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Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Top 10 Films of 2014

            It’s that time of the year again folks!   Having finally gotten through *most* of the major Oscar contenders (or at least, all the ones that stood a shot at making this list), it is time to finalize my list of my 10 favorite movies that I saw this year (awards and Oscar picks will follow next month). 

            Between the previous Oscar ceremony and now, I have officially seen 50 new movies from the past year (30 of which I reviewed for this site).  If this is the first Top 10 you have read, please note my rules regarding eligibility for this list; in order for a film to be “new,” it has to have received either a film festival release and/or a limited/general theatrical release in either the United States or Germany (where I currently live) sometime within 2014, regardless of whether or not it came out in another country at an earlier date (see most of the Japanese films I have on these).  And as always, there will be no accompanying “Worst 10,” since I try to avoid bad movies like the plague.  Most of the films I saw this year were pretty darn good, so any list like that would merely besmirch the names of decent pieces well-worth checking out.  And as always, this is list is purely my own subjective opinion.  I am in no way attempting to directly compare everything I saw to list the “absolute” best films.  These are simply the movie that stuck with and spoke to me personally the most, the movies I am most likely to buy and rewatch in the future, and the reasons for each vary greatly.  With that said, let us begin. 

            First, as always, the honorable mentions:

            And now, the main event! 

10.  Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance  (Alejandro González Iñárritu)

            I am not quite as high on this movie as a lot of critics (and awards voters) were, but it is an undeniable blast to watch.  At first one might be tempted to think that the entire movie is just a running gag of “Look, Michael Keaton playing a guy who is only famous for playing a superhero, how clever tee-hee,” but one soon finds that the film is about much more than that, attempting to include diatribes on the nature of film, live theater, artistic criticism, and good ‘ol 21st-century nihilism.  The camerawork (done to make it seem as if the film was a single, unbroken take) is truly excellent, and I found the use of free-form drumming as the soundtrack to be powerfully effective in creating the sort of hectic, anything-can-happen mindset that gives the film its energy. 

            However, and I am surprising no one by saying this, it’s the performers that make this one sing.  Michael Keaton reminds everyone how great he can be, Ed Norton is fantastically absurd as the epitome of the actors-are-only-real-on-stage stereotype, and this might be my favorite performance yet by Emma Stone.  Zach Galifianakis is here in a serious role as well, and I sincerely hope we get more from him.  There’s not much overall thematic depth per say, but the clever visuals, excellent screenplay, and Grade A acting make it a genuine experience film everyone should have at least once. 

9.  Life Itself (Steve James)

            Sadly, it was only following his death last Spring that Roger Ebert started to become one of my biggest inspirations as a writer and as a film critic.  That alone, however, would not have been enough to merit this film a spot on my Top 10 list.  What did was how deftly Steve James mixes going through the life and events of Roger Ebert (sticking largely to the structure in Ebert’s own autobiography of the same title) with his final years and the string of complications that led to his death, combining narrative sections of the books with footage and recordings of his career, interviews, and even personal family videos to take the wonderful passages written by Ebert himself and giving them moving cinematic life.  There is also no shying away from the physical agonies, frustrations, and what many would consider awful indignities of his deteriorating condition towards the end (the squeamish will need to turn away for two particular scenes).  Unlike several of the more romantic, “big-ticket” tributes to great 20th century minds (I’m looking at you, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), there is no attempt to whitewash the more controversial, abrasive, and even less-than-noble aspects of Roger Ebert’s character.  We see him as he was- a witty, life-loving, sometimes brilliant, sometimes aggravating, and always human, individual. 

8.  The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

            It’s rather odd seeing this film be the one that finally garners heaps of award nominations (and thus far, more than a few wins) for Wes Anderson, since I actually think this one falls short of matching his previous work, Moonrise Kingdom (which, if you recall, came in 3rd in my Top 10 List for 2012).  Comparisons aside though, like in 2012, this is one of the best films of the year, hilariously absurd with its characters, yet haunted by a fatalism and pessimism that seems impossible to overcome within the world he constructs.  And yet, Gustav and Zero still try their hardest to do just that, even when they admit their efforts may be futile.  Despite its broad comedic strokes, we see the cracks around the edges of the world the characters struggle so hard to maintain.  Ralph Fiennes, giving one the year’s most underappreciated performances, symbolizes the razor-thin edge we all tread separating civility and savagery.  It is a wonderful work, one that has cemented Wes Anderson as one of my favorite directors in the business today (note to self, make a 10 Favorite Director’s List asap). 

7.  The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)

            In Miyazaki’s apparent swan song, we are told the story of the young engineer, Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Japanese Zero fighter planes that wreaked havoc on American and British forces over the course of the war, a choice of subject matter that set off a firestorm of debates and critiques long after the film debuted, both within Japan and internationally.  Few other films that I saw this year had me thinking so long and hard afterwards about what I liked and didn’t like, what I thought worked and didn’t work, and wondering how I felt about the controversies raging over the decision to romanticize a figure like Jiro (some critics praised it, others did not, with one critic referred to it as “disgraceful” and “repellant”).  And even though it is not his best work, I gave it a 4-star rating and chose to select it for this list precisely because of that- because of how long and hard it made me think and question my own biases and predispositions in regards to filmmaking.  For that, ultimately, is the reason why I watch movies- I want to be made to think.  I want to be challenged.  I want something that will grab me by the scruff of my neck and hurl me across the room.  The Wind Rises succeeded at that more than almost every other film I saw this year. 

