Oscar night quickly approaches, and so goes the 2014 movie season. To celebrate, Brian and Noah rank their favorite films of last year. There’s a podcast about it, now comes the list.
Did your favorites make the cut? Comment below. And enjoy.
10. (tie) The Lego Movie and The Grand Budapest Hotel
I just couldn’t decide between these two. I knew they had to make the list. And so they both did. The Lego Movie surprised the hell outta everybody. It not only became the funniest film of the year but the most original, heartfelt, warm, and earnest. It carries a message about not only being original even when people tell you not to, but a message about Hollywood and the current state of cinema. Brilliant animation, voice work, writing and directing by two of the best in the game, The Lego Movie is pure joy and imagination.
A high-spun yarn about a flamboyant hotel concierge, his young sidekick, a valuable painting, a dead mistress, an assassin, and pastries, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s most complete film. The set design is incredibly detailed and rich, as is the music. The film has high energy and wit to spare, but what separates it from other films of its kind (and there aren’t many) is the dread peering just around the corner. In between the madcap adventures lies the real threat of an invading army (might as well call it the Mazi party) that is making its way toward this fictional European country. It’s a film that sweeps you up in its specificity and shows how fun life can be if only for a time.
9. We Are the Best!
The best film this side of Boyhood (much more on that later) that deals with adolescence involves Stockholm, the ‘80s, punk music, and three 13-year-old girls; all things I don’t really know anything about. So it speaks to the strength of the film that not only was I captivated by We Are the Best!, but I connected with it on such a strong level. The two main characters don’t know who they are; they don’t know where they belong, just like all 13-year-olds. They form a punk band because they feel the need to rebel against society. The issue being they suck. The solution being they don’t care! The problems, fights, depression, anger, aggression that these kids go through is stunningly authentic and beautiful. Rather than focus on the adults in the story as most films tend to, We Are the Best! bravely holds on the point of view of the girls, and it’s better for it. It speaks to everyone who was ever awkward as a kid. So, everyone.
8. Life Itself
Every single Sunday I would watch Ebert & Roeper. It was my Sunday School, it was my sermon, it was my church. I saw some of my favorite movies because they talked about it or recommended it. I read Ebert’s reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times on and off my entire life. When he passed it shook me. And what this superb documentary captures is not just an icon of film, but a man of the world. Director Steve James (who also directed my favorite documentary of all time, Hoop Dreams) presents Roger Ebert with all his flaws alongside his accomplishments. It’s elegant and harsh. It shows Roger Ebert as a man who was abrasive and self-centered, but also as a man who did and meant so much not only for the film industry but for a young boy in Illinois who hung on his words.
7. Gone Girl
The book is good. The film is great. That doesn’t happen that often, but leave it to David Fincher, a stellar cast, and an author who found the opportunity to do another draft of her book, to craft a sleek and icy thriller. I, like many audience members, knew what was gonna happen, but Fincher knows that and uses it to entice and tease us. The cast is pitch perfect with Ben Affleck, Carrie Coon, and especially Rosamund Pike delivering excellent performances. The cinematography, score, and Fincher’s expert direction create a stunning atmosphere, and the story’s twists and turns are sublime. Gone Girl is the kind of movie that Friday night crowds were made for.
The best theater-going experience of the year, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is something special; a big-budget, wholly original, heartfelt, epic, personal film. Not only does it have incredibly subversive special effects and Han Zimmer’s greatest score, but the film deals with big ideas to tell a small story. It’s about a child and a father. Time is presented in a way I haven’t seen before, as a curse instead of a gift. The film takes powerful emotions and holds them up alongside stunning visual effects. A scene near the end of our main character in a hospital is enough, especially if you’ve lost a parent, to not only make you weep but give you hope. Interstellar is the definition of an epic film. It may have flaws, but no other film that came out this year had me glued to my seat like this. Interstellar is an epic, is mesmerizing, is refreshing, is honest, is brave, but most of all, it’s an experience.
Not only does Wild give us Reese Witherspoon’s best performance to date, but it gives us an intimate portrayal of loss and change. After the death of her mother, Witherspoon’s Cheryl embarks on the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself. The film is a true story, which was unknown to me while watching it. It’s a tender and gentle film which reflects the character’s journey. We get the appropriate flashbacks but, seemingly, only as our heroine remembers them. Witherspoon puts her entire self into this film, she truly shines. The film’s director, Jean-Marc Vallee, wisely keeps the film intimate and moving. At times, it’s almost as if we are watching this person accept what she cannot change and change what she must in secret, almost as if we came across her during our time on the trail. It’s a familiar formula that works better than any film of its kind in a long time.
An impeccable technical achievement, Birdman is remarkable. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki have crafted an intricate visual wonder. Seemingly filmed in one take, the film moves through about two weeks in the life of a Broadway cast. Michael Keaton is granted “comeback” status as the writer-director-star of the play who is slowly losing his mind to his 20-year-old superhero alter ego. The film is meta and insightful, blasting through subjects of respectability, Hollywood’s superhero fad, and film actors moving to Broadway looking for artistic reverence. The cast is outstanding, even as Keaton and Emma Stone are the true standouts. Birdman goes all out and never loses its step. Relevant, surprising, and brilliant; just what Riggan Thompson would love to hear.
David Oyelowo gives the best performance of the year in Ava DuVernay’s masterstroke about Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Selma. The film wisely focuses on one single event in MLK’s life and brings him to the screen in a way I did not expect. Selma takes a cultural icon who seems almost inhuman and slams him right back down to Earth. We see King struggle with decision, feel loss, remorse, anger, and doubts. All this reminding us that no matter the person, one can make a difference. The film is expertly directed with an incomprehensible balance of sensitivity and force. It’s the best traditional biopic in years. Selma should and will be remembered and studied for years to come. Just as the real MLK will always be in the culture lexicon, so is Selma destined.
