Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorite Films, 2014

It’s actually a difficult task to make a Best of the Year film list before the year is over because many of the heavy-hitting Oscar contenders are released right at year’s end. There are several I’m looking forward to seeing before 2014 is over, or maybe shortly into the new year. But you have to draw a line somewhere, if you’re doing a list, so I’ll draw mine today. I take some comfort in the fact that I think it will be very, very difficult to top my top three, no matter which films I take in over Christmas week. As always, I include films from other years that I watched this year. Because it’s my blog, you see, so it’s all about me! First, my favorites of 2014:

1. Boyhood

No doubt you'll be hearing much about this film as awards season gets underway. It's all for good reason. Yes, there's the fact that they filmed this coming-of-age story for over a decade, but the actual viewing experience, the immersion and the depth, the poignancy and the unforgettable characters--these are the reasons why it's my favorite movie of the year. Not to be missed, a masterpiece.

2.  Whiplash

For a week or so after viewing, I actually thought this film may topple Boyhood for my favorite of the year. It's that good. The story is about the tumultuous relationship between Andrew, a driven, young, jazz drummer and his teacher at a prestigious music conservatory. Riveting performances by both leads and pacing that will keep you on the edge of your seat. In the end, a stunning look at what it takes to make the grade and the price of artistic achievement. Fantastic film-making and to say it's a very close second to Boyhood is the ultimate compliment.

3. Force Majeure

A film from a Swedish director that should be nominated for Best Picture but most definitely will walk off with Best Foreign Film nevertheless. It's been compared to Scenes from a Marriage, for all good reasons. But it's wickedly funny too. The short synopsis: "A man's selfish reaction to the danger posed by an avalanche causes cracks in his marriage and relationships with his children." Wonderful performances, much to digest in this beautifully filmed story. I wrote more about it here.

4. Birdman

Michael Keaton plays an aging movie star who's known primarily for his role as a superhero and who's now trying to salvage some respectability by directing and acting in the stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. It's an bold conceit, and this film pretty much traces Keaton's character's comeuppance for thinking he could do so. And it's an indictment of the film industry's reliance on franchises, and it's another story about a misunderstood and suffering artist, which I think is becoming one of my favorite genres (see Whiplash, above, and 2013's choice, Inside Llewyn Davis).

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

One of the best times I had in the theater this year. Funny and fun, it's sort of a buddy film meets superhero film meets comedy. I couldn't even tell you, these many months after seeing it, what the exact plot was, but I'm sure saving the entire universe had something to do with it. But I do recall being entertained throughout, and touched at times by the humanity of it.

6.  Nightcrawler

A very strange film about a drifter who becomes immersed in the world of crime journalism. Which is a nice way of saying, the world of creepy photographers who drive around during night hours, waiting to take photos of gruesome events to be sold to the highest media bidder. The world of the movie is an exaggerated, seedier version of American news culture, or is it? Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as an emotionally removed, edges-of-society type, but Rene Russo is amazing as a tough but world-weary television exec who falls under Gyllenhaal's spell. You won't be able to look away.

7.  Edge of Tomorrow

An unfortunately-titled action film that was smart and entertaining, with great special effects. Tom Cruise plays a military officer more accustomed to offices than fields of war, and he finds himself in a time loop trying to defeat a band of relentless aliens. It's funny and engaging, with all the action you can handle. Say what you will about Tom Cruise but he rarely attaches himself to a low-quality project and this is no exception. A very good movie.

Other films from other years:

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Another poor choice of titles, but this Argentine crime thriller won the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year. The parallel stories trace the history between a retired judiciary employee and a judge who were coworkers twenty-five years before. They've both been unable to shake a rape and murder case from that time, and the stilted romance between them. All the loose ends are taken up these decades later, when they reopen the case.

Tim's Vermeer (2013)

Tim Jenison is an inventor, an engineer, and the founder of a computer graphics company. He becomes convinced that Vermeer must have used some sort of early technology to compose and paint his paintings, so he tries to prove this by copying one of his masterpieces. An interesting contemplation about what constitutes art.

The White Ribbon (2009)

Another Best Foreign Film nominee from 2009. A German drama about a small village in the early 1900s beset by a series of unexplained events. Suspicions rise and villager turns against villager against puritanical hierarchy. A meditation on humanity but also the nature of good and evil. Riveting.

The Skin I Live In (2011)

A Pedro Almodovar film starring Antonio Banderas as a psychopathic surgeon who's conducting secret experiments on a captive patient in his home. Peopled with bizarre characters and paced with edge-of-your-seat suspense, this film had an amazing twist that I never saw coming. Good stuff.

Elena (2011)

A Russian drama about Elena, a former nurse who has married up in life, after meeting her husband when he was a patient. Elena has a hapless son, and her husband a disturbed daughter, and the story is about Elena's efforts to secure some of her husband's fortune for her son. The actress Nadezhda Markina is wonderful as the down-but-not-out housewife.  

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

The true story of the photographer, Vivian Maier, who was unknown until after her death, when over 100,000 of her photographs were purchased, mostly undeveloped, at an auction. The stories of the photographs, and of the woman herself, are equally fascinating. A must see.

A Royal Affair (2012)

I suppose no year would be complete without a Mads Mikkelsen offering from me. This one is a period piece in which he plays an "ordinary man who wins the queen's heart and starts a revolution." And he has a messy ponytail and a simmering look. And this film has one of the best, prolonged, first kisses ever. Really.

What have I missed? What were your favorite films this year?


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