And so it begins. The annual ritual of whittling down hundreds of film titles—and a gazillion hours of captivation and wonderment—to just 15 is a cruel and torturous punishment. This list is forever transient and subjective, made up of whatever mood I was in when I happened to set my eyeballs on a particular film on a particular day. The fifteen films on this list consist of impressions that I could not shake from my brain and the stories I’m eager to watch unfold again, in some cases for the third or fourth time.
1. BAD WORDS (March, 2014)
Jason Bateman’s directorial debut. It’s hard to believe this hilarious gem was overlooked by the Academy. Bad Words is a crass, sweet and super dark comedy with instances of pure vulgarity that is at the same time heartwarming. Yes, heartwarming.
2. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (March, 2014)
I figured this quirky tale would fly past the Academy faster than a bottle rocket but to my surprise, it’s nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Screenplay. For the record, the erotic Egon-Schiele style painting that replaces “Boy with Apple” was commissioned by the film’s director, Wes Anderson. Artist Rich Pellegrino created seven versions of two women “doing that thing they are doing” and Anderson selected one.
3. DOM HEMINGWAY (April, 2014)
Jude Law’s greatest performance by leaps and bounds. After spending 12 years in prison for keeping his trap shut, notorious safe-cracker Dom Hemingway is back on the streets of London looking to collect his due. The opening scene defies all fallacies and misconceptions of masculinity and toughness in film. The story is entirely built around character motivation and response. Dom is a loser for the choices he makes, not for who he is. The screenplay is three-dimensional and complex. It manages to reverse all pre-conceived or judgmental notions we may have when we first set eyes on Hemingway. No sappy male redemption story here folks. Bravo!
4. UNDER THE SKIN (April, 2014)
Okay, so I have a big man-size crush on Scarlett but who doesn’t? A mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) of unknown origin combs the highways of Scotland in search of lonely and forsaken men. The sexy beast lures the lost souls into an otherworldly den of darkness where they are seduced and grotesquely stripped of their humanity. This film is light on dialogue but heavy on strong, simple visuals. Many of the men filmed were not actors, but random people walking down the street. The van Johansson drove had been outfitted with high quality hidden cameras to capture the interactions. Once again, Jonathan Glazer succeeds in unsettling the viewer. Definitely not a Hollywood film. Not for everyone.
5. THE IMMIGRANT (May, 2014)
A modern masterpiece. James Gray’s latest film is a deep classical melodrama steeped in beauty. Like the melodramas of the 1950s and 60s, the cinematography is stunning and the sepia tones capture the era. An immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) is tricked into a life of prostitution until a charismatic illusionist tries to rescue her and reunite her with her sister, who is being held in the confines of Ellis Island. Why the Weinstein Company decided to dump this movie in theaters without much hubbub is a question only it can answer. It’s a shame because people missed out on award worthy performance by Joaquin Phoneix, who falls apart at the seams on screen.
6. SNOWPIERCER (June, 2014)
South Korean writer/director, Bong Joon-Ho’s first primarily English film is one of constant chaos. Joon-Ho is a creative director. He builds intensity and immediately hooks the viewer. Snowpiercer is a rhythmic thrill ride without being awkward or excessive. Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe.
7. EDGE OF TOMORROW (June, 2014)
Tom Cruise still believes in Tom Cruise movies. In Edge of Tomorrow, a military officer is brought into a war against an alien enemy who can reset the day. Cruise teams up with a full metal bitch (Emily Blunt) to try to end the war. Blunt is all sorts of fabulous throughout the film. Edge is a very well executed sci-fi time loop movie and the characters’ repetitive day continues to entice the audience until the very end. Plus, the audience gets to see Mr. Cruise die … over and over again.
8. THE ROVER (June, 2014)
Toughies riding in cars. An untamed, uncompromising post-apocalyptic film in the Mad Max (1979) vein, The Rover is a bleak, savage and downbeat chase thriller through the sun-scorched Australian outback. The film is extremely rewarding and ultimately quite moving. Ten years after a global economic collapse, a hardened drifter (Guy Pearce) pursues the men who stole his only possession, his car.
