Monday, February 23, 2015

Alex's Top 15 Movies of 2014

I scuffled through like four versions of this first paragraph trying to figure out how I wanted to introduce this segment. Originally, I wanted to talk about how my views on life have changed in recent years, and how those feelings have affected my movie preferences. And also about why I feel the general quality of film has fallen off in recent years. But in those details, I kept going off on wild tangents - like, the space beyond the edge of our known universe type tangents. It was bad, even for me. So while I failed to come up with anything "real" to describe in this space, luckily my previous efforts made for this little anecdote that fills the space nicely. It's cheap, but I've made peace with it.

Initially, I felt the quality of films was quite low this year, but as I let the dust settle, I realized that the top entries this year were all some that I believe will stick with me for quite some time - and that's something that we definitely do not see every year. I feel a pretty good connection for the fifteen titles I selected below, but especially those in my Top 5. Each of those five picks I think will rival any Top 5 through the rest of the decade. Trust me, hold me to that. Still, outside of the fifteen titles below, little else stood out to me this past year (oh, also this post).

As for the catalog of 2014 titles, I do feel I've seen just about everything that needed to be seen to this point. This might have been my best year to date in terms of seeing everything I needed to see before compiling this list. So any omissions below are more likely due to my preferences than me not having seen something.

And remember, this list focuses more on what my "favorites" of the year were, not necessarily the "best" (though the two frequently intersect).

