Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, I’ve held off long enough (read: finally caught up with some films I needed to see).  Before I get to my top 10 of 2014, a few thoughts…I saw more than 40 movies, and it was a pretty solid year overall.  Not extraordinary, though the big summer releases resonated in a way that they haven’t for a while.  For the purposes of year-end lists, I generally don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This top 10 really represents a mixture of the two.  Okay, here’s my #6-10…

10.) “Nightcrawler”

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One of the keys to unlocking “Nightcrawler” is James Newton Howard’s music.  The film is about an amateur videographer, Louis Bloom, prowling city streets to find footage — home invasions, auto accidents — that he can sell to the local news.  While it has the trappings of a character study and a thriller, Dan Gilroy’s film is a rag-to-riches story.  Rather than offer a traditional moody score, Howard’s music has a hopeful quality.  It pines for our character’s success, as though it’s the music he might hear inside his head.  That his actions are morally murky at best and downright psychotic at worst is, well, beside the point.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the wannabe newsman, and it’s easily the best performance of his career.  He talks with reporters and supervisors as though human interaction was something he learned from a book or website.  With each encounter, I grew more and more anxious, waiting for Louis’s psychosis to finally boil over.  Surely someone is going to get this guy help…or have him arrested.  Right!?  In an insidious bit of commentary on our media, help never comes.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”

9.) “Selma”

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I’m always a little resistant to award season biopics.  They’re often more “history lesson” than “film.”  Not the case with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which is about the voting right marches of 1965.  I love the opening, when Martin Luther King Jr. (played wonderfully by David Oyelowo) is rehearsing a speech.  “It’s not right,” he sighs.  We assume he’s talking about the language, but it’s nothing so lofty.  He just doesn’t like his tie.  There’s flesh and blood in this monument.  A horrific and racially motivated act follows.  The film plays like a thriller, keeping the pressure on and never letting us forget what’s at stake.  And it moves like gangbusters, swiftly covering a lot of characters and events.  I loved the backdoor dealings.  As much as this movie’s about a man, it’s also about politicking and enacting change.  Some have criticized “Selma” for its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wasn’t a roadblock to the civil rights movement as dramatized in the film.  While I can appreciate those complaints, it frankly doesn’t bother me.  This isn’t a documentary, it’s not bound to factual constraints.  Rather, it’s a stirring account of fighting systematic oppression.

8.) “Godzilla”

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A couple of questionable plot turns and a wooden performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson aren’t enough to kill this gargantuan summer blockbuster.  Not by a long shot.  Director Gareth Edwards delivers spectacle of the highest order.  Sure, a number of mega-budget productions attempt the same thing, but few remember that there’s nothing less spectacular than non-stop spectacle.  Edwards is judicious in dolling out his setpieces, offering a wink and a nudge (see: a wry cutaway from a brawl in Hawaii) while making us wait for the hugely satisfying final showdown.  Another word for spectacle, at least as far as “Godzilla” is concerned, is scale.  Duh, it’s a movie about the grandaddy of giant monsters!  Everything about this film is intended to give us that sense of awe — from the structure to the evocative sound design to the camerawork that keeps us on the ground level.  Despite our best (and not-so-best) efforts, all we can do is stare up and appreciate the titans overhead.  “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.”

For more of my thoughts on “Godzilla,” click here.

7.) “Gone Girl”

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Gloomy serial killer movies like “Seven” and “Zodiac” make it easy to forget what a lacerating sense of humor director David Fincher has.  But “Gone Girl” puts it on full bloody display.  The film, written by Gillian Flynn and based on her novel, is about a man, Nick (Ben Affleck) under investigation when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.  Much of the humor is derived from the media circus that surrounds her disappearance.  During a painfully funny press conference, Nick makes a brief statement that doesn’t sound particularly heartfelt.  He’ll later point out that that doesn’t make him a murderer, though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  A great ballet of looks between Nick and his sister (Carrie Coon) ensues as Amy’s parents make long, prepared statements.  Top to bottom, the performances here are excellent.  So many of the casting decisions seemed odd on paper — Tyler Perry as a New York lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as, well, a creeper — but they pay off big time!  And of course there’s Rosamund Pike, bringing so many shades to Amy.

For more of my thoughts on “Gone Girl,” click here.

6.) “Ida”

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In Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) visits her worldly aunt (Agata Kulesza) before taking her vows.  The aunt reveals that the nun’s parents were Jewish, and both were killed during World War II.  After finding their resting place, the aunt urges her niece to experience more of life before committing to the church.  In one of my favorite images of the year, the nun, slightly intoxicated, twirls within a curtain.  Sunlight streams through the window and illuminates the fabric producing a warm cocoon.  It’s such a wonderfully evocative depiction of a young woman coming of age.  This film is filled with striking compositions.  Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s black and white cinematography emphasizes institutions, often placing characters in the lower part of the frame so that these structures — the church, for example — tower over them.  Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are terrific, the latter saying anything that pops into her head and the former speaking hardly at all.

