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My Favorite Films of 2014

January 5, 2015

Recently I posted on Facebook the process I used to get from the full list of films I saw that were released in 2014 down to my seven favorite. Those – in order of release date – were:

1) Her

2) The Wind Rises

3) The Grand Budapest Hotel

4) Blue Ruin

5) Edge of Tomorrow

6) Gone Girl

7) Nightcrawler

After a few days of consideration – including an 8 hour drive that required a lot of patience from my wife enduring my random thoughts about film – I believe I’ve come up with a satisfactory order. Now, as I mentioned on the Facebook post, this list is not perfect, as there are a number of films that I have not seen that I imagine have a very good shot of making the top 5. For instance, I have not seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but considering that Anderson’s last four films have ended up in my respective top 5 lists, I’m guessing there’s a chance Inherent Vice will as well.

What follows will be my list in reverse order.

7) Her

This one is the trickiest for me, because it’s been so long since I watched it, so it’s quite possible it will be higher after a repeat viewing. Much like another 2014 film starring Scarlett Johansson as a non-human –  Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin – Her explores what it means to be human… specifically, what does it mean to be a human that lives amongst other humans. In Under the Skin, Johansson plays an alien known only as The Female who preys on men. While we watch her seduce and eliminate (assimilate? or maybe the alien version of juicing?) her victims, we also watch as she begins to empathize with the species she is pretending to be. Meanwhile, in Her, Johansson plays Samantha, an Operating System with artificial intelligence designed to meet the specific needs of her owner – an always magnificent Joaquin Phoenix. Much like The Female, Samantha observes the human world and begins to grow and mature as she empathizes and appreciates what she sees. While Under the Skin’s exploration of this subject was intriguing, the reason why Her holds a higher place on my list is due to director Spike Jonze’s ability to create a world that feels lived in and weighty. The yearning behind Samantha’s desire to understand and experience everything is believable because we see – through Samantha’s “eyes” –  the details that make life glorious. Without these details, the movie’s premise – man falls in love with his operating system – is just ridiculous. And the fact that this quite simple love story morphs into a rather terrifying, suspenseful, sci-fi fantasy is just icing on the cake.

6) Blue Ruin

This was a low budget film directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Basically the plot boils down to this: What happens when an average guy decides to seek revenge? This film takes all the tropes of the popular revenge fantasy and stands them on their head. This is not satire, though there are plenty of laughs to be had (this is one of the funniest movies I saw this year). Saulnier is a good story teller, not just script-wise, but also with his camera. He deftly uses color, lighting and framing to convey suspense, tension and anxiety. Every performance is spot on – especially lead actor Macon Blair – and every character is vital to the story.

5) Gone Girl

David Fincher is a very cynical director, and so most of films get interpreted as his dark take on whatever institution his film is about. In this case, the institution is marriage and there are numerous reviews and articles analyzing the deception, manipulation, selfishness and pride that underlie every marriage – indeed, every successful marriage. Whatever. I don’t buy it and I don’t like this film for it’s marriage commentary. What I like about Gone Girl is that it’s a true heir to Alfred Hitchcock. I love it when a director manipulates his audience – plays games with them even – in service of the story. That’s a key qualification, by the way, because many directors manipulate their audiences – usually in very cliched and tired ways. What Fincher does, though, is invest us his story – in Nick and Amy Dunne’s story – to the point that we either root for, or root against, a particular character before pulling the camera back and revealing more of the story or pushing the camera in to reveal details that make us rethink what we swore we knew. On top of this, Fincher – despite the dark subject matter – is having fun. It’s evident in his cast. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of Who? He takes actors that have been typecast in a particular role – or that have been typecast according to their tabloid personas – and plays with your expectations. I had a ball watching all the actors in this film. Ultimately, much like Fincher’s other films, this film failed to move me emotionally. The fact, then, that this film makes my top 5 is a testament to it’s value as a skillfully directed, impeccably acted, top notch thriller.

