It seemed over the course of this year that its theme was: weird and indie. Two independent films, Birdman and Boyhood, fought for contention over this year's Oscars for Best Picture. And one of the most widely loved films of the year featured a talking raccoon and his tree friend. It was a hell of a year for movies, and as the year raged on it reminded so much about what I love about sitting in a dark room, the projector behind me, the quiet coughs of people around me, my hands resting on sticky arm-rests; that little escapism that fills me with joy every time somebody wants to talk about what I saw this past year, and why it was so great, and how it changed my life, and how it filled my entire world with something wonderful and beautiful for a few short hours.
I love movies. I love storytelling. I always have. And, this was a hell of a year for movies, both weird and small, big and ridiculous. And if you'll humor Max and I, we'd like to talk to you about what movies we loved the most this year and why. - Chad
Maybe it was only nostalgia that placed this movie so high atop my list, but as I watched Laika’s claymation adventure I was swept away to memories of A Claymation Christmas Celebration and other Will Vinton classics and its weird, weird, slightly dark world of children’s movies and TV series.
Bong Joon-ho has, over this past year, become among my favorite filmmakers, though most of the reason behind that lies in the watching of his brilliant Mother and Memories of Murder finally, but Snowpiercer was without a doubt one of the more original action/adventure movies I’ve seen in recent memory.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
The Hunger Games series has thus far surprised me, and has thus far gotten better with each installment, though because we saw so many great movies this year, and because the entire affair felt a bit unfinished, well, Mockingjay, Part 1 had to drop over the course of the year.
Blue Ruin’s wit was surprising, considering its dark subject matter, and made it quite an enjoyable watch as it slipped itself into the darkest of pools in its final minutes.
Out of all the movies Max and I watched this year, few drew from us a more interesting conversation than the one that The Drop produced. The movie is pretty regular fare until the final minutes when a revelation changes how you view the entirety of the character’s lives and their morals.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Featuring likable characters, visceral action scenes, a good mix of practical effects and CGI, a fantastic turn by Sebastian Stan and just the right amount of political intrigue to flavor the story without turning it into Exposition: The Film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great example of a summer blockbuster done right.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s entry into the generally disposable found footage horror genre sets itself apart by being less focused on the monster, in this case Bigfoot, and more on the wonderfully acted relationship between its central characters, played out most notably in an unmoving nineteen minute long shot which alone is worth the price of admission.
Featuring a great performance by Brendan Gleeson and a wonderful script by John Michael McDonagh, Calvary has the boldness to ask hard questions and the courage not to attempt to answer them.
John Slattery’s debut is deeply flawed but full of potential, with a very unique feel, and it features one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances which, as it was with this year’s similarly intriguing but flawed A Most Wanted Man, basically makes it mandatory viewing.
From its first act of violence to its bloody conclusion, Blue Ruin never releases you from the vise-like grip of its mounting tension, succeeding in its aims largely due to Macon Blair’s fantastic lead performance and some very tight screenwriting.
20. Under the Skin
Under the Skin is a tough nut to crack. And explaining what I loved about it, even more so. I will say this. I certainly loved a great deal of the technical aspects; from the cinematography, to the score, to the special effects--it was all quite brilliantly conceived. And, had it been a few shades more minimalistic it might of been impossible to tell that Scarlett Johansson’s character was an alien. But I think what made me truly love it was that it didn’t try to be anything but a bizarre tale about an alien stealing people’s entities(?) and in turn was a nice, beautifully filmed meditation on what it is like to be a human being in all of its ugly nakedness. I genuinely don’t have much else to say other than that. It’s a nice, quiet, meditative movie, and it’s a joy to watch as much as it’s painful to watch. -Chad
20. Muppets Most Wanted
When I went to Muppets Most Wanted I kept my expectations in check. I’d greatly enjoyed the 2011 reboot, which was something of a surprise, but this time I was hoping for nothing more than a decent film, one which could stand alongside the series’ previous entry without looking bad. In short, I was looking for a film that wouldn’t be an embarrassment to a franchise I’ve always loved. What I got was another surprise. In my eyes, Muppets Most Wanted is just as great as the 2011 reboot, if not better. The jokes are just as sharp, the characters are just as endearing and the songs are generally quite entertaining (this is coming from a guy who typically hates musicals). Watching the Muppets brings something out in me, a certain optimism, a pervasive but fleeting feeling that, at the end of the day, life really isn’t all that bad. A world with Kermit in it is a world worth treasuring, basically. Now let’s move on to the next entry before I turn into a greeting card. -Max
19. X-Men: Days of Future Past
There once was time when super-hero movies were, well, immensely bad. Then Bryan Singer made the first X-Men movie, and pretty soon the big production companies started buying up super-heroes, seeing the profit that could be made, and, well, now here we are. In an age where 75% of the summer blockbusters are of the super-hero variety. And yes, some of them are still quite bad, but this year things seem to finally be changing. And the movie purist in me is starting to enjoy, along with the comic book fan in me, this ever growing change. There’s two comic book movies in my top twenty, and another one, Captain America: Winter Soldier, just barely missed my Runner-Ups. So, yeah, things are getting better for those of us who love both film and comic books alike, and better yet, the stories are increasing in quality every year. This one a prime example. Taken from the Chris Claremont penned ‘Days of Future Past’ issues, there have been some changes made, but, because you’re probably not a nerd, and because I'm not nerd enough to explain the differences, I won’t bore you with them. But, in my opinion, all of the changes do nothing but serve the story to an even greater degree, bringing along Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, rather than Ellen Page’s Kitty Pride for the ride back in time. And unlike most super-hero movies as of late it doesn’t exactly make the decision as to whether it’s a ‘fun movie’ or whether it’s a ‘dark movie’ as both work perfectly in tandem here, creating a slickly told, darkly fun super-hero tale that is both tense and occasionally tugs at the heart with real emotion, but also manages to be quite a lot of fun. It’s a rare marriage of dark foreboding and gentle fun that comes off without a hitch. And it’s one of the better super-hero films of the past decade or so, remaining, most likely, for the time being, in my top five. -Chad
19. Are You Here
Honestly, this one confused me. This is a film that has an eight percent on Rotten Tomatoes. An EIGHT PERCENT. Less than 1 out of every 10 critics would recommend this film to you. And yet I really enjoyed it. Is it a bit clunky and awkward in places? Sure, but so’s life. It’s in those awkward little moments that our humanity truly shines through. Overall, I liked Are You Here so much because it’s such a kind movie. It’s a true rarity, a film about friendship and love where the relationships feel genuine and honest, not contrived or exaggerated or played for laughs. The relationship between Zach Galifianakis’ and Owen Wilson’s characters is one of the most realistic and well rounded depictions of male friendship I’ve ever seen in a film. I think people hated this one largely because it’s the directorial debut of Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, and as such they were probably expecting something bigger and more dramatic based upon his previous work. I think that Are You Here is just what it should be, and that Weiner should be commended for making something truly unique. It may not work all of the time, but that just means that Weiner, along with his well chosen cast, is trying something new, and that’s all too rare these days. -Max
It’s a movie about a guy driving, talking on a phone. Don’t worry, I know you’ve stopped reading, and I know that as soon as they pitched that about a dozen film studios thanked them for their time and sent them packing, if they were even that civil, honestly. But what is amazing about Locke is that it succeeds in being more tense and engaging than about 90% of the films out there with bigger budgets and a dozen more sets and locations. But Locke is very much about a man in a car driving from one place to another, trying his best to pick up the pieces of his mistakes. I would explain further, but to explain further would be very much a disservice to potential viewers. So, you’ll just have to take my word for it. It’s a brilliant film, directed brilliantly and with surprising tension, and the script is among the best in a great year for scripts. Maybe a small budget is exactly what is needed for creativity to bloom. In a year dominated by brilliant indie films that have been more widely accepted than in the past, maybe that is quite true. -Chad
This is a film that probably shouldn’t work. 99% of the narrative takes place inside a car. Only one character appears on screen. That character spends most of the film talking to other people on the phone, and when he does he’s often talking about cement. Perhaps most worryingly, this is a film about a guy talking on his car phone for 90 minutes, frequently about cement, by a first time director. This could have been the most boring film I saw all year, and yet I’ll be damned if they didn’t pull it off with aplomb. The film is edited and shot in such a way that it never becomes stale or overly repetitive, and writer/director Steven Knight (who wrote the scripts for Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, among other solid films) and his crew should certainly be commended. However, despite their best efforts the film simply would not have worked without Tom Hardy, who here turns in yet another transformative, hugely impressive performance. In a few short years Hardy’s gone from being a good actor to being one of the very best working today, and that’s never been more obvious than it was during Locke. This movie could have been a gimmick, but in the hands of these great artists it became so much more. I didn’t care much about Locke’s plight when the film began, but by the time it ended I was so invested that I didn’t want the movie to stop. -Max
