I can’t say with conviction that 2014 will go down as one of my favorite years in cinema. Of the nearly 70 films I saw this year at theaters across Los Angeles, there were very few times I walked away with that “wow” feeling. It’s that awareness that spending two hours of your life with a film, eventually become countless hours, because you can’t stop thinking about the lives and stories of the characters long after you’ve left the cineplex. As I think about it, my last “wow” came as the screen faded to black during Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, 12 Years A Slave. More, I can’t say that I saw many films this year that made me want to delve further into how I felt about them, to try to rationalize what I saw on-screen by dedicating a one-off blog post as I did for 2013’s Fruitvale Station.
This doesn’t mean 2014 wasn’t a strong year in cinema. What 2014 certainly did was create a space as one of the more memorable times in the industry, as the art of filmmaking continues to push itself harder. Through films like Boyhood, Locke, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – it’s clear that the intricacies of physical production when it comes to telling a narrative is changing. Filmmakers are becoming more and more aggressive and innovative in the craft of storytelling.
Sometimes this aggression and innovation helps a story (i.e., Boyhood), other times it might hurt it (i.e., The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), but as the saying goes: “you can’t blame a guy (or girl) for trying.” Naturally, there is some nobility in that.
Here are my top 10 picks for the best feature films of 2014…
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood
Director Richard Linklater holds a very special place in cinema. He’s responsible for what I personally consider to be one of the best trilogies of all time, the “Before” series. Unlike nearly every sequel ever created that often falls into the trap of becoming one big diluted and uninspiring cliché; the “Before” films, like fine wine, get better and better with age. Five minutes after I sat in the chair to watch Jesse and Celine’s 20 year love story continue in 2013’s Before Midnight, I knew I was in for something exceptional…and it was. Before Midnight was my favorite film of 2013. Taking a moment to preface this, I went into Boyhood with extremely high expectations, that weren’t wholly fulfilled. Ultimately, why Boyhood is deserving to make any top 10 list is because Linklater experimented with the genre of film itself in one of the most unique and innovative methods in film history. Filmed over the course of 12 years, this is a coming-of-age tale more rooted in reality, for a fictional narrative, than ever seen on-screen. Every year Linklater and the same core group of actors would gather to further Mason’s tale of Boyhood. My biggest complaint about this film was that outside of the gimmick, while extremely commendable, the film wasn’t conflict-driven enough. Sure there were scenes capturing difficulties at any given point of Mason’s 12-year story-line, but given that we’re following a young boy into the complexities of manhood – it was surprising how little actually happens to our protagonist. One might argue that compared to your average human being navigating the journey of growing up, that Mason had a rather easy, uncomplicated life. Due to this weakness in the script, the audience doesn’t emotionally connect to, or cheer on or our “boy” with solid investment because of the inherent lack of true conflict. That being said, the dedication and commitment to see this film to completion, coupled with outstanding chemistry among the actors skillfully maintained over a 12 year period, rectifies its weaknesses. Undoubtedly, it must have been a labor of love for everyone involved given the demands of making it, and should be applauded, rightfully. It’s a delightful film to watch.
Film: Abuse of Weakness
Location: Director’s Guild of America, Hollywood
Solely because this film is based on Director Catherine Breillat’s own true story, does Abuse of Weakness seem even the least bit fathomable. And yet, the more you examine it, the more all too human it legitimately becomes. Breillat recreates her story through Maud, portrayed by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert, as a filmmaker who suffers from a life-altering stroke. Maud desperately wants to continue her work despite her newly acquired physical limitations, resulting in her having to re-learn even the most basic of human functions. Though she eventually learns to adapt to her physical restrictions, albeit it with much struggle, what becomes all too clear as you follow her journey toward building a new life while focusing on her work – is how much Maud hasn’t accepted or adapted to the emotional ramifications of her situation. She knowingly pursues an admitted con man, Vilko, to play her main character in her new film. The result of this choice creates one of the most maddening narratives of the year. Vilko’s timely and charming presence, spent making her feel important, while being of help through the difficulties of adjusting to her handicap, sets the stage for the con to come. Vilko swindles Maud out of all of her money over the course of the film. The caveat here is that though she’s aware of his history, he still manages to build trust with her in such a way that she willingly writes checks to support his questionable endeavors. The complicated part about their relationship is that Maud is clearly an intelligent, successful woman. As such, it’s hard to believe that she cannot see the outright manipulation taking place before her eyes. One might question whether or not Maud let it happen for the sake of having his presence in her life, and therefore, purposely continues to turn a blind eye as she loans him money to the point of bankruptcy. Alternatively, it’s possible she considered it a genuine loan and simply wanted to help out a friend in need, who helped her. When it comes to what took place in reality, Catherine Breillat asserts that she was purely taken of advantage of due to a “diminished mental state” at the time, which is also entirely possible. However, I interpreted Maud’s actions to be more gray. By virtue of how intelligent and strong, yet vulnerable and lonely Maud is characterized throughout the film, it’s hard to truly ascertain her motives other than that she seems to appreciate the attention. Abuse of Weakness is a remarkable exploration of how much and how low one will go to feel valued, and to hold on to a human connection, even as the ugly truth is staring you in the face.
