We are now halfway through the calendar year and with that mile marker I strive to address and rank the best films I have seen (thus far). Addressing is much easier than ranking. As I am based in Los Angeles, I refer to “2014 films” as those that have received an initial theatrical release in the United States since January 1, 2014. There is no agreeable way to make the distinction, so I have decided upon one that is easy enough to track.
As with any grouping of films there is bound to be some patterns: thematic, generic or otherwise. All of my picks feature characters that are struggling for survival, whether it be against a train car full of men with sharpened weapons or the peer pressure a teen faces on a daily basis. They also speak to what it means to be alive and what sacrifices we will endure to maintain that vitality. I suppose I am partial to films that deal with mortality, morality and the complexities within us that blur them into a perfect shade of grey.
After revealing my “10 Best Films of the Year (Thus Far)” I will list a dozen honorable mentions and fess up another dozen released films that I have not seen, yet could imagine their contention for a spot on the list. No list is complete without such acknowledgements.
One final note, I am excluding documentaries from the following three lists. I have only seen a handful so far this year and prefer to keep them in their own corral, they are a species of their own after all. If anything, it gives me a chance to spotlight even more films. Look for my list of the best documentaries of 2014 around the year’s end.
With all that jabber out of the way, let me tell you about 10 incredible movies I have seen this year:
Ida is the story of a nun who learns she is a Jew and spends a few formative days outside the convent with her rather un-nun-like aunt. Even though the rubble of WWII has mostly been cleared, the estranged family have some unfinished business to uncover. This is among the most visually stunning films of the year at a 4:3 aspect ratio and photographed in black-and-white; Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal aim the lens high as if they expect the women to rise up to the ceiling at any moment. Agata Trzebuchowska plays the novitiate nun. This is her first acting credit and that fact is astonishing.
Tom Hardy’s one-man in real-time show needs to be seen to be believed, understood and appreciated. It entirely follows a construction manager cruising down a London freeway while on the cell phone and yet it is one of the most intense narratives I’ve experienced all year.
Chris Evans leads a lower-class revolution against the powers that keep them in bondage… all aboard the titular train, a vessel bearing the last of humanity. Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho brings his toolbox of talents and traits to his first joint production with the United States. The result is a visually-striking, exhilarating and darkly comical ride I wish I was still aboard.
When a history professor spots his double in a film he sets out on a course to make contact. Jake Gyllenhaal mystifies with dual roles in Enemy, a film that begins with a definition of chaos. On my second viewing I attempted making sense and order of the proceedings. On my first viewing I was terrified to my core. The soundtrack repeatedly warns the audience before taking our hand down a dark hallway. Its atmosphere will engulf you and once inside you can unravel lessons from its patterned web of paranoia.
6. How to Train Your Dragon 2
I have seen more improved sequels this year than any other in memory and I could not do them justice if I were to forget the most programmed among them. How to Train Your Dragon 2 commences as expected and takes countless familiar steps in the “hero’s journey” rulebook, but something odd happens the moment we take flight with Hiccup and Toothless: It’s the euphoric thrill of visual storytelling and the roots of well-rounded characters that scoop us out of our seats and onto the wings of a dragon! It’s why this film (more than say a very clever certain other animated film this year) makes my list. With this outing, DreamWorks Animation has officially become the first American studio to look forward to in my book. John Powell brings the original’s theme to all new heights with an incorporated vocal work that adds to the rich world before our eyes. Catch it in theaters while you still can and treat yourself to the 3D.
5. Under the Skin
What better way to explore what it truly means to be human than to put us in a car with an alien seductress preying on the mountain men of Scotland? Scarlett Johansson is our driver and the film’s array of candid cameras observes her interacting with performers and “real people” alike. It’s a brave and baring role for the Hollywood starlet but the casting choice could not be more telling. We’re her final passengers for a journey behind the stars and underneath the surface of what we so often judge others by.
4. The Immigrant
James Gray delivers his grandest film to date in the form of this softly-lit and glossily-glazed immigrant story, circa 1920s New York. Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix (the latter a Gray regular) turn in incredible lead performances that keep them amidst the best of their respective generations. When all is said and done, The Immigrant feels like a natural title to list in the same breath as The Godfather: Part II and Once Upon a Time in America. This is the latest American classic.
3. The Raid 2
Gareth Evans held the attention of action junkies around the world after 2012’s The Raid. The spotlight and pressure was on for its sequel (picking right up from where the first film left us) and the returning team has delivered in the most astounding way possible. Martial actors Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian return with a whole new set of moves and a host of new faces in tow. The Raid 2 is an uncompromisingly violent spectacle: one moment we’re in the grindhouse, the next in an arthouse. The mere fact that it can make the first film, “one of the greatest action movies ever made,” feel like the pre-season should only begin to speak to its feats of filmmaking.
Richard Linklater (a writer/director who has managed to stay true to independent cinema over the decades) has finally unveiled his most ambitious project to date. Filmed over 12 consecutive years, it follows Mason (and essentially observes actor Ellar Coltrane) as our discoverer through adolescence. Despite the title this film also captures and displays girlhood and parenthood. Since the very first edit in film, this medium has been able to manipulate time, but what we have here is a bottling of something so precious and rare that I pity any who do not partake. They’re missing out on life.
1. The Rover
Blockbusters continue to showcase the end of the world and the dystopias that form in their wake while The Rover (set ten years after “the collapse”) actually realizes the disrepair. It’s The Road by way of the The Proposition; the Australian Outback has never felt more capable of being humanity’s final scene. The fragility of living and finality of death is explored until the film’s final heartbreaking measures. Guy Pearce is at the top of his game. Robert Pattinson is a revelation. David Michôd (in his sophomore directorial effort after Animal Kingdom) is the hardest filmmaker to emerge since Steve McQueen.
12 Honorable Mentions:
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Grand Budapest Hotel
A Field in England
Like Father, Like Son
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Muppets Most Wanted
X-Men: Days of Future Past
12 I Still Need to See:
Cold in July
The Dance of Reality
The Fault in Our Stars
Norte, the End of History
Stranger By the Lake
They Came Together
Venus in Fur
We Are the Best!
What do you feel are the best films of 2014 (thus far)? Share your list or thoughts on any of my picks in the comments below.