Frank is a very strange film, in that it almost feels like it’s not real. And what I mean by that is--well, let me explain to you the film. It is about a man named Frank who plays for an indie rock band, and (here comes the bizarre part) he wears a paper-mache head...all the time. Because, as he explains at some point, ‘He has a certificate.’ You’ll get it once you see the movie. Oh, and by the way, he’s played by Michael Fassbender. Yeah, the guy who’s known for playing serious, troubled, dark characters in serious, dark, troubled movies. Oh, and Magneto, he played Magneto, too. When trailers were first released I was interested, because, well, Fassbender is a great actor, but also because I couldn’t see him in this bizarre film about a guy who plays music and basically lives in a paper-mache head...ALL THE TIME. It seems a weird premise, but upon seeing it, and, well, because I can write whatever I want here, so, just so you know, there’s gonna be some spoilers ahead--because what I truly loved about the film, and what made it such an interesting film to ponder and dissect was its ending. It’s a charming enough movie. Domhnall Gleeson’s character wants to be a songwriter, but he can’t write. He finds Frank’s band, the Soronprfbs (try to pronounce that) and by coincidence he becomes the keyboardist. They then retire to a cottage in the middle of nowhere Ireland (which is beautiful, by the way), and they set about recording an album. Domhnall’s character proceeds to talk them up on Twitter, acquiring, most likely for the same reason I was attracted to the film, a fan base because it seemed too weird to be true. Which then lands them a gig at South by Southwest. And the entire time you think, because every film of this of has lead you to believe, that they’ll go onstage and blow people’s minds and become super famous, right? No, they immediately explode upon arriving, and quickly the band breaks up, leaving just Fassbender and Dohmnall to play alone, unplugged. But, of course, now they’re gonna blow up and be super famous, right? Nope. Fassbender’s character drops on stage declaring ‘The music sucks!’ and things fall apart. Which eventually leads to a feud and then Fassbender’s collision with a car that leads to the destruction of his paper-mache head. Finally ending on a scene wherein Domhnall watches as the band reunites, Fassbender now without the mask, singing a song together in a bar. And when I first watched it I thought to myself ‘Well, that was nice, but disappointing.’ Then I let it gestate in my brain a bit, and slowly the greatness of that ending fell into my brain-space. That being, that something doesn’t have to be widely accepted and widely loved to be great. In fact, it can sometimes be known to just a handful of people, and be great, if even it’s only to those who are aware of its existence. Sometimes ambition blocks from our sight what’s really important, especially in this case, with art. That being, that really, all the people it ever needs to be great to are the people creating it. I mean, that is why we create art, right? We create it because we have something inside ourselves that we want to get out, and so we do. Who really cares if thousands of people who we've never met, who will never touch your life in any way, will like it? You should create art because you can, and because ultimately it is for you, isn’t it? -Chad
For me, Frank was one of the biggest surprises of the year. I saw the trailer and thought it looked fine. I figured it would be fairly funny, and watching Michael Fassbender run around in a giant mascot head appealed to me in the same way that watching any other “serious” actor run around in a giant mascot head likely would. However, I ended up liking Frank much more than I thought I would. This film is not exactly the light comedy its trailers made it out to be. It’s far more emotional than I was expecting, and Fassbender somehow manages to make you feel a great of empathy for his character, not an easy feat due to the mascot head. Like Frank, the character Fassbender plays so effectively, the film has an odd charisma that swept me up after a while and made me care. I would describe this film as “charming,” but then I would have to punch myself in the face for writing film reviews like a Family Circus character. Excuse me for a moment. -Max
16. The Skeleton Twins
There are about a dozen movies just like The Skeleton Twins released every single year. The thing is, none of the them star Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader and none of them end the way Skeleton Twins does. Yep, I’m gonna talk about the ending, so yeah, spoilers ahead. But honestly that’s the only way I can talk about what separates this movie from every 'humanist' movie ever released since Garden State; wherein the characters must solve some emotional dilemma in an hour and a half, crack a few jokes, look bored throughout half of it in place of depression and generally wreak havoc on their personal lives until: tada! they learn something about themselves and figure out how to live. Well, The Skeleton Twins does that too, kinda. But it’s in a different way. Because once it’s over, well, their lives are still terrible, in fact with the foreseeable dissolving of Kristen Wiig’s marriage, they might be worse off. Which, by the way, I should mention; Luke Wilson is great in this, playing Wiig’s likable but somewhat dense husband. I genuinely felt bad for him at the end, and sided with him when he learned that (SPOILERS, though not really because it’s in the GODDAMN TRAILER) Kristen Wiig was cheating on him, and had been for some time, with a few men. But simultaneously, I felt bad for Kristen Wiig, because she’s fucked up too. She’s just as lost, and, maybe, as nice as Luke Wilson’s character is, maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t right for Kristen Wiig either. I mean, that is the way life is, right? It’s complicated and there is absolutely zero black and white. People hurt each other, and not so much because they’re vindictive and mean and don’t care; but because, well, we’re all a little fucked and don’t know what we want, and goddamnit, we only live once. So, by those rights the idea that we’ve made the right decision for the rest of our lives is almost always undoubtedly wrong. Cause when it really boils down to it: there is no right and there is no wrong, not really at least. And for me, other than the great performances by Wiig and Hader and Wilson and, though I forgot to mention his character here (whose character arc is equally as good as Wiig’s is) Ty Burell; that's exactly what I loved about this film, and what set it above every indie dramedy to come out since Zach Braff stumbled with quirky candor across our screens. And for my account, it even reached Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent territory, in terms of quality. Which, for me, is quite a compliment. -Chad
16. The Rover
I feel for Robert Pattinson. The guy owes his career to a character and a franchise he openly despises and because of that character, that sparkly asshole from Twilight, he has to spend the rest of his days fighting an uphill battle to establish and maintain his artistic credibility in the eyes of the world and the industry. Last year’s Cosmopolis was his chance to prove that he wasn’t screwing around, and he was actually quite decent in the film. However, his performance was overshadowed by the fact that the movie itself was absolutely horrible. No matter. He’s better in The Rover anyway, and for once he’s actually managed to land a good film project as well. For some reason Australian directors have always shown an aptitude for making great post-apocalyptic films, and the Rover might very well be my favorite, over such works as The Road and The Road Warrior and other assorted films with “road” in the title (though my heart will always belong to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). Pattison provides the film’s emotional center while Guy Pearce provides its spine. This is one of his finest performances to date, and for long stretches of the film it feels like he barely even moves. He owns the character from the first frame to the last, much like writer/director David Michaud owns his film. One of my favorite things about The Rover is how lean it is. It doesn’t bother with coming up with some bullshit reason for why the Earth is in ruins, it’s just in ruins and we’re all going to have to deal with it. It says more than enough by barely saying anything at all. The film is brutally efficient, but it slows down in all the right places. Basically, it’s a triumph for everyone involved. -Max
15. The Immigrant
Movies like The Immigrant rarely get made these days. And based on the box office totals, I guess, I can see why. Which is sad, because The Immigrant is a beautiful, almost old fashioned movie in the vein of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Coppola’s The Godfather series. Which makes sense because they’re all set in the early 1900s New York City, but the comparisons go beyond that. Like Leone’s film and Coppola’s the movie allows itself to move at its own pace; an almost mind-numbingly slow pace that stretches 117 minutes, allowing itself to tell its tale in the ‘70s New Hollywood tradition. And at first, the movie is quite boring. It’s nice, it’s pretty, but it is kind of boring, letting each scene play out and never revealing its cards too soon. But the ‘boring’ phase is necessary. As slowly the relationship unfolds between Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoneix’s characters, and it isn’t until nearly the end that it’s truly paid off; in two separate scenes in which each character displays a genuine kindness to the other, without having any reason, or right to. The relationship between them is complicated and is fraught with selfishness, but in the end, what makes it so interesting is how truly selfless it ends up becoming. And it’s that relationship that makes this film so wonderful to watch and places it so high upon my list, despite its rather slow start. It’s a movie I’m quite glad I’ve seen, and like a similar movie, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (especially in terms of pacing), it is a movie whose third act more than makes up for its slower first two acts; and by rights it is in that respect, in my opinion, a brilliant, near masterpiece of a film. -Chad
