FTA: The Top Ten Films of 2014

Because nobody asked, I present my annual column for the best films of the year

This column is From The Archive. It was originally published on hallbrothersfilm.com on January 9, 2015.

Ladies and Gentlemen! Another year hath come and gone and I’m told that within the previous year some films were released to be seen by the general public. I was also just informed that I saw many of those films and enjoyed quite a few of them. With this revelation in mind, it is now time for Peter’s annual BECAUSE NOBODY ASKED TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR LIST. The year in question: 2014.

We’ll call this year’s list a DELUXE COLLECTOR’S EDITION because, for the first time ever, I will reveal in concrete detail the deep, rigorous, passionate, and expert thoughts that shaped how I arbitrarily and subjectively evaluated the previous year’s cinematic offerings. While some critics have pegged this year as “weak” in regards to its overall crop, I heartily disagree and, if for nothing else than my own vanity (see: this entire list), I feel I must cry from the mountaintops the merits of each of these ten films.

Notable Misses

As always, let us begin with a startling disclaimer: I, unlike paid film critics, have not seen every film that was released this year. “How then, Peter, though you are undoubtedly wise and really, really good looking, can you claim to have an authentic ranking of the best films of the year?” The short answer is, I can’t. The long answer is also “I can’t.”

A Most Violent Year, Mr. Turner, Wild

Honorable Mentions

Also, as bound by natural law, there can only be ten films in the Top Ten list. We did the math and it works out. Therefore, let me take a moment to tell the five films that almost made the cut that they didn’t make the cut.

Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, The LEGO Movie, Edge of Tomorrow

The Case Against Boyhood

You might have just dismissed this entire list before it even began because one near-universally acclaimed film about a boy growing up in Texas has found itself in the stable of Honorable Mentions and not out on the track of the Top Ten. I recognize the boldness of this demotion for a film that could very well be on the fast track to winning Best Picture, but be happy that I’m going to take a hot second to explain why this particular film wound up where it did (the poor British schmucks over at The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game camps will not be so lucky).

I have a deep appreciation for Richard Linklater’s 12-Years-In-The-Making portrait of adolescence and family. A true accomplishment if ever there was one. For me, though, the flaw with the film is that the story of its production is a far more interesting tale than the one the final film sets out to tell. Besides touching performances from Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, the novelty of the filmmaking wore off for me somewhere in its 3 hour running time. Perhaps it’s that Ellar Coltrane doesn’t blossom into that great of an actor. When Mason rides to Austin with Sheena and gripes about cell phones, it sounds like an angsty whine. Linklater deserves all the recognition he’s getting for shepherding a historical effort like this and I have no gripes for people who were moved by the piece. I know I was. But I have to choose to judge a film based on its final product, not on its ingredients or particular recipe and it is on this principle that Boyhood is on the outside looking in.

Alright, enough formalities. Bring on The List!

THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014

10. American Sniper

Bradley Cooper

The true fact tagline for Clint Eastwood’s biopic on the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History” and the film succeeds, in part, in how it handles this dark truth. Is this something to be celebrated or damned? Is over 150 kills an accomplishment or a very grim reality? If the film was going to fail it would’ve been here, but thankfully Eastwood and writer Jason Hall are careful enough to make sure that this is not a film about cheering on a kill count. There is an underlying, at times subversive, doubt that permeates throughout, a doubt aimed at those who would laud Kyle’s record as a consequence-free American triumph. Bradley Cooper gives a powerful performance, subtly and convincingly conveying the psychological storm raging underneath the man behind so much death.

9. Foxcatcher

Steve Carrell

Bennett Miller’s film about the strange and ultimately tragic relationship between brother Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz and multimillionaire John du Pont is grim. I honestly cannot remember one ray of sunshine, both literal or thematically, in the whole film. It’s bleak but under Miller’s direction it’s far from boring. The director and his actors Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, and Mark Ruffalo imbue each scene with a simmering tension that occasionally boils over into fits of rage and profound sadness. Miller never falls for the trap of making du Pont an outright villain, instead opting more for an observational approach to the character and the story, allowing himself the ability to add dense layers of tonal atmosphere to give the film life.

