Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Culture Fix's Top 10 Films of 2014!

My Personal Favorite Flicks from a Particularly Outstanding Year in Film

by J. Albert Barr

"Every great film should seem new every time you see it." - Roger Ebert

2014 proved, beyond a doubt, in my estimation, to be the single best year in film since that incredible millennium closing year of 1999! And I didn't have to wait for the summer season to kick in, or the awards-bait final third, to see great and entertaining films. For instance, there was Wes Anderson's thoroughly wonderful, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Jonathan Glazer's subtly powerful, Under the Skin, as well as the endlessly charming, funny and witty, The Lego Movie. All these great flicks were released before May. Now granted, the fall season, leading up to winter's official arrival, certainly has provided us with an embarrassment of cinematic riches to be sure; several of which have either made my Top 10, or at least managed to appear in my "honorable mentions".

It was a much tougher task for me this year to compile my annual Top 10 list (of which I'm posting here on my blog for the first time), and the additional favorites that just missed the master selection, but were still great, because there were simply so many terrific films this year; so many, in fact, that I was forced to leave out several noteworthy movies like The Trip to Italy, The Double, Fury, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and John Wick, off my "honorable mentions" list even. Anyway, without further ado, I'll begin my list with ten excellent "honorable mentions" in no particular order of preference:

Edge of Tomorrow
The Lego Movie
St. Vincent
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Zero Theorem
Jodorowsky's Dune

And now my Top 10!:

10. Guardians of the Galaxy

Quite simply the best of the comic book movies released in 2014! Nobody, including me, saw this one coming. A comic book property that featured mostly unheard of "heroes" from Marvel's C-list. But because of a great, non-fat script, and a chemistry-laced cast, including a star-making turn from Chris Pratt, everyone was treated to a superbly entertaining space adventure that even evoked, slightly at least, I genuinely felt, the kind of movie theater experience my generation had when we saw the first Star Wars trilogy. There was perhaps no bigger bang for your buck at the movies this year than this swashbuckling barn-burner, with a kick-ass, retro soundtrack to boot!

9. Whiplash

I like, and sometimes love (see above entry), a good old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster as much as the next red-blooded guy, but films like Whiplash are what going to the movies is all about for an incurable film-buff such as myself. Every year, it seems, there are a small handful of humbly-budgeted, self-contained and insularly ambitious films usually directed by a relatively, if not utterly, unknown filmmaker, and/or screen-writer (in this case both, regarding one Damien Chazelle, aged only 29!). By adding a stellar performance from a relative newcomer like Miles Teller, and an absolutely incredible performance from a seasoned veteran like the magnificent J.K. Simmons, who's finally getting the accolades he has long since deserved from seemingly all the film critics groups and bigwig awards establishments like the Golden Globes (and I'm sure the Academy Awards when they're announced in the coming weeks), and, on top of everything else, a riveting, thoroughly involving script that also celebrates the scars 'n' all power of self-determination, and the cool spirit and harsh demands of real jazz, well, that just sashays right up my proverbial alley with a sweet abandon!

8. Nightcrawler

A Taxi Driver for the 21st century, pure and simple. This film was a true revelation in the already impressive career of Jake Gyllenhaal. It's hands-down his best performance to date, and he's got a ways to go yet before he eventually caps it. And Dan Gilroy delivered a, better-late-than-never (he's in his mid-50s), wholly impressive, aptly disturbing and societally chilling debut directorial effort. Gyllenhaal's jittery sociopath, Lou Bloom, is definitely one for these increasingly alienating times of cold, distant technological connection with one's fellow man. Just don't step in the way of this sociopath-cum-psychopath's single-minded agenda!

7. The Imitation Game 

As per usual, these kinds of biographical films tend to take considerable liberties with factual accuracies, and The Imitation Game is no exception, such as the actual terms of the relationship between Alan Turing and Joan Clarke, and Turing's likely less dramatic "tour of duty" at Bletchley Park (where he broke Nazi Germany's "unbreakable" Enigma code), but when it's executed with such vigorous poise and skill, from director to cast, particularly from its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, you can understand the typically broad strokes colorfully swiped outside of the initial frame. Cumberbatch will almost certainly receive his first Academy Award nomination for his intense, affecting performance as the socially awkward, but brilliant mathematician/cryptanalyst and computer science pioneer, Alan Turing. This story is undoubtedly an extremely important one in the annals of 20th century history, from the truth of World War 2, computer technology development, and the sheer hypocrisy of persecuting (and ultimately destroying, indirectly, and tragically) a true hero because of conventional society's ridiculous unwillingness to see past someone's sexual orientation.

6. Gone Girl

This was one of the wildest rides at the movies this year. Based on Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel, and subsequently adapted by her as well, Gone Girl proved to be both a thrilling character deconstruction of one wholly messed-up, identity-less rich girl turned psychopathic woman, and a biting social commentary on the utter absurdity of a media machine gone off the rails of decency and ethics and sense. David Fincher continues to solidify his already well-established reputation as one of the best directors working today with yet another no-holds barred indictment on the dire state of contemporary culture via the seeming outrageousness of the narrative here, which looks more like a mirror reflection of our true selves than an unbridled exaggeration. The cast is rock solid, even Ben Affleck, who puts in one of his best efforts in front of the camera, refreshingly enough, but Rosamund Pike's electrifying (and genuinely terrifying, for that matter) performance is likely going to nab her a few Best Actress awards, if not the Oscar in the coming months. She was stunning!