Film: Two Days, One Night
Location: Egyptian Theater, Hollywood
Marion Cotillard gives a stellar performance as Sandra, a Belgian woman who spends her weekend after an extended medical leave of absence for depression, convincing her co-workers to forgo their bonus checks so that she can keep her job. Upon learning that a majority of them voted for her dismissal in favor of their bonuses, the film follows Sandra as she swallows her pride and personally visits each co-worker, petitioning them to re-consider their stance. It is a portrait of a woman desperately seeking not only monetary, but emotional security as they seemingly continue to slip away from her over the course of Two Days, One Night. What a complicated, yet delicious predicament, when you consider that most not only relish bonuses, but that her co-workers are in dire financial straits themselves and can certainly use it. It’s an examination of a modern-day version of Darwinian theory, rooted in the foundation of what provides both physical and emotional self-preservation, our jobs. It speaks to a variety of themes: the survival of the fittest and stepping on others to get ahead; humbling oneself to ask for help when needed; but more so, having the capacity to help our fellow-man by making the responsible choice, even as it comes as a personal sacrifice.
Location: Laemmle Theaters, Santa Monica
Adapted from José Saramago’s 2004 novel “The Double,” Enemy takes on the arduous task of creating two characters and two worlds that brilliantly merge together toward what has to be one of the most mind-blowing endings in film history. Enemy introduces us to Adam, an off-beat history professor, who one day finds that there is another person in the world who looks exactly like him. Determined to meet his doppelganger, named Anthony, Adam eventually locates his double and is immediately transfixed by the life Anthony leads. What ensues is a rather complicated and hard to describe narrative that forays from a well-executed mystery, to an intense thriller, leading toward an almost science fiction-like finale. Incredibly, as much as this film takes the audience on a perplexing, hallucinatory journey with the incredible Jake Gyllenhaal at the wheel; it does an impressive job of balancing your interest enough to keep you invested. The duplicity, and eventual mergence, of Adam and Anthony’s world is unlike anything seen on-screen this year. Enemy’s unusual plot-line, unique premise, strong performances, and phenomenal cinematography all lend to its success, but what must be its core strength is how much it can brazenly confuse the hell out of its audience, yet still produce a top 10 film!
Film: Obvious Child
Location: Landmark Theaters, West LA
On the surface, Director Gillian Robespierre’s first feature-length narrative may appear to be your typical, quirky, small-scale, independent film. Surprisingly, what she created was a prototype that illustrates how a typical, quirky, small-scale, independent film can still cultivate finesse and substance. Obvious Child follows Jenny Slate as Donna Stern, an up-and-coming comedienne who learns she’s pregnant after a one-night stand. Unlike most films that would then accompany Donna as she agonizes over what to do about her unplanned pregnancy, this film breaks stereotype by immediately making it known that Donna has already made a firm decision to have an abortion. The film subsequently escorts our protagonist over the next few weeks as she waits for her procedure, not once doubting her decision, but certainly doubting where her life is going. The unique thing about Obvious Child’s narrative structure is that after she’s made the decision to proceed with her abortion, her one-night stand reappears during those weeks, interested in pursuing a relationship. Again, Donna maintains her decision about the abortion, but takes the risk of letting her one-night stand and the father of the baby into her life. What both Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate create through Obvious Child is in effect, the backwards romantic comedy, more comparable to real life. Not all women necessarily agonize over unplanned pregnancies knowing their station in life isn’t right for a child. Not all women meet their Prince Charming, fall in love, get married, and then start a family. Sometimes it happens the other way around. Unlike the formulaic romantic comedy, Obvious Child, takes a regret-free and often crudely hilarious exploration at life, love, and sex with refreshing authenticity.
Film: The Skeleton Twins
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood
If there was one film of 2014 that did a near-perfect endeavor of inviting the audience to a familiar portrayal of a place, time, and relationship, it’s as a result of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s seamless stint as bother and sister in The Skeleton Twins. Estranged twins Maggie and Milo reunite after each attempt suicide on the same day, using rock bottom as the foundation toward mending their broken relationship. Writer/Director Craig Johnson creates a realistic version of fiction through the struggles plaguing Maggie and Milo, both as individuals and as a unit. On some level, we can relate to their problems, and see hints of our own inadequacies and insecurities in them. Further to that, the film’s setting during the nostalgia of the fall season, not only forms ornate visuals to carry the story, but somehow feels symbiotic. We watch our protagonists literally “fall” from grace in many areas of their life throughout the course of the film, but also “fall into” each other, effectively returning to what they know, what’s always been there. Maggie and Milo find home in each other in such a way that becomes more than just the basis for a feel good film, which it undoubtedly is, but an illustration at how core relationships, particularly between siblings, ground us in a way that no other relation can.
