I never understand how critics can release their lists of the top films of the year and forget most of the entire year, all landing on the same eight to ten films released in the last two weeks. Since this is the first time I’ve done a ‘top films list’ officially (although I’ve been doing it personally since 1982 – what’s up TRON!?!), forgive me if I somehow have ignored the model. These are my top films of the year because they’ve stuck with me all year. These are the films I’ve seen more than once, recommended to people, sought out on VOD and Blu-Ray; these are the films with directors and writers I intend to follow, if not already.
10 COHERENCE – a SciFi mind-fuck of a film, Coherence concerns a dinner party on the night of a comet passing dangerously close to the Earth. The entire neighborhood looses power except for one other house – which turns out to be another version of their house, with another version of them inside. An expert character study with a great ensemble cast, the film does an amazing job with an obviously low budget. This is not a film for the ‘Marvel set,’ all the explosions happen within the mind, and it’s a thrilling ride.
9 BLUE RUIN — a rare film that fulfills all the genre expectations and yet still delivers arthouse quality of performance, script and cinematography. A homeless man turns avenging killer when the man who killed his parents is released from prison. What makes the film great is this is not some obvious vigilante ready to pounce, this guy bumbles through most of the film, surviving on sheer will and luck. It’s funny, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and Macon Blair delivers a heck of a performance as he transforms into a retribution machine. You can read more about the film here.
8 THE GUEST — a phenomenal cross-genre descent into madness that starts as a post-war drama, morphs into an action shoot’em-up, and ends as a stalker giallo (a sort of Italian over-the-top slasher pic – often with a synth soundtrack). An unbelievably ‘fun’ film, director Adam Wingard embraces every tone completely, then discards it when necessary. Even more outrageous, the film stars one-time DOWNTOWN ABBEY heart throb Dan Stevens (the former Matthew Crawley) as a demented super soldier who adopts a grieving family so he can hide from the military. My original review is here.
7 BOYHOOD – I suppose I’ll add to the mountain of best-of-lists that that Boyhood is assembling, although I’ve seen just as much Boyhood backlash outside of the standard critic circle. The argument is this is a gimmick film, which I agree with, but it is still a very good film. If you had told me that in three hours I would be able to experience an entire childhood I would not have believed you but Linklater’s film captures that. It is also full of great performances and almost time-capsule like preservations of the last twelve years. It is not the greatest film ever made, but it may be Linklater’s. And I’ll never fault a gimmick for working. I loved the original Blair Witch Project, and I highly doubt we are about to see a rash of movies made over twelve years. I also feel that Boyhood may end of being one of the definitive films about being ‘Texan,’ more on that here.
6 JOHN WICK – I wish the awards season could lighten up a bit and stop only rewarding ‘important’ films and instead single out films that do everything they set out to do. This shoot’em up is not going to shine a light on racism in the 50s, but is everything you could want out of a film starring genre-fav Keanu Reeves as an ex-hitman brought out of retirement by damage done to his dog (it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds, the dog was a gift from his wife after she passed, so the only connection he has left to her). After some truly lovely scenes of dog-guy bonding, the film gets down and dirty with Gun-Fu and serious ass-kicking as Reeves piles up one of the highest body counts to come from one man in a film. This is an edge of your seats action blowout with some phenomenal fight scenes of all varieties and Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones) making an appearance as a sniveling little shit of a son who causes the mayhem to ensue. This is some of the most fun I had in a theater this year. Paul Salfen interviewed Keanu about the film here.
5 OBVIOUS CHILD – I saw this film three times this year, each time relishing the performance and story more. Jenny Slate makes a star turn as a comic with a life on the verge of disaster, who finds out her one-night-stand has left her pregnant. Funny, charming and life-affirming, Gillian Robespierre’s tender dramedy is a refreshing surprise. There is no mugging for the camera, no preaching the issues, just real people dealing with real everyday life. In fact, the only misfire in the film is a strange and unnecessary cameo from comedian David Cross who plays for laughs and comes off as tiresome. My original review is here.
4 NIGHTCRAWLER – The best anti-hero since American Psycho, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a mesmerizing Oscar-worthy performance as Lou Bloom, a siren-chasing freelance journalist, who often reaches the scene of a crisis before the cops and paramedics and sells his footage to news agencies for the highest price. His work ethic and his view on life color his every interaction, including his homeless assistant and the new program director he sells his wares to and virtually blackmails into a personal relationship. Wow, what a film. Dan Gilroy takes us into a new world, one that leaves a foul, yet brilliant taste in our mouths. Paul Salfen interviewed Jake about the film here.
3 THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL – I’m actually not a Wes Anderson fan (the shock! the horror! Take away my right to watch films in an official capacity right now!). I loved Rushmore, but I felt like Royal Tenebaums, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited were too concerned with being quirky and visually arresting that he forgot to make them interesting films with compelling stories. The less said about Fantastic Mr. Fox the better. Moonrise Kingdom was a pleasant surprise to me. The window into a specific world, finely crafted with intent, did not get in the way of actually making a fun film with vivid characters that told a cohesive story. Grand Budapest is honestly Wes Anderson’s best film yet, at least his best in the artificial style he has taken upon (Rushmore and Bottle Rocket are much more grounded in this world). The tapestry of the film is rich with eccentric yet believable characters that fit perfectly in the artifice of the precise setting that Anderson has created, and the quest of the film, a murder-mystery-heist involving a rather ugly painting is developed enough to hold all in place. It’s a joyous ride up a mountain of ridiculousness with enough creativity to burst from edges. The one thing I take issue with is the silly choice of three aspect ratios, which seems forced upon the story and doesn’t even make chronological sense as some coverage has suggested (why does it turn black and white in the midst for one scene???). But other than that, the film is a triumph.
2 I ORIGINS – Looks like I’m going to be out on a critical limb here but Mike Cahill’s science thriller blew me away. The story of a man who looses his wife and then searches for her soul using her retinal-print (even more specific than a finger print) across the world is equally thought provoking and emotionally forceful. This is a film about love and god and science and the only things that really matter in this modern world. The performances are brilliant and heart breaking at times, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the story telling is effortless. This is a film that atheists and theists can watch together and have a rational discourse after. It’s also a film guaranteed to make you hold on to your loved one even tighter. I honestly don’t know how the rest of the critical world missed out on this film, possibly the most humanist film about science ever made. Paul Salfen interviewed director Mike Cahill about the film here.
1 WHIPLASH – I already knew what I was getting into when I sat down for a 9 am screening of Whiplash at Sundance in January, having seen the brilliant short the year before, but I pretty much moved to the edge of my seat ten minutes in and never leaned back. Miles Teller delivers on the promise of The Spectacular Now with a sometimes tragic and ultimately triumphant performance as a 19-year-old drummer in an exclusive music academy who finds his way into the top jazz band of the school. J.K. Simmons plays the sadistic bandleader, pushing his students through physical and mental torture, preying on their weaknesses and fear of failure. You don’t have to like Jazz to appreciate the amount of practice and natural skill needed to play these virtuoso compositions and the film plays a bit more like a war drama than a music film. This is an original story, one that comes from the heart, not history, and will be watched for years to come. I am quite satisfied with this being my top film of 2014.