Alright, here we go. Same rules apply as in part one, only this time, it’s part two!
Here are my five favorite films of 2014:
5. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)
Evocative imagery. That’s what pops into my mind when I think of this stunner of a film, directed by the wildly talented Jean-Marc Vallée—also responsible for last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club and one of my favorite coming-of-age films C.R.A.Z.Y.—from a tricky, time-jumping screenplay by Nick Hornby. Played with an effortlessly bitter sense of humor by Reese Witherspoon, Cheryl Strayed (upon whose memoir the film is based) is a fantastic character, full of spite for the life she’s led, and, for much of the film’s runtime, entirely unsure of how it could really get better. She is hell-bent on trying to get to a better place, though, by hiking the rigorous Pacific Crest Trail.
This film is truly built upon its imagery, and the little snapshots we see of Cheryl’s life before her long hike come slowly at first, leaking into our consciousness as they do into hers. When she remembers a moment, we see it; sometimes all we get is a single second of an image that she’ll come back to later, but it still registers as an important thought for Cheryl, a hurdle she must overcome. As the memories flood in toward the end of the film, we understand her character more and more, and we understand her trauma. The combination of rich visuals, striking sound cues, and Witherspoon’s consistency in the role make for a highly cathartic experience, one that’s been indelibly etched into my mind. A must-see-on-a-big-screen cinematic experience.
4. Pride (dir. Matthew Warchus)
This one took me by surprise. I’d read positive reviews and still managed to miss out on it in theaters, but when I finally saw Pride, I realized just how special it was. Directed by Matthew Warchus, largely a veteran of the London stage, the film hums with an effervescent energy that is hard to shake. Populated with memorable characters, played by actors who are perfectly cast to create an impression from the moment they take the screen, Pride is a true ensemble piece about an unlikely bond, that between the gay and lesbian community of London and a Welsh town filled with striking miners.
Set in 1984 during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the film strikes a delicate balance between mining the situation (sorry, I had to) for sentimentality and keeping the real stakes of the miner’s, and the LGBT community’s, dire situation in perspective. Though the central relationships between the rural blue-collar workers and urban sophisticates lend the film a humorous edge—a scene involving sex toys and the central band of older Welsh ladies left me in stitches—there are numerous serious themes at play. Warchus handles the LGBTQ-related issues particularly well: scenes involving a character’s forcible coming out, and another melancholy stinger hinting at the unknowable toll of HIV/AIDS, left me teary-eyed and genuinely sad in ways most films never can. Ultimately, though, the film is a buoyant, uplifting true story, and a rather unbelievable one at that.
3. Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
This film left me on a high I had a hard time shaking. I left the theater with the same smile I’d seen spread across Emma Stone’s face in the confounding final frame of Iñárritu’s dizzying epic. Everyone and everything shines bright in this tale of diminished fame, hurt feelings, and stymied hopes. Though Michael Keaton’s former movie star turned Broadway producer/director/actor Riggan Thompson steals the show with his sadly humorous turn, Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan leave their marks, floating through the days leading up to Riggan’s Broadway debut with a zany, not-quite-real energy.
The genius of the film extends through its performances and into the technical precision of its production. Emmanuel Lubezki’s infamous one-take scenes in Children of Men and Gravity take on an entirely new immensity as his choreographed camera creeps and slides along in one seemingly uninterrupted shot. The immediacy of his imagery, and the heightened reality of the theatrical process—given an externalized, hyperbolic form in Riggan’s supernatural abilities of flight, levitation, and ESP—puts the audience directly into the line of fire. It’s hard not to feel giddy when everything in a film collides to form a cohesive, expertly-crafted whole. It’s even harder when the film is as emotionally-stimulating and well-written as this one.
2. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Though Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic had its detractors, I was immediately taken with the cohesive, spellbinding world-building on display, and the expert, almost Spielbergian care with which style and narrative were treated. A film that cares more about the human dilemmas at its core than the grand imagery on display, Interstellar hit me in an emotional sweet spot. Futuristic but nostalgic, bombastic but incisive, I felt myself carried away not only to different worlds, but also my childhood and my fears. A big question mark of a movie when it arrived in theaters, I was pleasantly surprised (save for one too-famous actor’s late-in-the-game appearance) over and over again.
While top-notch performers Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and, especially, Mackenzie Foy elevated the material beyond its base narrative, the technical work and writing on display was nearly enough for me. Hans Zimmer’s best-ever organ-heavy score was simple and explosive in equal measure, suiting the high emotional tension and physical duress on display. The largely practical production design and visual effects work was, well, stellar, placing me within a believable, specific vision of our Earth’s future. And that screenplay; cliche at times, with some of the silliest lines of dialogue I heard all year, I still found myself gripped by the simple concept that love may be able to traverse the space-time continuum. In my humble opinion, the true motion picture event of the year.
1. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)
Selma is a film too vital to be ignored. The legacies, positive and negative, of the events and persons it depicts live on today in ways that are infuriating and inspiring. In 2014 we saw institutionalized racism—not to mention unfathomable prejudices of every kind—rear its ugly head in blatant and upsetting ways; we also saw peaceful protests succeed and shed light on the issues which we are most affected by. Selma speaks to those emotions and those realities like no other movie I’ve seen.
I admittedly had the privilege of seeing the film and then hearing director Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young speak immediately after. They were eloquent and urgent, citing ways in which the film became that much more important after the events in Ferguson, MO began to unfold. At the movie’s New York City premiere, DuVernay and her cast members wore shirts with “I Can’t Breathe” boldly splashed across the front. This is cinema with a message, made by people who are intensely thoughtful about everything their film is saying.
As I watched I was struck not only by the stellar acting, but also by the sense of ensemble that the script evoked. While many have called Selma a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. it is far more a historical fiction about a time period, a place, and the people who are inhabiting it. Yes, David Oyelowo is superb as Dr. King, but I was just as moved by Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper, and Stephan James’ John Lewis. In fact, I was moved emotionally by Selma more than any other film this year. I don’t think it was a product of the screening environment or the anticipation, as I did have extremely high hopes. It was, as I said before, the thoughtfulness.
DuVernay, Young, and every other person in charge of evoking a certain mood, sense of place, and pace to this movie were clearly in sync with each other. The violence, while not graphic in the traditional sense, makes a massive impact; sound effects amplify the visual sense of chaos and anguish, and slow-motion captures vividly the moments at which the characters we care for are taken down due to the ignorance and anger of others. Young’s camera and lighting expertly depicts it all. Many scenes are shot in near-darkness, lending realism but never sacrificing beautiful imagery or luminous facial expressions. Upbeat period music and hymnals often clash with the violence and sadness on display. It just makes sense. And it works fantastically to create a harmonious and incredibly compelling cinematic experience.
My admiration for DuVernay knows no end at this point. She is clearly a hyper-intelligent filmmaker, an incredible writer—she did significant re-writes on the script, including penning all of Dr. King’s speeches as they are not in the public domain, but did not get credit because of a contractual agreement—and a sensitive, socially-conscious person. No matter the historical inaccuracies (many films this year are riddled with them but have received far less flack than Selma), her film is my far and away my favorite of the year. Go see it!
There you have it! My top ten films of 2014. Please, feel free to comment and share as much or as little as you’d like! In case you couldn’t tell, I love talking movies.