Film: Love is Strange
Location: Private Screening, Culver City
When it comes to romances, a 40-year love affair is ideally expected to have already been sealed through the bonds of marriage, living and growing together, happily ever after. When Ben and George, played by the delightful John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, consummate their fate and finally marry once the state of New York recognizes gay marriage; a joyous occasion ultimately becomes yet another obstacle. George loses his job soon after exercising his right to marry, causing the newlyweds to have to look for alternative housing options in New York’s highly competitive market. Sadly, after decades spent together under the same roof, our newlyweds are forced to separate and move in with others as they seek a permanent solution. Love is Strange couldn’t be a more quieter film in terms of execution. Outside of the daily relational conflict, as a result of their separate living situations, not much else happens in terms of plot point apart from the beginning and end of the film. And yet, it’s because of the natural chemistry between Lithgow and Molina that make it such a treat to watch their story unfold on-screen. Somehow between the daily nuances that erupt from living apart, their commitment and relationship remain the most normal part of the film, cultivating a loving silhouette of a same-sex couple. Love is Strange paints a believable portrait of the many facets of love and our relationship to people because of it, suitably referring to “love” as “strange.”
Location: Landmark Theaters, West LA
One might say that Tom Hardy’s assignment as Ivan Locke is this year’s All is Lost. Locke receives a phone call that a one-night stand is about to give birth to a child he never knew about. On the night before an important career highlight takes place, Locke gets into his car to make the long journey to the hospital to meet the woman he thought he’d left behind months before, but not before having to make the difficult phone call to his wife while on the road. Locke is one man, one location, and one phone call after another that skillfully details the destruction of a life carefully built. Hardy’s impeccable performance within the mere confines of a car for 85 straight minutes, unwaveringly captivates the audience. This stems from the sharp narrative structure, savvy direction, and stunning camera-work, that instantly pull you in for the ride…literally. Like Robert Redford, Hardy alone carries the weight of a story that on paper would come across as extremely difficult to pull off. The risk was worth it. With every conversation, we watch Locke’s personal and professional life fall apart in one of the most unique manners ever told on-screen. Simply put, Locke takes the practice of filmmaking to a whole other level, leaving behind a cinematic masterpiece as the perfect thumbprint.
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood
Selma couldn’t be a more timely film given the continued and growing animosity that took center stage between urban American communities and law enforcement in 2014. It speaks to how far we’ve come, yet how far we have to go. Selma’s uncommon approach to what might have otherwise been conceptualized as a traditional biopic, effectively bypasses the core traits of a historically based film. Essentially, it avoids the typical chronological engagement of its subject from childhood through death. Instead, it intelligently enlists its audience by thrusting them right in the middle of King’s fight against oppression; assuming, rightly, that King really needs no introduction. The accomplished work of David Oyelowo as King brought by far, the most formidable performance on-screen this year. Director Ava DuVernay, along with writer Paul Webb’s dialogue-heavy script creates a sophisticated snapshot in time, following three short months of his life in 1965. Therefore, what Selma does do with extreme grace is re-acquaint audiences to King’s legacy through the turmoil and specific actions of the preeminent march from Selma to Montgomery, without diminishing the established intellect of the audience. It trusts its audience to know everything they need to, to appreciate this work of art, the man, and the message. Unanimously, we do.
Location: Laemmle Theaters, North Hollywood
Definition: to “jerk or jolt (someone or something) suddenly; to affect adversely, as by a sudden change.”
Miles Teller gives a redeeming and phenomenal performance as Andrew, a student at a music conservatory that will go to no end to become one of the greatest musicians of all time. To get there, he craves the approval and tutelage of Terence Fletcher, played with staggering and nail-biting intensity by J.K. Simmons; whose career goal is to find the next best Charlie Parker. The battle that ensues between teacher and student is arguably one the most ruthless, complex, and inspiring stories captured on film. It explores the lengths one will go to in pursuit of being “the best.” When thinking about the definition of “Whiplash” along with the errorless execution of this masterpiece, I cannot help but be more and more impressed by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s mere second feature film. Every single aspect of this film is as succinct and apt as its title. From the razor-quick editing, to the sharp dialogue, to the physical demands of Andrew as he strikes the drums with tireless energy to prove his worth, to Fletcher’s enduring need to not give it to him. The inexhaustible intensity that continues to build from the first frame to the last, comes at the price of authentic transformation to everyone involved with this film, even as a viewer. You certainly don’t leave this film the way you came into it. As a viewer you walk out of this experience with a physical and emotional case of Whiplash, unable to fully let go of Andrew’s harrowing journey. Four weeks before the end of the year, did I finally find my “wow” film of 2014.
A look back at my thoughts on the best films of 2012 and 2013, too.
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*Header image credit: My DVD Library by snkhan used under CC BY 2.0 | Modifications: cropped, filtered, and text added to original.
*Movie poster images sourced via IMDB.