Top 10 Movies of 2014

As with last year, I offer a caveat about living in Japan, and the accompanying logistical struggles with movie release dates and accessibility (especially vis-a-vis foreign films). I did get to most of the critically-acclaimed selections, including Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Love is Strange, Nightcrawler, Snowpiercer, and Whiplash – none of which made my list. But I’ve seen about half the movies I would in a normal calendar year.

Apologies to The Skeleton Twins, Godzilla, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the final cuts. Notably, there will be no “most hated movie(s)” this year, as I didn’t find anything egregiously offensive (well, Maleficent comes closest). Onward:

1. A Most Wanted Man

The scope of A Most Wanted Man is tight, focused: on a Chechen refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin), his idealistic lawyer (Rachel McAdams), and the operation that ensnares them both, headed by a German intelligence operative (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The story unfolds naturally, without feeling the need to explain everything. Characters too keep their cards close to the vest, for varied reasons. The result is natural ambiguity, mystery, tension. As every nook and cranny of the operation unfolds, layers of story and characterization are revealed, slowly. It’s a riveting burn.

A Most Wanted Man is a spy thriller with the audacity to breathe. It lingers on characters, on moments. Hoffman delivers the standout performance in his final leading role, but all of the main characters are remarkably fully-realized, nuanced. Likewise, the movie effectively depicts the complexities of the post-9/11 world. There’s no flash to the story, no fireworks. Yet the climax provides as strong a jolt as any, seamlessly weaving together the varied threads on bureaucratic frustration, ideological warfare, personal psychologies. The end is devastating. A Most Wanted Man is my favorite movie of the year.

2. Birdman

Birdman is built on a simple gimmick: the movie is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu as one long, continuous scene. So the camera lingers in a room for a scene, for dialogue. It follows a character down the hallway, onto the next scene. It shifts to the secondary character in that scene, follows them to their next interaction. Sometimes it stops for a breather, pausing before picking a character up. And so on. It’s a complete gimmick. Yet, it’s a gimmick that makes total sense for the story. It’s a gimmick that adds to the atmosphere, builds tension, reinforces pace. It’s a gimmick executed to perfection.

It’s the final days before the opening of a Broadway play written by, directed by, and starring has-been actor Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton), best known for playing the eponymous comic-book superhero. He deals with a demanding method actor (Edward Norton), with a poor response to preview showings, and most of all – with crippling self-doubt. The direction underlines all of this, adds to it: everything feels hurried, claustrophobic, overwhelming. It serves the story, which reflects reality enough to gain intrigue, even a bit of insight. You’ve never seen anything like Birdman. You probably never will again.

3. Interstellar

I expected Interstellar to be entertaining, joyful, visually spectacular. It’s a Christopher Nolan movie after all. But I didn’t expect it to be as smart and ambitious and risky as it is. That includes its setting, as the movie takes place matter-of-factly in a post-apocalyptic world as grounded in reality as any ever depicted. That includes its plot, as the story lays out theories about black holes and wormholes, fourth and fifth dimensions, neighboring galaxies and so forth. And that includes its characters, who remain all too human – moral and ethical shortcomings and all – even as, or because, the survival of the species hangs in the balance.

It is to Nolan’s credit that the movie manages to be as compelling as it is despite the immensity of its scope. Yes, the big stuff works, but so do all the little moments. The climax in fact expertly crafts tension in parallel between events on Earth and events in space; it only works as well as it does because of the character development that has taken place previously. Everyone is fantastic in it – McConaughey, Hathaway, Caine, Chastain, kid Murph. And bonus: there’s a hilarious robot that steals every scene it’s in (“Plenty of slaves for my robot colony.”). Interstellar is why we go to the movies.

4. John Wick

There’s about 20 minutes of setup in John Wick. It’s surprisingly effective, in part because it plays out as a straightforward drama, doing little beyond convey the current circumstances of the title character’s life. In fact, it’s not until the final part of that first act – after Wick (Keanu Reeves) has been attacked, his car stolen, his dog killed – that the movie hints at what is to come. A chop shop owner wants no part of the Mustang when he realizes it belongs to Wick; a Russian mob boss berates his son for committing the crime. “It’s not what you did, son. It’s who you did it to.” Wick is a man to be reckoned with.

The rest of the movie is a crescendo of violence. Wick goes Death Wish on everybody in some of the most inventive action scenes in recent memory. It’s short-range gunplay (“gun fu”) taken to the extreme, and it’s spectacular to watch. There are enough minor plot twists and characters to keep the intrigue going, but John Wick echoes the narrative simplicity of the better action movies in years past – in particular The Raid: Redemption (2011) and Dredd (2012)*. In a year filled with simmer (e.g. half of this list), Wick provides welcome explosive violence.

*Those two are basically the same movie. In contrast, The Raid 2: Berendai (2014) is a convoluted mess.

