Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 10 of 2014

As an avid movie watcher it is important to reflect on the year. What I've seen. What I liked and disliked. Keeping a running tally of what I'm watching as the year moves on week by week and month by month brings me pleasure. Logging not only what I've seen, but what stood out to me. By the end of the year I generally have a substantial list of standout films that will be narrowed down into a Top 20. This is a process I've done annually since before starting my site in 2008. This is a practice that I intend to continue until the day I die. Not because ranking movies is important, but more so because it allows me a chance to reflect on what called to me over a year. Trends that were noticed. A chance to think about why a particular film spoke to me. What's the value I found in it? These lists are an easy conversation starter along with being a gauge on my taste(s) as an omnivorous movie watcher. Below you'll find my Top 10 of 2014. Enjoy!

We all have our own rules or qualifications for a year-end list and mine are pretty simple, a film must have had a limited release in New York and Los Angeles for consideration. Yes, this qualification leaves out films only having runs at film festivals or foreign titles that have yet to find U.S. distribution within the calendar year. At the time of posting this article I have watched 335 movies in 2014, 140 of which are eligible to be included in this list by the qualifications listed above.

Honorable Mentions: The Missing Picture, The Rover, The Guest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Gone Girl

10. The Lunchbox
"The Lunchbox" is a crowd pleaser that reminds us all how vital communication is in our lives. Writer and director Ritesh Batra does an excellent job weaving a film that houses an entire cast of full characters with engaging interactions. Interactions that are infectious. Interactions that the audience will want to see more of. It helps that the lead role of Saajan is played by Irrfan Khan, who is always magnetic on screen. Khan's co-stars all deliver well-rounded portrayals that leave the audience wanting the best of each them. The drama has a very alluring nature to both its plot, its characters, and the food being created and consumed throughout. About the food, The Lunchbox hammers home a real passion for food, how good food can affect our lives. Food and the quality of it, has a rejuvenating aspect and this film displays that in beautiful fashion. Not just in the food on display, but more importantly through its main characters. I'll be damned if you don't finish this film and want to eat Indian cuisine immediately or at the very least, eat your own personal comfort food. Like a great restaurant or meal, The Lunchbox is the type of film you'll want to share with others. Like a great story or conversation, it is the type of movie that you will want watch again and again. It is a film about friendship. It is a film about rejuvenation. It is a film about finding pride in our own lives. It is a film about fulfillment. Most of all, it is a film that leaves the audience perfectly satisfied.

09. Obvious Child
The probability of myself having a romantic comedy on my year end Top 10 list is pretty low. It is a genre that I am all too picky about. Romantic comedies tend to be cut and paste stories. Routine and uniform with different faces. "Obvious Child" is instead a fresh and endearing entry to the genre. Something to get excited and tell your friends about. This is a comedy that holds appreciation in its voice. A voice we don't hear from often enough. A female voice. Not a female voice written by a man, but a female. We all know it shows. Why, because it feels genuine and usually has a perspective unmined thoroughly in cinema. It is refreshing to see a female voice hit all the right strides, especially when it is one who doesn't hold back like writer and director Gillian Robespierre. Robespierre is untamed taking the audience from moments of laugh-out-laughter to moments that could find you in tears. There's embraceable value in Obvious Child. It brazenly confronts the realities of unplanned pregnancy and abortion. It is an unconcealed portrayal of an independent woman and I love it. Parts of the story and actions are audacious and unguarded but there's real power in expressing those honest emotions. Actress and comedian Jenny Slate is perfect in the role of Donna. She hysterical and brutally honest. It is theatre that is hard to tell the acting from reality. As if Slate is channeling her own experiences or experiences of friends. It is a natural energy that no man could have ever reached in writing nor in theatrics. Simply put it is candid and convincing portrayal but more so magnetic. A performance that deserves notoriety and acclaims.

08. Locke
Plainly describing "Locke" won't do Steven Knight's breathtaking thriller any justice. It is about a man driving on the highway taking phone calls. See, sounds like a snooze, right? The art of a contained thriller has always intrigued me. How long can a story effectively hold tension in a single contained environment? Few are truly successful at it. Most stories need a second or third location to hold the suspense and tension, Locke however does not. The thriller stays in one location the entire film, inside a BMW. Stunningly, the 85 minute drama holds tension like a mother clinging to her newborn child. It is a white knuckle thrill ride where the lead is driving the speed limit. Tom Hardy delivers a solemn portrayal as Ivan Locke. A businessman bound between a variety of important events, each with their own severity. Knight's powerhouse excels at placing the audience in the middle of empathetic situations. Situations audiences will jolt at but also lean in with interest. Watching Locke conduct and weave through the tasks from the seat of his SUV is a kind of consequential storytelling I didn't expect and must applaud. There are moments in this film where I held my breath worried about an outcome. This is all through the power of dialogue and performance. All that is happening on screen is Ivan Locke talking on speakerphone while driving on the interstate. Locke is an remarkable thrill ride that is not to be missed. Plus a quick lesson on how to build and hold on to suspense and tension in a film.

