10. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
This is the movie of the year in critical terms, so if you haven’t been convinced by all the rest, I doubt that taking the no. 10 spot on this list is going to be what pushes you over the edge. But I still have to give props to Richard Linklater just for committing to such a bold, involved choice as shooting a narrative film over a span of 12 years without much sense of what the story would be (because how could you?). The result is a blend of documentary and narrative, sort of a halfway point between the 7 Up Series and watching the Harry Potter kids actually become adults throughout that series.
Due to the bold filming strategy, the movie can be fitful and shapeless at times, but only inasmuch as life itself is. Boyhood isn’t my favorite Linklater (I think the Before series is his magnum opus, but Dazed And Confused will always be first in my heart), but it is an incredible achievement and wholly unique experience. And if it does snag him some Oscars, I’m more than cool with that.
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9. The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)
The Raid is one of the best action movies ever made. Hell, it may be the very best for all I know/care to argue such a fine subjective point. And The Raid 2 is definitely a lesser sequel, a classic example of subtraction by addition. Whereas the original benefits hugely from its slight runtime, being about 88 minutes of outrageous ass-kicking crammed into a 98 minute movie, the sequel has the same 88 minutes of outrageous ass-kicking with an extra hour of familiar crime “epic” tropes, none of which are done especially well.
But what works, works like 700 motherfuckers. Beneath the fat, the action is, impossibly, even bigger and better than the original, and did I mention that the original might be the greatest action movie ever made? There are parts of this film where you disconnect from the actual narrative and just marvel that the actors can continue to push themselves through this choreography, filmmaking magic be damned. It is brutal, inventive, exhilarating stuff, and there is a metric shitload of it. If you have the slightest appreciation for kung fu, or car chases, or Asian cinema in general, you owe it to yourself to watch The Raid 2 (and the original, although it’s not as if you need to follow the finer points of the plot to really enjoy these movies). Then in 5 years time when everyone in America is wondering where Gareth Evans came from, you’ll be all “Jakarta, bitches! You didn’t know???” Because you’re kind of a hipster and a bit of a d-bag, but mostly only when you’ve been drinking, and look, reader, we don’t have to make like a whole big thing out of this right now, okay? I probably shouldn’t have said anything at all. You’re great. Really. Let’s just talk about something else.
Watch It For: Hammers. Bats. Cars. Shotguns. Hot Stoves. Scimitar-Knives. BEST. ACTION. EVER.
Trendspotting: Surprisingly Rough Action
8. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
At times, Blue Ruin feels like the best follow up to Breaking Bad we’ve gotten thus far, with a mild-mannered protagonist digging himself deeper and deeper into shit with each ill-considered extralegal foray. The difference being that while Walter White was a bonafide genius with a milquetoast personality, Macon Blair’s Dwight is actually, thoroughly and completely, just some dude. He’s bad at this stuff, but not comically bad, or unable to come up with a clever idea when he has the chance to think. But mostly he’s just muddling through, with nothing but a sense of desperation-quickly-curdling-into-resignation as his “secret weapon”. It’s a tremendous, unsparing movie with an incredible, and incredibly free of vanity, lead performance. It’s a movie you’ve seen a million times before, but presented in a way you’ve never seen before. It’s great, is what I’m getting at.
Trendspotting: America Is Not Just NYC/LA (Virginia)
7. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Vampires are soooo played out right now, particularly sexy vampires. And Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton – which seriously, could there be a more perfect casting? At this point playing a corporate suit in Michael Clayton feels like more of a stretch than a centuries old, gothy vampiress – could have walked out straight off the set of an Ann Rice adaptation, with their flowing hair and open robes exposing alabaster smoothness all over. But while they are undeniably sexy, that sexiness comes from their being beautiful people who are genuinely in grown-up love with each other. They are sensual creatures, but not in the dangerous way that even Twilight (in its repressed, dumb-fisted way) is able to tap into, and are old enough to have grown a little bored with sensuality.
Similarly, while Hiddleston’s Adam could be described as brooding, it is not in the guilt-ridden way of an Angel/Edward/Louis. His despair is not for his soul, but for the human race, and its inability to appreciate and cultivate the things that make life worth living (forever). He and Swinton’s Eve are more identifiable as bohemians than monsters; indeed, this could be almost be the same movie if it was just about an aging couple of art-tistes; soaking in music, poetry and literature and ruing the “zombies” inability to take care of themselves or appreciate genius when it periodically shines its light upon them. Not for nothing is the movie set mostly in the ruins of Detroit.