15. The Immigrant
Writer/director James Gray’s never really been on my radar, but that might have to change now. Not that I absolutely loved The Immigrant from start to finish. In fact, I thought its first half was pretty unengaging, functional but not much more. However, the longer The Immigrant goes on the better it gets. What once seemed simple and, frankly, somewhat boring becomes far more complex. In short, this film is worth seeing for Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, not just for their performances (which are excellent) but to observe the fascinating relationship that develops between their characters. Gray doesn’t provide any easy answers here, bringing up complex questions about love, loyalty, trust and faith only to simply leave them up in the air, allowing us to ponder them at our leisure. I wish more directors would follow his example in this regard. -Max
14. Mistaken for Strangers
Yes, I do love The National, a lot in fact--as I would count them among my top ten to top five favorite bands, but that is not at all why I liked this movie. Yes, it was nice to see my favorite band, or one of my favorite bands as real, ordinary people. Absolutely. But what was even more amazing about this film was that it was barely about them, as a band. In an age where, thankfully, musicians are opening up more and more about who they are as people, it’s nice to see a documentary like this--one that, by the way, would have never been made about such '70s icons like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, or etc. etc.--any publicists nightmare at the time, wherein rock stars were heralded as some sort of omnipotent gods amongst men.Yet this film presents them as real people, who once had normal jobs, and who have normal lives and normal, weird families, just like us. I have two brothers, and I have one sister, and there have been many times in my life, my adult life included, where I’ve been angry with them, either in something they’ve done or said, or some course they’ve taken with their life, or most often, when I just didn’t feel like we fit together, and had we not been raised under the same roof, we probably wouldn’t even of been friends. It’s an interesting question, and obviously something I feel like they’ve felt about me, too. Believe me, I’m aware that sometimes I can be a bit of a bastard. And this movie presents, Matt Berringer, lead singer of The National, as somewhat of an occasional asshole, though, honestly, most of the time I can understand why he feels the way he does. He’s also a guy who loves his brother, Tom, and cares and wants to see him succeed, even though sometimes he obviously drives him insane. It presents what it actually is often like to have a brother, someone who you fight with and argue with, and spend most of your life competing with for love, respect, notice, and also somebody who, most of the time, you just want to be happy and to see succeed. It’s a really, really pretty documentary, directed by Tom, Matt’s guileless brother--which often presents him in a bad light as well, in many often comic scenes, especially one where Tom shows another band member his prior films, one of which was a ridiculous fight between Vikings that crescendoed into bloody ridiculousness. It’s a hilarious scene, and this movie is packed with those, taking embarrassment and heartbreak and presenting it honestly in moments that are both often comedic and tragic. Speaking poignantly on the nature of family and all of its absurdities and tragedies, along with all of its love and understanding. Family in itself might be one of the hardest things to grasp in life, because no matter the differences between you, no matter how much, at a given time, you might dislike or misunderstand each other, when it comes down to it, it’s painful and it aches to know that they’re out there somewhere, and that the world is treating them the same way it’s treating you--sometimes cruelly. And that’s hard. That’s painful. Cause when it comes down to it, you just want them to be happy, and, just like you, that’s not always possible--in fact, it isn’t possible most of the time. -Chad
14. X-Men: Days of Future Past
There was a time when Bryan Singer’s X-2: X-Men United was considered by many to be the greatest superhero film of all time (or, at the very least, up there with Superman 2). Ten years later (and seven years after his flawed but somewhat intriguing take on Superman), Singer returned to show us all how comic book films should be done. X3 (which the director had no involvement with, having handed over the reins to Brett fucking Ratner) absolutely butchered the Dark Phoenix saga, perhaps the franchise’s most beloved story, and I was worried that even Singer wouldn’t be able to live up to the legacy of Days of Future Past, perhaps my personal favorite X-Men tale. I shouldn’t have doubted him. For me, Days of Future Past is easily the most impressive film in the series, definitively surpassing the heights of X2 and First Class. The film takes many liberties with its source material, the largest of which being the change of protagonist, abandoning Kitty Pride for Wolverine (of course), but that doesn’t impact its quality as a film. It’s a lot of fun of course, with some well delivered comedy and plenty of impressive set pieces, but it’s also surprisingly affecting at times. It builds on First Class’ humanization of these characters, making you really feel for them and care about their plights. I never thought an X-Men film would not just entertain me but touch me as well. Days of Future Past did. -Max
13. Gone Girl
This movie wrecked me for a solid week. And no, not because it was shocking, because it echoed, allegorically speaking, some of my own fears and views on love. Those being: that ultimately love and relationships in general might just be some sort of trap to be sprung. Some way to create some sort of acceptable front with which to hide behind one’s own anxieties and peculiarities, one’s own vile, disgust filled brain. Giving a front to the world a display of some form of normalcy. Saying: See, we’re normal. We’re happy. Life’s good. The entire movie a metaphor for a marriage that is impossible to get out of, because damn you for even attempting, because you’d be the heartless, soulless one in said circumstance. And so, for a week I pondered this message. One awful, solitary week, and I finally came out of it, but knew that, without a doubt, in some circumstances this movie’s message could be so painfully true. And that is exactly what real horror is built on. The truth about our own pains and anxieties, and this may not be a ‘horror’ film in the most pure sense, but it is without a doubt a horrifying movie. Directed masterfully by David Fincher, whose movies have always been quite good, if only occasionally, a bit cold. This one being quite possibly the coldest of the lot. By now you know almost the entire plot as it’s most likely covered your social media news feed for months since its release, urging you with the hopes of mystery into a dark theater, possibly with a spouse, possibly on a date; and never have you been more wrong about taking a significant other to the movies, ever. Your own fears and anxieties, no doubt, on display before you. Fincher has always been a great director, almost among the top tier of his colleagues, producing one good to great film after another, besides Panic Room, of course. And though this might not be his ‘masterpiece’ it’s certainly among his best. It’s a dark, harrowing film, and it’s brilliantly plotted twists and turns took me to the recesses of my own fears in ways few movies have ever done. -Chad
13. Gone Girl
This is a deeply upsetting film, and one of the most pessimistic pieces of mainstream art I’ve ever seen. However, like everything else David Fincher’s directed, it is beautifully composed. The single most impressive aspect of Gone Girl is the performance of Rosamund Pike, who is truly terrifying, but one shouldn’t discount the work of Ben Affleck either. In fact, both play their roles almost perfectly, and the rest of the ensemble cast (even Tyler Perry) does likewise. Above all, this is a film about relationships, about the very concept of revealing yourself to another person to such an intimate degree, and it will probably make you never want to date anyone again ever. However, if you’re willing to put up with its nightmarish stance on romantic love, you’ll find a stunningly well crafted film under all of that bitterness. From the acting to the writing to the editing to the cinematography to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ hypnotic score, everyone who worked on this film did so at the top of their game. Zodiac is still my favorite of Fincher’s films, but I’d probably call Gone Girl my runner up. -Max
