The most heartbreaking feeling in the world is to make an end of year “best of” list. I say this every year and I’ll say it again: this was a great year for movies! I liked almost everything I saw, and I saw a lot. Still, what’s a list without limits? If I must pick only ten, so be it. I have two caveats. First, I reserve the right to leave room for Inherent Vice, which hasn’t yet had a local release. Paul Thomas Anderson forever. Secondly, this list is a list of MY favorites. This is entirely subjective, based solely on my own personal enjoyment, so I don’t wanna hear any guff, snobs!
10 – Interstellar
No matter what your feelings are for Interstellar, we should all be thanking Chris Nolan for fighting to keep brains in blockbusters, and doing so in a massive format. Nolan pissed off more than a few people to have his vision committed to 70mm IMAX film, and it paid off in droves. Film preservation is important, and Nolan leads the fight.
From Hans Zimmer’s modern take on “space opera” music to the CG-enhanced practical effects, to McConaughey’s leading man performance ripped straight from another era of Hollywood; they just don’t make them like this anymore. Except now they do.
9 – Whiplash
Whiplash is not a nice movie. Our leads are both villainous, and deliciously so. This isn’t a story about success or character growth. No, this is a story about two obsessives who will not settle for anything less than perfection, and will destroy (sometimes literally) anything that threatens their quest. It’s a mean spirited film with urgent, slick-but-ugly editing. And those drumming sequences! I was bubbling over in my seat watching this film, and it has stuck with me ever since. If you don’t leave the theater buzzing with some kind of emotion, you might be a robot.
8 – Boyhood
The fact that Linklater was able to keep a rather large cast for 12 years without someone quitting or dying is enough to earn this impossible-on-paper film a spot on my list. Not only did Linklater and company manage to effectively capture over a decade of story in sorta real time, but he put it together in a way that makes it so much more than a gimmick film. I left this theater wondering what the next twelve years would hold for me, and feeling inspired to make them great. Patricia Arquette is pure magic in this role. You want a strong female character? This is 2014’s finest. Boyhood proves that life is cinematic by nature, no matter how insignificant your movie may seem.
7 – Snowpiercer
So rare is it for a foreign director to make their American debut and not be hacked to pieces by a producer. Joon-Ho Bong successfully created a very distinct vision based on a manga of the same name. Chris Evans gives what some are calling a career best performance, while Tilda Swinton disappears further into a role than even she has ever done before. The social commentary is explicit without being preachy or obtuse, and the action is balls-to-the-wall fantastic. Snowpiercer is the Terry Gilliam movie that he has spent years trying desperately to make, only Gilliam didn’t make it.
6 – Under the Skin
I knew this movie was going to be on my year-end list about two weeks after I saw it. Upon first exiting the theater I knew I liked it, but it wasn’t until it had time to brew that I realized how effective Under the Skin was. The experience of watching this movie awakened a primal fear I never knew I had. I felt like prey. This movie could easily have been the “ScarJo gets naked” movie, but it wasn’t that at all. Her nudity is barely even an afterthought, and that’s a testament to the power of this movie. It made me question my nature. Sometimes, when I’m alone in my room, I’ll simply think of a single sound or image from Under the Skin and become momentarily paralyzed with fear. It’s that good.
5 – Locke
We’ve all witnessed a star being born in Tom Hardy. A decade ago this guy was a character actor with no name and barely a face. Now he’s a growing box office draw. Locke proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Tom Hardy isn’t just a hunk (or a monster, per The Dark Knight Rises and Star Trek: Nemesis). An initial review of this movie stated that it “redefines what it means to be cinematic” and I couldn’t agree more. For a script that would have been just as effective as a one man play, the gloomy Michael Mann-esque tone justifies its filmic existence. Coolest movie of the year by far, Daddy-o.
4 – It Follows
A horror movie that’s actually scary? You don’t say! It Follows could be your typical teen scream, but instead becomes a story about innocence, trust, and personal responsibility. A sexually transmitted haunting is a truly novel concept, but it makes so much sense as a horror device I’m stunned this idea hasn’t been used already. It’s a small story with bigger implications, features a strong performance from a cast of unknowns, and is absolutely I’m-gonna-need-a-new-pair-of-pants scary. Great soundtrack too. Watch this one in a packed theater or alone in the dark. You will think about it for weeks. Keep an eye out for Maika Monroe. With standout lead roles in It Follows and The Guest, she is primed to become a star.
3 – Enemy
Jake Gyllenhaal put on three of my favorite performances of the year, and two of them are in this movie. Enemy isn’t just a simple thriller, although it plays like one. It’s isn’t some arthouse pap either, but it has that level of gravitas. It isn’t a sci-fi film about giant spiders, except that it totally is. The less you know, the better. This is a movie that requires repeat viewings — and holds up to scrutiny each and every time. Denis Villeneuve knows how to make a visually stunning film without being flashy. He also knows how to get a hugely inspired performance out of Gyllenhaal. Two of them, really. Anybody with an animal desire, inner demon, or destructive cycle that they can’t deny will be able to relate to this movie, whether they immediately realize it or not.
2 – Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance)
Iñárritu’s flashiest and most indulgent film is easily his most accessible. As much of a study of creativity as it is a parable about fame, Birdman meditates on every level of performance art, from the birth of an idea, through its creation, all the way to the critical reaction. The “single take” camera work invokes the urgency of a live production, and the entire cast delivers. Emma Stone gives a career best performance, and Michael Keaton nails it as a thin skinned actor lost in the world of instant feedback. He deserves the Oscar he’s about to get. I love this movie, and I get the feeling it loves me too. Oh, and it’s hilarious.
1 – Nightcrawler
The third great Gyllenhaal performance of 2014 goes to Nightcrawler and it’s the year’s finest. The immediate comparison to Taxi Driver is obvious and appropriate. Even so, they are two different beasts, and while there are shades of Travis Bickle in Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom, there’s also something hauntingly familiar, which makes it all the more scary. Kudos to my wife, Rene Russo, and my brother Bill Paxton. Double kudos to Riz Ahmed from Four Lions. Dan Gilroy made his directorial debut with Nightcrawler, yet the film oozes with the confidence of a long time auteur. I’m very excited for whatever he has next, but until it happens, I’m content to watch Nightcrawler over and over again, and I definitely will.
And before I go, I’d like to offer a short list of tough cuts:
Only Lovers Left Alive
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Edge of Tomorrow
Sorry, guys. You were all great, but you were lost in a sea of greatness.