The most heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, nerve-racking film of the year. Whiplash is possibly the most brilliantly assembled film of the year. The acting, directing, cinematography, music, sound, and especially the editing are so on point that this will be the film I watch over and over and over again from this year. Miles Teller continues to impress as a young Jazz musician who strives to be the best. He meets a teacher who can take him there but at a price. The teacher played by soon-to-be-Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons is, simply, a force. The film combines editing to make the music move and create scenes that bounce and crash accordingly. Whiplash asks us at what cost we get genius and if the price is worth it, and the brilliance is that it doesn’t give us the answer. The film culminates in the best scene of the year. A duel for the ages. The last scene of Whiplash will leave you floored, breathless, and astonished. Most years it would be number one. Most years.
The cinematic wonder of the year, Boyhood is, without question, the best film of the year. Director Richard Linklater filmed this three hour opus over the course of 12 years with the care and effort that seems to be lacking in most mainstream films. To go back year after year, have something new to say, have the focus to continue a single vision is nothing short of miraculous. The film is about not only a boy, but humans in general. This is a film that represents all of us, no matter where we come from or what we look like, growing up and becoming who we are. Linklater shows us the seemingly insignificant events as a way to explore how everything that happens to us matters and effects us. It’s stunning cinema that captures moments that are universal. Boyhood is a statement. Boyhood is human. A film like this is something to be remembered and cherished because it’s a rarity. It’s a remarkable film about seemingly unremarkable events. It’s about the human race. It’s unlike anything else this year. Boyhood is a masterpiece.
10. Into the Woods
As a sucker for a good musical, I couldn’t help but be engrossed by Into the Woods. The songs were impressively staged and unbearably catchy, and the cast was charming, surprising, and overall impressive from top to bottom.
At its core, Ida is essentially an Odd Couple story: a soon-to-be nun goes on a road trip with her wild, estranged aunt. Fortunately, good movies can rarely be reduced to their core, and everything built on that foundation in Ida is outstanding. The relationship between the two main characters is deep, complex, and loving. Ida’s struggles with her religion and identity are simultaneously understated and heartbreaking. The cinematography is bold and striking.
8. A Most Violent Year
Oscar Isaac is a relatively late-blooming star in the middle of a surge, and A Most Violent Year is his greatest showcase so far. He absolutely dominates every aspect of the movie as a heating oil supplier struggling to stay on the moral side of the business even as the world insists he can’t. Jessica Chastain, though underutilized as a character, plays his mob-connected wife, an ever-present reminder of just how easy it would be for Isaac’s character to stray. The stakes are small-scale, but they’re played like life-or-death, and it’s entirely compelling.
7. Under the Skin
Watching Under the Skin is an experience, to say the least. It’s minimalist, surreal, and incredibly poignant at times. Scarlett Johansson gives the strongest performance of her career, conveying so much emotion with so little expression. Much of the film is repetitive and a little confusing, but it stays incredibly fascinating throughout. Above all, it’s one of those films that just can’t be conveyed through text. It demands to be seen.
In a lot of ways, Wild is like the mirror image of Under the Skin. It’s just as good of a movie (or, if my list is to be believed, slightly better), but in almost the opposite way. Where Under the Skin is unconventional and strange, most of Wild is pretty by the book. Reese Witherspoon, though, carries the movie so well that all the elements we’ve seen countless times before – flashbacks, the kindness of strangers, becoming one with nature – seem fresh again.
5. Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive is an exercise in coolness. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton give great performances as two old vampires above modern society, and Mia Wasikowska provides plenty of energy as a troublesome, unwanted houseguest, but the true driving force of the film is its music. The score – a droning, brooding, deliberate electric guitar – sets the tone and the pace of the film throughout, drawing attention away from the fact that the film essentially goes nowhere slowly.
To say Whiplash is only the fourth best film of the year almost does a disservice to how good Whiplash really is. Simultaneously visceral and cerebral, the film offers one of the most intense movie-watching experiences in recent memory. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons both give stunning performances that allow the film to tackle the often overlooked cost of true, lasting greatness with unmatched ferocity.
It’s damn near impossible to pick the strongest aspect of Selma. Is it David Oyelowo, who embodies the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. in every facet of his performance? Is it the film’s script, which is able to bring a fragile humanity to one of America’s greatest cultural icons? Is it Ava DuVernay, who, as a relatively low-key director, handles the enormous responsibility of the film with grace and confidence? You could pick any one of those, and you’d be right. Each element is more impressive than the last, and they all add up to something even more so.
There are a lot of positives to take away from Birdman: every member of the ensemble is outstanding in their role, the drum score is alive and a crucial part of the film’s identity, and the decision to shoot it to make it look like one continuous shot was fascinating to watch. But the unsung success of the film is its willingness to abandon moments. The filming style necessarily dictates that the film cannot focus on two different scenes at once, even when two things worth focusing on are happening simultaneously. Arguments are abandoned to follow another character dealing with their minor subplot elsewhere in the building. Occasionally, the camera will just stop, letting its subjects continue on while it waits for someone new to come along. It’s a brave decision to let moments trail off like that, and in Birdman, it pays off.
In his much lauded Before Trilogy, director Richard Linklater examines maturation and the passage of time by elaborating on three very specific moments in his characters’ lives. With Boyhood, Linklater takes this idea, tweaks it a little, and cranks it up as high as it can go. Filmed over 12 years, Boyhood chronicles the growth of not only its actors, but its cast and crew as well, as it happens. Nobody was the same person at the end of it all as they were at the beginning, and the fact that Linklater and Co. were able to create such a cohesive and beautiful film through it all is simply stunning.