The 10 Best Films of 2014

As catalogued in Moving Pictures’ very first article published just over a year ago, 2013 was a spectacular year in film.  2014 was no different.  In fact, there’s an encouraging emergent pattern suggesting that the Hollywood establishment is starting to catch back up, after years of wandering the cultural wastelands, with what constitutes art (and real entertainment) worthy of recognition.  After years of watching my favorite films go unnoticed I’d come to expect the narrow taste of the Academy. But this year, like last year, more than half of the films on Moving Pictures’ top ten list were also nominated for Oscars.  Are award nominations a true barometer of a film’s worth?  Of course not.  But with awards come funding, access and support for future projects.  For that reason, 2014 was an exciting year even beyond the fine cinematic specimens listed below.

This list comes a little late, I know, and there’s a slew of evidently top notch films that I unfortunately have not yet had a chance to see.  In the interest of full disclosure, I missed out on the well received Selma, American Sniper, Leviathan, Listen Up Philip, Mr. Turner and Winter Sleep.  I plan to see them all, and I encourage anyone reading this to do the same, but I can’t in good critical conscience release a 2014 year in review piece beyond Q1 of 2015. Perhaps it speaks to the embarrassment of riches heaped upon filmgoers last year that I simply didn’t have the time.  At any rate, I hope you enjoy these thoughts and please share yours in the comments section below.

10. A Most Violent Year (Dir. J.C. Chandor)

a_most_violent_yearEdging just into this year’s top ten is a film about, more than anything else, a time and place.  1981 was New York City’s most violent year on record up to that point and director J.C. Chandor infuses every frame with a dark yet penetrating quality that brings the period setting to dread-inducing life.  Oscar Isaac continues his artistic hot streak as the complex and conflicted Abel Morales, a business/family man who slowly but steadily becomes a second rate wiseguy in the face of mounting crises.  Jessica Chastain turns in an excellent (and Oscar-snubbed) performance as Abel’s wife Anna, the perennial devil on her husband’s shoulder.  It’s refreshing to see a strong female character with the agency to be a bad person, though Chandor’s nuanced characterization suggests explanations for her behavior via her own backstory. And while A Most Violent Year also happens to be beautiful to look at, its real success lies in its ability to bring together all of it’s moving parts to viscerally convey the rot of NYC in ‘81.

Read the full review HERE.

9. Two Days, One Night (Dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)

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As I write these words, Two Days, One Night is the most recent film I’ve seen (just three days ago).  This latest outing from sibling French directors and Cannes darlings the Dardenne Brothers is a tight, minimalistic meditation on human nature in the form of a modern day fable.  Anchored by compatriot Marion Cotillard’s naturalistic and desperate performance, the filmmakers utilize a spare visual and narrative style that boils Two Days, One Night (an appropriately unadorned title) down to is most rudimentary, and most meaningful, elements.  Cotillard’s Sandra is a young mother and wife already teetering on the edge of a deep depression when she learns she’s been laid off from her factory job at a solar panel plant.  Faced with the possibility of having to move her family into public housing, and more importantly, her own dark impulses, Sandra has one weekend to convince her coworkers one by one to forgo a hefty bonus in favor of keeping her on.  This singular premise provides a nimble vehicle through which to explore a wide range of human emotion and behavior.  The final product is a work of truth and authenticity that, in the end, reveals itself to be about so much more than one woman’s fight to save her job: it’s a different kind of fight entirely, and one that we’ve all faced at one point or another.

8. Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller)

FOXCATCHERFoxcatcher is a divisive film.  While many applaud its craftsmanship and powerful performances, many others have trouble with its decidedly dour tone and narrative flaws.  It’s true that the third act feels a little clumsy, reading conversely (and perplexingly) as both rushed and dragged out, but personally I land squarely in the former camp.  It helps that the filmmakers’ inspiration is such a fascinatingly bizarre (and for me, local) story of true crime.  Visually speaking, director Bennett Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser have concocted a film that’s gorgeous in it’s drabness, yet also containing some of the most arresting shots of the year.  It’s the interplay of the film’s 3 leads, however, that really makes Foxcatcher special.  Channing Tatum and Steve Carell play beautifully against type, and Mark Ruffalo, marvelous as always, provides the film’s least showy yet most complex performance.  While not perfect, Foxcatcher is an interesting step in the right direction for all involved.

Read the full review HERE.

7. Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Whiplash-5547.cr2This is a film about the dark side of art, the agony that often outweighs the ecstasy.  Promising up-and-comer Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a first-year student at a prestigious music conservatory with aspirations of becoming a great jazz drummer (or as he puts it, “one of the greats”).  When he’s accepted into an elite ensemble helmed by an infamous, drill instructor of a conductor (J.K. Simmons in an Oscar winning role), the young musician is pushed to the brink of both genius and insanity.  Aside from its harrowing depiction of Neiman’s punishing craft, the film also says a lot about what such a lifestyle can do to personal relationships.  Whiplash is a keenly conceived and deftly executed tale of creative obsession, a student/teacher tug-of-war that culminates in one of more epic filmic finales in recent memory.  And my god, the music!

