11th Jan2015

Dan’s Ten Best: Movies of 2014

by Dan Clark

The proverbial Top Ten List. A sacred tradition passed down by our cinematic elders. This is the fourth time I have partaken in this holy tradition, and one thing has remained constant is that this list is never set in stone. As we catch up with more films we missed or rewatch our favorites it causes us to like a movie more or less causing this list to change. In fact in 2012 and 2013 I ended up seeing my number one film of the year after I wrote up my Top 10. So the question becomes, “Why Do it?”. Well, for one it’s fun. At least I find it an enjoyable exercise as I try to break down the year that was. I watched 163 movies that were released in 2014. Narrowing that 163 down to a Top 10 is a challenge I enjoy.

Looking at 2014 as a whole it is evident it was a pretty good year. It reminds me of the year the Detroit Pistons won the NBA championship. There were no all around great players or superstars. Just an abundance of bunch of quality players who succeeded at a specific position. This year did not have a 12 Years A Slave or Gravity that was heavily critically acclaimed and financially successful. The love this year is more spread out and there is not really one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It was actually quite the good year for genre films. Snowpierecer, Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and others that will be named later showed the blockbuster entertainment can still be done right. Indie films also represented well with a number of new directors breaking out with some great material.

With that said here is my Top 10 list for this year. As always I’m starting with some honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut.

Hon-Men-2014

The Skeleton Twins

Director: Craig Johnson
Written By: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Starring: Kristen Wig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson

Synopsis: Having both coincidentally cheated death on the same day, estranged twins reunite with the possibility of mending their relationship.

Quick Take: My biggest takeaway from watching The Skeleton Twins is that Kristen Wig and Bill Hader are legitimate actors who are capable of handling some serious material. Their sensibilities meshed nicely with a script that tackled some heady material. Clearly their knack of comedy was needed to stop things from getting too overly depressing. The Skeleton Twins had the makings of your typical indie dramedy that treats itself far too seriously. Never does it try to be more than it is. A story about real issues treated with a great deal of respect. It doesn’t beat you down with sadness just to make a point. It shows the same issue can manifest in different ways in different people, even if those people are one in the same.

’71

Director: Yann Demange
Written By: Gregory Burke
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris

Synopsis: A young and disoriented British soldier is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the deadly streets of Belfast in 1971.

Quick Take: This time last year I could not tell you who Jack O’Connell was if you gave me a picture of him with his name on it. Flash forward to now and he’s the star of two of my favorite films of the year. (More on his other film later). O’Connell should not get all the credit as director Yann Demange also shows some true talent, and shows he could have quite the future ahead of him. He created quite the tense thriller that used some old school camera work to keep up the excitement. There is a classic seventies tone that we do not see enough anymore. It also touches upon the complex politics that existed in Northern Ireland conflict without getting too complicated. We see just how violent that time was, and the lengths people would go to fight for their cause.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Matt Reeves
Written By: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Starring: Gary Goldman, Keri Russell, Any Serkis

Synopsis: As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

Quick Take: I have been a fan of Matt Reeves for some time now. Cloverfield was an insane monster movie in all the best ways, and I have always felt Let Me In is rather underrated. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes he took what was started with Rise and progressed it even further. They took a brave choice by focusing on the apes rather than the humans. That choice paid off because what they got was perhaps the best installment in the entire franchise. Taking classic Shakespearean elements they crafted a story of full of complex and interesting characters. Action was used sparingly and for the right moments. For once we got an action blockbuster that was more than just hallow entertainment.

Omar

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Written By: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Iyad Hoorani

Synopsis: A young Palestinian freedom fighter agrees to work as an informant after he’s tricked into an admission of guilt by association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s killing.

Quick Take: You can not get a more hostile situation than the one between Palestinian and Israel. Even with all the news stories we get it never feels like we have a true understanding of what it is really like. That’s where movies like Omar come in. Obviously a movie is not real life, however what Omar does do is provide insight into a culture many of us know very little about. There is a great emotional depth that shows there are no easy answers when your world is surrounded by so much conflict. How something as simple as young love can come with a drastic price. Adam Bakri also gives a great performance of a man trying to do right if he can just figure out what right is.