Calvary is a dark-comedy-drama with a complex view on the world and on the darker nature of man’s soul, much like Brendan Gleeson’s character, Father James. And that darkness is covered in shades of grey. Opening with an unknown figure in a confession booth declaring that in one week he will kill Father James, a good priest, because of the sins committed to him as a child by a pedophilic priest. It’s a hell of an opening, riddled with dark comedy--much like most of the movie, that never takes itself too seriously, often deciding to laugh at the dark nature of its characters and of death, which provides an interesting format in which to discuss such matters. The townsfolk dispelling their awfulness to Father James, him responding almost always with sarcasm. And yet, when the drama does come it feels even more weighted for being partnered with the likes of such. The director, John Michael McDonagh, is responsible for The Guard, a moderately good debut, and it’s easy to say that he’s grown in leaps and bounds here. This time around displaying more control over tone, and, well, simply just writing a better script. Yes, there are some small errors here and there--like how it seems like everybody in the town is an asshole and yet they still go to church? But besides some of its smaller problems, the film works beautifully, with a great cast including veteran comedic actors like Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd--both of whom shine quite wonderfully. McDonagh’s brother is actually Martin McDonagh, whose films Seven Psychopaths and especially In Bruge are quite great, darkly comedic, but wonderfully beautiful films in their own right. But here, maybe, John outdoes his brother, delivering a great darkly comedic, yet painfully heart wrenching tale about sin and death, set against the backdrop of the beautiful green Irish countryside, which, by the way, look absolutely gorgeous here, and provides one hell of a setting for this film. It’s brilliantly funny, and brilliantly beautiful, and I’m damn sad I didn’t get to see this film in the dark of a cinema, because it would of been even more magical there, I’d assume. To watch Gleeson’s character carry the sins of the town, the sins of the world and to still move ahead, knowing that because of the sins of his church--sins he had nothing to do with--well, he is destined to die, to be punished. And I must mention that there is a brilliant scene with Domhnall Gleeson (who is Brendan Gleeson’s son, by the way) who plays a serial killer and cannibal, but one who asks the Father to visit in hopes of being forgiven. It’s without a doubt one of the best scenes in the movie, and it explains Father James quite possibly the best--a selfless man, doling out forgiveness, the only truly good man in the entire story. There’s another really beautiful scene at the end of the film, as Father James stands on a pier, talking to his daughter on a pay phone--his daughter who a few days earlier had attempted to take her own life, and who spent most of the week with her father--and they talk about sin, and there’s a rather beautiful exchange between the two on sins and virtues, and all of this, right before the man is to knowingly walk into death. It seems throughout that Gleeson’s character should give up, and rightfully we wouldn’t blame him, and then another scene like that comes along, and it’s that weird balance of dark-comedy, and even darker drama, mirrored by such beautifully written scenes of perseverance. There’s a summary written on the back of a copy of Faulkner’s Light in August that I own, that I read a few years back, that describes the book as ‘a novel about hopeful perseverance in the face of mortality,’ and that is exactly how I would describe Calvary; it is about hopeful perseverance in the face of mortality and the absurd unforgiving nature of the universe. -Chad
12. The Babadook
The horror genre has truly fallen from grace over the past, oh, 35 years or so. Hell, last year’s The Conjuring was the best American horror film I’d seen in a great many years, and even it wasn’t that good. I mean, sure, it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch, but it didn’t come close to approaching (or even attempting) to reach the level of films like The Exorcist and The Haunting (the original, damn it) in terms of artistry or creepiness. The Babadook is, of course, not an American horror film, as is the case with 99% of the good horror films released in the last decade. However, it comes closer to that Exorcist/Haunting level of excellence and fear than any other horror film I’ve seen in a very long time. This is a film that really gets under your skin, unfolding slowly, ratcheting up the tension. There is not a single jump scare in The Babadook, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. Jump scares, the common currency of the modern American horror film, are cheap. They work in the moment, but the fear quickly fades. Great horror films, like this one, don’t scare you in the moment as much as they unnerve you, filling you with a pervasive, lasting sense that something is just not right. There’s a patience to effective horror that the Babadook really understands. It’s all tied up in one of my favorite endings of the year. Overall, if you want to see old-fashioned horror done right, The Babadook is an excellent choice. -Max
There’s been an absurd amount of backlash to this film. And, frankly, I don’t understand why. For over a decade now Chris Nolan has made a career out of creating ‘brainy’ and almost too clever magic trick-esque blockbusters, and for over a decade now, people have loved them and eaten them up without question. Yes, his Batman trilogy is great. It has without question redefined what we expect from big budget blockbusters and has lead an entire generation of would be Spielberg’s to reboot about everything under the sun in an updated real world gritty environment, with mostly mixed to poor results. Maybe that’s where the backlash spawns from. I mean, he is the reason that our eyes were assaulted with a dark brooding Superman in Man of Steel, and not, you know, ‘truth, justice, and the American way.’ And yes, he was a producer on that film, but by now enough people should know that you don’t give Zach Snyder control over a beloved comic book series, unless all you’re interested in is making bank, that is. Christopher Nolan should have known, right? I mean, I would of assumed as much. There’s no doubt about it, he’s a smart guy. And he’s the type of blockbuster filmmaker this generation needed. With the events of the World Trade Center and our shitty, shitty stock market, people have become cynical and paranoid. It makes sense that a director who got his start making a paranoia driven neo-noir would be the man for the job. And, honestly, he’s done a great job at it, creating blockbuster films that have thus far challenged our amygdala as well as our frontal lobe, asking us questions with our explosions and skull smashing punches.
And maybe, that’s why I loved Interstellar so much. It wasn’t there to ask us as many questions as it was to engage us in an emotionally perplexing story about love. Which, in this day and age, what with our constant state of cynicism seems a bit hokey and, well, old hat. Movies that delivered for us an emotional response in tandem with explosions and skull crushing punches died out a long, long time ago. Back when another brilliant blockbuster machine was churning out thoughtful and heartfelt fare. Surprisingly enough, that man, a certain Steven Spielberg, was slated as this film’s original director. And so, some of that Spielbergian charm seemed to bleed through. Producing for us, audience members, a heartfelt tale about an unlikely hero delving into space to rescue his family, while simultaneously destroying the love that he left behind for his family. I loved it. I really, really loved it. America has become too hardened, too cynical in the wake of The World Trade Center attacks and it’s aftermath; as if suddenly we realized that, yes, the world is indeed a scary and dangerous place. And finally we’re just now understanding that fact and brooding over it like pissed off and immature teenagers. Get over it. Horrible things happen in all of the far stretches of the globe. Enjoy this life, enjoy what it offers you, and smile again, goddamnit. The world's always going to be scary, escape every once and awhile. -Chad
11. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I keep thinking, before every film I see of his, that this will finally be the time that I get sick of Wes Anderson’s shtick. I never do. This is a director who simply never lets me down. Can he keep doing the same thing forever, building elaborate, highly choreographed and color coded worlds full of quirky misanthropes who are all just looking for love? Logic says that he can’t, that after awhile his style will get stale, especially because it’s just so pronounced. It didn’t work for Tim Burton, so why should it work for Wes Anderson? And yet his style doesn’t feel stale at all. If anything he’s getting better at his craft. So I’m gonna go against logic, against history, and say that Wes Anderson can keep on doing the same thing until he dies, and that I will love it. This is Anderson’s most assured film. This is mostly evident in the elaborate timing of several complex sequences, all of which he pulls off perfectly. It’s also his darkest film, featuring humor that is, at times, surprisingly (if amusingly) violent, and (as usual) some really affecting moments of genuine sadness. The cast is excellent, the cinematography is beautiful, the set design and art direction are just absurdly good… Overall, The Grand Budapest Hotel was easily one of the most enjoyable experiences I had at a movie this year. -Max
10. The Rover
The Rover unfolds like a simply stated, simply written Cormac McCarthy novel--having a striking resemblance to McCarthy’s own work, 'The Road'. Critics have been quite mixed on the film, much unlike the director David Michod’s first film Animal Kingdom, which bizarely enough I didn’t watch until after watching this movie. And they’re both brilliant films, his earlier work probably being a much tighter, interesting film. But, with that being said, I must state that I do in fact very much love this film, and found it to among the best of all of the films I saw last year. Yes, the story is overtly simplistic, and in some ways predictable, and yes, it does indeed mine a lot of familiar territory. Especially for anybody who’s of particular interest in post-apocalyptic fiction. But I don’t think that takes anything away from it. Though, probably the greatest thing I could mention about the film is the absolute wonderfulness of the two lead actors, Guy Pearce--who plays Eric with the same brilliance and subtlety as he’s played nearly every character he’s ever played. And Robert Pattinson who might be what’s really amazing and surprising about this film, finally out of his heartthrob Twilight days gets a character with real meat on his bones, and he produces the sympathetic center of the film, a character so depressing--in search of his brother whom he believes, even if he won’t admit it to himself, has left him to die out in the Australian desert. And I won’t give away the ending, or as to whether the brothers even meet up again, but the ending, a simple, crushing ending at that, left me, personally, on the verge of tears. It’s a brilliant and underrated film, and I’ve quickly become a fan of David Michod and can’t wait for what he does next. -Chad
