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Rob's Top 10 Films of 2014

Thursday, January 01, 2015 Rob Samuelson

On August 1, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, and I was lucky enough to have been granted a venue here at Halfstack to review it, a tradition I have continued nearly every week since, and look forward to continuing well into the future, even if January and February look a little grim for new releases.

Anyway, back to the grand narrative. Guardians was the seventh movie with a 2014 release date I had seen to that point. From that point on, I knew I had some mad dashing to do if I were to have anything resembling a solid sample size from which to draw for the top 10 list I knew I would write for this here publication. So, in the last five months of the year, I have done little else in my free time but watch 2014 movies via trips to the theater where I now work (free admission is a really nice perk), lots of Netflix, and plenty of renting from iTunes. As of this writing, an hour and a half before 2015 begins – I sure love my procrastination – I am up to 59, with several more “expanding to wide release in January” films to come and yet more catching up on stuff in the limbo between theatrical release and home video. I am nothing if not obsessive about my routines once I get rolling.

I ramble on about this because I don't want to do a disservice to my readers. If I am to make reviewing films my career, I should do my homework, right? But I don't want to wait anymore on a top 10. January 1 is usually a time of looking ahead – and nursing a hangover – but I think we here at Halfstack should spend at least one more day reflecting on what a great year it was for cinema. The list will likely morph as I see more, but I want to celebrate my first year of doing regular film criticism with my first year-end best of. Thanks to the readers for doing their reading thing. Please keep coming back. And thanks to everyone at Halfstack, especially our wonderful editor, for letting me get all esoteric with you every week about the ins and outs of filmic storytelling. I'll have plenty more for you in 2015.

And now, here are my 10 favorite films released in 2014.

1. Whiplash
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

The interplay between Teller and Simmons is the best acting of the year for me. The editing, whether it's directly in time with the beat of the nearly impossible intricacies of the jazz being performed, or taking a step back to breathe and let us take in the strenuous art of coordinated creation, is as great as anything Thelma Schoonmaker has done with Martin Scorsese over the decades, as rich and precise as possible without being forceful or two on point. But it is debut writer-director Chazelle, whose semi-autobiographical tale of a jazz drummer at a prestigious New York music conservatory and his hard charging, maniacal (?) instructor and conductor, who plays with themes of perception and attribution and how point of view always clouds final judgement. Who's to say that Simmons' Fletcher isn't just a typical jerk teacher and Teller's Andrew, in his half-crazed, literally bloody quest for jazz immortality, doesn't make him out to be more than he really is? There is an instance of Fletcher being kind to a little girl and her father, a former student, seen by Andrew as he spies on his teacher in a hallway. One of Andrew's rivals for the first chair in the jazz band insists Fletcher's “bark is worse than his bite” and clearly sees him as relatively non-threatening. But for Andrew, he is an obstacle on the way to greatness, and he must get rid of obstacles, or at least improvise around them. Maybe Andrew's more of the bad guy than he would like to admit. And that question will drive me as I rewatch this film plenty more in coming years.

2. Foxcatcher
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

When I look back on my maturation as a film viewer in 2014, I will remember my embrace of what Film Crit Hulk – my college capstone subject – says about function almost always being more important than form. Things cannot just look pretty. There must be a reason for images, twists, characters doing the things they do, plots getting to where they need to go. It's a matter of respect the film has toward an audience. If the movie doesn't hold their hand and talk down to them, explaining itself at every step of the way – hello, early parts of The Imitation Game – it doesn't succeed fully. But Foxcatcher makes none of those mistakes. It deftly uses the visual medium of film to tell the story of these two brothers, both Olympic gold medal winners in wrestling, and the rich benefactor who makes it his goal, one at which he is laughably inept until he's scarily inept, to train the 1988 Olympic team at his estate in Pennsylvania. The faces, the body movements, the physical deformities of Tatum, Ruffalo, and Carell do more than any scene of exposition could. Bennett Miller is one of the most exciting directors around today, and I am frustrated he's not even attached to anything at the moment. This must change.

3. Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Mason (Coltrane) goes from age 6 to 18 in the course of this 12-years-in-the-making film from Dazed and Confused and the Before series' Richard Linklater. But that's just the gimmick that everyone tells you. It is the specific details of this family that reach out to universal recognition for the audience. The steady string of heavy drinking step dads and changing schools all the time may not be specific for everyone watching, but they can instantly recognize the effect profound change in routine can have on people, especially children. People come in and out of our lives far more often than we'd like to admit. We lose touch, move away, and rarely, if ever, think of them again. Boyhood gets that so, so right. Friends, girlfriends, those people you think in the moment are the people who mean the most, aren't. The family who make all kinds of mistakes but stick around in some respect are the ones worth holding onto. Ethan Hawke's arc of absentee dad to most mature male figure in Mason's life works as a parallel growing up, and Arquette's move from directionless mother of two young kids to later-in-life college student, to life changing college professor shows the strength of a woman who can roll with the sometimes literal punches. It's a beautiful story of personal growth for many people, and it doesn't hurt that there's only a small age gap between Mason and me. As a similarly dreamy kid, mostly the same music and growing pains followed me, too, so I will admit to a healthy amount of nostalgic affection for this. But it works for me and I love it. I think you will, too.

4. The Guest
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Sheila Kelley, Maika Monroe

Dan Stevens will be a huge star in Hollywood. In The Guest, he is able to pull off flirtatious, big brother, dead eyed sociopath, drinking buddy, enforcer, keg-carrying party dude, and cold blooded killer atop an air of pure likeability. The Guest is an '80s throwback that asks Stevens to stay in the moment of 2014, with our anxieties about what we ask our warriors to do in our name, and what we do to them to get to the point of doing anything in our name. Stevens' “David” has a slight, faraway look in his eyes that says, “I don't want to be doing this, please don't make me do this,” that is particularly poignant in our time of coming to terms with what America has done to people in the war on terror. He's also hilarious, gregarious, and the right kind of affable to ingratiate himself in this small town painted in saturated reds, blues, and sandy tans by director Adam Wingard, following up his also great You're Next from 2013. Wingard goes for humor, action, and horror – it basically goes with the Halloween ending, but with a much funnier punchline. This is how you do low-budget genre stuff.

5. The Babadook
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall

Every time we hear a horror story on the news about parents who have lost their minds and done the unspeakable to their children and themselves, we are left thinking, “How could that happen?” The Babadook offers something of an answer, with a portrait of the deteriorating mind of a single mother brought to the edge by grief over a years-ago trauma manifesting itself every day by her nightmare child, always pushing, screaming, building weapons, destroying things, demanding attention when not deserving anything but punishment. This devolution brings her to a psychological (and metaphorical) breaking point with the entrance of a terrifying storybook, sharing the film's title, into their lives. The Babadook character is not some jump scare-generating machine, but rather a longterm, Jawsesque bit of impending doom that makes the audience wait for the worst. Writer-director Jennifer Kent's indebtedness to the German Expressionism of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang pays off stupendously with subjective camera movements – sinking from the ceiling to the bed, long nights elapsing in seconds, and a recurring nightmare of Essie Davis's trauma. Added to that is a sound design that incorporates the concept of white noise, but uses in place of the constant buzzing white noise you'd expect a dreadful, growing minor key tone that makes you nervous whenever a Babadook event is about to happen. Kent shows a mastery of the horror genre and the filmmaking techniques needed to properly make a scary movie, while getting to something deeper about parenthood and mental illness.

6. Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris

David Fincher makes a great, dark satire of relationships, cable news, and police procedurals here. It's trashy and pulpy, with characters making outlandish plans, having illicit affairs, donning disguises, and playing various factions off each other to get the best personal outcome. Both Affleck and Pike are disgusting, selfish human beings, and we are lucky to see them ruin each other because it's just so enthralling in that “it's funny when it happens to someone else” way. Pike gets the juicier role and runs away with it as one of the most humorously devious people to grace the screen in a long time. Seeing the wheels turn behind her eyes doesn't get old, and even in her expository moments she's gripping, with a wry sense of humor and contempt for humanity. But most importantly, the film itself doesn't have the same contempt. It looks at people with an “ain't they silly?” point of view that suggests perhaps some growth for the human race.

