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Monday, July 20, 2015

Best of 2014

7 months after the end of 2014, I'm ready to unveil my top 10 list! The delay has given me time to catch up on lots of good films from last year. I found last year (like most years) a really strong year in cinema if you knew where to look. There were lots of good foreign films and, despite what the Academy Awards looked like, movies made by or focused around women.  Of the 63 movies I saw last year, here are the ones that rose to the top!

Since I hate to leave them off, here are my #16-25 in alphabetical order, all movies well worth watching: The Babadook, a gripping Australian horror film; Beyond the Lights, a hugely entertaining musical drama with a breakout performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the rare special effects film with lots of ideas up its sleeve; Gone Girl, David Fincher's much-discussed thriller; Le Week-End, a film at turns caustic and touching which reminded me of an older version of the Before Sunrise movies; Mommy, a crazy Canadian melodrama from the young director Xavier Dolan; A Most Wanted Man, a smart thriller with Phillip Seymour Hoffman's last major role; Night Moves, director Kelly Reichardt's low-key thriller about environmental activists; and The Overnighters, a moving and surprising documentary about a pastor caring for workers in North Dakota.

Runners-Up (These 5 almost made it!):

Calvary: A funny and moving film about a good Irish priest (the excellent Brendan Gleeson) doing his best to minister to a town of wayward souls. It has a dark Irish humor and heart that I love.

Dear White People: The great and rare combination of really sharp satire and a cast of characters that the audience cares about. This film follows four black students at an Ivy League college, taking on ideas of racism, identity, and campus culture.

The Immigrant: I didn't love the subplot with Jeremy Renner's character, but large portions of this historical drama were among the most beautiful and moving of the year. Chief among its virtues is the luminous cinematography and and enormously powerful performance by Marion Cotillard as a woman clinging to her goodness and dignity in a tough new world. I hate to leave this one off my top 10.

Life Itself: Roger Ebert is near and dear to my heart, one of my guides as a film-loving teenager in the 90s. This documentary perfectly captures his life, his influence, and the happiness he found at the end of his life.

Wild: Beautifully filmed and fully focused on one woman's personal journey, I was completely immersed in Wild. In my mind, director Jean Marc-Valee took a big step up from his more-awarded Dallas Buyers Club. It even inspired me to take a 3-day hike!

Now on to my top 10:

10. Two Days, One Night: The Dardenne Brothers are masters at creating realist portraits of working-class residents in Europe. This is one of their best, starring Marion Cotillard as a factory worker facing modern capitalism as she forced to beg her coworkers for her job.

9. Leviathan: It's long, it's Russian, and I wasn't bored for a second. Leviathan is about family and class struggles in modern-day Russia and it has the scope and feel of a great novel. Beautifully shot and full of deep emotions, it had one of the most powerful endings of the year.

8. Selma: Director Ava Duvernay's skillful and moving historical drama will be remembered for years to come. Centered on David Oyelowo's riveting performance as Dr. King (let's take a moment of silence for his missing Oscar nomination....), the movie also uses its ensemble incredibly well, showing how many people were crucial to the civil rights movement.

7. Ida: The Academy crowned Ida the best foreign language film, and I agree. A quiet movie about a young woman in 1960s Poland preparing to be a nun, finding out she's Jewish, and spending time with her worldly and haunted aunt. Ida features two great performances, some of the best cinematography of the year, and two characters that haunted me for weeks.

6. Love is Strange: A beautiful film about community, family, love, and aging, Love is Strange focuses on two older men (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) finally getting married and navigating tricky family relationships. The movie keeps a delicate tone that builds and culminates in its incredible ending sections.

5.Whiplash: The most thrilling and tense movie of last year, this is about a driven drummer and his domineering teacher. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons work magic together, and the movie hooks you from the first scene. Director Damian Chezelle gave one of the best debuts I've seen in a long time.

4. Birdman: After winning Best Picture and Best Director, we saw the inevitable backlash against Birdman. It's perhaps not the deepest movie of the year, but man is it a lot of fun. I love backstage dramas, and every single cast member is perfect. Throw in the incredible single-take cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and you have a real winner.

3. Under the Skin: This mix of science fiction, performance art (part of this was filmed "undercover"), and modern art film is certainly not to everyone's taste, but give it the time and it will haunt you. It's about.... well, an otherworldly being (Scarlett Johannson) experiencing modern life. I think it also has much to say about being human, being a woman, and the ways we look at and experience one another.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel:  Grand Budapest contains the heaviest themes director Wes Anderson has ever done, but its pulled off with his assured and light touch. Anderson's meticulous style is a perfect match for this wartime comedy/drama of old manners, new threats, and the memory of things past.  Ralph Fiennes is absolutely perfect, robbed of an Oscar nomination.

1. Boyhood: From the moment I saw it, I  knew this would be my number one film of the year.  Director Richard Linklater broke new ground in fiction cinema, in filming the same actors over 12 years, letting the audience watch the passage of time before our very eyes. A landmark in film history, and emotionally stunning in the best, most natural way. 

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