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is just what I needed. Since the tremendous success of The Dark Knight comic book films have been getting darker and darker, culminating in last year’s disastrously glum Man of Steel. Though DC spearheaded this insufferable “I can shoot lasers out of my eyes and I’m sad” cliche it seems like Marvel might be headed in the same direction, considering that this “phase” is culminating in Civil War, an extremely dark storyline to say the least. However, this year Marvel gave us all a break with two of the most purely enjoyable and entertaining comic book films I’ve ever seen, the aforementioned Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. James Gunn seems like the first director in a very long time to not just recognize but revel in the inherent absurdity of comic books. He wasn’t going to even try to make a serious film featuring a talking raccoon who’s best friends with a tree. As such, Guardians of the Galaxy is the most entertaining film I saw all year. Every member of the principal cast is hilarious, with the effortlessly charismatic Chris Pratt and, surprisingly, Dave Bautista (who you should never call “thesaurus”) standing out as the highlights. The script is full of fantastic lines, making this not only the best comic book film of the year but one of the best comedies as well. The main takeaway from this film is just how likable everyone is. These are characters who I genuinely enjoyed spending time with, who I really cared about, and I can’t wait to see them again. Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air in an increasingly self-serious industry, and it really just made me happy. -Max
9. The Babadook
The ending of The Babadook is absolutely brilliant, in that it takes that old horror movie adage--the final scare--and makes it an allegory for the mind of Essie Davis’ character, and the demons inside her head. Having successfully kept the Babadook at bay, they’ve locked it up in their basement, Essie Davis offering the creature worms to eat. And when the monster tries to take her over she fights it, and returns back to her son, to celebrate his birthday in the backyard. The fear always there, always residing under the surface, literally and figuratively; waiting for its chance to strike again. And yes, we’ve seen this type of ending before--the sequel launch. But this ending here, in this film was not that. Couldn’t of been further from it. It was the final statement, the exclamation point to the film’s main thesis about a single mother struggling with the madness of raising her only, troubled son, in the wake of his father’s death. It’s a heartbreaking horror movie, and it’s the type of movie that I’d of loved to write. All fears and anxieties in favor of fears and jump scares. It’s horror draped in the slow burning horror of yesteryear, back in the '70s when Roman Polanski was finding fingernails in walls and Donald Sutherland was seeing his daughter’s reflection in a little-person serial killer. It’s a horror movie built around the character’s fears, not a horror movie built around scaring the characters. And Essie Davis’ performance is award worthy, in my book. Playing the struggling mother, trying her best of keep her anger at bay, trying to keep her sanity at bay as he son, played wonderfully by Noah Wiseman, creates destruction around her. It’s horror done as right as I’ve seen in quite a long time. Probably because it wasn’t made in America. -Chad
I really don’t want to talk about Christopher Nolan any more, as it seems that every time one of his films comes out the entire world can do nothing but. However, I have no choice, as Interstellar is my favorite film of his since The Prestige, which stands fairly high on my list of my favorite films of all time. As much as I enjoyed Inception, it had more than enough flaws to give me pause. Interstellar shares many of those flaws: the constant delivery of exposition, a lack of complex characterization for everyone except the protagonist, dialogue that really doesn’t sound like human speech at all most of the time, etc. It even has a similar gimmick to Inception, replaces layers of a dream world with layers of time. Here’s the thing though: none of that stuff bothers me while I watch Interstellar because it’s all pulled off so skillfully. The main difference here is just how much I cared about these characters. Nolan’s been accused of being somewhat cold as a director, and previously I might have agreed, but that’s all over now apparently. There were moments in this film that affected me deeply, both in terms of happiness and sadness. In fact, it hit me harder on an emotional level than almost any other film this year. Perhaps that’s because I fear the passage of time, maybe it’s because of the performances from the highly skillful cast, or perhaps it’s just because the stakes are so much higher this time around. Regardless, if you didn’t see this film on a big screen you really missed out. It’s a truly rare thing: a grandiose spectacle with heart. -Max
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
Most of this year’s best films resided in one of two categories: Either they were small and weird, or big and fun. Guardians managed to inject a little weird into its big and fun. Hopefully ushering us into a new age where, with blockbuster films, we can [gasp] have fun again. The past decade or so has been an era of heavy, gritty, dark reboots and the formula ran stale long after Batman shuffled off this proverbial mortal coil. When Marvel first announced awhile back that one of the big franchises they’d be launching would be 'Guardians of the Galaxy'; a series of comic books that few people had ever heard of, myself included; a lot of people had their doubts. Heck, I doubted it. Like few people I thought that The Avengers was fun, but forgettable, and that it was the highest atop a small, small mountain range. Gladly, I was wrong. As Guardians succeeds in all of the places where, for me, The Avengers failed. Creating great, unforgettable characters with real drive and real character. Which is kind of amazing, considering that The Avengers movies set themselves up, building these characters of a period of, on average, two prior films. Guardians instead had one movie to both introduce said characters and then set them forth on their adventure, and it worked. I felt genuine sadness when I thought (SPOILERS!!!!) that Groot was going to die and be gone forever; bringing the character back, only slightly, for a pre-credits scene. And that was a character who literally said three words throughout the entire movie. Proving that it’s not so much what’s written in terms of dialogue but what they do that defines them as characters. DUH! Amazingly though, this is an art that is lost on many a screenwriter, writing ‘depth’ for characters with monologues about love and devotion to their fellow characters. But, Guardians attaches us immediately, in the opening scene, with minimal dialogue and a 10CC song. Which, by the way, this movie also excellently uses music in ways akin to other great filmmaking colleagues like Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson; framing entire scenes around various enjoyable songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It succeeds in creating an environment that is both familiar and enjoyable to reside in, yet also, somehow, all its own, and exciting and new. I can’t praise this film enough, as it is, in my opinion, one of the best and most original big budget blockbusters to come along in a long, long time. And even though I’m a film snob who’d much prefer a Kurosawa marathon to a Marvel marathon, I’ve seen this movie a total of four times this past year. FOUR TIMES! Seriously, it is that enjoyable a film. And with any luck, it’ll usher in a new era of blockbuster films where we can have fun again. Where the Indiana Joneses and Han Solos of the film universe can produce a witty quip instead of a depressing monologue, right before they smash in the skull of the ridiculous and over the top villain. We can only hope. -Chad
8. Mistaken for Strangers
I’m a fan of The National, but you don’t have to be to appreciate this film. That’s because, though it is partially a documentary about a band, the band really isn’t the point. This is a film about brotherhood, about family and friendship. It’s about two people who, on the surface, have seemingly nothing in common finding shared ground and helping each other to grow. The film’s director (and its main subject) is Tom Berninger, the brother of Matt Berninger, the National’s lead singer and lyricist. When the film begins he’s directionless and somewhat burned out, a guy who once had aspirations to be a filmmaker and to make something of himself but for years has simply chosen to sit back and watch his brother gain the fame and adoration of hundreds of thousands of fans. He begins the doc with the goal of filming a record of the band’s High Violet tour. Eventually the focus shifts away from Matt and onto Tom, as he documents himself trying to come to terms not only with the pressures of creating a film which has lost its form and focus but also his feelings about his brother and the success he’s had. This all occurs while Matt is simultaneously working through his feelings concerning Tom, and though the film doesn’t provide any easy answers it does manage to end on a moment of real victory. The whole time Tom is doubting himself, wondering if he’ll be able to pull this off, to really do something with his life, and one of the joys of watching the film is that we know the whole time that he makes it out all right, because we’re watching the fruit of his efforts, and because we’re smiling. -Max
Last year Jake Gyllenhaal proved that he was getting better and better as an actor, in Denis Villeneuve’s excellent murder mystery, Prisoners. This year, placed in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, he’s exceeded expectations, playing the charmingly sociopathic Louis Bloom, who we come to understand in the first scene. As he’s busted by a security guard Gyllenhaal’s Bloom glances upon his wrist a watch that he wants, and then, without hesitation, he murders the security guard and takes the watch. Immediately we’re thrust into the greed and power fueled existence of Bloom, a man who is unafraid to do anything, so long as it serves his plan, and it is exactly anything that he is willing to do. As he sneaks into the home of victims of a bloody robbery, recording their blood drenched bodies, moments after the break-in, the victims all dead, but one. And Bloom does nothing to help, he just films, because that is his job. And why? Why would a man debase any form of morals whatsoever? Well, for a job. Of course. As he states so matter-of-factly later on in the film, his eyes bulging, his hand cupped, gesturing in a firm, professional manner what he wants and how he wants it. Only one actor this year played a more terrifying creature, but that’s for later on in my list. As Gyllenhaal’s Bloom easily takes the second spot on the list of most terrifying celluloid human/monsters of this past year. But what’s most terrifying about the film is that, well, there are people out there, doing exactly what he’s doing, getting paid for it, because people have to see the bloody, disgusting truth behind the news stories splayed upon our nightly news broadcasts, and Louis is exactly the kind of sociopathic cretin who I’m sure delivers said videos.
