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Monday, January 12, 2015

Alexander's Top 14 Films of 2014

2014 was a year full of great movies - great action, great drama, even a great romance, which is pretty damn rare these days. It was hard to cut this list down to just 10 picks, but then I remembered that numbers aren't the boss of me, for I am the king of the universe. So, that said, welcome to...

Alexander's Top 14 Films of 2014

14. Obvious Child

Directed by Gillian Robespierre

I have to admit, the first time I saw Obvious Child, it didn't entirely work for me. Robespierre's film functions wonderfully as a comedy, but the 'romantic' part of the romcom equation was a bit underdeveloped for my taste. But rewatching it after I started making this list bumped it up considerably in my opinion. Jenny Slate's low-key neuroses were more charming (and often funnier) while the subtle character touches of Jake Lacy's milquetoast male lead redeemed him somewhat. Obvious Child is also, and this is important, really fucking funny. Gillian Robespierre's film made a huge splash for its more controversial elements, but the real reason people will remember and discuss the film is as a surprisingly smart, nuanced debut for a major new writer and director.

(Purchase on Amazon)

13. 22 Jump Street

Directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Comedy sequels are hard to do well. In fact, off the top of my head, I literally can't think of a single comedy sequel that was as good as the original. Until now. Phil Lord and Chris Miller got a lot of good will this year for their immensely charming The LEGO Movie, a film I'm sure will appear on at least one of our Best Of lists, but for me, their most impressive feat in 2014 was crafting a fantastic sequel to their surprising comedy success 21 Jump Street. 22 Jump Street is a sequel about sequels, with fully a third of the film dedicated to essentially retelling the story of the first before delving into the inevitable dissatisfaction with that technique and forging its own path. Along the way, it also touches on the arc most buddy-cop films take with their leads, popular college movie tropes, and, in its best scene, the 'sexy fights' between the femme fatale and her male nemesis. It also introduced me to National Treasure Jillian Bell, so, hey, good job.

(Purchase on Amazon)

12. The Double

Directed by Richard Ayoade

So, a British comedian decides to adapt an obscure novella from acclaimed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and he decides to turn it into a grimly comic sci-fi dystopia in the vein of Terry Gilliam's classic Brazil? Those of you who know me know that this is pretty much made just for me. Ayoade has a cutting sense of humor here, and he finds the perfect lead in Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg has to play two roles, the first making use of his nebbishy nerd persona, while the second finds him channeling Mark Zuckerberg as his first character's bright, cocky doppleganger. Ayoade still struggles with his female characters, this time shortchanging Mia Wasikowska, but he also crafts one of the year's most satisfying comical dystopias.

(Purchase on Amazon)

11. Under the Skin

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

This is the chilliest film on this list by a long shot. There were a lot of movies that could charitably be called 'cold' this year, but few were as committed to the aesthetic as distant, alien Under the Skin, Jonathan Grazer's exploration of a mysterious, otherworldly woman who seduces men in semi-rural Scotland takes the cake. Scarlet Johannson gives a frighteningly inhuman performance, and given how many stretches of the film are completely dialogue-free, a huge amount of her performance is nonverbal. It doesn't matter; she's phenomenal in the role. Under the Skin is a movie that can viscerally repel viewers who don't lose themselves to its rhythms, but it will speak very powerfully to a select few.

(Purchase on Amazon)
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

If big-screen romance is dead, thank goodness no one told Gina Prince-Bythewood. Her romantic melodrama shouldn't work, but thanks to a star-making turn from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a pop starlet whose mother (Minnie Driver) has driven her to immense success and deep depression. After a cop (Nate Parker) rescues her during a drunken suicide attempt, she strikes up a quiet, mature relationship with the serious young man, one that clashes heavily with the life she chose for herself. Prince-Bythewood's romance is subtle, mature, and intelligent, with some fantastic design and a wonderful lead performance. It doesn't get any better than Mbatha-Raw's performance of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" in Mexico for powerful, climactic movie-moments this year.