5. A Most Violent Year

“My husband is an honorable man,” Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) tells the assistant district attorney (David Oyewelo). “We’re not who you think we are.” The thing is, she’s not lying. A Most Violent Year follows Abel Morales, a good man (Oscar Isaac), as he tries to protect and expand his oil business in the face of trying circumstances, tries to maintain his values in an industry rife with crime and corruption, in a world that is anything but honorable. The result is an atmospheric drama pervaded by a remarkable tension, and a rather unexpected take on the gangster film.

From the outside, and from the perspective of a driver under his employ (Elyes Gabel), Abel looks like he has everything. But he is a man who knows the hard work that has gotten him to this point, and recognizes the fragility of his world. What makes A Most Violent Year stir is that Abel is not written nor depicted as a saint. This is a movie about a man trying to stay composed, simmering in the face of injustice, dealing with pressure from all sides (including his wife, ready to call upon her shady familial connections). Isaac and Chastain are extraordinary. This is a compelling, intense movie about an honorable man.

6. What We Do in the Shadows

A mockumentary about four vampires living together in contemporary Wellington could easily have been a one-trick pony. But What We Do in the Shadows is surprisingly layered. Its treatment of vampire mythology is particularly impressive, but it delves also into the nature of friendship and generational gaps and banal roommate issues, all to great comedic effect. That it is loosely structured around the introduction of a new vampire – with accompanying time jumps – gives the movie some semblance of a three-act structure, making it feel less like a series of vignettes. The dynamic between the four main characters – all dorks in their own ways – rings true. Meanwhile, supporting characters are deployed with great effectiveness: a groupie desperate for immortality, the newly-turned vampire too cool for school, and his buddy, a bland but really pleasant IT guy. Their interactions are hysterical. Hell, the entire movie is.

7. Foxcatcher

Much of Foxcatcher takes place at a Pennsylvanian farm. The setting is not insignificant: the cold and mist adds to the dark vision of director Bennett Miller, while its isolation underscores the rabbit hole the characters have fallen into. The story centers on a team in constant training for competitions only briefly depicted: again, there’s a definite effect: the training is perpetual, the goal (“to be the best in the world”) unending. The overall feel is slow, methodical – even flirting with dull. The result is that the characters are pushed to the forefront. Foxcatcher is ultimately about relationships, about loneliness and love, legacy and ambition, masculinity, insecurity. As billionaire sponsor John du Pont, Steve Carell has the showiest role (and he’s excellent), but it is Channing Tatum who gives the haunting performance as the overlooked brother Mark Schultz that the entire movie rests upon.

8. Edge of Tomorrow

The conceit of Edge of Tomorrow is nothing new. We’ve seen Groundhog Day, heard about the overrated Source Code, vaguely remember that one X-Files episode… okay, so there’s a drop-off. But the war setting breathes new life into the familiar “protagonist reliving the same day” story. That Cage (Tom Cruise) begins the day both demoted and disliked adds an extra dimension to the proceedings. Ultimately though, what makes Edge of Tomorrow work is that it is incredibly well-written and directed and acted and edited. It’s repetitive but not tedious, much funnier than expected, with some sensational set pieces. The movie expands its vision and scope effectively through a slow roll-out of different parts of the day, through the fleshing out of supporting characters, through the extension of the battle and the unraveling of the master plan. And Tom Cruise carries it, as you expect Tom Cruise to. It’s a blast.

9. Selma

Selma is not a great movie, but it is an incredibly affecting one. It basically accomplishes what Lincoln (2012) set out to do, intertwining the story of a great man with a seminal moment in the country’s history. But whereas Lincoln felt tedious yet also superficial and inevitable, letting the myth overshadow the event, Selma builds and builds, culminating in a captivating finale sequence that features the three famed marches. The tension between King (David Oyewolo) and his conflicted wife (Carmen Ejogo) works well, but it is the lingering debate between King and local radical organizers, as well as other factions of the movement, that absolutely sparks. The supporting cast is well-rounded – with Oprah in two riveting scenes – though the sporadic dialogue with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is the the movie’s weak point, ineffectively caricaturing the give-and-take for the sake of having an extra obstacle.

10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The First Avenger is among the most overlooked superhero movies in recent memory. Other than the Red Skull just disappearing (thanks, The Avengers), it was just about perfect, feeling like a comic book from the 1940s come to life, with gorgeous visuals, a boisterous score, and characters who were simple and pure. It was a real throwback of a movie, one with a distinct personality. The Winter Soldier effortlessly casts the larger-than-life Cap (Chris Evans) into the modern world, with all the complications and nuances and moral dilemmas thereof. Remarkably, in bits and pieces (Cap’s visit to the museum, his yearning for old flame Peggy, the nature of the big bad), the movie captures the heart of the last movie, of the character really, even as Cap is at the center of a contemporary, action-packed spy thriller here. Part 2 doesn’t shoot as high as Part 1, or with as much imagination, but its execution is perfect.

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