7. The Skeleton Twins
I’m still not sure why this film affected me so deeply. The script is perfectly fine but it’s nothing remarkable, and for the most part you could say the same thing about the direction. The film, though certainly nicely shot, isn’t dazzling technically either. So why is it this high on the list? I think it’s largely due to the performances of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Thought they were a couple of the most talented performers to grace Saturday Night Live within the past 30 years, Wiig and Hader haven’t really yet made much of an impact on the world of film, minus Wiig’s hilarious turn in Anchorman 2. I feel like that’s all about to change. This film proves that they can handle drama with just as much skill as comedy, and considering their comedic chops that’s not something I’d say lightly. They really make you feel an extraordinary amount of empathy for their characters. But they’re not the only ones who are great in this movie, as the supporting performances of Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell are nearly as powerful as those of the main actors. It’s a simple, emotionally resonant story performed by a truly remarkable ensemble, and like many of the films on this list it offers no easy answers to the difficult questions it raises, something which I very much appreciate. -Max
In 2002 a great director--my favorite--took an unlikely comedic actor and placed him in a dramatic role, exaggerating said actors schtick, digging down to the meat and potatoes underneath it all, and in turn, that actor provided their finest role. That actor then was Adam Sandler. That director? Paul Thomas Anderson. This time around Bennett Miller, who has up to this point done nothing but create one great movie after another, by the way, took Steve Carell, exploring the jealousy and desire to be accepted, found seeded in the pit of the actor’s main role for the past decade and perverted it, twisting Michael Scott into John du Pont. Much like Adam Sandler’s anxious, nervous man-child was turned into Barry Egan. Steve Carell’s jealous, attention seeking, acceptance seeking, Michael Scott was turned into John du Pont. When it was first announced the idea sounded bizarre to most. Though, if anybody was capable it was Bennett Miller, director of both Capote and Moneyball, both equally masterfully crafted, somewhat straightforward, yet brilliantly conceived biopics that were anchored by truly great performances by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brad Pitt, respectively. Though, Foxcatcher, Miller’s biopic on the Schultz brothers--played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo respectively, and their involvement with John du Pont’s Team Foxcatcher, a wrestling team founded in Pennsylvania on the estate of the du Pont family, might possibly be his best of the three. It oozes with dread, even when Carell’s du Pont isn’t on screen, and when he is, well, he’s just absolutely terrifying. Who knew that Michael Scott could give me chills? Genuinely. As I think back to the dread of the Foxcather’s 134 minutes I’m left with the terrifying vision of du Pont’s vulturesque nose, carried in front of every foul, rotten word that sprung from behind his open cave of a mouth. He’s an imposing figure in his putridness. And in the final minutes his cold, open mouthed stare will stay with you long, long after the credits have rolled. Foxcatcher is a visceral nightmare, built atop the remains of the secret and affluent of America. And at no point does it feel forced, every scene displayed in front of you without flash, without quick cuts, without tracking shots or any other form of camera or editing trickery; just desaturated landscapes, placed inside the catacombs of cabins, and gyms, hotel rooms and the open space of the du Pont estate. After I watched the film I had to look up more about about John, and about the person that he was, and what I found was, shockingly, he is very much as he was portrayed. The son of a mother whose approval he would seek with very little luck, a man who lived, much like inerrant dictators, completely unaware of the weaknesses of his mind, and sure of the fortitude of his thoughts, no matter how disgusting. As I watched the final two scenes I sat, my ass upon the edge of my chair, my mouth open, my eyes hot with the urge for water, and shock. -Chad
Bennett Miller hasn’t made very many films, but he’s more than established himself as one of the greatest directors of his generation. Foxcatcher ably confirms the validity of that designation. Put simply, this film made me feel terrible, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it for most of its runtime time I can say that I found the experience of watching it highly rewarding. There simply wasn’t a better acting ensemble to be found elsewhere last year. Steve Carell is both tragic and repulsive as John DuPont, an obscenely rich man warped by an emotionally distant mother and a lifetime of isolation and alienation. Channing Tatum is absolutely incredible as his muse, Mark Schultz, a wrestler with Olympic aspirations who’s spent his entire life in the shadow of his more well-adjusted brother, played by the likewise brilliant Mark Ruffalo. The main reason to see the film is simply to watch these three interact, but it is, of course, beautifully shot and composed as well, with desperation bleeding into every single image. Though it has some moments of surprisingly effective humor (my favorite being when John tells Mark that most of his friends call him “Eagle or Golden Eagle… or John”), as the film shuffles towards its conclusion, which is somehow both completely unpredictable and absolutely inevitable, the weight of its sadness becomes harder and harder to bear as we watch John and Mark destroy each other psychologically, ruin each other for life, as Ruffalo’s character tries, in vain, to keep the whole operation together. Foxcatcher, along with Gone Girl, is one of the most bleak and unforgiving films I’ve seen in recent memory, but it’s more than worth enduring. -Max
I had to travel to Dayton, Ohio to see this film. That is about a two hours away from Toledo, in case you were wondering. My roommate, and fellow Projection Lister Max Castleman and I visited a friend in Wapakoneta, a friend we make films with, and spent the weekend there, and on our second night there we went to see Boyhood, travelling another hour south to Dayton, a smallish city, much like Toledo. It was late summer, and it was one of the best memories I had last year. Afterward, sitting in a roadside barbeque place across from the theater ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King started playing, and for four solid minutes it was absolute bliss, as I let the movie and the night and the weekend wash over me. When I saw the trailer I thought to myself that it looked like a nice movie, and interesting, as it was filmed over the span of twelve years--a fact that I probably don’t even have to tell you anymore by now. But, I wasn’t overly excited. I mean, I've always thought Richard Linklater was an often great filmmaker who just chugged away producing great indie films and often rather nice studio fare. I thought he was a good filmmaker. I respected him, but I didn’t revere him. As I sat in the theater I was waiting for it to turn corny, or overly dramatic, or something--something negative. I mean, it looked like, based on the trailers, that some cheese might at least sneak in. Instead, what was presented was a series of short pieces, not separate, but each small pieces in the years of a normal American kid as he grows up. And it fucking destroyed me, in the best way. There’s a scene at the end, involving Mason, the main character, played by Ellar Coltrane (who grew into quite an actor over those twelve years) and his mother played by Patricia Arquette that made me want to call my mom, and seriously, without an ounce of corniness, tell her that I loved her. And it’s been months, and I still feel that way every time I think of that scene. Boyhood is brilliant because it’s so plain spoken, and never reaches for drama. It just presents twelve years in short vignettes, and moves on. It is life as real as I’ve seen it in a fiction film and it is crushing. It’s a feat that, well, seems so insane, and yet it works so beautifully, and leaves you with, most likely, what I felt that night, in that barbeque restaurant across from the theater. This feeling that is almost too incredible to define, and is both beautiful and fills one with joy, but also with melancholy and nostalgia. And yet, I wouldn’t define it as nostalgia, because that would mean it only applied to the past. The movie is soaking with the weight of time, and that weight isn’t always so bad. Or at least as bad as we might think it is. It’s not something that is easy to describe, but maybe if you watch it, just maybe you’ll feel how I felt that night, that night where life just seemed to make sense in all of the madness circling around. And maybe for a few hours or hopefully for a few days you’ll be able to accept that madness and embrace it and find joy in crashing through the walls of its beautiful, beautiful, tragic labyrinth. -Chad
Every wannabe screenwriter and director (myself included) dreams of getting the chance to make a film this creative, unique, ambitious and, most importantly, uncompromised. A stunning comeback role for Michael Keaton (who was the best thing about this year’s halfway-decent RoboCop remake as well) drives the film, but it has plenty more to offer. For example, I personally think that Edward Norton’s performance is nearly as great as Keaton’s, and to be honest he needed a comeback part like this almost as badly. I also have to credit the film for including some great, complex female roles, something which is all too rare in Hollywood these days. Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Naomi Watts all have multi-faceted, demanding characters to play, and they all bring something different and impressive to the film. Overall, it’s great to see an ensemble so in synch, playing off each other so beautifully. And if the cast hadn’t gotten along this film would have been a disaster, because writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu brilliantly chose to film it in a series of long takes, with only a handful of noticeable cuts throughout the entire film (with nearly all of them at the very beginning and end). This gives the film so much forward momentum, and it makes every single moment feel vital. It also clearly illustrates just how talented everyone who worked on this film is. I fell in love with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work while watching one of the many long takes in Children of Men, and here he takes that style to a risky extreme and emerges triumphant. The movie also featured what was probably my favorite score of the year, much of it performed on a single drum kit. It’s exhilarating to watch a risk of this magnitude succeed so resoundingly, and all from a director whose previous work didn’t even interest me that much. I’ll be sure to watch his progress closely from now on. -Max