Plotless, tensionless, hypnotic, somehow passionate and pretentious and completely, undeniably cool. Only Lovers Left Alive seems to bring absolutely nothing new to the table, and breathe life into the most tired of genres in spite of itself.
Watch It For: The seductive chemistry between the leads.
Trendspotting: America Is Not Just NYC/LA (Detroit), I Think Tilda Swinton Is Kinda Fucking With Us At This Point, “Trashy” Material Done Really Well, Marriage Examined Through An Extreme Lens
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers)
With the caveat that I am a total Marvel fanboy, I think 2014 has been the best year yet for their studios, starting with Winter Soldier continuing the trend of superhero films being the one genre where sequels are better than their predecessors. That it also managed to give the turgid Agents Of SHIELD show a kick in the pants is just icing on what is already a very enjoyable, 70s-flavored cake.
Chris Evans continues to make a role that could easily be saintly Wonderbread into a living, breathing, believable exemplar of sainthood. And asskicking. The Russo brothers bring a physicality and weight to the action that stands out from the rest of Marvel’s output, along with a willingness to play dirty; the murder of innocents is more blunt here than in the other films, and the Terminator-like Winter Soldier and his lackeys are not shy in the least about bringing guns to a fistfight. It’s also more of an ensemble piece than most solo superhero films, with Scarlett Johannson, Anthony Mackie and even Sam Jackson all getting the opportunity to banter and throw down along with Cap and acquitting themselves admirably. I tend to enjoy Marvel movies as comedic adventure romps, more akin to the Amblin entertainments of the 80s than a Die Hard or Predator. But Winter Soldier is the first one that I think really works as a pure action movie. And a damn good one at that.
Watch It For: The freeway attack, which rivals Spiderman 2’s train fight for the best superhero action sequence ever in my book.
Trendspotting: Same Shit Just Better (Marvel), Chris Evans Kicking Ass And Sticking It To The Man, “Trashy” Material done Really Well
5. Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund)
I watch a lot of movies, so one thing I love is when I watch or even hear about a movie with a premise that makes me go “I have never seen this movie before”. Originality is no guarantee of quality, of course (I’ve never seen a movie quite like The Room either, for all that’s worth), but I value this more and more as I grow older. Force Majeure has such a concept – vacationing family caught in an avalanche has to figure out how to go back to normal after the father panics and flees without them.
It’s a unique and uncomfortable situation, but the movie is surprisingly funny in spite of itself, even if it’s periodically bracing in its deconstruction of the male ego and queasily accurate in depicting the passive-aggressive argumentation of couples that don’t fight-fight. I’d give it points for uniqueness regardless, but it is a truly rare thing to see a movie this impeccably acted, meticulously shot and unflinchingly honest about difficult subject matter.
Watch It For: The beauty of the Alps transposed with the ugliness of a disintegrating marriage
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4. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
I’m going to be as non-specific as possible here, but I highly recommend seeing Gone Girl with as little knowledge as possible. I think my experience was made all the better by not even knowing the basic shape of the story beyond “girl goes missing –> mystery”.
David Fincher may be our least pretentious master filmmaker, having at this point fully embraced the Hitchockian tradition of elevating lurid, pulpy material into great cinema. Gone Girl is absolutely wonderful pulp, starting with a fairly grounded, insightful adult love story and just getting progressively loopier and bloodier and dryly, blackly funnier as it hurtles to its gloriously fucked conclusion.
Along the way, Fincher and Gillian Flynn get in some sharp commentary on the media and relationships, get a shockingly fun performance from Tyler Perry, and hopefully put the phenomenal Carrie Coon on the radars of people without the cable package or patience to stick with The Leftovers. But the star of the show is unquestionably Rosamund Pike, taking as near-impossible a character as could appear on paper and bringing her to breathtaking, charming, terrifying life. She deserves to vault to the top of the A-List for this one, without a doubt.
Watch It For: Rosamund Pike making herself a household name and almost certainly winning herself an Oscar along the way.
Trendspotting: “Trashy” Material Done Really Well, America Is Not Just NYC/LA (Missouri), Marriage Examined Through An Extreme Lens
3. Snowpiercer (Joon Ho Bong)
At a glance, we have a million movies like Snowpiercer coming at us. If you closed your eyes and pointed randomly at a list of the highest grossing movies of the last several years, you might not pick an actioner based on a comic book about overthrowing a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but it’d almost certainly be somewhere in that Venn Diagram. But Snowpiercer distinguishes itself in many ways, becoming sort of action movie I wish we got all the time: stridently weird, firmly R-rated, elaborately and colorfully staged, and with an unabashed political/cultural POV. This is a movie packed to the gills, with strange, big choices (particularly in Tilda Swinton’s performance, which falls somewhere between outright genius and losing a bet).