5. Boyhood

Richard Linklater has long been one of my favorite directors. His wonderfully exquisite Before trilogy is one of my all-time favorites; a delectably patient trilogy that took 9 years between each sequel to further flesh-out the near 20-year long relationship between a cynical, yet boyish American and a socially-conscious, insecure French girl with thoroughly enriching results for both the characters and its smitten, longtime audience. Well, Linklater has improbably topped his degree of film-making patience with the remarkable Boyhood; a film that took him 12 years to make, with the main cast literally aging by 12 years while the viewer watches with amazement, particularly regarding the title's namesake character played by "newcomer", Ellar Coltrane, and Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei! There's not a whole lot of 'dramatic fireworks' in this realism-heavy film, but conflict and character development certainly do unfold beautifully, especially with Patricia Arquette's terrific character, thus allowing Arquette to provide one of, if not the best, performance of her career,

4. Only Lovers Left Alive

While on the surface it may appear that you are watching a genre-filed "vampire movie", I can assure you that it's so much more than merely that, and exceedingly more sexy as well. Like Richard Linklater, the inimitable Jim Jarmusch is a notoriously patient, and even languid, film-maker. He has always had an affinity for the seemingly mundane, inanimate and boring details in the mise en scene's he meticulously frames (usually in beautiful black and white, but not in this case, though it hardly hurts the film) within his sensitive camera-eye. Because of this style of film-making, unfortunately in our rapid-paced, fast-food and impatient first-world culture, Jarmusch's "eccentric" films are an acquired taste. Juxtaposing two diametrically different locations (debilitating Detroit and ancient Tangiers) in the film's first act, I feel, provided an effective, and ironic, contrast for respective backdrops for the film's two leading, centuries-old, vampire lovers, marvelously played by Tom Hiddleston (he's suffering existential angst as a reclusive "guitar god" in Motortown) and the always wonderful Tilda Swinton (hanging with a vampirized Christopher Marlowe, a.k.a. the "real author" behind Shakespeare's classics -  one of the film's ticklishly droll riffs); their on-screen chemistry is near-perfect. Hiddleston's "Adam" is feeling suicidal because he's seeing society and culture go to the dogs thanks to all the "zombies" (i.e. us mortals) flushing it down the proverbial toilet. Swinton's "Eve" flies to Detroit to rescue her suffering husband. A rambunctious, troublemaking younger sister/sire of Eve's (Ava - also a vampire, suspended in perpetual, and thus mischievous, adolescence), not so unexpectedly shows up and wreaks havoc on the delicate proceedings. Jarmusch's subtle social commentary is rather accurate me thinks, and the film's visual poetry and revealing dialogue completely seduced me.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel

The incomparable Wes Anderson sure has a way with a sense of art direction in his mostly exceptional films, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite possibly his finest example of such visually astounding riches. Predominately set in the 1930s as a flashback tale told by a former bell-hop-turned-hotel's owner to a curious lodger at the film's namesake in 1968 (itself a flashback emanating from the aged lodger in 1985 who became a successful author), Zero Moustafa (the now relatively old owner of the lately disrepaired Grand Budapest) regales the lodger on how the former concierge, Monsieur Gustave H (magnificently played by a never better Ralph Fiennes!), and Zero's mentor, was framed for murder, and how they found themselves unwittingly thrust into an unlikely adventure to clear his name. This subtly hilarious film also is saying something about the tragic moribund state of an "older-world way of seeing things", the seeming end of a "gentleman's culture" of honor, ritual and respect for art and custom. It's exquisite stuff through and through!

2. Under the Skin

Based on Michel Faber's 2000 novel and set in Glasgow, Scotland, Jonathan Glazer's brilliant, Under the Skin, is, for me, one of 2014's most incredible and important films. Not the least of which for its fantastic visual palette and technical achievements, especially in sound and its unforgettable score, composed by Mica Levi, this art-house science fiction film, with astounding and unsettling effectiveness, probed the nature of what it's like to be human, but in an utterly "alienating" world, ironically enough. Scarlett Johansson gives her most impressive performance as a seductress alien sent from her homeworld to lure unsuspecting young men into her commandeered van, bring them back to her "love lair" and proceed to trap them in some kind of liquefied cage where their innards are "extracted" leaving only their outer skins to softly float in said liquid cage. She eventually begins to acquire human-like feelings and empathy, which compromises her mission, thus forcing her to escape the watchful eye of her apparently male partner/team leader. Her many encounters with actual human men result in her continuing change, leading towards one last fateful confrontation which turns the tables on her initial huntress becoming the hunted. I actually wrote a more detailed article on this remarkable film that's still available here at this blog site - please check it out.

1. Birdman

No other film in 2014 blew me away more than this instant masterpiece! And it was totally thrilling to see Michael Keaton achieve such an amazing, late-game performance (which, in my opinion, deserves the Oscar for Best Actor) as the deeply, psychologically troubled, Riggan Thomson: the has-been Hollywood blockbuster movie-star of the "Birdman" franchise he left 20 years prior, struggling to revive his near non-existing acting career, by attempting to attain critical acclaim from adapting a Raymond Carver work on Broadway. For me, this astonishing film is a "game changer". I've never seen anything quite like it before, both in its mind-blowing directorial effort by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, its wholly revelatory script, and the collective awesomeness of its spot-on cast, particularly from Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone (all clearly working, fearlessly, without a "net" here), whom will all likely be getting Oscar nominations no doubt. The film's character study of a desperate man literally fighting with his damaged ego/internal self, which comes in the form of his "Birdman" role constantly poking at him, is a truly awe-inspiring achievement to behold, making it quite simply one of the greatest films I've ever seen! And one I ardently expect will become a classic in the history of cinema.

Well, there you have it, dear readers - my favorite films of 2014! And what a helleva year it was for cinema, in general, in my opinion. Perhaps the best one yet thus far this century, in my humble estimation, quite frankly. I hope you enjoyed my gushing over these very special films.            

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