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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Harper's Top 10 Films of 2014

I've said it a lot this year, but 2014 was an excellent year for movies. I can't remember a time when there were more movies simultaneously in theaters that I was excited to see, or in many cases, excited to see again. Moreover, it was a varied year, seeing great drama, sci-fi, action, superhero, historical, and experimental features. 

I decided to take a mathematical approach this year and gave each movie in my top twenty ratings for a bunch of categories and then totaled up the points. The results were relatively close to what I had already loosely decided, but here we get movies that I think excel in story, acting, cinematography, editing, score, sound, and are rewatchable.

Also, check out Alexander's excellent Top 14 Movies of the year and look out for more lists coming this week! Now: here are my top ten favorite movies of 2014!

10. Whiplash
My Review

This spot was actually tied with Wild, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. However, I ended up going with Damien Chazelle's fiery tale of a young man obsessed with being the best and the lengths to which his teacher goes to push him there. It's a unique and somewhat inverted take on the inspirational/motivational trope that posits that true greatness comes not from support and love, but from passionate hate and brutal cruelty. The movie is crafted quite well, but the majority of it's gripping intensity comes from its lead performances in Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Simmons' vein-poppingly strong performance has skyrocketed him from being "that guy" into superstar territory here and is almost certainly a lock for Best Supporting Actor, but it's the chemistry between the two that sells it.

(Pre-Order on Amazon)

9. Snowpiercer

I've long been a fan of Bong Joon-Ho; Memories of Murder especially is among my favorite movies of all time. Much like last year's Stoker, I was excited to see what these Korean auteurs could do with an American production and all that comes with it. Snowpiercer does not have consistent flow or an obvious theme. What it does present, though, is an action packed thought-piece that has opened up serious philosophical debate and more interpretations on theme than I can't recount here. And even if you aren't into delving deeply into the thematic content, the movie is just so damn fun. It takes a pretty absurd concept and makes it beautiful, thrilling, and conversation-provoking. It doesn't hurt that Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans among others bring some great characters to life, too.

(Buy on Amazon)

8. Inherent Vice

Although having only seen it once, I have some issues with the last 30 minutes–I'm hoping repeated viewings will illuminate some of my confusion–the first two hours more than make up for it. What P.T. Anderson presents here (from the Pynchon novel) is a deeply complex mystery with some potentially far reaching consequences, but with a thick layer of humor, both through visual gags and a rich cast of characters that are perfectly cast. Phoenix, as usual, utterly embodies his character, and his unique relationship with "Bigfoot"–the cop with a "civil rights violation twinkle in his eye," played by Josh Brolin–is worth the ticket price alone. For me, this was very reminiscent of The Big Lebowski, in that I enjoyed it and thought it was very funny the first go round, but sense that repeated viewings will open up all the details and minutiae of both the mystery and the hilarious characters. Can't wait to see it again!

(Pre-Order on Amazon)

7. Gone Girl

The fact that this one garnered so much vehement debate on the podcast almost alone earns it a spot on my list–Amy and Nick Dunne are such fascinating and complex characters, worthy of study and discussion. Moreover, we see David Fincher at the top of his craft here, using all his usual tools to create a film that oozes with suspense and genuine anxiety. It is a story that ticks off a lot of the checklist of his themes, but that only means that he gets a chance to advance his craft, whether that be in the eerily nervous editing, the subtle sound that places seeds of doubt, or the cinematography that only augments the mounting dread. It's not my favorite of his films (see our ranking), but it's a great work nonetheless that deserves serious recognition.

(Pre-Order on Amazon)

6. Grand Budapest Hotel

After the dull and largely unfunny Moonrise Kingdom last year, I was unsure about Grand Budapest Hotel, despite the excellent cast. However, I feel that Anderson has crafted one of his best movies this year, finding a setting and subject matter that truly meshes with his oft-adored (or mocked) style and panache. The film looks absolutely beautiful and creates a world that has a sense of fully existing outside the frame of the movie, and although cartoonish provokes thought about the time period leading up to World War II. There are a lot of places to lavish technical praise for the movie, but let's face it–it's the cast that really makes this an eminently rewatchable classic, particularly in Ralph Fiennes' stunning performance that is at once hysterically funny and nostalgically tragic.

