So better late then never! Especially because last year I got super neurotic about this and couldn’t bring myself to do a top 10 list. This year I didn’t see everything but I saw enough, so here are my thoughts on 2014 in film.
Disclaimer: Life changed a lot in 2014, so did my taste in film. I saw a lot of good movies this year, but I wanted my top 10 to only contain the type of movies where you want to bang on everyone’s front door and be like “you gotta gotta gotta see this film!”
To be more specific, I went to school for film and I still am pursuing film as my career. This has led to me feeling like as an artist I want to feel that the film is communicating with me in some sort of way. I want to see young filmmakers who are attempting to break new ground, and switch stuff up. I want to see movies where it feels like everything is out on the line, and if this film fails then the whole world is going to come to an end. Essentially, I want to be inspired! So without further rambling these are the 10 films that inspired me this year!
10. The Guest (Director: Adam Wingard)
Horror is a finicky genre. This year I saw a number of horror movies that made me feel like somewhere in the far off sectors of the indie film circle there are people who are in touch with the horror genre. I liked the Babadook a lot, I like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night a lot, and The Guest I friggin loved.
The Guest isn’t breaking new ground, but it is exploring old ground in a way that feels really fresh. In the past years we have seen some bad remakes of the slow burn horror genre like Stepdaddy and The Roommate. Movies where we as the audience go into the film knowing something is off about the title character, but it takes the characters in the film a little bit of time to catch up. The Guest is a reminder of why this type of horror can be so much fun. Adam Wingard ends up taking all these Drive (2011) elements; lots of neon colors, super fun set pieces, and best of all, lots of synthy, odes to the 80s type music! Haunted When The Minutes Drag is the first song to the soundtrack. Listen to it!
These elements all end up making The Guest feel super fun, like fun in a way where you don’t need to be a big fan of horror to understand you are watching something different. I admit that 2/3 of the way through it nearly goes off the rails, but it redeems itself with an epic final sequence that takes place inside a halloween themed high school gymnasium!
9. Under the Skin (Director: Jonathan Glazer)
The Academy Awards would give you the impression that it was a semi-weak year for actresses in cinema, which is really just plain garbage! It just happens that most of the movies that had great female performances, many of which are going on this list, didn’t have any money to do proper award season campaigning. Under the Skin is ones of those films.
A lot of my favorite films this year touched upon feminist concepts. What makes Under the Skin so interesting is that we we don’t even know the extent of how much “The Female,” played by Scarlett Johansson, even recognizes that she is a women. The Female stalks around Scotland (literarily they just filmed Scarlett Johansson in character going around talking to strangers) and seduces susceptible men to be harvested by her alien race (presumably, the film is very vague).
So on the surface, Under the Skin, has this hunter becomes the hunted concept. How unfortunate that men who treat Scarlett Johansson as just a piece of meat, end up literally being harvest for their…meat? Even that is a simple explanation for the film. I really enjoyed Glazer’s decision to have the movie be slow and methodical. We just sort of wander along side The Female, watching her attempt to make understanding of our world. While she seems to be super alienated and often frightened by her surroundings, it is interesting to watch her attempt to understand the beauty of humanity.
Also, Mica Levi composed the best score of the year, hands down. To me it could easily contend with the other films nominated for best score, for all we know it could of won best score of the year if it had been nominated. Just listen to this track “LOVE.”
8. Coherence (Director: James Ward Byrkit)
I can’t believe it, I get to put two science fiction films on my top 10 list this year! I guess micro-budget science fiction is one of the best things about cinema right now! Raise your hand if you want to see Christopher Nolan make a Science Fiction film for less then 2 Million dollars…only me…okay fine!
Coherence is essentially an extended Twilight Zone episode, which for me is great because I love the Twilight Zone. Em, played by Emily Baldoni, is just casually driving up to a dinner party when suddenly her phone screen cracks! DUN DUN DUN. As it turns out everyone at the dinner party has lost reception because there is a comet going overhead. Then suddenly they lose lights to their house…but there is one house a few blocks down that has lights…what gives? Upon further inspection this house with lights, looks a lot like the house that the dinner party is at, and this house contains a box, a box with random objects and pictures of everyone at the dinner party with numbers on the back. There is a picture of Amir that was clearly taken in the house, but Amir has no recollection of the picture being taken. Something is wrong, and Em has to get to the bottom of it.
