The year 2014, from my perspective, was the year when the writer/director ruled. Most of the movies on my top 10 list are by writer/directors, showing that filmmakers really wanted to craft a product from beginning to end that they can stand behind. These movies are all spectacular in their own way.
This film is so hard to pitch to the occasional viewer:
“It’s Tom Hardy. In a car. For 85 minutes.”
But writer/director Steven Knight manages to not only keep attention and focus by building tension and emotional risk, he develops the lead character as well as those to whom he speaks as he drives and, by righting one wrong choice and doing the noble thing, systematically destroys most of what he has built in his life. It is a beautifully crafted look into one person’s struggle to be good, acted with such superior skill it finally answers all questions as to whether the endless hype about Hardy’s talent and Hollywood A status are warranted.
Once again, a writer/director (Damien Chazelle) slowly and expertly turns up the intensity in the story of a toxic relationship between a musician and his mentor. Miles Teller adds another notch in his acting belt and longtime character actor J.K Simmons portrays the tightly wound, ever rationalizing bandleader Fletcher with such nuance we wonder when the ticking time bomb that is his sanity will explode. This film is a spot-on representation of what artists will do to become the best, as well as the sometimes spirit-killing people holding the power to get them there.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh, creator behind Calvary, crafts a story with poignancy, urgency, and authenticity about a priest who chooses to carry the weight of wrongs before him. Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, who is threatened with murder seven days hence in the film’s first scene. He spends the next week examining his own life, as well as that of his fragile daughter, and attempts to guide the lives of his flock, a messy, damaged bunch perpetually wronging themselves and each other in his small village.
7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
I suppose it’s possible for a bad script to negate the embarrassment of riches in acting talent present in director Bryan Singer’s blending of X-Men stories old and new. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. Exciting, heart pounding action is well balanced against strong character development in a story that is so complicated and twisty it shouldn’t work. It works so well, the film only strengthens by repeat viewing.
6. The Lego Movie
Here I was torn between two films featuring the new breakout box office boss Chris Pratt. Should I include the delightful and surprising The Guardians of the Galaxy, which could have proven disastrous as a film but was a constant entertainment in the hands of helmer James Gunn and Pratt, its quirky star? Or should I give a nod to The Lego Movie, which sounded at first pitch like a lesser Transformers with less than zero chance at becoming a hit? The Lego Movie won out, largely because of my own knowledge of animation and the awareness of the development required behind-the-scenes of new animation techniques to make the film work. Yes, it is at times intentionally low-fi, but it is also stunningly inventive visually, and offers a subversive slice of anti-corporate politics that had me screaming HUZZAH! Cinematic fearlessness, and messages about avoiding obedience without question are always worthy of support, even if they were carefully designed by a studio to get us all into theaters.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Naysayers can argue all day that GBH is just another of auteur director and screenwriter Wes Anderson’s precious cinematic babies. They can’t take the stellar acting turn by Ralph Fiennes, nor the spectacular production design away from it. This is the story of a self made gentleman and concierge-to-the-stars and his lobby boy at a famous fictional hotel, who becomes his closest friend during turbulent times between the first and second world wars. It is a cinematic ride that even the most dubious indie film fan will enjoy. Anderson’s style is at its full flower, and a prize winning, flamboyant blossom it is.
I am not a fan of “slice of life” films. However, this is the big daddy, the apex, of all films created in that style. Famously filmed over a twelve year period with the same cast by writer/director Richard Linklater, it is not so much a chronicle of important life events as a series of scenes showing how life is built moment by moment. There is a grace to the characters and how they interact that gives a sweetness to the story. It gets inside you and stays there. Actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke deserve praise playing the parents supporting young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he figures out how to be authentically himself and become a good man, occasionally failing at it miserably. How did they edit this monster? Somehow it works.
3. The Babadook
Grief is a monster. Whether Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is scary or not is not the question. This horror film takes the fearless direction of showing not only horror, but a truth behind a horror in real life. Essentially, the entire story is a metaphor for grief and the way it can destroy lives of those left behind after loss. One feels that perhaps Kent’s female voice allows for a unique multilayered style of horror storytelling that gives this film a rare depth. Essie Davis plays single mother Emilia who struggles with the death of her husband and the ever-increasing craziness of her little boy Samuel, who sees a monster in the house he says wants to kill them both. Davis is spectacular. This is one horror film that should be seen widely, and should be supported by a worldwide audience, even those who rarely dabble in the genre.
Michael Keaton shows his long and varied career was no fluke by carrying the lead in this rather trip-tastic take on life after blockbuster fame as former superhero, playing an actor named Riggan Thomas trying to jumpstart a stage career. Some great ensemble acting brings the film together, including Emma Stone as his daughter fresh from rehab and Ed Norton as a self-obsessed method actor messing with Riggan’s head both onstage and off. The film is part magical realism, part hallucination, and is meant to look like it is filmed in one take. A very weird love it or hate it sort of affair directed (and, once again, co-written) by Alejandro González Iñárritu, but most film fans will love it for its risks and fearless jaundiced yet optimistic heart.
This colossus of a film is directed by Ava DuVernay, who certainly deserves at least a best director nom at Oscar time. Selma captures events during the year 1965 when Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to secure safe and equal voting rights for blacks. David Oyelowo seems to BECOME King, surely a monumental task for any actor (see my interview where he talks about being spiritually called to play him) and all the costars are quite up to the task of portraying other important historic figures. There is talk about the poetic license in portraying history, but Martin Luther King’s life and story, and his interactions with, notably, Lyndon Johnson, have always been a subject of sharp debate by historians. DuVernay, aided by screenwriter Paul Webb, includes events that are outside the time presented, and features some figures more than others, which is essential to focusing on King as a troubled family man and as a charismatic leader. I consider this film essential viewing, and love that DuVernay, woman of color, created such art on film.