It wasn’t a great year for the American film industry: Movie attendance was at its lowest since 1995! The 2014 summer season, the industry’s flagship period, was the least financially successful one since 2006! Even guaranteed blockbusters like the Transformers and Spider-Man franchises underperformed. Reasons for the slump range from competition from television to franchise fatigue but the lack of originality is probably the biggest culprit. Audiences like established brands like Marvel but they’re also hungry for new material to chew on. When nearly every blockbuster is either a sequel, remake or based on an established brand, where’s the incentive to engage in the pop cultural conversation? Audiences flocked to Guardians of the Galaxy— still the year’s biggest hit—because it felt fresh. People went to see Interstellar on IMAX screens because its story demanded it. And Gone Girl spent more than 10 weeks on the box office top 10 because it was one of the few mainstream studio movies made by and for adults.
Other than the financial slump, industry trends once again illustrated that women and minorities continue to be marginalized and underrepresented, both in front of and behind the camera. Yes, 12 Years a Slave was anointed Best Picture in March, Alfonso Cuaron became the first Mexican filmmaker to win a Best Director Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence reigned as Hollywood’s biggest star, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 will end its run as 2014’s biggest blockbuster. But these are still one offs. I’m not optimistic for huge strides in 2015 but baby steps… I’m also troubled by the concerns voiced by filmmakers, both new and established, about the difficulty in financing stories that aren’t franchise-friendly gunk or minuscule indies. If all we have to look forward to every year are Spider-Man movies and flaccid Stephen Hawking biopics, what’s going to happen to the mid-tier studio movies aimed at adults?
On a more personal note, the untimely deaths of screen legends Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams were crushing blows. Both actors played vital roles in my formative years as a film lover. I watched A Most Wanted Man and Moscow on the Hudson within a week of each other during the holiday break and it still breaks my heart that these two titans aren’t in the world anymore.
I don’t like ending things on a depressing note like a Michael Haneke movie so I’ll say this: Personally, 2014 was a wonderful year. It zipped by and offered many delights. Some of those highs include my long-time friends as well as my rag-tag fellow South Florida-based critic buds. You know who you are. I see some of you every week of the year, others not nearly enough. I’m just glad to call you my friends. I’m also eternally grateful for my health, my family and my job. Who knows what I’d be without them. Here’s hoping 2015 is equally if not more rewarding!
It may have been a bad year for the industry but when it came to the movies themselves, 2014 offered a bounty of quality offerings, provided you were willing to look in the right places. It was such a strong year that movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice), Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Birdman), Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) all failed to make the cut. This extended to the world of international cinema. Movies that I really liked but couldn’t find place for include Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Leviathan, a Russian retelling of the Book of Job, 2013 Cannes Jury Prize winner Like Father Like Son, the gorgeous stark black-and-white Polish drama (and Foreign Language Film Oscar-frontrunner) Ida, and the funny coming-of-age tale We Are the Best!
At the end of day, I watched 99 movies in 2014. And that’s just counting 2014 releases. The overall number is north of 200. You can find the detailed breakdown of my 2014 movie-watching habits on my Letterboxd page. (yes, it is geeky, but I wear that as a badge of honor). It goes without saying that this list is an incredibly personal selection. No movie makes this list because I felt it was “important” to include. I don’t care to make any statements or push forward any causes when I make a Best of list. We have the Library of Congress for that. Cutting 99 down to 40 was easy. Cutting the 40 down to the final 20 was harder. Picking the final 10 was the worst. I think sentimentality is creeping into my blood the older I get. This list could change tomorrow but we live in the now so here goes…
Each one of these movies had a place on my top 10 at some point. But for some trivial reason or another, they failed to make the cut. Here are my honorable mentions, listed alphabetically. Click on the titles to read my reviews/watch each film’s trailer.
By choosing to film a historical moment as it happens—former CIA analyst and NSA contractor Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance techniques—Laura Poitras’ unnerving Citizenfour plays like a real-life thriller. A government is supposed to serve its citizens, not be feared by them. You’ll never look at your cell phone the same way again.
Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow may not convert those who remain steadfast in the “Tom Cruise is crazy” camp nor stake claim as one of the giants of the genre. But with its clever Gears of War meets Groundhog Day conceit and Cruise’s best performance in a decade, the film was a funny, visceral and invigorating time that I wanted to see over and over again.