07. Wild
"Wild" is a sobering adventure of will and spirit that spoke to me on a personal level. From firsthand experience, finding our best isn't easy, however the journey getting there is most certainly worth it. The biographical drama focuses on Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hiked more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. The trek was a planned effort by Cheryl to rescue herself after a downward spiral of drug abuse, adultery, and divorce that followed the death of her mother. Personal and emotional setbacks can be a massive detriment to people and their psyche. They can set people on a nasty path of destruction. A path that sees themselves surrounded by a sea of negativity. Worse yet, drowning over suffering. Wisely Wild doesn't doesn't focus on the negativity in Strayed's life that put her on this 1,100 mile hike. It uses flashbacks that invade her thoughts along her journey motivating and pushing her onward towards her better self. Much like a few other titles in my Top 10, personal redemption fuels this film in a invigorating way. As a California native, on-and-off again hiker, and nature enthusiast I adored watching the cinematography of the Pacific coastline. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger captures some absolutely breathtaking views within the 115 minute drama that deserved to be seen in large format. Reese Witherspoon delivers my favorite performance of her career. Witherspoon is exposed as Cheryl Strayed. The portrayal is raw, though that doesn't take away from the strength and commitment that also rings through in tremendous fashion, because Wild is incredibly empowering. Always nice to have a female driven film with approachable qualities for both men and women alike. This is a story that people need to hear and see.

06. Chef
Much like an onion, "Chef" has a lot of layers to enjoy. First, the food. Everything consumed on screen has your mouth watering and wishing you were eating it right along side the cast. Second, a redemption story. Jon Favreau plays Carl, an executive chef who loses his job over creative differences with the restaurant's owner. Able to now focus on the cuisine he is enthusiastic about, Carl starts a food truck business which in turn brings back the passionate chef he once was. Redemption stories are often sappy and while this film provides ample heartfelt vibes, it never smothers. Third, the father and son relationship. Chef does an excellent job illustrating avid parenting. Writer and director Jon Favreau could have easily played the strained relationship between a father and his son syrupy, instead he effectively uses work ethic to rebuild a bond with his son. That brings us to the fourth layer, work ethic. Favreau did his home work with this film and it shows. There's a work ethic that is on display at every angle. Behind the camera and on screen. Carl teaches his son work ethic throughout while also willfully displaying his own. There's an appreciative tenacity to Favreau's character Carl that warmed me over much like the Cuban sandwiches made repeatedly in the drama. Fifth, technology. Jon Favreau is no stranger to social media and he does an accurate job of incorporating the pitfalls and blessings that come with social media. I couldn't get enough of Carl learning that his Twitter conversation with an online food critic was public along with how seamlessly Favreau edited them into the story's structure and payoff. There are other layers I could peel back, but most of all I want to highlight how much Chef is about good people. Carl is a good man who is teaching his son how to grow into a good man himself. A well told movie about a father who is a good role model for his son is not a bad thing and frankly we need more heart-warming stories like this one on a regular basis.

05. The Babadook
Are you sick of Hollywood's ongoing fascination with ghost stories? "The Babadook" is exactly what you need. The exceptional Australian tale fiddles with current horror trends and elevates itself above the crowd. It houses all the usual tropes to make audiences feel initially comfortable. A family. An old house with creaky hardwood floors. An insuppressible ghost story. Let's not forget a paranormal entity to haunt them. The Babadook then takes those tropes and renovates each into something better than comfort, discussion and admiration. Let's start with the book. First time director Jennifer Kent takes the idea of having a ghost story and turns it into a pop-up book, literally. In the movie, the pop-up book appears on the shelf and Samuel suggests his mother reads it to him before bed. The pair quickly figure out the book is a conjuring to someone named Mister Babadook. As Ameila reads Mister Babadook to her son, fear sets in. Not only on both Samuel and Amelia, but also the audience. The Mister Babadook book used in film is jaw-dropping impressive. The fear of the Babadook is clear cut. Once he manifests his presence is unavoidable. Like the tagline says, if it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of ... the Babadook. Kent does an able job here teasing and toying with the audience before revealing the tale's true intentions. Essie Davis delivers a paralyzing performance as Amelia, the single mother plagued by the death of her husband. Davis brings a bewildered energy to Amelia that allows the audience to fluently second guess the events unfolding. She is both motherly and inimical. Newcomer Noah Wiseman is adorable as Samuel. Wiseman possesses an instinctive quality in the performance. One where he seems to balance between both bravery and terror with the greatest of ease. Director Jennifer Kent quickly becomes someone to watch after such a potent debut. She is exactly what horror needs from time to time. Someone who comes along and shakes things up with an insightful approach to recycled idea that has become far too trendy.

04. The One I Love
"The One I Love" is the hardest film on my list to talk about freely. What I mean is, it is a movie better talked about after someone has seen it. Once people have seen it, not talking about it is the hard part. There in lies the dilemma, how do you create interest without giving a fair description or without giving away too much? My best answer is to say it is one of the most deceptively simply, yet endlessly complicated movies I have ever seen. Intrigued? I surely hope so, because it is fascinating.