6.  Selma (Ava DuVernay)

            Anyone prepared to dismiss this film as another obligatory white guilt-trip Oscar bait snorefest ala The Butler, don’t.  Because it isn’t.  Like 12 Years A Slave last year, Selma is powerful, effective, and brutally relevant filmmaking reminding us of how fragile any progress in human affairs is.  Following an awful bombing of a black church in Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. and his civil rights allies gather to organize a massive march to force the federal government to pass a law outlawing voting restriction used to restrict the black vote.  As MLK (a brilliant David Oyelowo) reminds both LBJ and us in the audience, complacency when innocents are dying is never an option, the difficulties of the struggle never an excuse.  It is a tragedy that it will join wonderful and daring works like Cloud Atlas and Inside Llewyn Davis among the ranks of masterpieces that did not get their due at the time of their release, but that in no way lessens the heights it achieves as a work of art and a statement of political purpose. 

5.  Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)

            And speaking of statements of political purpose! 

            This documentary effectively functions as a litmus test of whether or not you feel that the US government has massively over-expanded its security apparatus since 9/11.  Consisting mostly of the direct, real-time footage Poitras took of the first fateful meetings of Edward Snowden with journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room, each individual viewer will most likely see in Snowden that which they have already decided to see.  Is he a traitor, or a hero?  Were his actions inexcusably destructive, or an essential check on the power of large governments and organizations, a much-needed shock to a system plagued by moral inertia?  Regardless of where along the spectrum you fall, there is no denying the fascinating pull Poitras manages to exert on us, drawing us into a web of conspiracies with the cinematic techniques and subtle dexterity of a classic Cold War thriller, sending a chill down your spine at the very end.  This movie, along with Selma, is one of the most important must-see works of the year. 

4. The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

            Although it is not nearly as emotionally heavy as some of the Oscar-contenders listed above, The Lego Movie is in no way less intelligent or clever in its endless subversions of every storytelling trope currently crushing most mainstream, big-budget action movies.  In case anyone reading this has not seen it yet, I will refrain from spoilers, but a certain turn towards the end provides one of the quickest and quietest backslaps to studio screenwriters I have seen in years.  Flawlessly animated, gripping in its action scenes, endlessly hilarious, and shamelessly ignored by the Academy, The Lego Movie was the summer blockbuster to beat in 2014.  And nothing did.  Nope, not even that.  Because this movie was awesome. 

3.  Tamako in Moratorium (Nobuhiro Yamashita)

*sadly, there was no trailer I could find on Youtube with subtitles.  So here is a picture instead*

            The more I thought about it, the more I found myself thinking about how still a movie Tamako in Moratorium is.  There is no heavy drama, no fights, and no thrills- just quiet depiction of a young woman struggling to deal with the vast uncertainties and grayness of an adult world.  Tamako might be the best on-screen realization of many of the hopes, fears, and worries facing my generation I’ve yet seen (although the next movie on this list is up there as well).  It is also a celebration of the many small things that make life good, and worth living.  Especially food.  Which may also be a big reason I loved it so much. 

2.  Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

            This is the one I will be rooting for all night come February 22ndBoyhood is one of the most interesting, daring, innovative, and fascinating film projects to come out in years.  Filmed in bits and pieces over 12 years, it succeeds in presenting one of the most comprehensive stories of a person growing up ever created.  Mason is a very specific child facing very specific circumstances, but in deliberately crafting him and his family that way, Linklater is also able to capture so many of the universal aspects of life that everyone experiences sooner or later.  It is not just a compelling story in its own right, it allows us to tap into an understanding of the commonalities of struggling to exist that can truly unite us all.  It is also fascinating glimpse into the world of American masculinity itself, and how it can take forms both damaging and enlightened, all depending on how one allows life to change them.    

            For all the work that clearly went into it, it is astonishing how natural the lives we see come are, and how relevant they are to our own.  The awkwardness of a first date, the frustration with being forced to get a haircut, the agonized uncertainty of a new school, and many other moments are scenes not just shown to us- we’ve all been there, regardless of our nation/skin color/religion/culture/etc.  Linklater also goes the extra mile by always including bits of whatever in the real world was going on at the time of the filming, enhancing the central story with enough bits of reality that we instinctively think back to our own memories of those times- the release of the Harry Potter books, the Iraq War, the 2008 election, the breakout of Lady Gaga, and more are there to jump out at you when you least expect it, taking you on a nostalgic trip back through your own childhood. 

1.  The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)

            Once again, as with each of the past few years, my top spot on this list came down to an agonizing choice between two beautiful films, works equally worthy of recognition.  And this year, as much as I loved Boyhood, for the second year in a row an animated Japanese work has edged out all other competition to take the #1 spot on my list.  My favorite film of 2014 is the gorgeous, uplifting, and at times heartbreaking masterpiece by Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

            Based on a thousand-year-old Japanese legend, it is the tale of a poor bamboo farmer who happens across a fairy child in the woods.  Although he and his wife are at first content to raise her with them in their mountain village, his overwhelming desire to provide everything he can for the Princess leads him to the decision to leave the simple life they have known, so that they can raise her in the traditional fashion in the capital.  All for her own good of course, or so the father thinks. 

            It is hard to compress into words the range of emotions this movie is capable of inspiring.  Where is the line between familial love and over-obedience?  Is parental direction better or worse than eternally leaving children to their own devices?  So many questions one can ask by the end, and there is ample evidence for both sides packed into this epic legend of a tale.  I was struck hard by this movie, and left feeling the sort of indescribable depth and expanse of emotion that very, very few films are able to inspire in me.  The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not only one of the best films of recent years, but it also one of the best films ever released by Studio Ghibli, and will be remembered as such in time. 

            And that is that!  My favorite movies of 2014.  Check back soon for my Oscar picks and a few other look-back posts about 2014, all of which I hope to get up within the next 3 weeks.  Wish me luck! 

-Noah Franc 

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