7. Snowpiercer
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writers: Bong Joon Ho, Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton

With a structure almost like a video game, with bosses at every level and an escalating narrative that leads to one big bad, Bong Joon Ho's first English-language film is a huge success. At every level, he utilizes different color schemes and fight choreography to explain the class differences between each car on the mythical train that houses the last of humanity after a climate change “solution” goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet. But it has more than just “stop polluting the planet” on its mind. Snowpiercer is about class conflict and the tensions between the haves and have nots. If the haves start using the have nots as nothing more than fuel and grunt work, there are problems. The have nots will not like that. They will resent it, in fact. Then some icky things happen. Chris Evans plays the leader of the icky things revolution, with a righteous earnestness different from his Captain America, this one more desperate and ready for the dirty work. He's also less deferential to authority than Cap, willing to toss out everything for a fresh start for the planet, a dangerous but ultimately hopeful gesture that is reminiscent of much revolutionary thinking from the French Revolution straight to those who were occupying Wall Street a few years ago.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace

When Chris Pratt's Star Lord was introduced with a dance sequence set to Redbone's “Come and Get Your Love,” I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. It's the most joyful sequence I saw this year. It's a celebration of everything Marvel Comics meant to me as a kid. I learned how to read because of these things and their ability to blend goofball humor with adventure. Guardians is a great distillation of what I love about blockbuster filmmaking. Each character is hilarious in different ways. Star Lord is quippy and immature but his good heart is enough to make everyone know in their bones this character will be taken seriously as a hero by the end. Groot's catchphrase means literally anything, which is inherently silly. Drax's inability as an alien to understand nuance makes for the best jokes of the movie. It's a modern Ghostbusters in that way, while adhering to the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe's plan. It's not bulletproof – it drops the ball with unnecessary sequel hinting moments and Lee Pace's Ronan is another in a long line of fairly inconsequential villains – but it is a hangout movie where the central characters become your friends. Much like Dazed and Confused, I will return to it a couple times a year to see my buddies.

9. Obvious Child
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Writer: Gillian Robespierre, Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm
Starring: Jenny Slate, Paul Briganti, Gaby Hoffmann

This is a cinematic depiction of grace. Director Gillian Robespierre takes a gentle approach to a sensitive subject – Jenny Slate's Donna decides to get an abortion following a one night stand – that never forgets the multifaceted nature of growing up. Slate is unsure and confident, selfish and selfless, ashamed and proud, quick witted and unable to say the right thing. She is a real person, essentially. She fails but keeps going because what else is she going to do? She's hilarious and moving in doing so, and so is the film as a whole. There are fart jokes and subtly elegant shots of Donna during the procedure that capture the difficulties of the situation. Robespierre has a Woody Allenesque style, with unflashy, long takes that allow the actors to bounce off each other and grow together. It's a phenomenal feature debut for her, and I can't wait for more.

10. The Immigrant
Director: James Gray
Writer: James Gray, Ric Menello
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner

With a purposeful use of warm sepia tones, the ones that typically suggest nostalgia, director James Gray shows some of the most disturbing practices of the New York underbelly at the turn of the 20th century. Marion Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant making her way to Ellis Island with her sick sister hoping to live with their aunt and uncle and find a better life for themselves. That's not how things go, unfortunately. Her sister gets quarantined and Cotillard detained until Joaquin Phoenix's boarding house owner/burlesque showrunner/pimp pays off the guards to bring her into his sordid world. He treats her like garbage, as you might expect for someone of his background, but he continually tries to make her something of a wife for him. He loves her in a disastrous, gross way that doesn't respect her, but his magician cousin (Renner) shows her some kindness, although he's unlikely to be reliable in the long run either. Where the film becomes special, though, is in the end, when it shows a peculiar form of redemption for a bastard of a character. In doing so, it shows how even the worst, most selfish human beings are capable of moments of kindness and sacrifice.

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