Boyhood is not my best movie of the year.
So, you may be asking, just what is it doing at #1 on this list? Good question. I, like many others, am unable to deny filmmaker Richard Linklater's sprawling yet quiet twelve year odyssey of growing up its many achievements. By which I mean the go-for-the-gusto twelve year shoot, the unwavering commitment of all involved (special notice to Patricia Arquette, who secretly owns this movie), and expertly sustained of tone and vibe in that longest of long intentional production schedule. The film, particular its first hour, which focuses on young Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) the harsh exodus from childhood, is full of deeply moving small moments. (Just you try not to well up when young Mason is asked to paint over the height markers on the door frame!) Although it's two hours and forty minutes long, it's thoroughly engaging throughout. Even when it meanders, there's no compulsion to look away. And yet, Boyhood isn't a 100% slam dunk with me. The list of films leading up to this one are dear 2014 favorites of mine, one and all. This one narrowly outshines them... on the day I typed this. It's all indicative of a movie year that's been full of stand outs that are on the brink of outstanding. And, that's okay. We have nothing to complain about. Boyhood might not be the best, but at the moment at least, it's my favorite.
Two Days, One Night
Desperation is a hard and heartbreaking thing. It's also perhaps the greatest motivator in all of humankind. Two days and one night - one weekend - is just how long Marion Cottilard has to go door to door, to all her workmates, and convince them to forgo their own pay bonus so that she might keep her much-needed job. That's all the film is, Cottilard's blue collar mother character making the same plea again and again, variations on a theme, depending upon whom she's speaking with. Everyone has their motivations, their sympathies, their conscious to struggle with. All faces and voices are utterly human, completely relatable. It's the most true-to-life ticking clock film I've seen in a while, maybe ever. To thank for it, we have the indomitable Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who's tough yet humble moral storytelling gels perfectly with the movie star Cottilard. Their movie works likes the best potboiler, never dull, ever empathetic, always pushing forward.
The films on this list may not sound like they belong together, but many do have the commonality of boasting a single writer/director. Many are newer to the scene, just getting warmed up. But not Damien Chazelle, who's burst from the gate with the pulsating and fully-formed Whiplash. Whiplash, taking place mostly in the highly competitive world of musical conservatory, is both a beat-the-odds Rocky story, and the starkest of anti-Rocky stories. Up and comer Miles Teller plays a promising jazz drummer who aspires to nothing less than Greatness. And J.K. Simmons' gruff attack dog of an instructor is just the one to usher him there - be it with blood, hurt, stress, and psychological abuse. Whiplash uncannily delivers on the highs highs and low lows of personal ambition and going the distance. One has to look very, very closely for a wrong note in this tight piece of work. Damien Chazelle, whoever you are, we have our hopeful eyes on you! Opportunity isn't just knocking, it's drumming in perfect time. Don't. Mess. This. Up.
If martial discord is like an avalanche, what better than a luxury ski vacation to trigger it? Whatever you do, don't be quick to lump writer/director Ruben Östlund's Swedish language domestic portrait as a Bergman-esque series of scenes from a marriage. Force Majeure, in the moments around its probingly difficult questions of gender predilections, is unexpectedly comedic. It swerves left when you think you're right on with it. It takes a jump when you think you've settled into a straightaway. And it's not afraid to drone on when everyone wants nothing more but to stop the conversation and decompress. Force Majeure is something special, a satisfying film full of successful risks. And when placed next to We Are The Best!, and even 2008's Let the Right One In, it's enough to make one wonder which of them will nab the cover of the eventual inevitable book on what just might be the current Swedish New Wave.
Roger Ebert was America's most recognized and ultimately, most beloved film critic. He's famously written about thousands of movies, and even infamously written an actual movie (Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Now, he is a movie. But there was more to Ebert than movies, even if he credits them as making him more empathetic, more sympathetic, more understanding, and therefore more loving of all people, no matter their differences. Director Steve James, the maker of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, who was hand-picked by Ebert and his wife/business partner Chaz for this project (which began filming four months before his death from cancer), is interested in detailing Roger the man, fully detailed and yes, flawed thoroughly. Through James' carefully woven chronology of triumphant past and the dying present, Life Itself deeply demonstrates how a life spent awake in the dark (whatever form that darkness might take) can be a life most rewarding, even as it surprises.