Stay tuned next week for my #1-5 picks!  What were some of your favorites of 2014?  Comment below.

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Conversations: “Gone Girl”

If you hadn’t gathered from last week’s “Fight Club” review, I’m a pretty big fan of David Fincher.  With “Gone Girl,” his latest, tearing up the box office, I wanted to get into a conversation about the film.  To help me with that, I’ve enlisted Ben Raymond.  Ben and I have been best friends for twelve years.  As two teenagers who loved classic films, we took a fast liking to one another in high school.  Ben is a graduate of Brown University, and he teaches high school English in Massachusetts.  Unlike myself, he’s read Gillian Flynn’s novel.

Before we get started, a brief plot synopsis.  We’ll definitely be getting into spoilers, starting…right…now:  “Gone Girl” is about the media circus that surrounds the disappearance of a married woman.  On his five-year wedding anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing and likely murdered.  The inspiration for a series of children’s books, her disappearance makes national headlines.  It isn’t long before Nick, a bit aloof, becomes the focus of the investigation.  In an effort to clear his name, he finds out that Amy isn’t dead, and she’s in fact trying to frame him.

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GAR:  Hi Ben!  Thanks so much for joining me.  What did you think of “Gone Girl?”

BEN:  I’ll be brief, as we have plenty of things to get to.  “Gone Girl” grabbed my nuts and pulled.  It pulled for 143 minutes.  It hurt.  It hurt so good.  Fincher is his typical meticulous self.  Affleck didn’t suck.  Tyler Perry didn’t make me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a spark.  Flynn’s screenplay snapped, crackled, and popped.  And Pike.  Rosamund.  Fucking.  Pike.

GAR:  I saw a lot of comparisons to Hitchcock’s female leads, and I agree.  Very icy.

BEN:  Hitchcock would have been proud to have made this movie.  Not only in its precision, its themes, its obsession with dirty little secrets, but in the very nature of its unfolding, in every facet of the film’s character.  We could go on ad nauseum about the subtle tension, the muted hate, the suburban realism, the boiling anxiety, the moments of quick, scalding violence.  That’s all Hitch.

Pike is Tippy Hedron.  She’s Janet Leigh.  More than anything, she’s Kim Novak.

GAR:  Yep!

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BEN:  And she’s brilliant in her own right, but she belongs with them.  Blondes that kill.  Blondes you thank for having killed you.  She’s Fincher’s Überfrau, which means “Superwoman” in German, from Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Übermensch.  In a nutshell, the Übermensch is a Superman who is so vastly more intelligent, more capable, more equipped than the masses, that he cannot help but dominate, manipulate, deceive, and obliterate.

That is Amy Dunne.  And Pike gets it.  She nails it.  Every time she returned to the screen, I shuddered.  I mean I got goosebumps.  She’s a monster.  A real-life, flesh-and-blood monster.  The best kind.  She doesn’t live beneath your bed, or creep around your basement.  And she doesn’t live in your closet, because she’s got too many of your skeletons in there.  She just eats you from the marrow-out.  And you want her while she does it.

GAR:  Amy is a great actress, in large part because she understands her audience.  One of the most devastatingly funny scenes is when she’s being interrogated by the police after she’s come home.  She’s spinning this story about kidnapping and abuse, and Kim Dickens’s detective, who’s been investigating the case, isn’t having any of it.  Of course, everyone else in the room (perhaps not-so-coincidentally all men) is eating out of her hand.  She just keeps spinning them and spinning them.

That aspect of it, I suppose, is pretty noir.  There’s a Barbara Stanwyck-“Double Indemnity” quality to Pike’s Amy.  The femme fatale.

BEN:  Most certainly.

GAR:  One of my favorite shots in the movie is when Amy and Nick are in the shower, after she’s returned home.  (She wants to make sure he isn’t wearing a wire.)  She’s covered in the blood of Neil Patrick Harris’s Desi whose throat she slit after framing him for her kidnap and rape.  We cut to a close-up of his blood washing down the drain — there’s another Hitch reference — and it’s as though she’s washing herself off to put on her costume.

BEN:  We may want to touch on its echoes of “Rear Window.”  There’s some meta-cinema in “Gone Girl” that critics are missing.

GAR:  The voyeurism?

BEN:  The cameras everywhere, the way we put on all these faces, masks, personalities, lies, acts.  Everything.  EVERYTHING in this movie is an act.  And when we see moments of honesty, few there may be, we see the backstage of life itself.  In that sense, I think it’s more than peeling away our selves and putting on costumes (which is very true of this film).  I think the entire film comments on film.