4) The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite directors. His beautiful and magical animated films have delighted my family for many years. So when I heard that Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises was most likely his last film, I anticipated a few tears when I finally had the chance to watch it. When I learned that it was a dream-like drama telling the story of Jiro Hirokoshi – the creator of the Japanese fighter plane who lost both the love of his life to sickness and the passion of his life (his plane design) to war – I anticipated even more tears. Oddly enough, this film didn’t move me like I thought it would. Perhaps it’s because this story does not observe the world through a child-like lens the way that most of his other films do. As a father, watching films like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away (to name just a few) always get to me because of the way he wonderfully depicts children and their sense of wonder. However, this doesn’t mean that The Wind Rises didn’t contain it’s own unique brand of visual amazement and heart breaking story-telling. I was certainly moved by the film, just not in the way I expected. Much like his other films, the details are what sets this film (as well as his other films) above anything that Disney or Dreamworks is putting out these days, and much like his other films, there are moments of epic destruction and chaos that you feel deep down in your bones and moments of exhilaration that sweep you off your feet. The Wind Rises, though, is attempting to touch another aspect of our soul that his more child-like films didn’t – or, at least, only hinted at. Given the subject matter, I was surprised to find that the anti-war themes were not very prevalent (although they’re there in subtle ways). Also, given the subject matter, I was surprised – and later on impressed – to find that the central characters are Japanese, German and Italian… let that sink in a bit. As an American viewer of Miyazaki, I always find my worldview challenged – especially coming from a director who was born in Japan four years before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I also find the way that I consume story-telling to be challenged – in a good way. The Wind Rises is the story of pre-WWII Japan from a Japanese perspective – but not the way many Americans would expect that story to be told. More than that, though, The Wind Rises is about the desire to create and the tension between fulfilling that desire versus the potential use of that creation. And perhaps even more than that, it’s about a successful and influential artist reaching the end of his life/career and contemplating his passion and it’s legacy. After one viewing, this film is my #4 of this year… but it very well may come to be my favorite… of any year.

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The final three movies have shifted around in my mind for a couple of weeks. Each film is drastically different than the other and each one is my favorite for very different reasons. Ultimately, though, the films that end up occupying my favorite spots always end up being the films that moved me the most. There were not very many films that moved me this year, for whatever reason. As I mentioned above, The Wind Rises moved me, but there are some story/character issues that I need to get past before it moves up my list. Also, at this point I’d like to give some props to Interstellar. The one moment that got me this year – while watching the movie – was the scene when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway) return to the ship from the water planet. The sense of loss and loneliness – while Cooper was watching past videos of his children, but especially on the face of Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as later scene involving a character named Mann – was palpable. Christopher Nolan’s films are almost always interesting to me, sometimes entertaining, but hardly ever moving. Had the movie gone through the editing room a few more times and focused more on this particular aspect of sacrifice and time, this film would have been in my top 5.

Anyways, my final three films are ordered according to the way they moved me. I know we can be “moved” in various ways – even though I am suggesting movement in the heart-tugging sense – and the truth is all 3 of these films did move me: One moved me in a terrifying way that only the best horror films do and another moved me in a thrilling way that only the best action films do. Ultimately, though, the films that are usually my favorite are the ones that move me in that heart-tugging way… and my favorite film (for now), did that.

3) Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is not a horror film in the traditional sense, but it is certainly a terrifying film. Ignore the reviews that describe this film as an indictment against capitalism – these are critics who are reading far too much into the film and reaching for interpretations that are only mildly hinted at. Does this film critique capitalism? Sure… a bit, but even the director – Dan Gilroy – has stated that one shouldn’t read this as an indictment against capitalism, because, despite the problems of capitalism that deserve to be critiqued, it is still a better system than the alternatives (I believe I heard this during his interview on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell, in case anyone wants to verify this). Still, on a separate interview (The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, if I remember correctly), Gilroy stated that he believes his protagonist (antagonist?) is the CEO of a major corporation 10 years after the film ends. Whatever, I say. That’s not how I read this film at all. No, Nightcrawler is the origin story of your favorite comic book bad guy… say, The Joker. It’s the story of a man who learns how to be diabolical. It’s the story of a man who develops his skills, increases his knowledge and hones his craft in order to achieve his desires. The problem with interpreting this film as a CEO origin story is the mistaken assumption that evil men are attracted to positions of power because it serves their interests of controlling, dominating and exploiting others. Perhaps this is true of some, but I suspect that the old adage of “power corrupts” is more appropriate to that story. Instead, this is the story of someone who is already bad. Lou Bloom (an Oscar worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal) desires power yet doesn’t quite understand how to achieve it. This film follows his development from small time, desperate crook to capable villain with a “particular set of skills.” Again, imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Now imagine a prequel set about 15 years before that film – pre facial scarring and a predilection for make up. The “joy” of watching this film is in watching the way the masterful Roger Elswit’s camera follows and frames Bloom and turns otherwise ordinary mundane scenery into an eerie landscape. In listening to the way James Newton Howard’s score manipulates you into rooting for a despicable character (despite knowing better), and in watching Gilroy’s story unfold in frightening, yet exhilarating ways. For example, one of the most frightening and disturbing moments of sexual deviance I’ve ever seen occurs in a movie that contains no sex (or nudity). Much like David Fincher’s film Zodiac, Gilroy is able to give us a film dripping with tension without relying on the typical “shocker” tropes. Although Gilroy has written a number of screenplays and has been around Hollywood for a long time, this is still a pretty amazing directorial debut.