Brendan Gleeson as Father James is quick with a joke or a light of your smoke, but there's someplace that he'd rather be. In what has to be the single best opening scene of the year, he is told, through the obstructing walls of his church's confessional booth, that he has been targeted for termination, in one week. A time and place is given where James is to show up and be executed. The rest of the film sulks uneasily to this point. The off-camera voice in the confessional remains a mystery, a grown man claiming to be the victim of another priest in his childhood, now questing for some warped form of therapeutic vengeance. It's a sleepy and small Irish community that James serves. He spends the week trying to continue working, fielding tangental threats, and coming to terms with what he must do. Is he being threatened with substitutional atonement, murder, or both? In a year full of deflated "Christian" films, Calvary is the sharply written, terrifically acted and poignantly directed work that the faith-based crowd should be lining up for, but aren't. I'm guessing that director/writer John Michael McDonagh's first priority in making Calvary wasn't be to "inspirational", but his film manages that in its own way.
The Penguins Of Madagascar
I almost steered clear of the new spinoff, The Penguins of Madagascar. I'm so grateful I did not. While a frenzied, manic, and loud film, The Penguins of Madagascar earns it all, like some sort of animated contemporary Marx Brothers espionage movie. Throughout the film, the penguins fall from planes, get knocked around, whizzed through the air, blown up, over-stuffed, altered, and more. This is one animated movie that is proud to be a cartoon, taking full advantage of that medium for the entire running time. Things squash, they stretch, they blast, they bounce. In this serious time of chaos, crisis and confusion, there's no doubt we could all use some hilarious chaos, crisis, and confusion. And I haven't laughed this hard at a movie all year. No joke. There's something rarely life affirming about that kind of pure, solid laughter. I like that in a movie.
99 years after president Woodrow Wilson was credited for raving about how the troubling landmark The Birth of Nation was like watching "history written with lightning", perhaps it's time to repurpose that boast, and apply it to Citizenfour. Documentarian Laura Poitras (The Oath) has certainly been a political lightning rod of a filmmaker, so it only makes sense that the greatest momentary American lightning rod of them all, Edward Snowden, reach out to her to document his mega NSA whistle blowing, as it happens. And so, in the cluttered confined of an unassuming Hong Kong hotel room, we witness history as it happened, only a few years ago. And as far as the U.S. presidency is concerned, the strains of "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss" may come to mind. The resulting film is effectively eerie, justifiably paranoid, and will leave you wondering if you're being watched electronically. (Quick answer: Yes you are.)
Clint Eastwood has nothing to apologize for and nothing to explain. His latest directorial effort is his best and boldest in years, at least since Million Dollar Baby, maybe since Unforgiven. In telling the film-ified version of the true story of American sharpshooter Chris Kyle, Eastwood has delivered a modern day Sergeant York. Eastwood's Kyle is played excellently by Bradley Cooper; he served four tours in Iraq and took out over 160 targets. Unsurprisingly, he has a murkier morality and internal consequence that emerges over time. But at the same time, it's oddly refreshing just how straight forward the story and character are. Kyle emerges an American hero in a time and culture when such a thing is immediately suspect. The film is drawing fire for waving the American flag a bit, but truth be told, American Sniper is the elusive effective piece of right wing art that cinema screens have been lacking. Through it all, in some harrowing way, we come to understand the many plights of the deployed soldier.
Reese Witherspoon walks away from rom-coms and into the most challenging performance of her career as Cheryl Strayed, a true life woman who's self-destructing life and emotional baggage prompted her to take up some real baggage in form of an overloaded backpack, and hike 1000 miles. Following this, Strayed wrote a book all about it. That book has been adapted for the screen by fellow author Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). Vallée does a remarkable job of capturing the isolation of the American southeast wilderness, even as the character actually spends little time alone. The voices in her head are appropriately fragmentary; her memories are crude and cutting. But Wild is the rare film that's completely honest in its crudity. A film that could've been pat and self-indulgent instead bears the immediacy of striking a raw nerve - in a good way.
Films That Painfully, Narrowly, Just Missed Making This List:
Only Lovers Left Alive
The Imitation Game
Venus In Fur
Project: Wild Thing
We Are The Best!
A Most Violent Year
Films I Loved That Were Technically 2013 Releases, But Didn't Open Locally Until 2014, And I Didn't Include In The Main List To Avoid Confusion:
Ernest & Celestine
The Great Beauty
Biggest Disappointments Of The Year (Worst of the Worst) :
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The Blue Room
Heaven Is For Real