10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is at it again with yet another highly stylized and highly entertaining piece of filmmaking. While his previous film Moonrise Kingdom was more intimate and smaller in scale, Hotel finds Anderson at his most grandiose, leading a stellar cast throughout various time periods (cleverly represented in aspect ratio changes) and set pieces that feel more intricate as the film progresses. This is a fun, old-fashioned caper with a brisk pace and a smart balance of whimsy and melancholy.
9. The Babadook
If I’m being honest, most horror movies just don’t scare me and I feel I have to give ample credit to those that do. The Babadook was a genuinely frightening experience for me, which I attribute most to my level of engagement in the story and the level of investment that I felt with the characters. Instead of going for jump scares and cheap thrills, director Jennifer Kent instead builds up an uncommon amount of dread and creepiness that kept me glued to my seat.
8. Mistaken For Strangers
A bit of a bias here: I do love The National, the band that is the focus of this rock-doc, but I think even people who has never heard their music will still find plenty to enjoy. It serves as a video diary for the band’s 2010 world tour but also functions as a relationship study between lead singer Matt and his brother Tom, who directs the film during his time as a roadie for the band. Strangers is packed with an awkward brand of humor that’s right up my alley but it also delivered a heartfelt ending that I found to be surprisingly moving.
7. The Lego Movie
I doubt there was a bigger surprise this year than The Lego Movie: what good things could we really expect from another film based on a toy franchise? What surprised me most is how co-directors and screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were able to take the themes of creativity/practicality and individuality/conformity that are inherent in Lego building and translate them to a story that’s this funny and this insightful. The visual style here is also exceptional, which employs unique computer animation techniques to give it the feel of a stop-motion animated movie.
Jake Gyllenhaal starred in two great films last year and while Nightcrawler may feature a more memorable performance, Enemy has stuck with me more with each repeated viewing. It’s an engrossing and often times bizarre mystery tale that actually deserves the David Lynch comparisons that are applied too often to other films in its genre. Rather than giving tangible clues or contrived resolutions, director Denis Villeneuve instead guides us through a psychologically satisfying portrait of a man at odds with himself.
2014 saw the completion of Richard Linklater’s 12-year production that may just be one of the daring experiments ever attempted in American cinema. Given its background, Boyhood was destined to achieve notoriety since its inception but the biggest surprise is how small the movie feels in comparison to the scope of its narrative. By focusing on the seemingly insignificant moments of life, Linklater creates an organic and wholly unique portrait of American life that is effortlessly engaging and memorable.
4. Gone Girl
David Fincher’s ruthless and faithful screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel was the cinematic equivalent of a car crash that you just can’t ignore. Fincher dug deep into the well of depravity to bring forth this cold and calculated masterpiece, which also doubles as the most awkward date movie of the year. Rosamund Pike gives one of the year’s very best performances in a turn of jaw-dropping audacity, intensity and nuance, while Ben Affleck proves that he’s capable of a delivering a memorable performance when the material is just right.
3. Life Itself
The Roger Ebert memoir Life Itself is a tribute to one of the most iconic and prolific American film critics of all time. If it isn’t obvious by now, Ebert is a huge inspiration to me personally (the name of this blog is a reference to one of the many books that he wrote) and it was a joy to see his life commemorated so purely on screen. Whether you’re completely unfamiliar with his work or a big fan like I am, this documentary is well worth your time.
While many of last year’s biopics came across as timid or short-sighted, Selma stood tall. This is a masterful work of focus and confidence from director Ava DuVernay about the Selma to Montgomery marches during the 1960s. What surprised me most about this film is how even-handed the narrative is throughout, especially during scenes of protest and violence. Even more refreshing is the passionate performance by David Oyelowo, which truly captures the essence of Martin Luther King, Jr. without veering into a glorified impression of him.
The most electrifying film of the year takes all of the student-teacher cliches that you may expect and gleefully throws them out the window. Featuring two spellbinding performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Whiplash is the most feverishly intense movie about music performance that I’ve ever seen. Like a drummer gradually speeding up a snare roll (as heard during the film’s title sequence), it builds with an uncompromising level of power and precision to a finale that left me shaken and speechless.