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
People have often pegged Wes Anderson’s films as more style over substance, a fact that I have refuted many times in the past. Yes, he is an auteur, one of the highest degree, one who literally thinks about every single bit of mise en scene, down the the most miniscule detail. But, by no means does that in turn mean that his movies are without a considerable degree of soul. They’re packed with it. I’ve probably already mentioned by now that the end of The Royal Tenenbaums made me cry on several occasions, and how couldn’t it? A movie about family, and all of the hardships therein. Or, for instance, Rushmore, which always gets to me--the ending always something that brings me comfort when things fall apart in my life and I’m faced with starting over again. But there’s heart in all of his movies, and I could sit here and regale you with examples in each film, but I’m here to talk about The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie that is simultaneously the most Wes Anderson of Wes Anderson films, while simultaneously maintaining to be one of his funniest, and most touching. And, weirdly enough, his most widely accepted by a wider audience, it appears. The entire cast is brilliant, and many great actors give hilarious turns, including Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, and Jeff Goldblum. But Ralph Fiennes is without a doubt the most enjoyable to watch as Monsieur Gustave H., the Grand Budapest Hotel’s devoted and madcap concierge. Ralph Fiennes gives one of his absolutely best performances in his entire career here, being both hilarious, occasionally heartfelt, and pretty much carrying the brunt of the film’s weight on his back. It’s a brilliant performance, one that’s landed him a deserving Golden Globe nomination. Grand Budapest is a high wire act of a film, presented with heart and absolute brilliance, and it was so much fun I’ve already watched it a handful of times thus far this past year--and plan on watching it many more times in the future. -Chad
Lately, perhaps the biggest story out of Hollywood has been the transformation of Matthew McConaughey from a rom-com airhead into a “serious actor.” Jake Gyllenhaal has been undergoing a similar transformation since he agreed to star in the critically reviled film adaptation of the Prince of Persia video game franchise, saw it, hated it and pledged not only to never be in a film like it again but to work harder than he’d ever worked before from that point on. Gyllenhaal’s journey hasn’t been as dramatic as McConaughey’s, but in my eyes it’s been just as impressive. He blew me away last year in Prisoners (and impressed me in this year’s Enemy as well), but Gyllenhaal’s work in Nightcrawler is on another level. It is, without a doubt, the single greatest performance I saw in 2014. I’d also say that writer/director Dan Gilroy produced what was arguably the greatest script of last year as well. This is a film where every participant was simply at the top of their game. It’s insanely assured for a first film, with Dan Gilroy instantly apexing his more famous brother Tony (who directed Michael Clayton and co-wrote the Bourne trilogy). James Newton Howard’s score is some of the best work he’s ever done and Robert Elswit’s cinematography makes the viewer feel truly involved in this avalanche of insanity. As for the cast, Gyllenhaal is the film’s clearest selling point, but Renee Russo is likewise remarkable, turning in what is easily the performance of her career, as a woman in a constant, deeply compelling power struggle with Gyllenhaal’s ambitious psychopath Louis Bloom, and Riz Ahmed gives a fantastic performance as Bloom's much more sympathetic lackey. In the end, the film asks some hugely important questions about the morality of the mass media system, and about the viewing public’s fascination with, and thirst for, blood, but even if you don’t really care about what the film’s saying you’ll love the way they say it. Nightcrawler is one of the most original, surprising and disturbing films I saw last year, or in recent memory. Now we’ll see if Gyllenhaal can ever top it. If he can’t I wouldn’t blame him. He’s already reached a place where most actors could only dream of arriving. -Max
3. Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice is so much goddamn fun. Look, I know what you’re thinking, if you saw it: What’re you talking about? I had no fucking clue what the fuck was going on. Yes, that’s true. Neither did I, really. It’s a complex, almost unnecessarily, complex film. But it’s a goddamn ride. Much like The Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, the plot is beyond labyrinthian and as equally nonsensical, on the occasion. And that’s why I loved it. Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be settling into middle-age with something that isn’t a ‘big statement’ film and that’s kind of nice to see. As much as I loved There Will Be Blood and The Master, both of which that I’ll most likely love and defend till my dying day, I’m quite happy to see Anderson experimenting again, making an homage to the '70s Noe-Noir he probably grew up on. Joaquin Phoenix playing the Marlowe to Pynchon’s Noir, the drugged out, lazy Doc Sportello, trying his best to piece together the twists and turns and connections between a drug cartel, Mickey Wolfman a millionaire socialite, his ex-girlfriend, Sahasta Fay, and some dentists. For Pynchon this is light, and still it’s a confusing affair, wherein it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on, and that’s absolutely fine. Cause I doubt Doc has even the slightest as to what’s going on, which is, of course, kinda the point. The film didn’t break any new ground exactly, but it was a hell of a ride, and I can see myself watching it for many years to come, basking in its otherworldly absurd glow. Laughing and repeating lines much like I already do with The Coen’s foray into Dopper-Noir. And it’s all filmed much like Altman’s own dip into Noir, the Elliott Gould starring masterpiece of Neo-Noir The Long Goodbye--all wide, master shots, drifting lazily throughout the landscape, following our detective along. But what really sticks, for me at least, is the classy heart-felt touches here and there, a byproduct of Anderson’s love for '70s filmmaking. And the way in which the story glides along, almost like some soul song, blasting over this Neo-Noir-Romance picture, feeling like the weirdest acid trip on the brightest, sunniest day of the year. It’s just pleasant to watch, as pleasant as it is to listen to some smooth, clean jazz ballad on your front porch on some summer afternoon. Chocked full of brilliant and hilarious characters; like Brolin’s ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, to Benicio Del Toro’s Sauncho Smilax; the Sancho Panza to Sportello’s Quixote, to Martin Short’s coked out dentist, Rudy Blatnoyd. It’s just a fun, sweet ride, and it’s a wonderful, brilliantly fun love letter to the 1970s, all with the news of the Manson Murders as a backdrop. -Chad
3. Inherent Vice
After he nearly equaled the absolute masterpiece that was There Will Be Blood with 2012’s The Master, I knew that Paul Thomas Anderson would have to come back down to Earth eventually. Now, he has, but in a truly spectacular way. Inherent Vice feels much more like Boogie Nights than There Will Be Blood, but I for one am totally down with that. After all, I love Boogie Nights and, as you might expect from its high placement here, I love Inherent Vice as well. It’s a big, messy, absurd movie full of memorable characters and endearing performances. However, the film is notably different from Boogie Nights and Magnolia, his previous ensemble pieces, in one major way. Those films (especially Magnolia) belonged not to one actor but to the ensemble, with each main role getting a full arc and plenty of screen time. In comparison, Inherent Vice is firmly centered around Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello, a drugged-out private detective tasked with finding a missing real estate magnate. Along the way he encounters a series of wonderful characters played very memorably by actors like Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Eric Roberts and Josh Brolin, who completely takes control of the film every time he shows up with the single most hilarious performance I’ve seen all year. In fact, my main issue with the film is that I wanted to spend much more time with some of these characters, and when your only issue with a movie is that you wanted more of it that probably means it’s something special. There’s also great narration by singer/songwriter/harpist Joanna Newsom, whose enigmatic character appears on screen now and then as well, seemingly just for the hell of it. Honestly, Inherent Vice doesn’t make much sense the first time you watch it, but I don’t think it’s really supposed to. After all, we’re seeing this world through the eyes of Doc, who is likewise extremely confused and constantly on a whole host of drugs anyway. It just wouldn’t feel natural to make this any less of a twisted mess. Sit back and give yourself over to the experience and Inherent Vice reveals itself as a hugely enjoyable film. Wait until the second or third time to try to piece it all together. If you’re anything like me you’ll probably want to see it again right away regardless. -Max
There’s never, ever been a movie like Birdman, and there may never ever been another film like it. It’s bizarre as all shit; featuring a series of giant birds, helicopter explosions, and a man in a beefed up bird suit who follows around the protagonist and insults him, calling him out on all of his bullshit. It’s hilarious, it’s a lot of fun to watch and it sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. And it was all made by a filmmaker whose work I’ve thus far only had one experience with. Innaritu’s 21 Grams being his only film I saw prior to this; a hard movie to get through that I’ve yet to watch again. Not because it wasn’t good, quite the contrary. It was brilliant, so brilliant and so hard to watch, and possibly because it hit so close to home (myself a person who has lived with a heart condition since birth) that I found it kind of hard to force myself to watch another one of his films.
