The new year is less than two days old, so once again, it’s time to look back to our favorites of last year. As always, lists are imperfect, incomplete, and totally subject to change upon reflection and the passage of time.
We’ll start with Paul; he remains skeptical of this whole top 10 business, so this year, his contributions to our lists (including comics, albums, and TV shows) will be presented without comment.
(Mine, of course, will probably say too much.)
PAUL’S FAVORITE (NOT BEST) FILMS OF 2014
10. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
9. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
8. Maleficent (dir. Robert Stromberg)
7. Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
6. The LEGO Movie (dirs. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn)
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dirs. Joe & Anthony Russo)
3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Matt Reeves)
2. Big Hero 6 (dirs. Don Hall & Chris Williams)
1. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (dir. Dean DeBlois)
Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Bryan Singer)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (dir. Marc Webb)
Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Force Majeure (dir. Ruben Ostlund)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (dir. Peter Jackson)
AJ’S TOP 10 FILMS OF 2014
10. BIRDMAN (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” reads the quote (sometimes attributed to Susan Sontag) stuck to Riggan Thomson’s mirror. One imagines the former superhero actor, played by a back-and-swinging-for-the-fences Michael Keaton, clings to that mantra as he negotiates a shot at artistic integrity with his paranoid need to be loved. It also serves as a warning to anyone trying to dissect the film or Iñárritu’s intentions. After making a career out of overwhelmingly somber dramas, Iñárritu has made a frenzied comedy propelled by a furious drum score from Antonio Sanchez. He also peppers the film with flights of insanity, in which Riggan has telekinetic powers or takes to the skies just like his old alter ego. How much of this is real? What does the film’s beautiful final shot mean? There’s a lot to be said, but you can also take Birdman for the absurd, chaotic, hilarious thing it is.
9. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (dir. Dean DeBlois)
I’m embarrassed to confess How to Train Your Dragon is a movie I initially dismissed as kid’s stuff before Paul made and/or forced me to realize it was one of the best animated films of the decade. The sequel is nearly as good, taking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), his beloved dragon Toothless, and the rest of Berk to darker places. Like the first, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is sweet and funny, but this time it’s got the makings of a fantasy epic, with thrilling action and images that at times recall Miyazaki. Here’s to hoping Dreamworks makes more movies like this instead of the next 5,000 Shrek-a-likes.
8. THE 50 YEAR ARGUMENT (dirs. Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi)
Scorsese and Tedeschi’s documentary is a fascinating look at The New York Review of Books‘ five-decade history. The marquee names are all here–Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal–and they collide in entertaining archival footage, including the famous Vidal/Mailer sparring session on The Dick Cavett Show. But the film spotlights a number of the magazine’s contributors, none moreso than co-founder Robert B. Silvers, who has edited every issue of the magazine since it began in 1963. It’s a staggering feat, and based on this impressive documentary, a vital one.
7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (dirs. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo)
The first sign of life from Marvel since The Avengers damn near conquered the superhero genre almost three years ago, The Winter Soldier also stands as one of the studio’s best efforts yet. On paper, the Russo brothers, who come from small big-screen comedies (Welcome to Collinwood) and big small-screen comedies (Arrested Development), seem like a strange pair to follow up Joe Johnston’s retro WWII actioner The First Avenger. Think about it, though, and the guys who have been with the genre-bending Community since day one are the perfect choice to drag Steve Rogers into the 21st century. Shades of ’70s conspiracy thrillers collide head-on with Cap’s ’40s patriotism and our very modern blockbuster tropes. The result is a movie that, like its predecessor, feels like nothing else in the Marvel canon. That’s worth saluting.
6. FORCE MAJEURE (dir. Ruben Östlund)
If, like me, you don’t mind being reductive for the sake of a cheap pun, you could call this Swedish film Scenes from a Ski Lodge. A married couple (Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsil) goes on a skiing holiday with their two young children. One day, it looks like an avalanche is about to crash down on them; he runs, she stays behind with the kids. Turns out the whole thing was a false alarm, but that doesn’t change the fact that he ran, which he refuses to admit. Force Majeure is an incisive look at the little choices we make under pressure and what they say about who we are. This doesn’t sound like the kind of movie apt to make you laugh out loud, but writer-director Östlund wrings a great deal of dry humor from the situation.