10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

captain-america-winter-soldier-chris-evans-anthony-mackie

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Written By: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson

Synopsis: Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.

Quick Take: This was a banner year for comic book movies. After a disappointing 2013 it was great to see a bounce back. For me Captain America: Winter Soldier was the best of the bunch. It had everything you want in a franchise movie. For one it had some great action sequences from the opening boat rescue to the Winter Solider – Captain America street fight to the final over the top climax. Besides the fun it also had a true to life story that had just the right pinch of social commentary. When the Russo brothers took the directing job they said they wanted to make a movie akin to classic cold war thrillers like Three Days of the Condor. Many laughed at the idea, but they got mighty close to verifying that statement. It is no wonder Marvel is handing to keys to The Avengers over to them. Marvel’s future looks rather bright knowing their have talented movie makers like the Russo’s on their roster.

9. Life Father, Like Son

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Written By: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yôko Maki

Synopsis: Ryota Nonomiya is a successful businessman driven by money. When he learns that his biological son was switched with another child after birth, he must make a life-changing decision and choose his true son or the boy he raised as his own.

Quick Take: There were quite a few films this year that centered around parenthood. One of my favorites was Like Father, Like Son. It took a common everyday storyline and did something extraordinary. We see the switched at birth premise used to examine the intricacies of fatherhood, and how it defines legacy in ways we may not realize. Asking what is it that really defines what makes a good parent? Is it blood or is it something more? At face value the characters appear stereotypical. You have your cold business class family that values career and financial success above all else, and your working class family that makes up for its lack of funds with its love of life. What we see is what got them to that point, and reasoning behind their ways of life. Like Father, Like Son shows just how difficult this type of choice would really be.

8. Calvary

calvary-cast

Director: John Michael McDonagh
Written By: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly

Synopsis: After he is threatened during a confession, a good-natured priest must battle the dark forces closing in around him.

Quick Take: John Michael McDonagh broke out a few year ago with the bold comedy The Guard. When I saw he was teaming up with Brendan Gleeson again I assumed we might get something similar. Within the opening frame it was apparent that was not the case. This time around we were dealing with a serious drama about faith, religion, and sacrifice. One powered by Brendan Gleeson who gives one of my favorite performances of the year. Calvary is as a stoic character study full of religious implications and real world commentary that can relate to the Sunday Church goer as well as the steadfast atheist.

7. Horses of God

Director: Nabil Ayouch
Written By: Jamal Belmahi, Mahi Binebine (novel)
Starring: Abdelhakim Rachi, Abdelilah Rachid, Hamza Souidek

Synopsis: A fictional account of the lives of the men responsible for the suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003.

Quick Take: I love stumbling upon hidden gems. Those movies most are not talking about, but deserve a great deal of recognition. Horses of God is one of the best surprises in years for me. Literally a film I watched by chance, and was engrossed right from the beginning. Nabil Ayouch‘s camera work captured these slums in stunning fashion. Making great use of crane shots he made it evident just how endless poverty is in these regions. Besides the camera work there is a story that gets to the heart of what makes someone commit such an evil act. Often we want blunt and easy answers to justify such tragedy. Horses of God shows us in order to understand why these acts occur we must understand who the people are behind them.

6. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler-movie

Director: Dan Gilroy
Written By: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton

Synopsis: When Lou Bloom, a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story. Aiding him in his effort is Nina, a TV-news veteran.

Quick Take: Nightcrawler is a tensioned filled character study powered by Jake Gyllenhaal’s career defining performance. It will allure you with its thrills and fascinate you with its eccentric behavior. The take down of our current media culture is obvious yet effective. Nightcralwer though is more about how our evening news depicts the world we live in. Similar to Wolf of Wall Street last year it also comments on the values of American capitalizatism we tend to celebrate. What happens when unhinged ambition is allowed to run ramped and the danger that can occur. Lou Bloom is a monster of a man, and he is a monster of our own creation.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand-Budapest-Hotel-Fiennes

Director: Wes Anderson
Written By: Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric

Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka between the first and second World Wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Quick Take: Wes Anderson films tend to take place in a setting out of time. They could be occurring yesterday, tomorrow, or forty years ago. What is apparent about Anderson is his admiration for the past, which makes the fact that The Grand Budapest Hotel is his first period piece all that more surprising. We tend to associate nostalgia strictly with our own childhood but in reality it is more than that. The Grand Budapest Hotel works as a piece of nostalgia for a number of reasons. The building itself stands as a testament to past greatness that needs to be admired, its characters favor the traditional lifestyle, and its director is one who cherishes old-fashion techniques that others have long forgotten. Anderson uses this to create his broadest film yet still does not lose what makes him such a exceptional auteur. It is an achievement—an absolute delight from beginning to end.

4. Blue Ruin

blue-ruin-cast

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Written By: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves

Synopsis: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.

Quick Take: As a lover of the Crime genre Blue Ruin may be a movie I appreciate more than I should. The way Blue Ruin deconstructs the genre makes it clear that Jeremy Saulnier is a fan as well. It asks the question of what happens when your protagonist bent on revenge lacks the functional skill he needs to get the job done. Saulnier has a command for the material as he takes a common tale and brings an interesting new approach. Saulnier’s style is reminiscent of some of cinema’s biggest heavyweights including The Coen Brothers and Tarantino, and while it is hyperbolic to claim he is at that level—he at least is starting in the right direction.

3. Boyhood

Boyhood-cast

Director: Richard Linklater
Written By: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Synopsis: The life of a young man, Mason, from age 5 to age 18.

Quick Take: When people talk about Boyhood the first thing that is always mentioned is how it was made. Taking twelve years to make one movie is quite the feat. Some could argue it is nothing more than a gimmick that people are over blowing. I understand that mindset, but personally you can take that aspect away completely and it does not impact my feelings towards the movie. It is the genuine way it approaches life and all its facets that makes me adore it the way I do. How our memory is not a highlight of our biggest moments. It is a hodgepodge of random incidents that we remember for reasons we do not even know. We have all had the opportunity to experience one childhood. Now we have two. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is more that an unprecedented achievement it is filmmaking at its best—simple, powerful, and poignant.

2. Under the Skin

under_the_skin_Johansson

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Written By: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay

Synopsis: A mysterious woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. Events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery.

Quick Take: If you are a fan of GCRN you may know that no movie this year has caused more debate than this one. Not surprising as it is the type of polarizing movie that will delight some and infuriate others. For me I was transfixed by Under the Skin’s artistic beauty, like its slow methodical camera that crawled along like a stalking predator on unexpected pray. The abstract format was used to say a great deal about everything from gender roles, body image, and the way we celebrate celebrity. The striking imagery is matched perfectly with a gripping score by Mica Levi. It adds a horrific element and menacing tone. At times the constant change of pitch and echoing sound bring you into an uncomfortable dreamlike state. Right when you feel the need for a reprieve the music softens to a harmonic melody. Under the Skin will have some claiming it is cinematic masterpiece and have others shouting audible boos before the final credits hit.

1. Starred Up

starred-up-jack

Director: David Mackenzie
Written By: Jonathan Asser
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend

Synopsis: A troubled and explosively violent teenager is transferred to adult prison where he finally meets his match – a man who also happens to be his father.

Quick Take: Well it all comes down to this. My favorite film of the year. It was quite the hard choice to make as my top 3 are all so very close to one another. I ended up going with Starred Up for one main reason. It has everything I look for in a great film. Staring with fantastic performances by Jack O’Connel and Ben Mendelsohn. Both had a fierce energy that was impossible to cage. Michael McDonough’s camera work utilizes the space to give it an oppressive atmosphere where escape is impossible. Screenwriter Jonathan Asser crafts a script seeping an authenticity, and it is clear his past experience working in the prison system went a long way in ensuring Starred Up depicted this forgotten world in a realistic fashion. Director David Mackenzie help create some of the most intense scenes of the entire year, and they are simply depictions of men in a barren room having some veracious arguments. Lastly it is a movie that actually has something to say. It never tries to indicate the people stuck in the prison system do not belong, instead it is about discovering what should be done once they arrive. When I considered all those factors I had no choice but to name it my film of the year…for now at least.

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