Coherence is incredibly ambitious with the story. It could easily fall apart at any moment, and somehow stays afloat and engaging. What is even more astonishing is that James Ward Byrkit essentially had his 8 actors go through improv exercises, never really telling them exactly what the movie was about. This created genuine confusion with the actors, which helps given that the film has a number of twist and turns along the way. Coherence pulls off one big twist, a twist that I think puts Interstellar to shame!
7. Obvious Child (Director: Gillian Robespierre)
Move over Marcel The Shell, Jenny Slate has huge ambitions, and Obvious Child proves that in a big way. Here me out, I know that Obvious Child has elements of Girls, and has elements of Frances Ha, and has elements of other Mumblecore type films. Yet, I felt that Obvious Child created characters that felt super close to home for me. I know people like Donna, Nellie, and Joey. They live in New York, and struggle, and are just trying to make the right decisions about life. I live in New York, and struggle, and am just trying to make the right decisions with my life!
How can anyone resist the charms of a light hearted, quirky, bitter sweet abortion scene? On that note when was the last time you saw an abortion scene in a romantic comedy? Obvious Child feels like one of the best romantic comedies we have had in a long time. It is 100% a genre piece, except instead of it being a bumbling man who lands the perfect girl, its about the bumbling girl who lands the oddly okayish guy.
6. Virunga (Director: Orlando von Einsiedel)
Virunga is definitely the film that got the biggest emotional response out of me this year. It is an immensely powerful documentary that follows four heroes, who are going up against frightening goliath type forces that could easily destroy everything that their lives have been devoted to.
Virunga makes a very clear argument that Virunga National Park is essential not just for the survival of the only mountain gorillas on the planet, but also for the Congos on going mission towards stability. Then it shows a British Oil Company, Soco, that is clearly taking steps to destabilize the region in an on going effort to seek out oil.
Masahiro Hirakubo who edited Trainspotting was one of the lead editors on Virunga, and his effort absolutely shows. I was talking with an editing friend of mine about how crazy it must have been to craft Virunga into a tight documentary. The story sounds simplistic, but it actually has a lot of complex threads to cover, and has to keep track of 4 characters, and really 1-2 antagonists along the way. Needless to say the documentary hammers its message home, especially in a dramatic finale that really shows how much peril all of these characters are truly in.
5. Boyhood (Director: Richard Linklater)
So I couldn’t totally avoid award season type films on this list. I have always been a big fan of Richard Linklater’s experiments, I love Waking Life, The Before Trilogy, Bernie, and have definitely appreciated his failed experiments, like A Scanner Darkly, or even Fast Food Nation (just saying it’s not terrible). Boyhood might not be his most successful film, but is definitely his most ambitious experiment.
The film itself gets to focus in on different elements of time, more specifically on how we appreciate and lament the passing of time. Boyhoods soundtrack and cultural references are woven into the film in such a successful fashion because they are literal products of the time periods they were filmed in, and for me that gives it a certain charm that I just can’t break free of. I realize that for us to reach the end of the film we hit certain undeniable narrative bumps along the way, but I think all is forgiven by the two final scenes, which really hammer the film’s message home. Life can seems bitter sweet, or possibly even empty when you are Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquete), seeing life as a series of meaningless milestones, but this is ridiculous to Mason, who has finally grown into an age where life is endlessly exciting and full of new adventure.
4. The LEGO Movie (Director: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)
Okay so much to say about the LEGO movie…
In a world where I constantly feel like there are literal forces making this world a terrible place (Soco in Virunga), a kids movie got made that tries to give a blue print about how we can cope and negotiate with all the evil in the world.
The Lego Movie puts Emmet (Chris Pratt) in Bricksburg, a dystopia based on our world. Bricksburg and the rest of the Lego Universe exist in a world where Lord Business (Will Ferrell) controls everything, and attempts to stamp out creativity from a literal place of fear of what untampered creativity might produce. The Lego Movie doesn’t stop there, it takes this concept so much further, and suggests that maybe even creative types need a little innocent structure so that they can focus and use their skills to better the world.