Until, of course, Birdman. Which, unlike 21 Grams is quite the joy to watch. In fact, it might of been some of the most fun I had in a movie theater all of last year; each scene exploding before me at breakneck pace, floating on the handheld and seemingly unbroken shots of the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Who has, since his early days with Alfonso Cuaron, created quite a legend for himself, and has now won two cinematography Oscars, two years in a row, deservedly so. Everything about this movie screams brilliance, from the cinematography, to the script, to the acting, to the directing. It is like a great novel, written by a brilliant comedic genius, exploding simultaneously with wit and hilarity and weirdness and not sacrificing even the smallest ounce of something bigger, something truer, something far more profound, more attune to the absurdity of life. It is all Kierkegaard, all Camus, all falling to bits around you in a wonderful, wonderful ballet of celluloid magic, in digital. -Chad
If somebody asked me what the best film of 2014 was I’d tell them that trying to pick the objective “best” of anything artistic is a pointless exercise in futility. If they put a gun to my head and asked again I’d say “Boyhood.” While you’re watching it, Boyhood really does feel like an important moment in the history of cinema, largely because it actually is one. Basically, Richard Linklater took the same four principal actors (Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Linklater’s daughter Lorelai) and made a short film with them every summer. He then strung those films together into a unified whole centered around the development of Ellar’s character Mason, who begins the film as a young child and ends it by going off to college. It’s a pretty insane idea, one which could have easily lead to a disaster. Instead, the result is absolutely transcendent. If watching a three hour, basically plotless film about growing up seems boring to you, I urge you to give Boyhood a chance anyway. Having the actors age in real time throughout the film might sound like a gimmick on the surface, but it lends the film so much emotional power. It’s been suggested in various corners of the interweb that Linklater could make a sequel to the film following Mason for another 12 years of life, and that he could call the film Adulthood. However, Linklater’s already made that film within this one. We don’t just watch Mason grow up in Boyhood, we watch all of the characters (including his parents) age and change over time, each of them learning and growing. Boyhood is almost as much about adulthood as it is about childhood, and the main revelation of the film is that we never stop changing, that even when we reach that point where we, as Linklater puts it, “stop growing and start aging” that we’re still in flux and we still have so much to learn. In short, we never really figure anything out, but the beauty (and pain) of life is found far less in discovery than in investigation. If you’re wondering why I’m not talking about this movie as a piece of filmmaking that much it’s because Boyhood really does feel larger than that. However, strictly speaking in those terms Boyhood is still excellent. The four main performers all deliver stunning performances which are so realistically etched and subtle that the film almost feels like a documentary at times. It’s beautifully edited, the use of music is excellent… And now I’m thinking about how nostalgic this film made me feel, and how often it hit close to home. I can’t think of Boyhood as just a piece of work, but I can’t really adequately explain what it is, at least in my eyes, either. Just watch it. -Max
Whiplash is a movie that as the year began I’d heard a great deal about, that, honestly, I figured I wouldn’t get to see, and figured that even if I did I wouldn’t of missed much. My God was I wrong. Upon seeing the trailer to this movie that had been so buzzed about and had taken top prizes at Sundance I thought to myself: Wait? What is this? Is this some sort of coming of age story? Why is it shot like it’s a thriller? What’s going on here? I had no idea what to expect, but the more and more I heard about it and the more and more I saw from it I knew I had to see it. Plus, well, to be honest I’d been championing Miles Teller, the brilliant protagonist of Whiplash for some time, if only in my own head. From his roles in The Spectacular Now and Rabbit Hole, and even in the smaller bits I’d seen of him in other movies, no matter what role he played, he always stood out. And part of me hoped that this would be his breakout performance. Sadly, and surprisingly, it wasn’t. Though, to watch it, I have no idea why. As every scene between him and veteran actor J. K. Simmons is absolutely stunning, the two actors playing off each other better than any two actors I’ve seen in a few years, at least. You could say, in some respect, that this movie is indeed a ‘coming of age story,’ though it might not be the coming of age you might expect. Replacing growth and understanding with obsession and ambition to be great, to do great, to push oneself, sometimes violently to do great things. Early on Simmons explains to Teller’s Neiman that Charlie Park wasn’t 'Bird' until a symbol was tossed at his head. And that sets forth the emotional and physical abuse that Simmons’ Flectcher brings upon Teller’s Neiman, in a cacophony of anxiety and competition. Driving Neiman to abuse his mind and his body to its breaking point. And I wish that there was more about the plot that I could tell you, but it would be a disservice to you and to anybody who has yet to see the film, and, well, it’s too great a movie to destroy with my blurting. Though I will say that I haven’t seen so exact and so true a portrait of obsession and madness this well done since possibly 76’s Taxi Driver. And it is for that reason that I am so surprised by the lack of attention Miles got for this role, because, honestly, I am genuinely comparing his performance to possibly one of the best of the '70s. But really, it’s just so singularly brilliant, and beautiful, and honest that it blew me away. Yes, Simmons is brilliant. He’s at the top of his game, and probably will win an Oscar for his performance, deservedly so. But it is Miles that drives the film, that thrusts it forward into madness, and at the tender age of 27, the kid knocked it out of the park. Maybe drawing upon some of the uglier parts of his own ambition in the process.
But before I finish here I’d like to talk about the final scene. I’d heard from a lot of people, Max included, that the ending was without a doubt one of the best scenes of the year, and it came just as billed. Later on in the film Simmons and Teller talk about whether or not great artists end up giving up, when the adversity is too high, when every odd is stacked against them, and it’s at this point when you realize that Simmons’ character has been right the entire time--at least as far as how I saw it. And in that final scene, well, something magic and real happens. And honestly I’d love to tell you all about it, and how I had a similar experience the first time I played music in front of an audience, but I just can’t because it’s too amazing a scene for me to ruin. And even now, several days removed from having watched the film, I think about it and it brings a smile to my face. It’s such an utterly beautiful scene and without a doubt it’s the best scene I saw all year, surprising a man who has seen far too many movies and knows far too many tricks when it comes to making an audience empathize. Yet no tricks were played here, except hard earned honesty. And that, is by no means a trick. -Chad
I agonized over this choice. Boyhood and Whiplash were easily the two best experiences I had in a movie theater this year, but which did I love more? Well, as I said above, if I had to objectively try to determine the most significant film of 2014 I would probably pick Boyhood, but this isn’t about picking the best, it’s about picking my favorite, and Whiplash feels like the kind of film I could watch a thousand more times and never get tired of. This film amazed me from beginning to end, and the longer it went on the better it got until it all culminated in not only my favorite ending of the year, not only my favorite scene of the year but one of my absolute favorite moments in any film ever. It was just so, and I don’t use this word lightly, perfect that all I could do was laugh. And so I did. A single, involuntary laugh as the film cut to black and the credits began. I still don’t know exactly what caused it. Perhaps it was relief that the film had finally released me from the grip of its viselike tension. Maybe it was the impact of a dozen beautifully unanswered questions hitting my brain all at once. Or maybe it was the realization that I’d just seen one of the greatest pieces of filmmaking I’d come across in years. The final five minutes of Whiplash overwhelmed me emotionally in a way I’ve very rarely experienced elsewhere. Just thinking about that last scene takes me right back to that moment, sitting in that theater watching a film I’d expected to like just fine, and being rendered absolutely speechless. As they say in Adaptation, “wow them in the end and you’ve got a hit.” But there’s so much more to this film than its ending.
Miles Teller is almost frighteningly convincing as Andrew Niemann, a drummer obsessed with being the next Buddy Rich, and JK Simmons is every bit his equal as a jazz band instructor who pushes Andrew to the point of insanity. Watching these two together goes well beyond feeling impressive. It feels monumental. Technically the film is a marvel, especially Tom Cross’ phenomenal editing. There is simply nothing about this film that I would change, and that’s something I almost never say, let alone think. Early on in 2014 I saw a film called Grand Piano, a fun little thriller about a musician under unbearable stress. I enjoyed it but didn’t think that much about it afterwards. I didn’t even notice the name of its writer, Damien Chazelle, the same man who would go on to write and direct Whiplash. Whiplash is the realization of everything Chazelle tried to accomplish in his script for Grand Piano, but it is also so much more. It discusses some of the same ideas and has many of the same themes, but it does it all in a much more complex, open ended and compelling way. It is insane to see how much Chazelle has grown as an artist within a single year. Hopefully this is just the start of a long and beautiful career. I just know that someday I hope to be half the artist that Chazelle is. I went back and forth so many times with this decision, but now that I’m writing it all down it all seems so clear. Whiplash. My favorite movie of 2014. You should try it. Moving on. Thanks for reading. -Max