2) Edge of Tomorrow

There are a couple of ways to approach a review of Edge of Tomorrow. I’m going to approach it by way of my own relationship with action films. Contrary to popular belief, I actually like action. My issue is not with the genre, but rather with the way this genre is often presented. Admittedly, because this genre is the most commercially driven – and therefore often compromised – and because my tastes are such that I prefer character driven stories with strong camera work and intelligent plot points – I often do not like big budget, popcorn action thrillers. There’s been a few recent ones that I have liked: Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Avengers, a couple of X-Men and The Dark Knight not to mention immensely enjoying the Bourne Trilogy and the Sam Raimi Spider-man trilogy. That said, very few ever make it into my favorites (the Spider-man trilogy being the exception). Usually, for my tastes, these films need to somehow transcend the genre – either surprising me with something unique or something thoughtful. This year there were four big budget action films that I liked, with three of them being in the running for this list. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a good superhero movie and was certainly better than many of the previous Marvel films, but ultimately it was just a good superhero flick. On the other hand, another Marvel film – Guardians of the Galaxy – established itself as something better than the typical comic book flick. It almost broke into this list just based on the sheer fun I had watching it, and had I not watched it a second (and third) time since compiling this list, it may have cracked it. However, upon repeat viewings, it ends up lacking that essential quality that makes a good action flick a great one in my book. This brings me to Fury, which probably deserves to be in a separate “war film” category, but had the budget, action and star power that these other films have. I appreciated Fury, despite lacking the epic quality of the best war/action films, because it was obvious that the director, David Ayers, was trying to tell a story within a story. Both Fury and Edge of Tomorrow give us similar clues to tell us that there is deeper story within the basic plot. In both films, we are given words like redemption, baptism, salvation and sacrifice. I don’t think this is accidental in either case. Now, I’ll go ahead and tip my hand that I thought Edge of Tomorrow was a better film in terms of plot and action – so perhaps that’s the main reason why it ranks higher – but I also think that Edge of Tomorrow accomplished it’s “symbolic” story to greater effect. While Fury clearly wants us to think about it’s story as an allegory for something spiritual, I never quite connected with that message. Perhaps on repeat viewings it will become clearer to me and the film may become more meaningful. That said, I immediately connected with the symbolism in Edge of Tomorrow. I believe this has to do with Edge of Tomorrow’s economical story-telling and stronger character development. The story follows Cage (Tom Cruise), a rather cowardly military officer who specializes in motivating others to risk their lives against a powerful alien attack, who is forced to go to the front lines and fight – a sure death sentence. And die he does… only to wake up again before the battle to the insults of Master Sergeant Farell (a fun performance by Bill Paxton, who has an equally small but important role in Nightcrawler as well). Among the insults Farell slings at Cage are the commands to prepare for his day of judgment, to look forward to his redemption and to recognize his baptism – all phrases used as analogies to battle, but which clearly reference something greater. What follows is Cage’s death, followed by his waking up in the exact same place again. And again. And again. Hundreds of times… perhaps thousands. Yes, this sounds a little like Groundhog Day, but with one key difference: despite what Bill Murray did each day – live or die – he always repeated the day again. Here, though, Cage has to die. It’s vital to winning the war that he die. Each day he has to learn from the previous day in order to get farther on the next day. Along the way he finds help from Rita (Emily Blunt), a super soldier who once had the same experience that Cage has, but eventually lost it. Of course, this pattern of death and resurrection for the sake of the world is a reference to the Christian faith and as an allegory this works extremely well. In fact, this is easier to follow than the actual main plot – which took a repeated viewing for me to get, but was actually part of the fun. Aside from the allegory, though, the film does a superb job in terms of an action film. Doug Liman, who directed The Bourne Identity – an excellent action film – as well as a couple of other mediocre action films, does an excellent job of filming the action in the Edge of Tomorrow. The viewer is never lost in the landscape of battle – and a pretty impressive landscape it is. There are no quick edits here. The camera is fluid and intentional – it shows you exactly what Liman wants you to see. Every action scene serves the story. While it’s not gratuitous, it is intense… but yet is peppered with some extremely funny moments. I laughed a lot while watching this film and found Tom Cruise’s self deprecatory comic timing to be a nice revelation. On top of this, the film managed to achieve the perfect balance of romance that was needed for this film – never cheesy or forced, but weighty. While this film has been reviewed well, there have been some criticisms with the romance – particularly with the kiss between the two heroes – but I thought it was perfect and conveyed quite a lot in that one moment that would have been awkward and clumsy if spoken or demonstrated in another fashion. Finally, this movie deserves high praise just for being an original big budget movie that is not based on an existing franchise or property. That’s a rare thing nowadays and I hope the success of Edge of Tomorrow is a sign of things to come out of Hollywood.

