Believe the hype, as any avid viewer like yours truly will be able to confirm, 2014 was a bountiful year both in mainstream and art-house cinema. I find it almost preposterous to do a top ten chart. I can never bring myself to answer the proverbial “What's your favourite film” question. How could I choose one title when great films keep being made? Cinema is my life hence my list is open until my last breath.
Consider this my end-of-the-year account of personal favourites that's not aimed at pontificating an absolutistic truth about which films were the best. If anything, it’s a recommendation of those titles that captured my imagination, left a mark from both a visual and storytelling standpoint and stimulated my cinematic taste not just as a film critic or a viewer but most importantly as a screenwriter.
Due to different release dates between the US and the UK my selection goes wide and includes some films running for award season that are already out in America but awaiting release over the next couple of months across the pond.
Yet scheduling conflicts left me behind on a few movies like Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice and J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year which are being released in January and that most likely would’ve featured among my picks given my deep love for the filmmakers involved. And let’s not forget the annoying distribution delays of juicy titles like Snowpiercer and The Immigrant (I’m looking at you Harvey Weinstein) that heartbreakingly haven't found their way over here yet. So, without further ado…
1. WHIPLASH (USA, dir. Damien Chazelle)
How far is too far when it comes to pushing yourself to the limit in order to excel? This intense coming of age story of an aspiring drummer and his unorthodox (to say the least) conservatory teacher plays out like a taut, gripping, and unpredictable thriller with a compelling and thought-provoking dilemma at its core and two Oscar-worthy performances from its “dueling” co-stars, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Explosive, inspiring filmmaking that launches an outstanding new talent behind the camera.
2. BOYHOOD (USA, dir. Richard Linklater)
What most cynics have considered an overlong gimmick without a compelling story at its core it’s actually way more than an outstandingly planned and executed filmmaking experiment. The underrated Richard Linklater brings the genuine feel and free-flowing dialogue of his cult Before (Sunset, Sunrise, Midnight) Trilogy to the next level, crafting the epitome of the coming of age story by capturing the authenticity of real life growing up and our confusion about what it all means.
3. BIRDMAN (USA, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The most meta film to grace the silver screen in a while, this mesmerizing pastiche of virtuoso filmmaking reflects on the eternal dilemma of artistic validation versus success and related fame. It has the perfect lead in Michael Keaton, a criminally underrated actor who, just like his character, finds new artistic life and the prospect of a comeback to the spotlight. And well, there's also an irresistible Edward Norton at his absolute best in years.
4. THE DOUBLE (UK, dir. Richard Ayoade)
When British comedian Richard Ayoade debuted as a feature film writer/director with his extremely underrated Submarine (2010) I was immediately wooed by his irresistible witty humour and stylish filmmaking so much that he struck me as a potential British Wes Anderson and if this brilliant sophomore effort is any indication, I believe he’s still a good candidate for the title. The Double is a tale of human duplicity and subversive reaction to totalitarianism that gives Dostoevsky’s novella an electric Orwellian feel and makes the most of Jesse Eisenberg’s neurosis and Mia Wasikowska’s hypnotizing magnetism.
5. MOMMY (Canada, dir. Xavier Dolan)
I didn’t get a chance to discover the breakthrough talent of young Canadian actor/filmmaker Xavier Dolan until last year with his Hitchcockian psychological thriller Tom At The Farm (2013) where he impressed both in front of and behind the camera. With Mommy he only takes on the directorial duties to tell the moving story of a widowed mother taking care of her troubled ADHD-affected teenage son and the complex relationship they develop with their emotionally wounded neighbour. It’s a poignant look at motherly love and mental illness that with its inventive visual style and its mesmerizing performances is bound to floor you. Also, it’s hard to believe Dolan is only 25 and yet has already directed 5 features films and won the Cannes Jury Prize with his latest one.
6. PRIDE (UK, dir. Matthew Warchus)
What’s better than an unknown populist true story of solidarity between a village of British miners on strike and a group of London-based gay rights activists to make a queer-themed film with a broad and box-office-friendly appeal? Pride not only uncovers this wonderful and long-forgotten piece of modern British history but most importantly it conveys a heartwarming and uplifting message without being the least bit sappy and by expertly balancing comedy and drama. Beautifully written by playwright Stephen Beresford at his screen debut and performed by one of the most amazing ensemble casts of the year, this is British cinema at its finest.
7. I ORIGINS (USA, dir. Mike Cahill)
Despite its pedigree of critical praise post Sundance debut, it’s a shame how this thought-provoking and moving tale of lost love and scientific discovery passed like a meteor during its mid-September theatrical release. The sophomore effort of promising writer/director Mike Cahill explores the intriguing theories of reincarnation of the human soul linked to the unique patterns of each individual’s eyes. Speculation is high but the underrated Michael Pitt and rising star Brit Marling who also starred in and co-wrote Cahill’s debut Another Earth (2011) make it all sound believable and emotionally devastating. This film is a little gem: minimalistic and humanistic sci-fi that stays with you long after credits roll.
8. A MOST WANTED MAN (USA, dir. Anton Corbijn)
This adaptation of John Le Carre’’s novel is every bit engaging and nail-biting as the best episodes of Showtime's drama Homeland despite the slow-burning pace and lackluster action. It’s a psychological spy thriller that couldn’t be more politically relevant to our day and age, filled with a sense of paranoia and suspense reminiscent of the best Sidney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula and graced by the brilliantly understated final performance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman whose lack of awards attention so far is baffling.
9. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (USA, dir. Wes Anderson)
Colour me heavily biased since Wes Anderson is one of my absolute favourite filmmakers in the stratosphere but once again he delivered a hilarious feast for the eyes telling the crazy shenanigans of a charming, scoundrelicious hotel concierge and his lobby boy set in a fictional East European location in a period vaguely placed between the two World Wars. As usual, Anderson is a master at creating worlds that have a foot in reality and another one in a grotesquely cartoonish landscapes. The cast is large and fantastic more than ever and this time around led by a wonderful Ralph Fiennes in terrific comedy form.
10. INTERSTELLAR (USA, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Probably the most divisive film of the year, this epic space opera is a thing to behold, especially in IMAX, the original format it was mostly filmed in. Detractors have deemed its complicated sci-fi twists and turns as gratuitous, his themes as on the nose sentimental cheese and its characters flat and uninteresting. Despite being far from the masterpiece some people called it, I decided to focus only on Nolan’s willingness to dare and tell an original story rather than hide within another pre-established franchise. As far as blockbuster filmmaking goes I believe no one tries as hard as him to deliver something fresh rather instead of the average trite Hollywood studio fare. No doubt Interstellar is derivative and could’ve used stronger characterization but its core message and its astounding visual journey make it one of the most unique cinematic experiences of the year.
Following right behind:
Nightcrawler, The Rover, Blue Ruin, Enemy, St. Vincent, The Imitation Game, Begin Again, The Drop, Tracks, Night Moves, ’71, The Guest, The Babadook, Starred Up, Frank, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Leviathan, The Possibilities are Endless, Obvious Child, Nymphomaniac vol. 1 and many more…