     15. What We Do in the Shadows
I thought long and hard about which film I wanted in this last spot, and ultimately, went with one that felt very unique among the rest. I'm not sure if this film is actually "Top 15 material", but it at least grabbed my attention in a year when so many others seemed generic. This was a fun take on the vampire genre, with incredible energy and entertaining characters. This film is just now starting to get its big theater run in America, so I know most haven't had the chance to see it yet, but it's actually been around for quite a while now. See it when you get the chance.
     14. Coherence
I don't want to copy the description from my previous list, but it's hard to come up with something different to write about here. Ultimately, this was just one of the great surprises on the year for me. The film has some basic production value issues, but the story is good enough to hook you, and the characters all have personalities that work for the setting. I like to tell people not to look anything up on this film and go in blind, because the genre surprises were what made this such a fun watch for me.
     13. The Judge
I put off watching this film for the longest time because it looked so generic. But to my surprise, it was a delight. To start, I'm a big Robert Downey, Jr. fan, so I enjoy watching anytime he's on the screen. But the heart of the movie was what was so powerful to me, and I thought it was presented beautifully. RDJ's character is a hot-shot lawyer who felt he was too big for the little town he grew up in and had a certain disdain for those who stayed in that same small town all their lives. But as circumstances bring him back after years of being away, he realizes that maybe he doesn't need to be away to be the person he wants to be; maybe that small town is exactly where he needs to be. Having moved away from a small town myself, I have a very personal connection to those ideas.
     12. Edge of Tomorrow
Typically, action movies don't stick with me. Luckily, there was enough sci-fi here to keep me interested. I thought the premise was really neat - basically we're looking at an action version of "Groundhog Day" (side note: can we apply the Groundhog Day premise to other genres and come up with other neat films? I'm going to start brainstorming a horror version; maybe a crime/mystery version). I'm a big Tom Cruise fan, regardless of whatever personal issues the guy might have. He just keeps doing his thing. And Emily Blunt is one of my favorites actresses working today - I'll watch anything she's in. The "final battle" of the film gets a little generic, but otherwise, I thought the writing was pretty good throughout. Just as with "Groundhog Day", as you're watching, you can't help but wonder how many times they've went through the same scenarios to perfect the outcome. To me, that's such a fascinating thing to think about.
     11. A Most Violent Year
The entire time I was watching this film I didn't think I cared about it. It wasn't until days and weeks later that it slowly started to creep up the ranks on this list. I'm not sure why it took that time to resonate with me - maybe it was the generally grey color pallet it used, or the low-key emotional tones most of the characters throughout - but eventually, I just realized I loved it. The story is about a self-made businessman in 1980's New York who refuses to budge on doing dirty business to get ahead. As things continue to escalate and the stakes rise, it gets harder and harder for him continue taking "the path that is most right". We're left to wonder if this character can continue to stay good or if he'll eventually give in to the corruption happening around him in order to stay on top. The hopeful part of me says he can do it, because I want to believe in the idea of truly good men; but the realist in me says that I know how much his business means to him and I think he's going to bend eventually (if he hasn't already), and once he does, he'll continue to slide down that path.
     10. The Theory of Everything
First off, Eddie Redmayne did an amazing job here. I'm not typically a big fan of his, but his performance in this film was fantastic and totally made me buy into such a difficult-to-portray character. As for the film itself, there were two issues I had with it, neither of which were entirely the film's fault. The first was that there wasn't enough science in it for me. I understand the point of the film was Stephen and Jane's relationship, but I would have preferred more content on his research and theories. That's just a personal preference I have with these kinds of movies. My second issue was that I have seen and read so many things on Hawking's life and research that I didn't feel there was much new information that was provided here. I felt like I'd seen this movie before in various pieces. That's not really a fault of this film, but I can say that my interest levels were decreased having seen most of this content before. But still, this was a fantastic film with a lot of heart, and even with those things working against it, it still ranked highly on my list. I love a movie that showcases the power of the human spirit.
     9. Inherent Vice
Man, Paul Thomas Anderson does such a good job of setting a scene for his films. I so quickly fell into this era and the surroundings of this world. Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic in the lead role as a paranoid, hippie detective. I loved following him around and seeing what sort of characters and situations he'd run into next. The movie is humorous mostly in its characters' nonsensical, moronic personas - played up by the fact that they all feel they're brilliant minds. The film is chaos, in many ways, but its constant absurdity provided a certain charm. The dialogue is genuinely fantastic, and the atmosphere is immersive. Plus the characters all have cool names. You don't necessarily try to dissect the film while you're watching it, simply absorb into its content and feel the feelings it elicits. Or maybe that's all wrong, what do I know. That's how it felt to me, though.
     8. Snowpiercer
What a fun surprise this movie was. I remember hearing about it for the longest time, but put off watching it because I had this idea in my head that the film would have a slow, drab, artsy feel to it (I didn't really look anything up on what it actually was). But my brother eventually told me that I needed to watch it, so I finally did. I was captivated right from the start. The film takes place in a future where the planet is no longer livable. The only humans left alive are those on a specifically constructed train to sustain the human race. We pick up on the group years later, where major class separations have occurred, the lowest class (the back of the train) living worse than animals. A plan is hatched to take the engine of the train and gain their freedom. Where this movie gets really neat is the compartmentalization of each scene. To get to the front, they need to go through the rest of the train, and each car presents its own set of problems and/or resistance. Because of this setup, as they move from car to car, even though we're on a rickety old train the entire time, the setting never gets stale - actually, you can't wait to see what the next car will hold. Good writing and intriguing characters (Tilda Swinton, for example) make this a thrill to watch.
     7. Guardians of the Galaxy
This was exactly what I want a superhero movie to be: a perfect blend of comedy, action, and heart. I loved all of the characters in this movie and still can't decide who's my favorite. Chris Pratt is pure gold in the film, and I'm glad he got this opportunity - not that I expected Andy from Parks & Rec could lead a superhero franchise, but you knew that guy had something special. This movie isn't much more than a summer popcorn flick, but in my opinion, it's one of the best. I can't image many people having a bad time watching this movie. Not that I feel it could ever overtake it, but might Guardians possess the staying power to hang with "X-Men: First Class" as one of the only superhero movies I continue to enjoy years after its release? Only time will tell...
     6. Fury
