Every year I get an email from Indiewire inviting me to submit my 10 best list for inclusion in its survey of industry-types. And every year I miss the deadline because I feel like I haven’t seen enough of the films yet. But as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I’ve been assiduously plowing through as many of the films released this past year as possible, which, when added to those I’ve seen at the various festivals I attend, now add up to enough to feel I can share my list with a clear conscience. It’s also my chance to offer up my thoughts in slightly more than 140 characters.
I must add that this list is alphabetical even though I could easily have ranked them, because as a voting member of the Academy, BAFTA and the PGA, I am sworn to secrecy about my actual votes. So without giving anything away, here are my top 10 films of 2014.
This film is a case of profundity created through simplicity. Linklater’s 12-year stunt pays off by adding a level of subtext that deepens the experience. As we watch the actors age on screen, the film has a documentary-like impact that make us feel our own passage through time, and as such makes the film far more moving than its simple plot would have earned in a more traditional narrative. I would put it in the category of being more “special” than truly great, but it’s an amazing achievement.
When I saw this film at Cannes last year, I was completely smitten. I was recommending it to everyone I saw, describing it as “Scenes From A Marriage” meets “The Shining.” From the opening images of the film, the mood is portentous and unsettled, and from there it veers from surprising turn to even more surprising turn, from near tragedy to a sort of droll Scandinavian comedy. Beneath it all, it’s a touching portrait of how sometimes the people we are closest with are the ones we know the least.
I never read the book, nor did I know much about the plot when I settled in to see this film, and that may have colored my response. I can only say that I took the ride and loved every minute of it. It works as a thriller and as a biting commentary on the state of our media and celebrity culture. And it’s pretty hilarious to boot. The complex storyline is revealed without an inch of fat, economically moving between the points of view and getting us the necessary information without ever feeling expository. It is so well done and so entertaining that one hardly notices its length. Can’t say that about many films these days.
With it’s 1:33 screen ratio, ravishing black and white cinematography and eccentric framing, “Ida” would be a feast even if it weren’t also a moving portrait of the less obvious ravages of the holocaust. It’s a simple road-trip movie that deals with complex issues of identity and the guilt of survivors. It is also a trip to a fascinating moment in history, when Poland had not yet begun to deal with its horrifying role in the extermination of its Jewish population. But first and foremost, it’s a touching, sometimes sweetly funny story of an awkward family reunion that is never preachy or predictable. Whether or not it wins the Oscar for best foreign language film, you owe it to yourself to see it.
This film stands as a symbol of how the vast technical capabilities of Hollywood can be used for something more sophisticated than just blowing things up. The two parallel stories, one earthbound and the other in deep space, are influenced tonally and spiritually by a vast array of sci-fi cinema from “Close Encounters” to “2001.” One need not completely wrap one’s head around the actual science to take the ride–a ride in which it is hard to choose which is more emotional, the mission to save all of humanity or the hope for reconciliation between a father and daughter. It all adds up to a mind-bending, magisterial experience that demands to be seen on a big screen (much like many of the other films listed here).
Yes, there were documentaries on subjects that were more pressing given the state of the world we live in, but no movie this year (doc or otherwise) made me cry as much as “Life Itself.” I’ll admit to some of this being personal, in that Roger Ebert was an early influence and was someone who was always very supportive of me throughout my career. But what makes this film special is not just that it pays tribute to the influence that Roger had on so many people in the business that I love; more importantly, it documents the spirit of a man for whom the movies were merely a reflection of the profound love he had for all humanity. It is the inspirational story of a man who refused to allow his various illnesses to silence his voice. And it is also one of the great love stories of all time.
