Last year, I had a difficult time deciding what the best film of the year was. This year, I was pleased that it was almost too easy.
Actually, it was almost too easy, to the point where I had to exclude some of the films I would have loved to mention. It’s been a while since that’s happened. Over the past few years I’ve struggled mightily to find films worthy of inclusion. It was not that great films didn’t exist. Rather, it was impossible to actually see them. I live about twenty minutes away from a large U.S. metropolitan area. There are a number of independent theaters where I live. Some of them are very famous. There are also more multiplexes than I would ever care to count.
But all of those theaters play the sort of populist garbage that serves as a brief distraction rather than a profound experience. Hollywood spends a fortune producing scripts that feel like someone decided that a Syd Field guide was a connect-the-dots puzzle.
I had always hoped that people would rebel against these sorts of mawkish, dumb films. And this year, it seems like they did. The box office totals were significantly down throughout the year as people threw up their hands in frustration. With a few exceptions (like Guardians of the Galaxy, which didn’t make my list but I still admire for being highly imaginative and very fun), all blockbusters released this year were so bloated and pathetically banal that no sane audience could gain anything from them. So people stayed away, choosing instead to binge watch classic films and great new TV shows on platforms like Netflix.
If studios don’t change, those viewing habits are going to become the norm. People will not spend the time or the money to sit in darkened room awash with advertising and rude boors who destroy the atmosphere with their cell phones just to watch a dumb film where a lot of things get blown up and a lot of characters yell. They are going to take control of their movie watching experience in ways that will cost studios and filmmakers. If they want to survive, studios need to make better films.
2014 demonstrated they are capable of doing exactly that. My list actually includes some major blockbusters that had wide openings and made large amounts of money. But major studios still have a long way to go before the tide turns back. Hopefully this year will be a great start down that path.
This year I want to do something a little different. Instead of just picking one film to stand out above the others, I want to award my top three. I feel this three did stand apart from the others on the list. Besides, if it’s good enough for the people playing the ponies at the track, it’s good enough for me.
So, without further ado, here is my rundown of the best films of 2014.
FILM OF THE YEAR
As I said at the beginning of this piece, it was remarkably easy to pick a best film of the year. But this film shouldn’t have been as successful as it was. It was a grand experiment that doesn’t sound like it would make a cohesive whole. But the film works perfectly both as a time capsule for people my age and as proof that film possesses an emotional power absent from any other medium. I cannot think of anywhere else this would have worked. With engaging characters, a documentary like feel about the nature of a person’s life, and intelligence that is absent pretty much everywhere, I cannot think of a way this film could be more perfect. Chances are, this film may top my list for the decade as well.
Boyhood (director: Richard Linklater)
I can’t think of anything else to say. This film is an incredible achievement at a time when everyone is lamenting the death of cinema itself. There’s still some life in it left and Richard Linklater shows us why. I hope that more people get a chance to see it.
Here’s where a few people may be surprised. I’ll spoil the selection for the people who don’t want to scroll down a few lines and look at the bold text – it’s an animated movie. And it’s not a Studio Ghibli movie, but a commercial animated movie released by a major studio that shouldn’t have any real ambitions of quality. I took some heat for hating Frozen, but I found that movie riddled with plot holes, emotionally manipulative scenes that made no sense in context, and based on character motivations that were impossible to understand. (ABC’s Once Upon a Time added the characters to its cast and actually address many of my complaints. It’s been great seeing them reworked for the show and I’m enjoying the season.) This movie has an even weaker plot that is threadbare. But it’s also so charming, smart, and funny that it’s impossible to overlook.
The Lego Movie (directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
The plot of this film is dumb – it’s the hero’s journey. But it’s also very smart in its understanding of how people craft stories in the first place. Toys like Legos are a part of the imagination that help children build their own adventures based on what they have seen. Isn’t that what film making and storytelling is? In an era without risks, this film is far, far better than it ever needed to be.
