Since starting college at Western Washington University in Bellingham Washington two years ago I haven’t been able to watch as many movies as I could before. And now that I’m part way through my junior year and fully immersed in the pursuit of an English Literature degree—I’m also minoring in film studies, just to make myself one hundred percent unemployable after school—I have even less time. That being said, I simply love movies and therefore I made an effort to see at least one a week, usually more, out of my own pocket. Something I’m very glad I did. As I look at my list I see that for my top five selections I used my hard earned—but very limited—income.
For the past few weeks—my winter break—it’s been a mad dash to fit in as many remaining 2014 titles as I can, particularly the major year end awards contenders. In addition to more paid showings, Netflix and Redbox have been vital resources. And I’ was able to catch a few advanced screenings and DVD screeners. There’s still plenty more I want to see— I’m kicking myself most for missing the Martin Luther King Jr. film “Selma,” as I’ve heard nothing but great things about it—especially before the Academy Awards in February, but overall I’m happy I got to see as many movies as I did and I feel like my final list reflects a broad range of genres and styles.
I don’t really want to get into a lengthy, extensive analysis of the year primarily because there are a dozen other top tens out there that do just that—and probably better than I could, since those authors have seen more films— but I will say that overall it was another strong year for movies. Which made assembling and ranking this list some tortuous. While I’m fairly certain my top five is solid, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a month or two my bottom five would look totally different.
Ok, enough talk. Here were the Top 10 movies I saw in 2014:
10. The Guest (Adam Wingard)
Take an old school style slasher picture and cross it with an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Then mix in Jason Bourne and The Terminator. And finally throw in a little bit of Lifetime family drama and you’ve got Adam Wingard’s giddy, bloody, exciting and damn funny genre concoction known as “The Guest.” It’s a self aware B-movie but is also highly inventive and always keeps you on your feet. The plot constantly changes shapes and genres, just when you think you have it figured out, Bam! it takes a left turn. Add to all of this a brilliant lead performance from “Downton Abbey’s” Dan Stevens as the charming, understanding, mysterious, trustworthy and of course not trustworthy David (aka, the titular Guest). It’s not a very profound movie, it doesn’t contain a bunch of hidden meanings but it does contain massive amounts of surprise. An element that’s shockingly hard to come by in most mainstream cinema these days.
9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Like the best horror films Australian director Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook gradually builds tension and a sense of madness without relying on gore or easy jump scares. As the movies rumbles on, the viewer can feel a claustrophobic dread slowly closing in on them. Essie Davis gives a fantastic performance as single mother Amelia who—along with her young son—is haunted by the unseen, top hatted creature. A performance that gets increasingly insane and sleep deprived. Kent also manages to avoid the usual horror movie clichés and wisely keeps most of the action contained to Amelia’s house, making the movie feel even more claustrophobic. In addition to being a successful horror entry, the picture also works as a compelling psychological drama; The Babadook itself can be viewed as a metaphor for Amelia trying to come to terms with the tragic death of her husband. Whichever way you decide to look at it, “The Babadook” is one of the most stressful, unsettling movies of the year. The terror experienced in it is the kind that sticks with you long after you’ve finished watching and are trying to fall asleep. Good luck.
8. Locke (Steven Knight)
Tom Hardy starred in two great movies this year—the other being the crime thriller “The Drop”-- but for the purposes of fairness and variety on the list I’m going to single out Steven Knight’s “one man in a car” saga “Locke.” Hardy portrays Ivan Locke, a construction foreman whose life begins to fall apart while driving to witness the birth of his mistress’s son. That’s it. Not exactly an easy task to pull off and yet Knight and Hardy succeed in making an engaging (and yes, exciting) movie that turns an ordinary, everyday predicament into an extraordinary one. Since Hardy is the only actor on screen--The supporting characters are only heard in the many phone calls Locke makes and receives—the movie literally rests on his shoulders, and my what a phenomenal performance he gives. He plays Locke sort of like a hostage negotiator (with the hostage being his own life) trying to maintain order and composure. It’s not a big and showy performance but instead one of remarkable restraint and nuance. Often times it’s his subtle bodily movements and facial features that are most impressive.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson sure knows how to make a cinematic world that you want to visit and never leave. Delicate, elaborate world’s rich in color and creativity. His attention to detail, his intricately staged compositions and larger than life characters are second to none. His latest film is no exception and while some may view that as a bad thing—he’s certainly not challenging himself—I was happy to watch a master director work in a style that he knows so well. The movie contains Anderson’s usual quirkiness along with a slight edge. Ralph Fiennes excels as the owner of the wedding cake-like Grand Budapest Hotel Gustave H. A man who likes the comfort and predictability of his life and doesn’t take kindly to the change that comes his way. He’s stubborn and testy but he’s also hugely affectionate and his friendship with Zero (Tony Revolori), the hotel’s lobby boy is the driving force of the movie. As much as Anderson is concerned with the cinematography and production design he always puts the characters first.
6. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier’s a taut and deliberate revenge thriller suggests that just because you have the urge and the drive to exact revenge on someone, it doesn’t mean it’s as easy as picking up a gun and popping a cap in the bastard’s head. In most revenge movies, the protagonists make it look easy and most of the time they have at least some past experience with guns or weapons or fighting. In “Blue Ruin,” the act of revenge feels more like a chore and the protagonist has basically no idea what he’s doing when it comes to using guns and even knives. There are some pretty gruesome scenes but Saulnier doesn’t overdue the violence, keeping the picture realistic in feel. Something that usually can’t be said for revenge flicks. And newcomer Macon Blair as the wannabe Charles Bronson is an acting revelation. Giving one of the most underrated performances of the year. All of this makes for one of the most innovative revenge movies I’ve seen in recent years.
5. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
In “Nightcrawler,” audiences were exposed to one of the creepiest movie characters in 2014 and one of the best performances, courtesy of Jake Gyllenhaal. His Lou Bloom is hardworking and persistent, willing to slink into any job that comes his way. That job happens to be a paparazzi; one that scans the LA streets for violent crimes and accidents to sell to the local news. Despite this persistence and dedication Lou is devoid of any kind of charm, or even normal social skills. He’s simply driven by his want to do the best job that he can and will do anything to achieve that. As the movie goes on Lou’s actions become increasingly questionable and weird but you can never take your eyes off him. You’re simultaneously repulsed and in awe of him. The rest of Dan Gilroy’s debut film is assured and exciting, gradually building up momentum and tension, leading to a heart pounding car chase finale. However, this is still Gyllenhaal’s show. The thirty four year old actor continues to exhibit a wide range of talent. He has an uncanny ability to sink his teeth into any role, just as Lou is willing to sink his teeth into any job.
4. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
David Fincher works in the shadows once again with “Gone Girl,” a dark, twisted and somewhat perverse crime thriller. The film oozes with dread and paranoia, yet also has a darkly satiric bite. The viewer is presented with not one but two untrustworthy protagonists—Amy (a delectable and diabolical Rosamund Pike), the titular “girl” who may not be that “gone” and Nick (Ben Affleck), her husband and number one suspect in her disappearance. “Gone Girl” is about media exploitation and the way in which outlets villainize and victimize people before getting all of the information. Though more importantly, it’s about the way those people can use this exploitation and overexposure to their advantage. Ultimately the movie becomes a battle of wits between our central married couple: who can craft the best media façade? Watching “Gone Girl” I was made both uncomfortable and giddy with pleasure. Any movie capable of inspiring that kind of duel reaction is nothing less than great.
3. Birdman Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
Freewheeling, idiosyncratic, in his latest picture “Birdman,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu makes filmmaking seem effortless. Michael Keaton stars as a washed up superhero movie star trying to put on a Broadway play in an effort to be taken seriously and do something that matters. Meanwhile, he has to battle production problems, family problems and face his own inner demons. This isn’t exactly new ground movie wise but Inarritu handles it in such a loose, high-energy, and surrealistic way that breathes new life into the backstage and “ celebrity come back” sub genres. Think of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” done by Robert Altman. Did I mention it was funny too? It takes every opportunity it can to rib the film industry, theater industry as well as art itself. This layer of self-reflexivity makes the film burst with even more energy and zaniness. Along with Keaton, the picture features very strong work from Emma Stone as his troubled daughter, Edward Norton—his best work in years-- as an insecure actor who feels most alive in a stage setting and Naomi Watt’s as an actress making her Broadway debut in the play. Making for one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Add to that Antonio Sanchez’s pitch perfect minimalistic score, helping to bounce things along. And visually, the movie is made to look like one continuous shot; heightening the back stage aspect of the narrative and making everything unfold more seamlessly.
2. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
It’s impossible to talk about Richard Linklater’s personal, ambitious feature “Boyhood” without talking about it’s making. Shot over a period of twelve years it tracks the growth of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from boyhood to manhood. Never before have we seen characters grow and evolve in such an authentic way. It’s a human epic told in the most quiet, intimate manner. Sure, there are some big dramatic moments—a dinner table scene with an alcoholic stepdad—but the movie is more about those moments before or after the drama, like when an Ex boyfriend and girlfriend debate whether they can still be friends. I can’t say I responded strongly to every scene—I loved some, was annoyed by others, and was indifferent to a few but I have a feeling that’s the kind of reaction Linklater is going for. Since the movie is about life unfolding not every moment in life is going to be amazing or exciting. The movie feels wholly familiar but never cliché. Newcomer Coltrane gives an endearing, nuanced performance but he’s assisted by a strong supporting cast. Fellow newcomer Lorelei Linklater as Mason’s sister, Ethan Hawke as the father and Patricia Arquette as the mother all play crucial roles in Mason’s life and upbringing. “Boyhood” is one of the few movies on this list that I can happily recommend to anyone. Everyone will have a different reaction to it. Everyone should see a part of themselves in it.