(Buy on Amazon)

5. The Raid 2

I'm going to be honest: I find The Raid: Redemption to be just okay, but The Raid 2 is a downright masterpiece. Although I might be ripped to shreds for this opinion by some, the fact that Edwards created the first film purely to get him financially and story-wise to a place where The Raid 2 takes place supports me. This epic crime saga isn't as emotionally complex as The Godfather, but it might just be the greatest action movie ever made. The martial arts work is unquestionably breathtaking, and the unique cinematography and tight editing only ratchet up the intensity to insane levels. It is The Departed meets Enter the Dragon, but with half a dozen action set pieces that rival T2 and The Matrix. If you haven't seen this movie, buy it now, and spend the next five hours watching it–twice.

(Buy on Amazon)

4. Metalhead (aka Málmhaus)

I caught this gem at the Atlanta Film Festival back in April and it has stuck with me. This Icelandic film by Ragnar Bragason is the elegantly dramatic story of a family struck by a sudden tragedy, and how that single event shapes their lives, for better or worse nearly a decade later. It is also the story of the young girl in this family, Hera, who turns to black metal in her grief. It is a celebration of how the darkness in art can bring about catharsis and how a community, either literal or perceived, can provide support. It's a beautiful film that is rounded out by phenomenal performances by the three leads in Hera and her parents. Metalhead holds a special place for me for all these reasons, and deserves way more attention than it is getting.

This incredible film is still struggling with distribution, so if you're interested, please consider contributing to their crowdfunding campaign!

3. Interstellar

Although not the box office success it was expected to be, I find Interstellar to be potentially Nolan's finest film. It ruminates on the human race's exploratory nature and destiny among the stars while providing a thoroughly compelling and emotional narrative about family, responsibility, and morality. Of course, it's also exceptionally gorgeously shot, edited alternatively with grace and chair-gripping intensity, and has one of the best scores of the year. It gets the science right enough while pushing the boundaries of what we know, and, like Inception, does a terrific job of visually and aurally representing complex concepts that might not lend themselves well to the cinema screen in less capable hands. Most of the cast hit high points as well, particularly McConaughey's impossibly expressive face, and has Anne Hathaway giving the first great performance of her career.

2. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

"It's done to look like it's all one shot!" That's probably the main thing you're hearing about Birdman–and it's definitely worthy of praise for the remarkable achievements in editing and cinematography that allow this feat–but this film is so, so much more. It's a group of seriously powerhouse performances butting heads; it's a jazzy and freewheeling narrative that ticks off lots of arthouse boxes but manages to be addictively fun. Although it's contained to the world of theater, the movie comments on so much more, from superhero cinema to the follies of the no-longer-famous, from the connection between madness and inspiration to the many kinds of relationships that occur in between the big moments, backstage and behind closed doors. It's visually thrilling, emotionally raw, and has the best score of the year in Sanchez's improvisational drumming. This is one that I feel I'll get a different take on each time I soak it in, but just the sheer joy of watching these characters interact in the self-contained world created by Iñárritu is enough to warrant a dozen viewings.

(Pre-Order on Amazon)

1. Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy's directorial debut is among the best, and is my pick for best film of the year. Not only is it a wholly original story, but is based around a character that is immensely fascinating: Lou Bloom is the terrifying product of our times, a ruthless but self-made man who knows what it takes to get ahead in this world. It's as uncomfortably satisfying as it is intense, and this is largely due to Gilroy's tight scripting and Jake Gyllenhaal's legendary performance. His portrayal of Bloom is charming and impossibly compelling, which draws us into his world and makes us complicit in his actions and helplessly accepting of his moral corruption. The whole crew does a phenomenal job here, from the haunting and off-kilter cinematography that views L.A. in a uniquely weird light to the wonderful score and nearly flawless editing. I know that over the years I'll find myself drawn back into this world that so expertly captures the modern world without going over the top into American Psycho territory. I still hold by my original claim: Nightcrawler is a masterpiece for our time.

(Pre-Order on Amazon)

You can see my ranking of all the 2014 movies I saw this past year here. Keep an eye out for everybody else's top films of 2014!
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