GAR:  One of the moments that struck me, and I think it speaks to this, is when she returns home (again, covered in blood) and she faints in Nick’s arms on their front lawn.  All the cameras flash, of course, and I wondered if we were gonna end right there.  It was all such theater, the loving wife returning to her husband in front of their picturesque house.

I wanna touch on the pace, because it moves at a pretty blistering speed.  There’s so much movie in the first hour and fifteen minutes that I was anticipating the mid-point — the reveal that the wife was still alive — was actually the beginning of the third act.

The one thing that’s been nagging at me, though, is the ending.  I wonder if it couldn’t have ended 10-15 minutes earlier.  Maybe not just then on the lawn, but at that moment, I saw where the movie was going.  The final scenes were a bit deflating.  Another scene…another one…and another…  What did you think?

BEN:  In the book, Nick and Amy precariously try to make the best of their screwed-up marriage.  It’s a brutally tragicomic ending that I personally thought appropriate, but only if you understand Flynn’s searing wit and humor.

To the film, I hadn’t thought of it like that.  If Amy fainting and Nick holding her had been the last shot, like the end of some Wagner opera, that would have been clever!  Maybe you add the bookend from the beginning, with Amy’s head on Nick’s stomach as he wants to “unspool her brains.”  That would be fine.  But yes, I agree that the ending was repetitive.

GAR:  Alyssa [Garrett’s wife] and I even talked about having it end with Nick entering that room, locking the door, and holding his cat.  He’s a [willing] prisoner in his own home.  It’s such an absurdist film that all the narrative and motivational gymnastics they do — dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s to demonstrate why this guy is sticking around — seemed out of place.

BEN:  Call me crazy, but how fucking great would it have been if the last shot was the cat slowly walking into a bag of groceries?  Think about it!  That is exactly what Amy accomplishes.  She puts the cat back in the bag.

GAR:  I love it!  One of the things that marks this as a Fincher film is its lacerating sense of humor.  With movies like “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” it’s easy to forget how funny he is.  See also:  “Fight Club” and “Social Network.”  It sounds like the novel brought a lot of black comedy to the table as well.

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BEN:  Oh yes.  You almost forget that it’s knee-slappingly funny at times.  And never cheaply.  Stick with me here…I think Fincher reaches a Pixar-esque achievement in “Gone Girl.”  That is to say two completely different moviegoers can watch, understand, and appreciate the film in two completely different ways.  A 2-year-old can enjoy “Finding Nemo.”  (Don’t take her to see “Gone Girl,” though).  But a 92-year-old can enjoy it, too.  And for different reasons entirely.  Fincher and Flynn’s humor operates exactly like that.  Causal filmgoers laughed, serious filmgoers laughed.  You can appreciate the joke as just viscerally funny, like tossing gummie bears into Nick’s mouth, or you can appreciate the overall humor of the absurdist plot.  It’s amazing!

GAR:  I never thought I would see Fincher and Pixar in the same sentence, but you make a strong case.  So much of the laughs, again, came from the theater of it.  Another painfully funny scene is the press conference after Amy’s disappearance.  Nick speaks very briefly, and he isn’t particularly heartfelt.  Later, he rightly points out that that doesn’t make him a murderer…though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  Then we get Amy’s parents and their prepared statements.  I loved the detail of her mother holding note cards.  There’s a great ballet of looks from Nick to his sister, Nick to the police officers on the case, and the officers to each other.  All saying, in different ways, “This guy is screwed.”  And as soon as he flashes that smile, you just know it’s going to come back to bite him.

BEN:  Agreed entirely. And I think that goes back to Fincher’s precision.  People talk about Michael Haneke or Roman Polanski being the exactos of filmmakers.  And they are, but where they make precise cuts, Fincher makes precise gashes.  Long, careful, arterial gashes in the audience, in his stories, in his characters.

GAR:  Well said!  Anything else you want to talk about?  I thought the score was magnificent.  I saw a quote from Fincher where he told composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to think about the music you would hear in a massage parlor.  That absolutely comes across, though it’s turned a degree toward the nauseating.

BEN:  My favorite flourish, coupled with Kirk Baxter’s editing, is Desi’s murder.  The throbbing, arterial push.  The baseline.  The music bleeds out. Jesus.

GAR:  Ben, I had a lot of fun.  Thank you so much for doing this!

BEN:  Anytime, amigo.  Don’t walk with Alyssa through a cloud of sugar.  She might frame you for murder and kill Neil Patrick Harris!

GAR:  Noted.  Thanks a lot, buddy!

What did you think of “Gone Girl?”  Comment below!