8. Selma

Tom Wilkinson and David Oyelowo

Selma may not have intended to be the most relevant film of the year, but after the events of the past year and a half, Ava DuVernay’s recounting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama is powerfully resonant. For someone whose major background is in marketing and publicity, DuVernay shines in just her third feature film, expertly keeping the tone of the film scintillating and visceral without ever becoming schmaltzy or over-the-top (a valid criticism for many biopics and “based on true events” films). David Oyelowo does the near impossible by taking an iconic figure in Martin Luther King Jr. and making him tangible, present, and real. Too easily could this have become a tacky caricature, but with Oyelowo we are given one of the most grounded performances of the year.

7. Gone Girl

Rosamund Pike

David Fincher’s mystery thriller about a husband searching for his missing wife is far more comical than most people want to give it credit for. Sure, it’s a dark and at times pitch black humor, but the jokes and the gags are there, buried underneath all the domestic strife and blood stained clothes. When the film takes a sharp left turn halfway through, the humor is what helps us survive the jolt. Rosamund Pike takes her first major leading role and knocks it out of the park, giving a rousing, hilarious, and heartily disturbing performance that makes you yearn for more dominant female roles like this one. As always, Fincher and his DP Jeff Cronenweth prove themselves to be one of the best director/DP tandems in the industry, with an exacting, if not the showiest, aesthetic.

6. Inherent Vice

Katherine Waterston and Joaquin Phoenix

Thomas Pynchon’s novel about a detective in 1970s Los Angeles is far from coherent and neither is Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation. The intricacies of the plot (of which there are many) can easily bog you down, but Anderson, and too an extent Pynchon, aim to transport you to a place and leave you there alone, a tourist without a map, forced to wander around for a few hours in a haze of smoke. You might not ever find what you’re looking for, but in your time there you get a strong feeling for the locals and what the town is like. When taken scene by scene, without trying too hard to connect the meaningless dots, the film comes vibrantly to life, with the ensemble cast clearly having a blast and the goofy hysterics coming at a steady clip. Don’t get me wrong, the film poses some questions, namely about relationships, cultural understanding, and “doing the right thing”, but if you spend the whole movie trying to find the answers, you’ll miss all the fun.

5. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal

Films like Nightcrawler feel like a rare breed today. The film is a great, true blue neo-noir thriller that does not try to dress itself in another genre’s clothes and become more than what it is. Like every story, the film succeeds because of its great characters, chief among them Jake Gyllenhaal’s electrifying performance as super motivated crime journalist Louis Bloom. It’s easy to think that the film begins and ends with Gyllenhaal, he’s that good, but there is actually a whole lot more to discover in the film beyond its lead character. Rene Russo and Rick Ahmed give wonderful supporting performances that provide the crucial springboards for Gyllenhaal to bounce off of. And through it all you can forget that this is director Dan Gilroy’s first feature. The film has such a consistent tone that is so clearly communicated that you would think it could have come for someone like Fincher if he was hopped up on Red Bull.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori

There is a reason why you’ve never seen Wes Anderson’s name mentioned as a candidate for the next Star Wars or Marvel movie. The director has such a distinct style and aesthetic that you cannot imagine him hopping behind the camera to direct CGI alien hordes invading the Earth and flying superheroes subsequently blowing them up. Grand Budapest might be the most Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson film yet and while some might denounce the director’s commitment to his style as “overplayed” or “one note”, this film successfully proves the opposite. Anderson gives himself his largest canvas yet, a fictional European mountain country pre-WWII, and instead of giving in to more conventional shooting methods, the director doubles down on his own style, bringing the mountains to life with symmetrical models and animated figures. But his canvas also extends through his script, where the filmmaker grapples with somber, unresolved themes that come not just through the intimate interactions between his characters, but with the rapidly, forcefully changing world around them.

3. Whiplash

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons

Much like Nightcrawler, Damien Chazelle’s film succeeds because it has such a strong sense of what it is. The story is laser-focused, tight, and just the right length to make sure that we, the audience, get exactly what we need out of it, no more, no less. The film features a blistering performance from J.K. Simmons as a tyrannical college band conductor and, while it might not be the most transformative acting, if there was ever a role custom-tailored to Simmons’ strengths, this is it. Chazelle, in his first feature film, shows true talent in his ability to inject so much energy and adrenaline into such a short time frame and with such a seemingly straightforward subject. Who knew that watching someone else go bananas on a drum set could get your heart racing, but the writer/director masterfully places you in his lead character’s shoes and orchestrates a thrilling, “Fire Everything!” climax that will leave you breathless.

