Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Film Journal names ten best films of 2014

It may have been an off year at the box office, but I had no trouble filling my personal list of the ten best films of 2014. There were many more enthralling and engaging movies beyond the ten that made the cut, and even some very satisfying studio tentpoles (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, How to Train Your Dragon 2) that just missed my runners-up list. Here’s my group of favorites, which I’ve dared to rank in order despite the apples-versus-oranges question:

1. Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s 12-year project is more than a movie, it’s an
experience. His risky gambit to follow a boy’s progress from age six to eighteen paid off miraculously in a storyline that triggers reflections on change, mortality and the passage of time. The transitions from year to year are often breathtaking, and the work of compelling lead Ellar Coltrane is matched by the rich and brave performances of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his estranged parents.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson surpasses himself with this antic, wildly entertaining farce with grave undertones centered on a vain concierge whose seductions of rich old dowagers lead to big trouble. Ralph Fiennes is a complete delight as that roué, and the film is stuffed to the edges of the frame with zany production details, combined with a multi-layered structure spanning 50 years.

3. Ida. Every frame of Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeous black-and-white, square-
Academy-ratio drama could be on display in a museum. But this drama set in 1960s Poland is more than beautiful images; it’s also the haunting story of an innocent young novitiate about to take her vows who learns about her very complicated past through an encounter with her earthy and sardonic aunt.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy. The most unexpected surprise of summer 2014, this sci-fi action comedy took an obscure group of Marvel comic-book characters and turned them into instant blockbuster movie stars. Who knew a talking raccoon and a monosyllabic tree creature could be so entertaining (not to mention heroic)? Chris Pratt’s charismatic breakthrough performance as their irreverent leader set the tone for this witty, fast-moving, imaginative, thrilling and joyous cinematic ride.

5. Stranger by the Lake. Forget Rope. If Alfred Hitchcock made a chiller with real homoerotic content, it might look something like this French import about a gay cruising spot where murder is only a temporary interruption to the pursuit of hookups. Director Alain Guiraudie never leaves that lakeside haven, and the dispassionate cinematography and evocative sound design conspire to create an enclosed world where lust trumps good judgment.

6. Leviathan. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev proves himself a modern master with this nervy tale of an auto mechanic fighting a losing battle to hang onto his seaside home, which his village’s corrupt mayor has designs on. Zvyagintsev’s evocative use of landscapes recalls the great Michelangelo Antonioni, and he brings an astringent, sometimes darkly funny sensibility to this Kafkaesque account of a modern-day Job.

7. The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne is sensational as Stephen Hawking, the
genius physicist who was stricken with motor-neuron disease while studying at Cambridge and still thrives today despite being told he only had two years to live. Felicity Jones is equally compelling as his remarkable wife Jane in this gorgeously produced romantic drama that reveals the Hawking we never knew.

8. Whiplash. Yes, J.K. Simmons’ horribly abusive teacher would be ejected from any civilized music school within a week, but if you can set aside the politically correct realities, Damien Chazelle’s film is a highly entertaining contest of wills between that vicious autocrat and Miles Teller as a student who is determined to become one of the world’s best drummers. This crackingly edited movie is as pulse-quickening as the music that drives it.

9. The Lego Movie. Who could have predicted that a computer-animated movie based on inanimate construction toys could be so much fun? Writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who also made box-office gold from a less-than-classic TV show called “21 Jump Street,” fashioned a wild, anything-goes world populated by a United Nations of incongruous allies, with Chris Pratt (again!) in the center of the action as an innocuous Everyman turned hero. The CG replication of all those Lego blocks, not incidentally, is brilliant.

10. The Babadook. Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent makes a stunning feature debut with this very creepy story of a widowed mother, her tantrum-prone little boy, and the ominous storybook creature who enters their home and their psyches. Essie Davis gives one of the year’s outstanding performances as a parent with conflicted attitudes toward her very demanding son. Imagine Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion stuck with a kid, and you’ve got a rough approximation of this potent psychological chiller.

And here’s a list of runners-up, all worth tracking down: Wild, Snowpiercer, A Most Violent Year, The Boxtrolls, Venus in Fur, American Sniper, Birdman, Foxcatcher, Edge of Tomorrow, Get On Up. We Are the Best!, Selma, Pride, Locke, and Keep On Keepin’ On.

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