03. Whiplash
First viewing of "Whiplash" I shrugged it off. Came across as nothing more than a heavy handed tale about an educator who pushes too hard on his talented students. Like the cutthroat music teacher, it is an abrasive drama that leaves little room for condolences or pats on the back. Then I watched again and discovered the incredible work ethic on display in writer and director Damien Chazelle's film. In the first viewing, an easy excuse to work ethic was a cheap generalization. Saying something to the effect of, everyone knows that a career as a studio musician is agonizing. Again, the second viewing gave me a much clearer perspective on the film. A more appreciative perspective of the tale if you will. Andrew, fiercely portrayed by Miles Teller, puts himself through the continual excruciating training regiment because he is driven to greatness. He knows he's talented. He's been accepted into the best music school in the United States. He wants to refine, improve, and challenge himself to become like the greats he idolizes. A catalyst for Andrew is an infamous Shaffer Conservatory conductor Terence Fletcher who stimulates the young musician to demand the highest from himself. Fletcher is nasty. He's despicable but he's also respectable. Chazelle's script makes Fletcher easy to sneer at and demonize, yet his intentions to push for a musician's best potential is clear. Leaving plenty room for an argument of how important Fletcher is as an educator. J. K. Simmons is frighteningly confrontational as Terence Fletcher. He knows exactly how to tear someone down and build them right back up again. While the performances are electric so too is the music on display throughout Whiplash. The three main arrangements Whiplash, Caravan, and Upswingin are used effectively so that the music doesn't become routine and leaves you walking out humming. Like most of the other titles on this list, Whiplash is a conversation starter. It is a film that will have people talking about a variety of issues and that stimulation is important to us in our art.

02. Nightcrawler
"Nightcrawler" is a terrifying economic horror built around the values of capitalism Americans hold dear. The idea that a person can start from nothing set high goals and through persistence and hard work they can make themselves into a millionaire. The focus of "Nightcrawler" is Lou Bloom. A desperate man motivated to make something of himself. Bloom says early on in the story, "If you want to win the lottery, who have to be willing to work hard for the money to buy a ticket." From the first frame of the thriller Lou's motivation is apparent. He's like a mad dog behind a fence. Waiting for the next person to bark at walking by, only Bloom sees each person walking by as potential profit. Bloom quickly stumbles into the world of L.A. crime journalism. A fast-paced dangerous group of freelance camera crews who scan the streets of southern California for the most provocative stories and graphic images. A nocturnal bunch who convert victims from ambulance and police sirens into dollars and cents. The combination of Lou Bloom's desperation matched with the dangerous realm of nightcrawling are setup for what becomes one of the realest horror movies this year. This is the kind of horror that is happening on a regular basis, not some maniac killer on the loose or a paranormal ghost haunting families in old houses. Don't believe me, just turn on the nightly news and watch all the stories focusing in on crime, accidents, fires, etc. Remember, incidents that involve violence or death sell the best. Armed with a vehicle, a police scanner, and a camcorder Bloom sets out to make something of himself in the world of nightcrawling. The actions Bloom is willing to take in order to get ahead are what give this film its more terrifying nature. This is magnified by Jake Gyllenhaal's maniacal performance as Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal has an energy I haven't seen since his wide-eyed enthusiasm in "Bubble Boy." While the roles are completely opposite, they both require a charged performance to truly bring about the values of the character. Gyllenhaal delivers the best male performance of the year as Lou Bloom. It is unforgettable. Nightcrawler isn't just a terrifying horror, it is a beautiful portrait of nocturnal Los Angeles. The cinematography of the moonlight streets in L.A. is hair-raising. Add James Newton Howard's standout score and you should understand why Nightcrawler is such a notable film.

01. Selma
Docu-dramas usually are things I get real excited for. Movies that tell pieces of history for others to see and share. "Selma" is a historical drama or biographical film unlike any other. It is a powerful film with the right approach to telling a very important American story. This is a film I can't wait for everyone to see and talk about. Being a film surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. one would expect that this is a movie about him, when in fact it isn't. It is about the pivotal role Dr. King played in the Selma marches pushing towards the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is a confrontational movie. A movie illustrating the monumental and difficult actions Americans working towards fundamental rights had to take in order to gain those basic guaranteed rights protected by our Constitution. It is uplifting and agonizing. It is a film that feels as prevalent now as it would have 50 years ago. It is a no punches pulled testimony of the continued fight that went into repairing the damage caused by slavery, reconstruction, and segregation. David Oyelowo channels Martin Luther King Jr. in a truly remarkable way. He's nuanced and comes at the role from a very humbling portrayal. Not as stoic and heroic as history books make him, more like an actor who didn't know he was being filmed, there's honesty on display. Director Ava DuVernay's eye is a big part of what makes Selma a masterpiece. She wisely explores more than what Martin Luther King Jr. did, she explores the whole picture. This leaves issues for audiences to ponder. Questions of what we have left to accomplish truly realizing the principles of the American Constitution. The film is precise in not only giving a meaningful history lesson but placing a sense of duty and importance of continued political action on its audience. Clearly with race issues coming to the surface around this great nation, the battle isn't over.

That's a wrap on 2014. Thanks for reading and feel free to share your own Top 10 of 2014 in the comment section.