9. God Help the Girl

Directed by Stuart Murdoch

The musical is a tough sell these days, and most of what we do get are sanitized reproductions of long-running shows, bombastic but safe fare like Tom Hooper's abysmal Les Mis and this year's serviceable Into the Woods. Stuart Murdoch, frontman for Belle & Sebastian, went a different way with this highly-personal, character driven musical about a young anorexic songwriter befriending a snobby music teacher and a flighty rich kid and starting a band with them. The songs are gorgeous, the film (shot on 16mm) looks fantastic, and Murdoch captures the loose, powerful feel of some of Hollywood's classic musicals. With films like God Help the Girl, it's entirely possible that the musical could make a comeback.

(Rent or Purchase on Amazon)

8. Ida

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna, an orphaned young nun on the verge of taking her vows, is given a chance to reconnect with a family member and learn where she came from before she does so. She meets up with her aunt Wanda, a powerful judge in the communist regime, and learns that she's a Jew named Ida. Together, the two set off on a journey across Poland to discover what happened to her parents. Pawlikowski's film is a powerful exploration of the spread of Nazism and communism in Poland, and the way the nation treated its Jewish residents. It briefly collapses in its climax, but Pawlikowski pulls it together in the end. A powerhouse performance from Agata Kulesza as Wanda, a bitter avenging angel for Jews in Poland, helps make Ida one of the year's must-see films, while the reserved coming-of-age story for Ida/Anna grounds the film with a quiet, subtle realism.

(Purchase on Amazon)

7. Locke

Directed by Steven Knight

I very nearly skipped Locke, thinking its concept - Tom Hardy, alone in his car for the entire film - would be a B-grade thriller in the vein of Buried. What it actually is, however, is a smart, heart-felt adult drama about a guy trying to do the right thing in a situation where there really isn't a right thing. Hardy is Ivan Locke, a construction foreman who abandons his job the night before the biggest concrete pour in British history in order to support a woman he had a brief affair with as she has his child. Over the course of his drive to the hospital, he deals with his rapidly-collapsing family life, a precarious work life, and his terrified ex-lover, and Hardy gives a masterclass in modern acting.

(Purchase on Amazon)

6. The Babadook

Directed by Jennifer Kent

Well, this is the scariest movie of the year by a landslide. As abysmal as the year's mainstream horror offerings were, 2014 was an amazing year for indie horror. New Zealand horror-comedy Housebound was a hilarious gutpunch in the vein of early Peter Jackson, Starry Eyes was a satanic take on Hollywood culture, Honeymoon updated body-snatcher tropes for the modern marriage, and, of course, Jennifer Kent's ode to the horrors of parenting, The Babadook. Amelia, a widow with a troubled young son who sees monsters in every corner, is exhausted. She's exhausted by her son, she's exhausted at work, she's exhausted by her family. When she comes across a mysterious children's book called Mister Babadook and reads it to her son, she finds it eerie; when she begins seeing the titular monster around the place, she really begins to snap. Kent's story is sharp, her direction is fantastic, and the performance she wrenches from star Essie Davis is absolutely chilling.

(Rent on Amazon)

5. Boyhood

Directed by Richard Linklater

How can you not fall in love with this film? I understand its flaws. I get it. But there isn't a movie on the list I can lose myself in as easily or as thoroughly as Richard Linklater's impossibly ambitious family drama. While the film isn't the most naturalistic in parts, particularly the recurring bouts with alcoholism, Linklater manages to capture a huge part of life in snapshots, a series of moments that all build up to a young life well and fully lived. Ellar Coltrane proves to be a surprisingly naturalistic actor, and his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, are excellent as always. The real star here, for me, is Linklater, who takes his slack, largely drama-free style and applies it to huge swaths of everyday life. By the time Mason is heading off to college and meeting his roommate, I had bought into it completely; it's the rare three hour film where I wished it were twice as long, just so I wouldn't have to say goodbye.

