2014's Top Ten Films

Recently Mark Harris wrote in Grantland that “In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it sure seems that way sometimes. This year featured some exceptional franchise movies, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Still, it can grow depressing seeing those films dominate the box office, even if they are well-done, because, as Harris noted, they can crowd out everything else.

As studios gravitate increasingly to sure things, we can all be that much more grateful to filmmakers that do take chances and try something new. Luckily, 2014 had its share of those, even in such a difficult landscape. You can see some of that daring in my Honorable Mention list, which would be a worthy top 10 (OK, 11 if you want to get technical) of its own:

American Sniper
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Still Alice
St. Vincent
The Theory of Everything

My top 10, as always, is an eclectic group, but all share a commitment to tell fresh, new stories, or to tell familiar stories in original ways. The filmmakers behind these works all took risks that paid off, with the year’s best film being the riskiest one of all:

10. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle) – In one of the most brutal films of the year, no one dies. Heck, no one even throws a punch. Chazelle said that he tried to stage his music scenes as if they were fight scenes, and that effort shows. Setting the context for those scenes is the battle between a harsh, manipulative jazz teacher (J.K. Simmons) and his determined, ambitious student (Miles Teller). Simmons and Teller show real chemistry, charging their scenes together. Whiplash asks what it really means to be great, and what sacrifices are needed to get there. In the end, though, it’s the music scenes. The camerawork, drumming, and the editing create a hypnotic rhythm. By the end of the film, you’ve been on an exhausting but exhilarating ride.

9. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy) -- This unsettling, unnerving film echoes both Network and The King of Comedy. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself to play Louis Bloom, a soulless, ambitious sociopath who worms his way into freelancing as a crime scene videographer. Nightcrawler cleverly illustrates how the same traits that make this man so despicable as a person make him a success in his “profession.” Renee Russo also shines as a news producer who needs only a little convincing to buy what Bloom is selling. Through her, Gilroy asks what kind of society we are that allows people like this to thrive. Gilroy’s visuals, evoking Michael Mann, create a nighttime LA as a Dante-esque underworld that suits the film perfectly. Nightcrawler gets under your skin, both as a character study and a cultural critique.

8. The Good Lie (dir. Philippe Falardeau) -- Warner Brothers mistakenly marketed The Good Lie by focusing on Reese Witherspoon’s character. Yes, she’s the only star in this film, but it’s hardly the “mighty whitey” tale the advertising made it out to be. The Good Lie puts you in the shoes of a group of Sudanese young adults as they escape war and poverty. Falardeau coaxes exquisite performances out of his cast, many of whom were first-time actors. Some of them were refugees in real life, lending an added authenticity to this film. They are so convincing that when the story shifts to America, you see it through the refugees’ eyes. The film takes its time, building to a climax that’s both sad and satisfying.

7. The Overnighters (dir. Jesse Moss) -- This heartbreaking documentary asks questions for which there are no easy answers. Should you always do what your heart tells you is right? Should you always strive to help your fellow man or woman? A North Dakota pastor gives shelter, in his church, to an influx of men coming to work in the oil fields. We helplessly watch as the pastor’s town and congregation start to turn against him. Moss has us get to know both the pastor and the people he’s helping, while also giving credence to those questioning the pastor’s efforts. He does not judge or editorialize, but seemingly lets the story tell itself. The natural drama and pathos in The Overnighters rival the best feature films.

6. Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller) – As he did with Capote nine years ago, Miller takes a chilling, meditative look at how damaged people delude others and themselves. Steve Carrell is almost unrecognizable, not just through his makeup but through his performance as millionaire John du Pont. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as Mark and Dave Schultz, also deliver exemplary work unlike anything they have ever done before. Miller builds the story very deliberately, keeping the focus on the relationships among these three men. Through the pacing, and the muted colors, Miller creates an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. He also deftly weaves in themes of class distinction and how patriotism and competition can be warped into a destructive force. Foxcatcher is both quietly powerful and endlessly fascinating.

5. Rosewater (dir. Jon Stewart) – I do not understand why Rosewater did not catch on with audiences, but it deserves a second chance. Stewart tells the story of journalist Maziar Bahari’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) imprisonment by the Iranian government. He makes the film both epic and personal, on the one hand exploring the disputed Iranian election and the resulting protest, while also putting the audience with Bahari as he endures solitary confinement and a brutal interrogation. Stewart shows restraint and lets the natural drama come through with just the right amount of wit. He cleverly illustrates Bahari’s internal struggles, in part by visualizing the man’s imagined conversations with his deceased father and sister. Bernal brings both strength and mischief to his work as Bahari, which is especially critical in the prison scenes. Rosewater pokes fun at the absurdity of totalitarians trying to repress speech at a time when it’s easier to share information and opinions than ever before. At its core, Rosewater reflects Stewart’s belief in the power of media, both traditional and social, as a force for societal change.

4. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay) – What a shame that the conversation about Selma devolved into a debate about Lyndon Johnson. LBJ is a supporting player, while DuVernay keeps her eyes where they belong, on Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his colleagues. She brilliantly stages the scenes of the marches and the brutal response, giving them a “you are there” immediacy. But DuVernay’s most fascinating work comes in the quieter moments. She and Oyelowo humanize Dr. King, showing him making strategic, political decisions, while sometimes doubting himself. Selma does not shy away from the internal battles within the civil rights movement. This even-handed approach in no way diminishes what these men and women achieved. It actually enhances our appreciation, forcing us to understand that these were real people who took real risks to make a better America.

3. Zero Motivation (dir. Talya Levie) – This biting Israeli dark comedy in some ways is culturally specific, as it reflects how military service is required for most Israeli young adults. But its absurdist view of office politics and the boredom of tedious work can ring true for anyone. Levie keeps the story fresh by changing character perspectives. Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar are funny and convincing as best friends/enemies, while Levie also gives ample time, and understanding to the supporting players. The narrative twists and turns in surprising ways, but it all comes together beautifully by the end.

2. Life Itself (dir. Steve James) – In 1994 Roger Ebert championed Hoop Dreams, helping put that film and its director, Steve James, on the map. How fitting, then, that James then chronicled Ebert’s life and final days with Life Itself. James captures both who Ebert was and what he meant to movies. He balances a look at Ebert’s early years, including little-seen archival footage with Gene Siskel, with raw, intimate scenes of Ebert struggling with the illness that took his voice, and eventually his life. I had followed Ebert for years and read his autobiography, but Life Itself gave me a whole new appreciation of the man. James’s personal commitment to Ebert and this story comes through in every shot. Somehow he makes this film both factual and spiritual. The film leavens the sadness of Ebert’s passing with a celebration of the man and what he stood for.

1. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater) – Linklater and his team deserve enormous credit for their perseverance in making a film over 12 years. In the end, though, how the film was made would matter little if the quality did not show on screen. By shooting the way he did, Linklater told a story in a way that could only be done through cinema. Other films have captured snapshots of children growing up. This is the first film where you feel like you’ve seen the whole thing. Linklater bravely eschews the conventional three-act story structure, realizing that life is a series of smaller stories. He blends one year seamlessly into the next, which is no small feat given the scope of the shooting. Newcomer Ellar Coltrane has an ease and believability in front of the camera that makes you care about him. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, as the boy’s parents, provide depth and richness to their characters, illustrating their own life changes and evolvement. Boyhood makes the ordinary special, and by doing so, becomes relatable for all. No other film in 2014 resonated or moved me this way. Both technically and emotionally, it’s the crowning achievement of the year.

Adam Spector
March 1, 2015

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