9. A MOST WANTED MAN (July, 2014)
This is the last completed movie of Philip Seymour Hoffman. As I watched the late actor play a drained and weary chain-smoking, whisky-swigging spymaster, it was hard not to find the dark shadow of his tragically early death hanging over his character. The book A Most Wanted Man is the twenty-first novel of author John le Carré. The film itself is tight and the story is filled with intrigue. I didn’t get the same sweaty palm response I felt in Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) but it’s still a noteworthy spy flick. The film is stylishly directed and evokes the lower depths of espionage agencies. Hoffman is outstanding, of course, which makes his loss all the harder to bear.
10. BOYHOOD (August, 2014)
I’m a sucker for dysfunctional family films. Nominated for 6 Oscars, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood explores the life of a young man from age 5 to age 18. The film’s audience connection is a universal one and the events that happen on screen unfold in mundane surroundings. We’ve all felt the awkwardness when starting a new school or job. Or perhaps the thrill of a first love along with the earth shattering despair when it ends. No one is immune to life. These events happen to everyone regardless of age or gender. Linklater takes these ordinary events and makes them grand and important. “Life doesn’t give you bumpers.”
11. THE DROP (September, 2014)
This was the last completed film of James Gandolfini. It’s always a lovely surprise to have a contemplative action film. Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) finds himself at the center of a robbery gone wrong and tangled in an investigation that digs deep into the gritty neighborhood’s past, where friends, families and enemies all work together to make ends meet. Directed by Michaël Roskam, there is no shortage of elements that you’d expect from a Shane Black flick. Like Black, Roskam avoids the easy route and creates a world of understated tension, memorable characters, and the slow burn of hidden violence. There’s nothing extraordinary about the plot. Nice guy works a job in the seedy party of town. He meets a girl with a scarred past. Ex-boyfriend gets angry. Guy gets roped into a crime against his will. Blah, blah, blah. Hardy takes this lead and kills it in his meek but powerful delivery. Dennis Lehane’s script is to-the-point without being on-the-nose.
12. WHIPLASH (October, 2014)
You’ve already seen me rave about this Oscar nominated film in my blog. A promising young drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a competitive music conservatory where his dreams of fame are mentored by an extremely harsh instructor (I predict an Oscar win for J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to eke out a student’s potential. Oh, and more than just a zit-faced teeny bopper, this film will make Teller an all-out freaking movie star.
13. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (November, 2014)
In the Iranian ghost town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and despair, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. This original hybrid flick feels like a mash-up of several über-cool art-house subgenres, including vampire films, French new wave, 80s rom-coms, Jarmuschesque and Lynchian film noir. Shot in good old fashioned black and white, this film mesmerizes the audience with melancholy, despair, and sweetness. Yes, you read that correctly. The film also boasts one of the most romantic first kiss scenes (sigh) ever to grace the silver screen.
14. TOP FIVE (December, 2014)
Chris Rock has some significant doo doo to say about his life, his story, and the world of comedy. Top Five reminded me of Birdman but without the “meh” factor. Unlike Birdman, Top Five is more than a whiny display of alleged satire and social commentary about the relevance of critics. Sometimes raunchy and painfully funny, this comedy reflects Rock’s charm and audacity which he continues to reflect in his standup.
15. INHERENT VICE (December, 2014)
This neo noir crime comedy drama is about a 4:20 private eye in 1970 Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a twisty and dangerous mystery. This flick is rich in odd characters, offbeat comedy and a deeply human element. A great film that won’t be to everyone’s liking. I suspect there are folks out there who can resist a movie with colorful lines like “You smell like a patchouli fart,” but i’m not one of those people. This is just one nugget of such bizarre dialogue to be found and savored in Paul Thomas Anderson’s messy, convoluted film.
Because I love them so, I must pay tribute to the 2014 zombie film I would watch again.
15.1 Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (October, 2014)
Gallons of gore and an absurdly high number of brutal kills, this Nazisploitation flick is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a perfect sequel that amps up everything to the freaking max. This politically incorrect funfest massacres everyone in its path. Two bloody thumbs lopped off in its hackability, I almost died from all the gore-gasms.