An effervescent pastiche of pop filmmaking, James Gunn’s rousing space opera Guardians of the Galaxy plays like a mixtape of everything you loved as a kid wrapped in an irreverent 21st century package. I walked in not knowing anything about Groot, Rocket and company but left feeling like I knew them, wanting to know more about them, and most definitely hooked on a feeling, high on believing…
Unlike most sequels that go bigger and more expansive, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the rare sequel that isn’t a rehash but a natural progression from its predecessor. Aided by its stunning animation, glorious 3D and rousing score, writer-director Dean DeBlois manages to make a movie that is both, more far-reaching and more intimate than his triumphant original. It also isn’t afraid to mine darker territory and make you cry. It was the year’s best animated film.
It’s easy to brush off James Gray’s atmospheric drama The Immigrant as just another American Dream cautionary tale. But Gray’s romantic direction, Marion Cotillard’s soulful performance and Darius Khonji’s sepia-tinted chiaroscuro cinematography turned into a loving ode to the resilience and tenacity of immigrants—and how those qualities served to build this nation.
The only thing legendary film critic Roger Ebert loved more than movies was life itself. Steve James’ documentary Life Itself is an affirmation of that statement. Unlike many talking head pieces that unintentionally turn their heroes into deities, James’ film covers nearly every aspect of the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic’s life, including the ugly and downright unwatchable stuff. It’s exactly the type of film Ebert would have championed.
Dan Gilroy’s auspicious debut, the pitch black satire Nightcrawler, is an unforgiving arraignment of the ratings-crazy media guised as pulse-pounding Los Angeles crime thriller. It’s also a striking character-study of a beyond cringe-worthy and over-zealous ringworm named Louis Bloom played by Jake Gyllenhaal in one of the year’s most memorable performances. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a character this repulsive yet so magnetic. I doubt I’ll forget him.
Jim Jarmusch’s hypnotic character study Only Lovers Left Alive—about two introspective, possibly depressed, vampires named Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton)—was the best film I caught at the 2014 Miami International Film Festival in March. With its sharp wit, non-existent plot, and lethargic pace, Jarmusch’s film is more tonal poem than plot-driven prose. Yet, it says more in its long stretches of silences about the world we live in than most dialogue-driven dramas. Ohhh, and that soundtrack, man.
There’s no other way to put it: The Indonesian martial arts drama The Raid 2 was the best action movie of 2014. With this film, writer-editor-director Gareth Evans’ more than confirms his place as one of international cinema’s most virtuoso artists. The plot beats may be derivative but the fight scenes are anything but. They come at you like a series of sucker punches to the gut, giving the film a shot of fire: Kinetic is a good word. Vicious is another. Poetic is ideal.
Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma is a taut and thoughtful piece of filmmaking. It’s a work of a filmmaker with laser sharp focus and in complete control of her storytelling tools. Using Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 as a starting point, DuVernay asks us, as a nation, to answer for the racial conflicts that continue to pervade our television screens today. It’s the movie this country needs today and right now.
With its copious expository dialogue, thin characters, convoluted plotting, excessive scientific mumbo jumbo, and shortage of action scenes, Christopher Nolan’s hard sci-fi epic Interstellar can be an incredibly frustrating cinematic experience. But here it is, on my top 10, above the likes of films by Jim Jarmusch, Steve James, Ava DuVernay, Laura Poitras… and Groot. Here’s why: For every moment that frustrated me, there were two more that filled me with wonder, and had me gawking over its sheer scale and ambition. Interstellar may arguably be the first instance in Nolan’s career where his reach truly exceeds his grasp but even with its gross imperfections and corny “love conquers all” rhetoric, it’s far more intellectually stimulating than the last 10 big budget blockbusters to hit cinemas. Like I stated in my review… I’m glad a film like this exists. I’m glad there’s a filmmaker like Nolan in Hollywood today—a filmmaker who works within the confines of the studio system and uses his power to make movies that push the boundaries of blockbuster filmmaking.
Every so often while watching the news or reading about a horrific world event, I ask myself a question: What would I do if I were in that situation? More specifically, how would I react? That’s a question Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund poses in his blistering and deviously funny black comedy Force Majeure. Centering on a Swedish family of four vacationing at a ski resort in the French Alps, Östlund’s social experiment comes into focus when a controlled avalanche hits the resort resulting in a split-second decision from one of the family members that changes the dynamic of the family forever. What follows is a tense, at times uncomfortable but outrageously funny drama that interrogates the nature of masculinity, the purpose of archaic gender roles, and how the decisions we make are perceived by others. See it with someone you love and watch them cringe with horror when you ask them, “What would you do?”