1.Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Not surprisingly it was difficult to decide between this and “Boyhood” for the top spot and up until very recently Linklater’s picture reined supreme. “Whiplash” doesn’t have the same scope or amount of ambition but it has just as much intimacy and passion. And it was the best in theater movie watching experience I had this year. When I went to see it I had just gotten back to Seattle for Thanksgiving Break the night before. So when I paid for my ticket and sat down in the theater I was feeling a little groggy. Not really in the mood to watch a movie. As the previews played I began to regret my decision to go and thought about leaving. However, within the first five minutes or so the movie shook me wide-awake and any thoughts of fatigue immediately evaporated.
Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature is about wanting to be the best and not settling for “good job.” A simple premise but Chazelle handles it with such ferocious power and intensity that it doesn’t need to be more complex. Plus, in a time where we hand out participation trophies, the picture’s aggressive “all or nothing” mentality feels oddly refreshing and satisfying. No other movie in 2014 left me feeling more energized, more alive than “Whiplash.” It’s not for the sensitive or the faint of heart, but those who have ever dreamed of wanting to be the best should come away inspired and amped up. Miles Teller gives the best performance of his short career as Andrew, a dedicated young Jazz drummer at a prestigious music school, who becomes the pupil of renowned music teacher Fletcher (J.K Simmons). After years of playing bit supporting roles Simmon’s finally gets his chance in the spotlight. Resembling R. Lee Ermey’s merciless drill Seargent from “Full Metal Jacket,” Fletcher verbally and physically abuses young Andrew on a daily basis to the point where Andrew’s hands are blistered and his drum set is sprinkled with blood (one of the most striking film images in 2014). Yet, in his cruel ways Fletcher cares very much about the lad and he will do whatever it takes to keep Andrew from stopping at “good enough.” Overall, watching “Whiplash” was sublime. Thinking about it now weeks later, I can feel myself getting charged up all over again.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): “A Most Violent Year”(J.C Chandor), “The Drop” (Michael R. Roskam), “Edge of Tomorrow” (Doug Liman), “Enemy” (Denis Villeneuve), “Mr. Turner” (Mike Leigh), “Only Lovers Left Alive” (Jim Jarmusch), “Snowpiercer” (Bong Joon-ho), “Two Days, One Night” (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne), “We are the Best!”(Lukas Moodysson)“Wild Tales” (Damian Szifron).
And here’s the five worst movies I’ve seen in 2014. I’m only doing five because I don’t have the energy to do another ten. Sue me. In alphabetical order:
3 Days to Kill (McG). Five minutes into this Kevin Costner actioner I asked myself, “Is this supposed to be a parody of a really bad action film?” Turns out it was just a really bad action movie. And it only got worse as it went along. I had to force myself to keep watching. I don’t know why I did that, but oh well.
Divergent (Neil Burger): A heavy-handed “Hunger Games” knock off with a confusing, stupid premise and not a single thrill or surprise to be found. Shailene Woodley gives a good performance but it’s squandered in this garbage, garbage movie.
Hercules (Brett Ratner): An awful, pointless retelling of the famous Greek myth, with paper-thin characters and ugly CGI battles. This movie envisions a scenario where Hercules is not a demigod but instead a mortal with a really good hype team. The problem is, when you eliminate the mythology part of Hercules’ character and don’t add any ‘human’ depth to him you’re left with just another “mercenary with a sword.” Oh and one last thing: if you want Hercules to be a human then don’t cast Dwayne Johnson, a real life demigod.
Ride Along (Tim Story): This was marketed as a buddy cop “comedy” but there isn’t an ounce of comedy in it. I didn’t even chuckle. So what we’re left with then is a really cliché, boring buddy cop movie. Scratch that, a PG-13 cliché, boring buddy cop movie. Why even bother?
Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller): An utterly worthless sequel coming nine years after the first one, with no original or innovative idea in it. Add rampant misogyny to the mix and it’s even worse. After a fourth “Spy Kids,” a “Machete” sequel and this travesty I think it’s safe to say that Robert Rodriguez is spent as a filmmaker.