(Pre-Order on Amazon)

4. Selma

Directed by Ava DuVernay

2014 was a year marred by extensive, public police killings of black men, of American citizens on American soil. It was a year that showed how far white America has really come. It was punctuated by Ava DuVernay's heartfelt, sophisticated Selma, which tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference attempting to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery in an attempt to fight the injustice of denying African Americans the right to vote. They were opposed by a brutal police force happy to beat and murder them, by a governor who knew you didn't get kicked out of office by pandering to the worst instincts of people, by a president unwilling to spend the political capital necessary to fix this problem when he had other priorities. David Oyelowo gives the performance of the year as Dr. King, and he's joined by an incredible ensemble who helps push the film beyond traditional biopic limitations. DuVernay's film is a stirring ode to the vitality of protest to a healthy democracy, and a terrible reflection on a modern society who thinks it's come so far since then just now realizing that we're only just beginning.

(Pre-Order on Amazon)
Directed by Dan Gilroy

If you ever hear someone pine for the lost heyday of 70s cinema, show them Nightcrawler. If not for the almost-unrecognizable Jake Gyllenhaal, I'd believe this was a lost treasure from the New Hollywood era. Gyllenhaal gets lost in his role as Louis Bloom, a sociopathic young sycophant who seemingly speaks only in corporate platitudes and finds that he has an aptitude for filming crime and accident scenes and selling the footage to the news, a business he takes to with great, creepy gusto. Nightcrawler is more than just a brutal critique of capitalism, though it is that; it's also a darkly hilarious thriller with one of the year's best car chases. Quite possibly the year's most pleasant surprise, this was Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, and his best screenplay by a country mile.

(Pre-Order on Amazon)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

It's hard to believe that Snowpiercer very nearly didn't come out thanks to the heavy-handed tactics of Harvey Weinstein, who drastically misunderstood the purpose of Bong Joon-ho's revolutionary allegory. Adapting a French graphic novel about a perpetual motion engine train driving along the surface of a frozen world, a train where the ultra-rich live in luxury in the front while the ultra-poor are crowded into the back handful of cars, Bong Joon-ho found a chilling story about the global economy, and he cast it brilliantly. Chris Evans in particular subverts the All-American good ol' boy persona that made him such a fantastic Captain America, playing a man haunted by past misdeeds and unable to let go of his rage to focus on being a real leader. This is top-notch, old-school science fiction, bold and smart, and Snowpiercer is essential viewing for anyone who loves filmmaking.

(Purchase on Amazon)
Directed by Wes Anderson

Another year, another near-masterpiece from Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel is fleet and funny, with great characters and impeccable set design. What else is there to say? In an era of slapdash point-and-shoot improv comedy, I treasure people like Anderson and Edgar Wright, who know how to turn anything and everything into a joke and do so with confidence. Ralph Fiennes is a comic revelation as the last bastion of old society gentility, a concierge who knows his job flawlessly, whose life is upended when a wealthy widow leaves him an incredible fortune in her will. Anderson's film is wistful, melancholy, and incredibly funny, with an expansive cast of regulars like Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson popping up unpredictably in small rolls throughout the film. Bonus points for featuring the most whimsical prison break sequence ever put to film.

(Purchase on Amazon)


So there you have it, my friends: The 14 best films of 2014, according to me. Of course, there are some major releases I just wasn't able to catch yet, like the Dardennes' Two Days, One Night or Paul Thomas Anderson's stoner comedy Inherent Vice. There are all major absences... except, well, I loved all 14 films I put on my list anyway! Yeah, I might have bumped one or two, but I don't want to. Which, to me, means I have a pretty darn good list already.

And there are a ton of great films that just didn't make it on my list. Only Lovers Left Alive was the absolute height of cool this past year. Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie made a pair of powerful cases for the power of sheer fucking fun at the theater, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier showed, I hope, the future of the superhero film. The Raid 2 was bigger, bolder, and weirder than its already-amazing predecessor, and its action was exceeded only by the sublime silliness of John Wick. Neighbors was a frat comedy far superior to what we deserved, and They Came Together was a pitch-perfect satire of staid romcom tropes. And, of course, there were many, many more strong movies, because let's be honest: 2014 was a fucking fantastic year for cinephiles and casual viewers alike.

Bring on 2015 - and thanks for reading!

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