura Poitras (Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald)
A great documentary film often has as much to do with being at the right place at the right time as it does with the importance of the subject itself. Citizenfour manages to possess both of those aspects. Although no one could have predicted exactly how things were going to unfold, Edward Snowden had probably thought as much about how and to whom he would break his news as he did about whether he would share his secrets with the world. It was almost like he was directing this film from the start of his career.
In many ways this documentary unfolds like a classic spy novel, with recorded phone conversations setting the stage for the seminal meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room. Both filmmaker Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald create a kind of calm urgency as they begin to unravel the information Snowden is sharing. But the film is mostly about trying to understand a bit more about a man who is either a hero or traitor. In the end you are left to decide for yourself while Snowden remains in Russia, waiting …
11) The Babadook – Dir. Jennifer Kent (Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman)
I love good horror films, and every few years someone manages to take this typically schlocky canon and create something new and different. Like the twisted offspring of The Shining and The Exorcist, Aussie director Jennifer Kent has created a wonderfully stylized tale about a children’s book character who prods at the core of the emptiness experienced by a boy and his mother after the loss of their father and husband.
This is not a film filled with blood or easy scares, but one that slowly builds into a crescendo of dark high tension. Both mother (Essie Davis) and her six year old son (Noah Wiseman) draw you into the dark recesses of a real or imagined ghost story where the light at end of the bleak tunnel seems almost too far away to reach, but also accessible if they can just hold their ground. But then again, while every voyage is filled with dark passages, this one approaches that blurry destination bit by dreamy bit.
12) Chef – Dir. Jon Favreau (Jon Favreau, Bobby Cannavale, John Leguizamo)
Call this a guilty pleasure without much guilt. Chef is the kind of feel good mid-life crisis film that combines the inevitable struggle between purist passion and commercial success with the tension between freedom and familial obligation. This is also a return to the kind of character-driven performance that Favreau achieved so effortlessly in Swingers, nearly 20 years ago.
Although it uses our ironic and easy-to-mock foodie culture as a narrative vehicle, it very convincingly celebrates this current obsession as something that is actually good . As Favreau’s once high-flying celebrity chef star begins to fade, he is forced to reinvent himself after inadvertently discovering the power and peril of social media. His voyage to self discovery leads him back to a better place, but even in its mile away predictability, this film is too good not to just lean in and devour.
13) The Theory of Everything – Dir. James Marsh (Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones)
Stephen Hawking is a rare genius not just because of his mind but also because of his relentless drive to remain productive despite cataclysmic constraints. Eddie Redmayne is a chameleon cut from the same cloth as Daniel Day Lewis before him, and transforms himself so completely, both emotionally and physically, that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.
But what makes the film even more satisfying is that it manages to explain some of Hawking’s impenetrably challenging theories, making them “almost” accessible to a broad audience. The life of this man neatly mirrors the acceleration of technology which both makes it possible for him to live a fulfilling life, and for us to better understand what he alone was able to understand about the universe before we had the advanced tools to prove it.
A few more that are very worthy …
14) Gone Girl – Dir. David Fincher (Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike)
Fincher remains in a beautifully dark groove these days, banging out bleakly compelling popcorn fair, and teasing out nuanced performances from big brand name players in this head trip of a caper.
15) Nymphomaniac Vol. 1&2 – Dir. Lars Von Trier (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard)
An ultra-bleak, graphic look at pain, sex, and emptiness told in gritty flashbacks – as you’ve come to expect from the Danish master von Trier.
16) One I love – Dir. Charlie McDowell (Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss)
A trippy, impeccably acted romantic comedy that taps into the alternate universe that is part of every relationship.
17) St. Vincent – Dir. Theodore Melfi (Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy)
What could have been a horrible cliché (crotchety old man finds salvation through a friendship with lonely kid) is a genuinely lovely, almost family friendly, story about redemption.
18) Foxcatcher – Dir. Bennett Miller (Steve Carell, Channing Tatum)
An unrecognizable Carell plays the disturbed DuPont scion obsessed with wrestling and an unfulfilled desire to please his mother. What follows is a slow and steady descent into madness.
19) The Imitation Game – Dir. Morten Tyldum (Keira Knightly, Benedict Cumberbatch)
A perfectly constructed story about one of the first genuine technology pioneers who was trapped in a seemingly “civilized” society committed to stopping evil abroad while committing it at home.
20) Snowpiercer – Dir. Joon-ho Bong (Ed Harris, Jamie Bell)
What could have been just another post-apocalyptic hybrid of “Blade Runner” and “The Polar Express” is actually an ironic look at how history continues to repeat itself.
21) A Most Violent Year – Dir. J.C. Chandor (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain)
A beautifully acted period piece set in the early 80’s capturing the gritty crime-infested NYC of days gone by through the lens of one family caught walking on a razor’s edge.
22) American Sniper – Dir. Clint Eastwood (Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller)
Another rock solid piece of elegant, patriotic filmmaking from one of the very best, who manages to avoid the sentimental in favor of a story that doesn’t need editorial to make its point.
23) Inherent Vice – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin) Although it could have been called “Incoherent Vice” this stony, retro caper is a textured moody romp, that deserves an A for effort, even if you get lost from the very first frame.
I’ll leave you with a great moment from The 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival: