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.

Biggest Surprises and Discoveries of 2014

Last week’s post was a bit of a downer, so how ‘bout a positive spin on 2014? Here are some surprises and discoveries I had at the movies last year…

Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin”

It might be the most terrifying movie music since Kubrick borrowed the work of György Ligeti for “The Shining.”  The film’s about an alien entity (Scarlett Johansson) with nefarious intent.  Non-traditional scores are popular right now, and Levi’s atonal work fits the bill.  It would be a disservice to put her music into words, but, appropriately, there are stretches that sound like an insect barreling down a highway.  It’s difficult to imagine Jonathan Glazer’s nightmarish landscape sounding any other way.

Carrie Coon in “Gone Girl”

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Prior to David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” I had never seen Carrie Coon on screen.  While certainly under duress — her brother (Ben Affleck) is being investigated for the disappearance of his wife — Coon might be the first “normal” person to inhabit a Fincher film.  His work is so often populated by misanthropes and nihilists, it’s rare to see someone so…personable.  And that’s not a backhanded compliment.  In a book-length interview for Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder explains that one of the most difficult things for an actor to do is captivate while “being everyday.”

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler”

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Jake Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but I’ve always been able to see the gears turning.  He often falls back on ticks and other actorly crutches to make a performance feel “real.”  In many ways, he’s using those tricks in “Nightcrawler,” but they’ve never been more shocking or unsettling.  He plays an amateur videographer who prowls Los Angeles at night, looking for auto accidents or home invasions that he can record and sell to local news stations.  Like an alien himself — speaking of “Under the Skin” — Gyllenhaal’s interactions feel rehearsed and calculated, as though he learned how to relate to others from a book or website.  It’s a startling performance, one that left me appreciating the actor like I haven’t before.

“The Lego Movie”

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I don’t think I was more cynical about any project in 2014 than “The Lego Movie.”  It was released in the first quarter of the year — typically a dumping ground for studios — and it was based on a toy.  But this film by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller reminded me that a good movie can come from anywhere.  Thematically deep and infectiously entertaining, it’s saturated with jokes, gags and pratfalls…and virtually all of them land.  And the voice cast is superb — it even includes some actors, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson, who aren’t normally associated with comedy.

What were some of your biggest surprises and discoveries of 2014?  Comment below!