It wraps up all these ideas by explaining that if we are going to live in a world where big business has so much control, and if we feel like tearing that structure apart is too hard, is it so much to ask that these forces at least use their endless resources to improve the world rather then, “commencing micro management” the shit out of everything! Who could of possibly expected that a giant advertisement for Legos could end up containing such strong socialist messages?
3. Force Majeure (Director: Ruben Östlund)
To me Gone Girl is a cranked up, over the top, moody David Fincher film, that happens to touch upon the forces of what male dominant culture does to women. But with Ben Affleck seeming so sympathetic throughout that film I think that some of its feminist messages are lost. Force Majeure examines similar territory but in a toned down subtle fashion. It might be the film I have thought most about this year.
The film itself feels like weird Woody Allen dark comedy, but what’s amazing is that to me it explores big issues in such a small scenario. Tomas, a self obsessed father, makes a marriage affecting plunder, when he seemingly abandons his family in a time of crisis, and then subsequently denies the abandonment. Ebba, Tomas’s meek wife, is unable to process these events because anything that would disillusion her opinions about strong family units could shatter her conceptions on her own identity.
At first I had big issues with the two concluding scenes in this film, but as I spent more time pondering on why the movie chooses to end in this fashion I realized that Ruben Östlund in an uncynical fashion has outlined how nuclear families create their own set of prisons, one that men thrive in from all directions, and women are picked at and criticized about in every direction.
2. Only Lovers Left Alive (Director: Jim Jarmusch)
Every year there is one film that I feel could immediately be entered into the cult midnight screening apparatus of the world. Only Lovers Left Alive is the ultimate too cool for school film, and beyond that it actually has strong messages that I think anyone could tap into and connect with. From the very first scene, you can tell that Jim Jarmusch is not interested in explaining or going through any sort of vampire mythology nonsense. He trusts that we as the audience know certain things when it comes to vampires, and that as a result he can just focus on answering the age old question, what does one do with eternal life? Apparently the answer is to read all the awesome books in the world, like Eve (Tilda Swinton), or listen to all the incredible music in the world, Like Adam (Tom Hiddleston), maybe do both if you feel like it. Yet, through Adam we start to deal with the real issue of immortality. How do you even begin to cope with living in a world that is so absurdly focused on destroying itself? The conclusion that Jarmusch seems to draw is that while it might impossible to ever cope with the evils of our world, we can at least get by through human (err) connection. After all if we are going to be depressed over “The Zombies” messing up the planet, you might as well have a fellow lover to talk to about it.
1. Citizenfour (Director: Laura Poitras)
Fake out, I did get to put a horror movie as my #1 film of the year! As far as I am concerned Citizenfour is the only movie people HAVE to see this year. Citizenfour is a huge accomplishment in documentary filmmaking, it combines elements of horror and espionage thrillers, and then infuses them into documentary story telling. What’s amazing is that this is accomplished simply through slight editing techniques, little inserts, and a subtle score.
Edward Snowden, the greatest whistleblower of my generation, sacrificed his comfortable life in attempt to inform the public of the misdeeds of our government’s National Surveillance Agency, as well as other governments surveillance agencies. In the documentary, Jacob Applebaum, a lead Occupy Wall activist at one point states, “What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy.” The film taps into this naive concept that as long as we do nothing wrong, no illegal activity, then why should I be bothered by the government’s unlimited surveillance. Citizenfour will slowly have you thinking how that is not only a dangerous way to think about the world, but also that this is what the government wants you think to justify their unconstitutional actions.
I feel like Citizenfour is an excellent conversation starter to an issues that seems to be on the back burner for a lot of folks, but as time goes on will be the most important political issue of our time. Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras are heroes. The end of the film clearly gives you the impression that this document leak will follow the three of them for the rest of their lives, and once you see the film you will realize how the issues they touch upon will follow us for the rest of our lives. In my world I would love to see Citizenfour nominated for best picture of the year, and win, because I really believe everyone should see this movie. It will be on Netflix instant watch Monday, so be sure to check it out, but keep in mind, the NSA might be watching you, as you watch Citizenfour!