What a rarity to see a war movie in my Top 10. I typically don't care much for war films, but something about these characters really worked for me. I enjoyed the small, personal story of it in the larger scope of WWII. All of the characters in this unit fit together nicely, even though they didn't always get along - but you could feel their sense of responsibility and duty above all else. Most of the content is shown through the eyes of this green kid, who was seeing his first moments of real combat. You really felt for him, struggling to adapt and acclimate to the carnage happening all around him (I was able to put myself in his shoes and feel his terror of reacting to a war for the first time). The film takes place over the course of just a few days, and you see just how much those few days change him. The final showdown scene is truly epic, and I love when characters decide to put the cause before themselves. You know the probable outcome, but you know what has to be done.
     5. Nightcrawler
More than anything, this film was Jake Gyllenhaal crushing this role. He was such a slimy, creepy guy, with a warped sense of entrepreneurship and business ethics - but you still rooted for him! For a film that really felt like it should be more a cautionary tale of unchecked ambition and greed, there was weirdly something slightly inspirational about it. It may not always be ethical (or legal), but Gyllenhaal's character knows what he wants and he makes it happen. The film depicts a character truly raised in the age of 24-hour, fear-mongering news stations. And the constant struggles with Rene Russo's character – a producer who wants to do "real news", but whose reality exists in a world of ratings and money – is a great example of the culture we live in today. As much as she wanted otherwise, she knew his blood and gore meant high ratings and would sell ad space. As someone who loves and admires the concept of real news, I'm truly disgusted with the realities this film portrays, but I don't hold it against either of the two characters above (it's on us as a society; buying into such trash and making ourselves feel better calling it "news". I could go on and on, but I'll get off my soapbox for now).
     4. Gone Girl
Was there a film this year with a better (worse) constant vibe to it than this one? Fantastic tone throughout, amazing vision from director David Fincher, and another home-run score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Aside from the twists that I never saw coming (I never read the book and refused to read anything about its synopsis), these characters were some of the best, most intricate and layered I've ever seen on a screen before. These were two awful people, complete sociopaths, that reveled in the attention they got from their lies and games. I think my favorite moment in the film was when Amy saw Nick's TV interview where he sort of stepped up to her level. Even though it kind of hurt her angle, you could tell she was into it. It was kind of him reaching out to her saying game on. From there, I loved the constant back-and-forths they played trying to one-up the other. These are two people who I felt hated each other as much as they came to love each other. My only wish was that we could have seen more from these two. I wanted to see what continued to happen with their lives.
     3. Boyhood
I feel bad that this movie fell to #3 on the year for me, though, that's only in the constraints of this list - it might not make sense, but I can already feel like this film might stick with me longer than the two below. The ambition here is so grand, and it doesn't come off as gimmicky at all. I love character dramas, and this was such a neat look into that premise; I felt honored to watch this. Patricia Arquette was the most powerful character in the film, constantly fighting to make a better life for her kids, but Ethan Hawke's character was the one I felt most grew and evolved throughout the film (even among the kids who literally grew on film). Seeing him go from a nearly-absent father who didn't know his role with his family to one who really made peace with the world and found ways to connect with his kids was really beautiful. You could tell he just gets it. And I think more than anything - and I'm not sure why this theme is resonating with me so much lately - I like that this film is just about normal people with messy lives trying to make the best of it. Maybe that's just me getting older and seeing the world from a different perspective, but we're all just trying to do our best. Seeing this family go through all of its struggles and still come out OK in the end - that gives me a really good feeling.
     2. Whiplash
I'm not sure there was a more emotionally charged film in 2014 than this one. Even if the themes of "Boyhood" resonate with me a bit more, I give this film the edge on this list for such amazing execution. This film was gripping and intense from start to finish. First, props to J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller for owning these roles and making this movie. The tension between these two characters was so thick and you could see the internal battles Andrew constantly faced: stick with it and be the best, but also be miserable, or quit and keep your sanity, but potentially miss out on greatness. The final scene of this film really showcased that dilemma. I don't want to get into too much philosophy on the premise, but I am on board with Fletcher's methods. I'd love to see what our world would look like if we were all pushed that hard in our areas of concentration. No one forced Andrew to stay. He wanted to be great, and he knew Fletcher was the person who could get him there. In some ways, I relate this relationship to that of the two characters in my #4 film. Both are a little crazy, and parts of them hate the other, but they also know they're perfect for each other and together can accomplish the things they want.
     1. Interstellar
Just a few weeks ago I was having doubts that this should be my #1 film. Luckily, I re-watched it, and again feel incredibly sure that this is my favorite movie of the year. As a premise alone, this film features storylines I feel very passionate about. I love concepts about space exploration, future technologies, the human advancement and survival, etc. - I wish I could express the feelings I had inside after the first time I watched this film. These themes are exactly why I NEED to live forever. Michael Caine's character has a line in the film that I feel very strongly about: "I'm not afraid of death, I'm afraid of time." Those are my exact feelings on life. The concept of death doesn't haunt me; running out of time and missing more of what the future has to offer is what I'm afraid of. 
As for the content of the film, I had no problems with any of its science. I'm obviously no scientist and hence not qualified to weigh in specifically, but I don't understand the issues film critics had with it. Most of the concepts have been deemed at least plausible by scientists, but the bottom line is most of the science explored in the film, no one knows for sure whether it's accurate or not; we just don't have the knowledge to explore those areas yet. And most importantly, this is ultimately a piece of entertainment. Christopher Nolan was not filming a documentary. When did the facts all have to check out in order to be entertaining? "Jurassic Park", one of my all-time favorite movies, has a RT score of 93%. I wonder how many of the critics who seemingly bashed "Interstellar" purely for its scientific shortcomings gave JP a positive review? 
If I were composing a list of my Top 5 Shots of the Year, I could easily fill it all with scenes from this movie. There were some beautiful and intense scenes in this movie, and I still wish I could have seen more of this world. The characters all worked for me, and even the robots in the film provided much more personality than you'd expect. It was powerful and hit me on many levels. Even though it was nearly three-hours long, it never felt tedious. I was in awe of everything that was happening from start to finish, even on a second viewing. There's nothing I disliked about it.

That's what I'm feeling right now. A clause I like to provide in posts like these are that the above ranking is just what feels good right now. There's a good chance that over time the positioning of some of these titles might change a little; but fresh off my viewings for the year, this looks good right now. Thanks for reading!