LOVE IS STRANGE
What I love about this film is how it puts such a human face on issues surrounding gay marriage, issues that don’t necessarily disappear just because it becomes legal. But more poignantly, the struggle of these two loving men to survive could be anyone’s struggle. The film features two wonderful performances that I’m surprised are not getting as much notice as they deserve. And the New York City depicted in the film is a spot-on snapshot of the here and now.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
If you were to stumble across this film while flipping channels on TV, it would be easy to mistake it for a film that was actually made in the period in which it takes place. The gritty grey New York depicted is straight from the Sidney Lumet pallet, and the seething tensions are played in a minor key not in sync with current fashion. Oscar Isaac’s performance is right there with Pacino’s in “The Godfather,” and the film gets at some of the same themes. As I’ve said in other forums, Chandor is now three for three in my book.
If Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in this film isn’t the creepiest of the year, I can’t imagine it. This hybrid thriller/satire is by turns weird, sick, funny and frightening. Its vision of Los Angeles is as dark as anything I’ve ever seen. Even the sunshine seems filtered through some kind of dark haze. And back to Gyllenhaal, his performance is up there with DeNiro’s in “Taxidriver.”
My second biggest cry of the year was throughout the last 20 minutes of “Selma,” a masterfully made drama that brings to stunning and immediate life a piece of history that we think we know, but seem to have collectively forgotten. Given today’s headlines, it’s more than useful to be reminded that there was a time when people fought for the right to vote, and a time when people of conscience–regardless of race or religion–banded together and risked their lives for what was right. Unlike something like “The Butler,” the historical figures are not cardboard caricatures, but are full blown humans with their vulnerabilities intact. I also have to say that the whole historical accuracy argument that only seems to appear at Oscar time is completely misguided (or perhaps actually guided by a competing publicist). Since when are dramatic representations subject to literal fact checking? Whatever minor (truly minor) errors of emphasis may or may not have occurred, the essence of the film is too important to ignore.
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
The particular set of circumstances portrayed in this film would be inconceivable in this country, but the essential dilemma of how people behave in an economically challenging environment are universal. The film asks the ugly question for which there is no right answer–when faced with having to choose between your family’s financial security and saving your co-worker’s job, which would you choose? The wide-ranging reactions to this choice shape a moving and ethically challenging experience. Marion Cotillard’s performance is easily one of the best of the year.
One of the most appropriately titled films ever, “Whiplash” is a kinetic battle of wills between teacher and student that keeps you on edge from beginning to end. It’s also a refreshing example of a truly independent film, without any real star power, that came out of nowhere on the power of its own storytelling. The acting is brilliant and the direction and editing make you feel the sweat and blood in every scene. It builds to a musical climax that brought to mind Mike Shrieve’s drum solo in the movie “Woodstock.” The result is heart-pounding.
OK. I know that’s 12 films, but I had a hard time reducing it to 10.
I also want to mention a few films where I seem to be out of sync with everyone else. These are films that are loved by many people I respect, but left me cold, or in some cases, angry.
THE IMITATION GAME
Everything about this film seemed calculated to appeal to Oscar voters on the most obvious level, from its “King’s Speech”-like packaging to its overbearing score to its softening of the facts. But the most annoying thing about it was relegation of the main character’s gayness to backstory and postscript. Was there a human inside that body?
I love many of Mike Leigh’s films, but this was not one of them. It’s beautifully mounted and its depiction of the world through an artist’s eyes is admirable, but Turner’s unapologetic abuse of women felt like a rationalization that attempts to justify bad behavior as long as it comes from a brilliant artist. I found the character as depicted to be so insufferable that I just didn’t want to spend that much time with the guy.
A period film noir that takes place in hippy L.A. has been done before and it was called “The Long Goodbye.” The difference is that this one tries too hard to be clever and is neither funny nor all that interesting. It’s an exercise in style that merely bores. Go seek out Altman’s original.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
I had such high hopes when I heard there was a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie starring Tilda Swinton. Unfortunately Jarmusch’s deadpan style only makes the undead feel dead. It’s a double whammy that the film never recovers from. Funny in spots, in that JJ kind of way, but if you’ll excuse my overuse of the word, it’s deadly.
On to next year…