5. THE BABADOOK (dir. Jennifer Kent)
So much about The Babadook, writer-director Kent’s feature debut, is impressive. There’s Essie Davis’ fierce performance as a single mother dealing with a child who could charitably be called “a handful.” There’s Mister Babadook himself, who seems to leap from the pages of a mysterious children’s book; though seldom glimpsed, his reedy, Grudge-style voice more than makes an impression. I’m convinced what makes the film work, though, is the rhythm Kent establishes with editor Simon Njoo. Like an Edgar Wright film designed to actually terrify you, each cut, zoom, and pan registers as the expression of an exciting new voice in horror.
4. NIGHT MOVES (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Who knew Reichardt would be such a good fit for thrillers? Her penchant for long, quiet takes reads here as slowly mounting tension. Succeeding where The East failed, Night Moves makes the exploits of a small band of eco-terrorists seem like the most riveting thing in the world; on at least one occasion, a muted, off-screen sound effect made me jump. As the group’s philosophical leader, Jesse Eisenberg gives his best performance since The Social Network, channeling all of his brainier-than-thou tendencies into an unassuming figure who may be willing to go further than he thinks in the name of his noble ideals.
3. LIFE ITSELF (dir. Steve James)
Roger Ebert meant a lot to me, as he did to a great many people for whom movies became more than just a hobby; indeed, he and partner/rival Gene Siskel probably introduced the idea of serious film criticism to millions of Americans. In a way, Steve James’ documentary Life Itself is like being reunited with a departed loved one. The film began production while Ebert was still alive, and he is a presence throughout. Though cancer continued to eat away at his body in the last years of his life, deforming him to the point where he was no longer able to speak, he embraced blogging and tweeting, his voice stronger than ever. James’ film is a testament to Ebert’s resilience, as it is to the unbelievable support provided by Ebert’s wife Chaz, who emerges as a hero. The film also offers an overview of the man’s life and career, from his days as a cub reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times to his championing of independent filmmakers such as Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, or James himself. Like the movies, film criticism at its best reaches inside you and makes you think differently, feel differently. No one did that better than Roger Ebert, and this is a fine tribute.
2. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (dir. Wes Anderson)
The Grand Budapest Hotel is even more mannered than Anderson’s other films. Characters speak in long, convoluted sentences to express the simplest of emotions. No attempts have been made to make the exteriors of the grand hotel look like anything other than a miniature set with a thousand moving pieces. From the beginning, though, these over-the-top refinements are undercut by obscenity and chaos. The Grand Budapest’s caretaker, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), is the very embodiment of “civilized”…yet he’s a criminal and con artist whose schmoozing of a rich old blonde leads to one riotous adventure after another. Anderson has found new ways to operate within his own boundaries, proving that what several years ago some critics regarded as limitations are anything but. As his characters are confronted with a world not nearly as refined as they would like, they must come to terms with the fact that their world might never even have existed. In typical Anderson fashion, this melancholy center is surrounded on all sides by some of the brightest, most colorful moments of the year.
1. BOYHOOD (dir. Richard Linklater)
By now, you know Boyhood‘s “gimmick”: Linklater filmed over 12 years, allowing star Ellar Coltrane to journey from childhood to adolescence to early adulthood along with his character. Dismissing it as a gimmick, though, does the film a major disservice. The filmmaker who shot the opening segment in 2002 is not the filmmaker who shot the closing segment in 2013. The early scenes lean heavily on pop culture references as a means of marking time, from Dragonball Z to Coldplay; by the end, Linklater is less concerned with time capsule trappings, focusing more on Mason’s philosophies and ambitions. As Linklater evolves behind the camera, Coltrane likewise blossoms from a bratty little kid to a soft-spoken, intelligent young man over the course of three hours. His and Linklater’s portrait of boyhood is one that resonated strongly with me, at times uncomfortably so. When it’s over, you’re ready for the next chapter. As Patricia Arquette, playing Coltrane’s mother, says in the film’s most heartbreaking scene, “I just thought that there would be more.”
Additionally, I’d like to request rounds of applause for 20,000 Days on Earth, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Harmontown, The Homesman, The Lego Movie, The Raid 2, Regarding Susan Sontag, The Rover, The Unknown Known, and X-Men: Days of Future Past.