I actually debated between this and Nightcrawler, but I think that my pick edges the latter film out slightly due to its incredible plot structure and fantastic female lead performance. This was one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long, long time precisely because it keeps the audience guessing to the very end.
Gone Girl (director: David Fincher)
David Fincher is a director of great skill who knows what an audience needs. That’s something that links him to the classic Hollywood directors. Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have ambitions to make great art. He wanted to scare some people. Fincher takes the same approach to create one of the best thrillers in recent memory.
The rest of my picks are presented alphabetically, as is my custom.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (director: Matt Reeves) –
This film is what all summer blockbusters should aspire to be. It’s dependent on its special effects, but it’s also very smart. It has so many engaging features, from explorations on the birth of civilization to the origin of war. Serkis’ Caesar is one of my favorite performances of the year, even though he relies on computers to bring his character to life. But it doesn’t matter. The script is so strong and the themes so amazing that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cannot be ignored. If Terrance Malick was given $200 million, I’m not sure that his film would differ greatly from Apes.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (director: Wes Anderson)-This is not my favorite Wes Anderson film. But from a technical standpoint, Budapest is his best film. It’s certainly his most challenging. There are narrative tricks that are nearly impossible to pull off convincingly and jumps around genres as though it is picking pastries from some obscure European bakery. The film is a prison escape film, an espionage film, a dry comedy, a nostalgic reflection of a simpler time, and a war drama. And it manages to be all of these things without ever losing sight of its ultimate goal – to be entertaining without insulting the audience’s intelligence.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (director: Frank Pavich)–Even in his 80s, counter-culture filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an incredible storyteller. The entire film is based on him talking about his great unrealized project. He doesn’t talk about it with the sadness usually associated with a lost work. He still is as energetic with us as he is with the investors who would have financed his masterpiece. Dune has become one of the most famous unmade films ever made. We’ve finally gotten a chance to see a version of it, and even in this form it’s worth discussing.
Life Itself (director: Steve James)– I surrendered myself in my review because I was so emotionally connected with the subject that it would have been impossible for me to not like this film. But it was still an amazing look at an amazing end. Roger Ebert had always put on a brave face for us as he talked about his battle with cancer and the loss of his ability to speak. This film was a revealing one. We saw the struggles of his daily life and how he sometimes let his armor slip. That would be great enough, but the film also functions as a wonderful obituary. We see his work, his life, and the people he touched. I can’t think of a film this year that accomplished its goals more thoroughly or a time I was more emotionally touched in the theater.
Nightcrawler (director: Dan Gilroy)-This film reflected our age in a way that I wasn’t even sure was possible. All of the characters seem to exist in a YouTube video, where the most important thing is to get people to look at you. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis is the perfect representation of what people think of when they think of a millennial. He’s a man who only cares about the ends and who doesn’t view the people he meets as people. It’s fascinating to see him work and frightening to know there are people like him out there now making a fortune.
Only Lovers Left Alive (director: Jim Jarmusch)-This is a vampire movie about vampires who are awkward recluses. They use pathetically bad ruses to obtain blood. One is an outsider musician who doesn’t know what he wants with eternity. In other words, this is the first film of the modern era that acknowledges that, if vampires existed, they would be very creepy. There is no pop culture coolness associated with these types of characters. Jarmusch has always been an expert at deconstructing American pop genres and pointing out just how sinister our desires are. Only Lovers demonstrates that. It’s the best film he’s made since Ghost Dog.
Under the Skin (director: Johnathan Glazer)-This is one of the oddest films of the year. There’s practically no dialogue, the plot is flimsy, and the scenes depend on single images that make no sense on their own. In other words, Under the Skin is remarkably brave for a film that came out this decade. It allowed for interpretation, something that most modern films are almost afraid of. If Nicholas Roeg was still the powerhouse that he was in the 1970s, this is the sort of film he’d make. And that’s what makes it good. It’s able to acknowledge that the best science fiction depends on ideas and interpretations. I’m not sure how well the film will age, but I love the fact that someone took chances in its making.