2. Birdman

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton

The conversation about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film usually revolves around either Michael Keaton’s meta-casting and subsequently brilliant performance or the unique, seemingly one long take shooting style. And while these are definitely valid talking points, most seem to easily forget how much this film is a send up of the current state of the film “industry.” It’s a far more rebellious effort than most choose to recognize. Iñárritu and his fellow writers take aim at an industry crippled with superhero fever — a diagnosis they prescribe not just to studio executives, but also to all the actors that chase the money and sign up to play these caped-characters. And while the film could easily become a gripe fest, Iñárritu flips the table and gut checks all of us who have a tendency to complain and criticize about the film business. As Riggan tells Lindsay Duncan’s film critic, “It costs you nothing to write what you do, but I’m going out there and risking everything.” We could spend all day arguing about how much risk is involved in suiting up for Avengers 5000, but the point lands. Through all of this, Iñárritu tells a story that is hilarious, heartbreaking, and always thoughtful. He achieves the masterstroke of creating a film that is both entertaining and intellectual. In most years, this film would take the award for being the most cinematically creative and daring, but this is not most years. Which leads to…

1. Interstellar

Interstellar

Go ahead! Shout your “FANBOY!” and “THIS LIST IS RIGGED!” criticisms now and get them out of your system. I’ll wait.

Better? Good.

I understand your fears that Christopher Nolan’s space epic took the top spot this year simply because I am a known, unashamed Nolanite who has loved every one of his films with an affection unspeakable. But please, lend me your ears (on in this case, your eyes) for just a few more minutes to help explain to you why Interstellar rose above all the rest in 2014. What Nolan achieved with this film extends beyond the trappings of its lengthy running time. To fully appreciate it, you have to look at its contextual significance as well as its perceived historical relevance. With Interstellar, Nolan took a stand for celluloid by shooting in 70MM and IMAX, but this is nothing new. He’s been preaching the value of film since The Dark Knight in 2008. The radical crusade he pioneered in 2014 was one of saving exhibition cinema and preserving the experience of seeing a film in a theater. Nolan worked out an agreement to have advanced screenings of Interstellar in theaters that showed the film on celluloid, in some instances forcing theaters to go dig out their old projectors. By incentivizing audiences with the chance to see the film early, he gamed them into seeing the film as he wanted to them to see it. If you wanted to see the film first, you had to go see it on celluloid and Nolan hoped (hopes) that when you saw Interstellar in 70MM and IMAX (something that could only be done with a powerful projector in a theater auditorium) that you realized the power of those tools.

Indeed, Nolan made a film that is at its best when viewed on film and in IMAX and this is not a trite opinion. There is a genuine difference in how the film is experienced depending on how you see it. To fully realize the scope of Interstellar you had to get off your butt and actually go down to an IMAX theater. You could not wait to watch the film on your iPad and then expect to see the same movie. And by doing so, Nolan makes the subconscious argument for the immense value of cinematic exhibition. He’s made a statement film, whether he realizes it or not. Much like you would not choose an MP3 song over seeing an artist in concert, Nolan argues here, in the age of Hulu Plus and Netflix, that the best way to see a film is on the big screen. He is the first filmmaker in years to make a movie worthy of that literal big screen.

And, at the end of the day, the experience pays off. To see Interstellar in a theater was to be taken on a journey through the cosmos. There’s a reason Kip Thorne cried when he first saw the film. Never had his theories been so fully understood and realistically brought to life. One cannot argue that seeing the Endurance sail past the rings of Saturn is not one of the most beautiful and lasting images cinema has made in the past 50 years. Not to mention, all of this is from an original script written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (An original script in Hollywood in 2014? Impossible!)

The story structure is simple, the script a little clunky, and the dialogue could be smoother, but just as Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and the crew of the Endurance set out to save mankind in noble, if sometimes flawed, ways, so to does Nolan with the art of original, experiential cinema. And in a year that had Marvel and Warner Bros. announcing slates featuring years worth of unoriginal, test-tube films, the true value of Interstellar extends as deep as the galaxy it explores.