Of all the movies on my best of list, The Lunchbox is the one I’m most certain that none of you have seen (or heard of). Ritesh Batra’s tender romantic drama came and went from South Florida cinemas in the spring of 2014 without a trace. It was such a blip on the radar that I seem to be the only Miami-based film critic who’s actually watched the movie! I think my Indian heritage helped spark my interest in it. Although the characters speak in Hindi and the story is set in Mumbai, The Lunchbox isn’t really a Bollywood movie. For one, there aren’t any glitzy musical numbers. There aren’t any fantastical action sequences either. And the plot doesn’t revolve around a hot stud and a leggy babe. Instead, Batra’s film is about a platonic relationship that develops between a young housewife and an aging widower after a lunchbox delivery from the former, meant for her husband, mistakenly lands on the desk of the later. A thoroughbred charmer in the vein of The Artist and romantic by the way of In the Mood for Love, Batra’s film also has the benefit of featuring the magnificent Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire) whose devastating performance in this film is a piece of measured restraint. Oh, and I should mention that the eye-popping shots of Indian food will make you salivate.
In the last decade, there’s been a sudden resurgence of European prison dramas, the likes of Bronson, Hunger and especially Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, making waves internationally. David Mackenzie’s gritty drama Starred Up is the latest in the subgenre, and probably the best of its kind since the aforementioned trio. Like Audiard’s masterpiece, Mackenzie’s drama concerns its plot on a teenager prematurely shipped off by a society that couldn’t care less about his rehabilitation to rot in a grim-filled cage full of dangerous hard knocks. Jack O’Connell, who also starred in Angelina Jolie’s World War II drama Unbroken, plays Eric Love, a 19-year-old juvenile prone to terrifying bursts of violence, who is transferred to an adult prison that also houses his estranged father (the always magnificent Ben Mendelsohn). But as Eric tries to navigate the complicated hierarchy within the walls of the prison, he finds himself making enemies faster than he can make friends, leaving him to fend for himself. That is until a therapist (Rupert Friend) challenges him to attend his anger management group within the prison and face his demons. But what chance does the kid have when his biggest enemy is the one person who’s supposed to be protecting him from it all? Superbly written by Jonathan Asser (who worked 12 years as a prison therapist), Starred Up tackles the alien world of life behind bars with verve and brutal honesty. Just make sure you watch it with the subtitles on.
Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange was a surprise. I’d heard about the film when it premiered at Sundance but prematurely brushed it off as just another one of those Sundance indies, in spite of it featuring a strong cast that included John Lithgow, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei. The fact that I waited until the end of December to finally catch up with this affecting film had me slapping myself in embarrassment. Sachs’ delicately wrought drama centers on an elderly gay couple—wonderfully played by Lithgow and Molina—whose decision to finally tie the knot after 39 years of being together, leads to the latter being unceremoniously fired from his job as a choral director at a prestigious Catholic school. Forced to sell their apartment in Manhattan and live separately at the apartments of various in-laws and relatives, all who have problems of their own, the duo is faced with the unexpected challenges of being in a long distance relationship. Incredibly affectionate in its depiction of the complexities and challenges of relationships, Sachs’ mature and slow-moving drama touches on issues that are universal to relationships—straight or gay—and was one of the only two films of 2014 that had me holding back tears. How Alfred Molina doesn’t have an Oscar, or even a bloody nomination to his name, flabbergasts me!
After breaking out in 2011 with his debut feature, the Wall Street financial crisis drama Margin Call, writer-director J.C. Chandor proved that he was more than a one trick pony with the near wordless, technically dazzling survival thriller All is Lost. For his third and best film, A Most Violent Year, Chandor evokes the spirit of Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin for a story that examines the quest for the American Dream and how the allure of moral decay and corruption lurks on every corner, threatening to soil that dream. Set in the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in New York City’s history, Chandor’s film focuses on three tension-filled days in the life a Latin American businessman named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) who tries to do the right thing when his blossoming family-owned oil business comes under attack from unknown assailants. As the attacks become progressively more violent, Abel finds himself under enormous pressure from his associates, including his tough-as-nails wife (Jessica Chastain in a show-stopping performance) to fight back using illegal means. Contrary to the film’s misleading title, A Most Violent Year isn’t a cops and robbers film or a mob saga but a tightly constructed slow-burn that relies on its wicked smart screenplay, Oscar Isaac’s magnetic performance, and Bradford Young’s atmospheric photography to engross you. Once the players have been placed and the mood has been set, Chandor makes his move, slowly tightening the noose on Abel and us as the countdown to a tense finale begins.
If you subscribe to the philosophy that the tale is in the telling, then Gone Girl is a damn fine example of how to tell it right. Much more than your average whodunit, David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s slick and frankly sick domestic drama is a damning portrait of marriage and the ugliness that lurks behind the visage of happiness. It’s a scathing indictment of the American Dream, the vampires on broadcast media and, like Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, a darkly comic satire on the feeding frenzy that erupts when idiot America buys into the bullshit TV sells them. There’s a reason why Gone Girl spent 10 weeks in the box office top 10, and it’s not just because they could catch a glimpse of Ben Affleck’s junk over and over again (although that didn’t hurt its popularity). This was a movie targeted to adults and made by a team of incredibly smart ones at that. Most of all, it was held together by a spellbinding leading performance from a talented actress who finally got her big breakthrough after languishing as eye candy in B-grade schlock for more than a decade. Welcome to the big show, Rosamund. You deserve it.
At this point, there isn’t really much to add to the conversation about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood but it’s on my top 10, and I’ve been banging the drum for it since it opened in South Florida in July. Made on a shoe-string budget with a limited cast and shot over a period of 12 years, Linklater’s film is nothing short of a monumental achievement in the world of American filmmaking. The fact that this tiny experiment—which chronicles Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he ages from a shy and inquisitive 6-year-old into an introspective, intelligent 18-year-old—turned out to be one of the smartest, warmest and most penetrating takes on the fleeting nature of life, is just staggering! Like most of Linklater’s films, nothing about Boyhood feels staged or rehearsed. There’s a naturalistic quality to it that makes you feel as if you’re peeking into the lives of a real middle-class family; And unlike many films that concern themselves with the business of growing up, Linklater chooses to focus on the smaller moments of life instead of the big ones. Boyhood reminds us that the meaning of life isn’t found in our end goals and high aspirations but in the moments we make and cherish with one another.
“Good job. There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’” So posits J.K. Simmon’s sadistic jazz instructor Fletcher in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s pulse-pounding musical drama Whiplash. Coming at you like a sledgehammer at 200-miles-an-hour, Whiplash explodes on-screen with its energetic direction, fire-cracker editing and searing performances. It’s an invigorating, adrenaline-fused sparring match between two colossally pig-headed men, played by Miles Teller and the incredible Simmons, who will stop at nothing in their quest for artistic perfection. You may not be able to tell the difference between rushing and dragging before you watch Whiplash but by the time you’re done with it, something tells me you will. Winner of the Grand Jury and Audience prizes at Sundance 2014, Whiplash, is a lot like Black Swan in that it’s a heightened study of ambition, ego, madness and the lengths people go to attain greatness. It enraptures you from its first frame and only progresses to tighten its hold on you for the rest of its running time. But unlike Darren Aronofsky’s film, it leaves you breathless and on an incredible high that, even two months later, I can’t seem to shake.
As I began compiling entries for my Best of 2014 list in early December, I knew there were at least three films that would almost certainly make my year-end list. The first one was Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. No movie released in 2014 gave me a stronger rush of blood to the head than that one. But upon second viewing, its impact deflated a bit. The second film was Boyhood. Unlike Whiplash, Richard Linklater’s film actually grew in stature the second time I watched it—impressive considering its near three hour running time.
But no film from 2014 stuck with me more than Wes Anderson’s madcap, slapstick caper comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’ve seen the film four times now, and every time I watch it, it only continues to grow in esteem. I really think the film is Anderson’s masterpiece, and the culmination of everything he’s been working up to his entire career. It meshes the wistful nature of The Royal Tenenbaums with the rebellious spirit of Rushmore, infuses it with the heart of Moonrise Kingdom and tops it all with the slapstick energy of Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s also his most engaging, dramatically complex, not to mention most mature film to date.
The Grand Budapest Hotel sees Anderson in complete control of his aesthetic and storytelling. It’s the movie in which he tells his critics to shove it because he’s going to do it his way. This includes the folks who think his movies are too whimsical, too twee, too violent, and too mean-spirited toward cats and dogs.
As I stated in my review of the film from March 2014, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a simple story, elegantly told. It may have the sheen and familiarity of a greatest hits package but with its Russian nesting doll structure, fastidious attention to design, and Ralph Fiennes’ stupendous for-the-ages performance, it feels as sumptuous as a strawberry soufflé and as exciting as an unwrapped gift. I loved every second of it, and that’s why it’s my favorite movie of 2014.