1) The Grand Budapest Hotel

As I mentioned above, my #1 film was the only one to truly move me in a heart-tugging kind of way. Unlike Interstellar, though, the whole film moved me, as opposed to one or two specific scenes. It also took me a few days after watching the film to eventually move me. This is typical – at least for me – of a Wes Anderson film. As with most Anderson films, I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel with a constant smile on my face, thoroughly enjoying immersing myself in his supposed quirks, tics and unique charms. While always dangling on the edge of distraction, I find the numerous cameos to be entertaining and fulfilling. I always love his dialogues, the use of music, the precise framing of his camera, the vibrant colors, the strange characters and the way he uses direction. However, what typically gets lost in the average review of an Anderson film is the heart that is at the center of his story. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception.

As you can see in the clip above, Wes Anderson’s “quirk” is in full display: the rat-a-tat dialogue, the precise framing, the uniforms, the colors, etc… But is it quirk for quirk’s sake? Many people think so, but I submit that it is not. Take, for instance, the way he centers his subjects in the frame. This might lead one to suggest that a Wes Anderson movie is basically hundreds of perfect little photographs strung together – story be damned. This would fail to account, though, for the near constant action that is occurring just on the outskirts of the frame – sometimes even advancing onto the frame. Take another look at the clip above. While the camera is focused on M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) and their interaction with each other, the edges of the frame show us that the hotel is buzzing with activity. Another way to put it is there are other stories going on – much like in real life. Anderson wants us to focus on this particular story – the job interview – but sometimes these other stories encroach onto the main story. Anderson either allows the action to move into the edges of the frame, or he goes to the action by directing the camera somewhere else and forcing us to look in the direction he wants us to look. Either way, I believe that Anderson is training his audience to recognize the structure of his story, because it is in this structure that the heart of the story becomes clear. So what is the story?

Mentoring. The focus of the story is about the relationship of M. Gustave – a concierge at an extravagant hotel in a fictional European city – and Zero, his lobby boy. Sure, there are plot points and side stories that involve other characters, but M. Gustave and Zero are the focus of the story. Early in the film we meet an elderly Zero who, when a reporter inquires about Zero’s successful life, tells the story of when M. Gustave hired him as a lobby boy. This was no ordinary boss/employee relationship though. Throughout the film we see that M. Gustave imparts wisdom to Zero, shares his dreams with him, defends him, gives him responsibility, relies on him, seeks his forgiveness, enjoys his company and otherwise teaches him to be a man. M. Gustave is a mentor and this is not the first time either. Early in the film, when it appears that M. Gustave and Zero are in trouble with the police, it turns out that one of the policemen were shown kindness as child by M. Gustave and so returns the favor. As if to emphasize this point about mentoring, the clip above shows a quick montage of other concierges interacting similarly with their lobby boys. But if the mentor/protégé is what the story is about, the heart of the story – or, as Anderson has been training us to see with his camera – the center of the story is Zero. You see, Zero has had two tragedies in his life. First, as a young boy he watched as his whole family was slaughtered by mercenaries. Later, after only two years of marriage, his wife Agatha – whom we meet in the story and who shares in some of the adventures in the film – and their infant son die of a disease. While neither of these tragedies are played lightly, they’re also not the focus of the story. Most films, given a storyline like this, would focus on these tragedies. But not Anderson. He wants us to see the grace that comes from one human being showing kindness toward another. Sure, these tragedies helped to form the man that the elderly Zero is at the beginning and end of the film (there’s that framing device again!), but just as important – and most important for this story – is the influence of a mentor on a lonely orphaned immigrant. So he frames his story between these two tragedies – one in the past, one in the future. One on the left, one on the right. Always just on the fringes, creeping into the story – and sometimes with Anderson directing our attention to them – but never overwhelming it. And in the middle, the story of friendship, kinship, and mentorship.

 

 

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