6. Force Majeure (Dir. Ruben Östlund)

Force Majeure filmWhat a strange and beautiful and ugly film.  Strange in it’s blend of wildly divergent tones, from disaster film to family drama to dark comedy.  Beautiful in it’s construction of the bright and sleekly contoured world of it’s characters, with IKEA-like set pieces that appropriately mirror the film’s Swedish origins. And ugly in its examination of our most unflattering primal instincts. Without divulging too much, Force Majeure is the story of a family vacationing in the French Alps whose entire dynamic and stability is upended by one subtly terrifying moment.  Said moment comes early on and the rest of the film deals with the fallout, though the penultimate scene (and maybe this is just my own phobias talking here) was one of the most tense and unsettling of the year for me.  Possessing the measured pace and patience that characterizes many international imports, Force Majeure is a dazzlingly uncomfortable train wreck from which one simply can’t look away.

5. Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy)

maxresdefaultWriter/director Dan Gilroy’s scathing yet hilarious indictment of media sensationalism run amok and the callow characters who inhabit its landscape has been accused by some of being too on-the-nose.  It’s message it glaringly clear, yes, but there’s no fault in being bold when said phenomenon is still obviously a huge real-world problem.  Beyond that, Nightcrawler is so vividly and expertly realized (whether through Jake Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing performance or Robert Elswit’s laser cut photography) that anything less than its delightfully outlandish plot would be somehow inappropriate.  Gilroy, a first time director, clearly knows how to pull together an A Team of collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, and his dialogue, especially, uses sharp humor to deliver disturbing ideas in a way that’s challenging but not inaccessible.  This, my friends, is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

4. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Birdman13It’s both shocking and encouraging that a film like Birdman could win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  It’s experimental in structure, self deprecating metafiction in style, and reads mostly as a comedy tonally (usually a non-starter in terms of Oscar buzz).  Ultimately the accolades do more to elevate their bestower than the recipient, which speaks entirely for itself as a formidably made, haunting and deeply funny achievement. Birdman’s use of music, camerawork, and performances coupled with its ability to pack a wide ranging and immaculately rendered depiction of human emotion into one film made it one of the most fun and affecting viewing experiences of the year for me.

Read the full review HERE.

3. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)

25-boyhoodThe Birdman/Boyhood dichotomy created an exciting competition and conversation that came to define this year’s awards season.  Both are amazing movies, vastly different in style and substance, and representing divergent value systems around creating art.  While Birdman is a towering technical achievement heavy on style with a wink-wink type premise, Boyhood (director Richard Linklater’s grand experiment twelve years in the making) is a no filter, small-moments-focused piece that is more or less content to simply observe.  As in life, there are dramatic moments, but much of the film’s almost three hour runtime is taken up by the more mundane.  It speaks volumes to the caliber of each performance that this never gets old, and it’s that ability to create those (sorry for the cliche) slices of life, just as much as the decision to film the same actors over a twelve year period, that makes the world of Boyhood feel so lived in and alive.

Read the full review HERE.

2. The Overnighters (Dir. Jesse Moss)

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This dynamic, funny and heartrending documentary was my sleeper favorite of 2014.  I knew relatively little about it as I entered a free screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival, but I would imagine it was just as surprising and moving an experience to those who had followed the film’s trajectory more closely.  Most documentaries these days are “issue” films, and while there are many issues at play in The Overnighters (the environment, the economy, the justice system), it’s the characterization, the narrative drama and even the Malickesque camerawork that let this film stand up to and above some of the most expertly crafted fiction available.  The confluence of quality, substance and format is what makes The Overnighters such a lasting experience.  Pastor Jay Reinke, the film’s principal subject, is a figure of such desperation, joy and sadness that one could easily imagine finding him between the pages of a tragic novel.

Read the full review HERE.

1. Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Undertheskin-3This is a film that few people saw and probably even fewer enjoyed.  I don’t think that’s right, but it’s certainly understandable.  Under the Skin is a challenging film to be sure; scarce on dialogue, it utilizes a potentially B movie-style narrative conveyed through a schizophrenic combination of both cinema verite and painstakingly manipulated imagery.  It works, and amazingly well, for two reasons, the first being Scarlett Johansson’s transformative, otherworldly performance.  The second is director Jonathan Glazer’s level of taste and his skill and patience to follow through with such a genius concept so uncompromisingly.  This filmmaker’s dedication and command of craft, just as much as the artistic style itself, evoke the term Kubrickian perhaps more appropriately than anything else I’ve seen since the death of the genuine article.  Under the Skin took ten years to make, but it should (and hopefully will) be remembered for ten times that.

Read the full review HERE.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)

The Immigrant (Dir. James Gray)

Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher)

Life Itself (Dir. Steve James)

Last Days in Vietnam (Dir. Rory Kennedy)

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