The movie is also, despite being English-language, delightfully Korean in the way it veers tonally from scene to scene and car to car, with moments of absurd comedy mixed with the brutal violence (the gloriously insane classroom sequence, the New Year celebration) and some of the darkest character moments of the year. If Guardians Of The Galaxy wasn’t weird or rough enough for your tastes, then I’ll have some more words for you in a moment, but this may be the film you were looking for.
Watch It For: The best axe fight in cinema history.
Trendspotting: Surprisingly Rough Action, Tilda Swinton Is Definitely Fucking With Us At This Point, Chris Evans Kicking Ass And Sticking It To The Man
2. Guardians Of The Galaxy (James Gunn)
No movie in recent years has been as disserved by a single word as Guardians Of The Galaxy has by the word “just”. Remove that word and pans turn to raves. Naysayers will say it’s “just” another Marvel movie (as if Marvel movies haven’t been uniformly entertaining), that it’s “just” hilarious (as if the comedy portion of an action-comedy is an afterthought). That it “just” has some superficially weird elements (as if we’re awash in movies prominently featuring space raccoons, immortal, monosyllabic trees and God-Skull mines) and “just” coasts by on general good-naturedness (as if we aren’t awash in ugly, soulless, generally unpleasant movies vying for exactly the same cultural real estate as this one) and the chemistry of its heroes (as if any movie of this ilk wouldn’t kill for the chemistry that space racoon has with its costars).
All of these claims are, in my opinion, dismissive of the genuine craft and smarts that go into making even commercial entertainment product, but the one I object to the most is that it is “just” fun. As if fun is an easy thing, or a trifling one, and not the umbrella term for everything we as humans want once our basic needs for food and shelter are met. Guardians is a fun ride. That’s a rare and wonderful thing, and one that I do not want to undervalue the way we always tend to around awards/listing time.
Because Guardians was handily the best time I had at the movies this year. I sat there with a cold beer, my best girl and about the most diverse audience I can recall drawing (a half dozen races, aged 6 to 60something), and for 2 hours we reacted entirely as one, laughing at the same gags and bobbing our heads to the same needle drops and getting choked up a little at the way the CGI raccoon tenses up (gah…) for just a second when the space thug tries to pet him. I wouldn’t give those 2 hours back for damn near anything, and this being my list, “just” that counts for an awful lot.
Trendspotting: Same Shit Just Better (Marvel), “Trashy” Material Done Really Well
1. Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson is not for everyone, and Grand Budapest Hotel is not likely to convert anyone who didn’t enjoy Moonrise Kingdom or The Life Aquatic (which is to say, monsters). But for those of us blessed with a heart, sense of irony, or love of centered shot composition, this movie is a delightful romp laced with an even deeper vein of melancholy than we’re used to from Anderson.
Despite sporting some fine supporting turns from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton and F. Murray Abraham, the film is carried entirely, gloriously on the shoulders of Ralph Fiennes’s flamboyant, profane, verbose, liberally-perfumed Gustave H. If Grand Budapest does not wind up hailed throughout the ages as a masterpiece, Fiennes’s performance will be remembered and hopefully rewarded (I think that dark streak to the film and its coda will be enough to override the Academy’s bias against rewarding comedic performances, but who knows) as a an expansive tour-de-force.
But the bleakness of the coda elevates things, by making an eloquent statement on why such frivolity, such precise manners, such obsession with everything-in-it’s-right-place as found in the works of Gustave H. and Wes Anderson, is important. In a world of horror and war and pointlessness, the fussiness and fawning of Gustave convinces his guests, however briefly, that they matter, and matter desperately. Maybe that brief escape, be it to a crumbling hotel or a little movie, is the best we can hope to do for each other, amidst the tragedies and degradation that comprise the “real” world.
Or maybe just fuck it. While it lasted, it was nice. Grand Budapest’s narrator (well, one of them) implies that this is enough to say for a career, a relationship, a life even, to be called worthwhile. It’s certainly enough for a movie. Because as I tried to articulate my love for this and Guardians in particular, I was reminded of my favorite quote from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay. When the comics-creating protagonists find their creations under attack for being “just” escapist junk food, one reflects:
“Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf…
The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge…That was the magic—not the apparent magic of a silk-hatted card-palmer, or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist, but the genuine magic of art. It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world—the reality—that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised."
Watch It For: Fiennes. It’s as charming and watchable performance as any I can recall; a hilarious, instantly-indelible comedic creations. I would’ve watched an entire movie of just him in prison.
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