Dusting off the digital pen after a two year hiatus from the Filmibuster. I received some sad news this weekend, as my friend and co-worker Greg passed away. Around Halloween, our department hosts a scary movie night in one of our classroom studios. A cinephile of the strange and unusual, Greg attended each year’s screening without fail. He also ensured our audio/video equipment ran smoothly. This year’s top ten list is dedicated to the big guy.
First, here are the Honorable Mentions:
Jon Favreau is back to Swingers form with this delectable peek inside the kitchen. Head chef at one of LA’s trendiest restaurant, Carl is constantly at odds with its conservative menu-minded owner. After his food is given the gong by a popular critic, the chef’s responding tantrum goes viral. The meltdown spawns a fortuitous road trip with his son across America, as scents of grilled Cubanos in Miami and Austin-style brisket stir olfactory senses. While Carl attempts to bond with his son through food, young Percy only yearns for his father’s presence. Chef refuses to compromise authenticity by firing off local cuisine to regional soundtracks. Old school sensibilities clash with social media-driven efficiency in the feel good reservation of summer. Stay for the closing credits- Chef Roy Choi’s interpretation of a perfectly grilled cheese may cause drooling.
From action-starved lines in China to the avant-garde intelligentsia in France, the cineplex is an abbreviated escape for the global citizen. Yet Hollywood’s darkest machinations remain hidden to outsiders. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer create a literal translation of Tinseltown’s hushed contract, where stardom literally costs one’s soul. Slog through the first few minutes of a wannabe industry soirée. What follows is Amanda Fuller handing herself over completely to the character of Tracy. For 90 minutes, the gifted Fuller’s potential is on full display. Let’s just hope she didn’t permanently lose part of herself after visiting the dark places her role required.
Reese Witherspoon has certainly established a successful career, highlighted by her Oscar-winning efforts as June Carter. While she’s not chastising police officers for lacking celebrity worship, Witherspoon’s career spans beyond profitable romantic comedies. Her early filmography includes cult favorites and dark comedies, such as Freeway and Election. With Wild, Witherspoon revisits her indie calling with one of the year’s strongest leads. Based on her memoir, Wild follows Cheryl Strayed’s daunting hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. As she trudges towards each post, Cheryl uses the solitude to contemplate several life-defining events. As weather conditions test her physical limits, memories of a troubled history push her forward. Cheryl’s strength is derived from an upbringing molded by her independent mother Bobbi, gracefully handled by the underrated Laura Dern. Following last year’s Matthew McConaughey showcase, Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallèe once again directs a contender into awards season. Cheryl’s trek is a feminist metaphor without loud politics. Every step forward doesn’t necessarily move her further away from the past. Each mistake is a chapter essential to reaching her self-awareness.
Set to the year’s most foreboding score, a malevolent mirror reflects one of the more creative horror films of late. Brother and sister reunite in their old home to complete a pact. Efforts to destroy the shiny source of their tragic childhood intertwine with flashbacks to a haunting past. The mirror has other plans, however, steadily ramping up the hallucinations and misdirects. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff and Dazed and Confused’s Rory Cochrane (sans bong) are the flashback’s unnerving parents. Once the curtain drops, you’ll be grateful for your own overbearing mom and unimpressed dad.
Two Days, One Night
The Dardenne brothers create films to foster discourse, knowing exactly how to strip away commonly held notions of morality. An audience traditionally follows the protagonist around for 100 minutes, cheering minor victories and empathizing during each roadblock. The French, on the other hand, enjoy clouding viewers with abstraction. While films often allow the mind to wander, French titles force the brain to work. Marian Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman who discovers she’s lost her job during a phone call. As if the impersonal bombshell isn’t bad enough, she discovers her layoff was the result of a vote by her co-workers. The team will receive their annual bonus checks in exchange for her release. Sandra’s husband convinces her to visit each co-worker during the weekend to establish a re-vote Monday. After each confrontation, our emotional ties waver alongside her internal struggle. The Dardennes create a world which forces us to look past our protagonist; one with real people who refuse to serve as bit players on her stage.
Humans will find affection in the unlikeliest of places. Newcomer Ritesh Batra chooses the sense of taste to reinvigorate two lives tied together by lunch. Nimrat Kaur dances around her kitchen as Ila, a housewife who prepares an aromatic feast for her neglectful husband. One day, the lunch delivery service accidently sends the meal to the wrong building and into the mouth of nearly-retired Saajan (played by India’s Morgan Freeman, Irrfan Khan). After the first bite, Saajan’s fire is lit. He sends the empty canisters back to Ila with a note, seeding the film’s narrative. Ila and Saajan’s connection edges closer to its emotional core as their growing feelings jump off the pages. The letters ultimately remind us to slow down and appreciate the details, including life’s curveballs. An inevitable meeting tests the wonder of dreams against the virtue of responsibility.
And congratulations. The Top Ten has patiently awaited your arrival. Drum roll please…
10. The Guest
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett share filmographies with a unique trajectory. In an industry where consistency is considered rare, this creative duo actually improves with each project. Their first collaboration, the low budget A Horrible Way to Die, flashed glimpses of potential. Horror festival favorite You’re Next’s sardonic edge sharpened an already nasty home invasion trope. Their creative partnership hits a crescendo with The Guest, a genre-bending thriller starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens. Military boots hit the ground running even before the title sequence begins. Paced by a synth-heavy industrial score John Carpenter would love, David’s mysterious yarn spins into chaos.
Unlike a few of this year’s lists, Richard Linklater’s social experiment doesn’t get my ribbon solely based off its groundbreaking 12 year shooting schedule. The film’s merits stand on its own. Boyhood works because Linklater allows his talent to breathe while maintaining a consistently sound script each year. Impressively, the dynamic between young Mason and his parents never stretch beyond the margins. The family’s major life changes create fluidity around Linklater’s trademark philosophical musings. While raising Mason as on-set parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette both rode rollercoaster careers. Boyhood is a testament to both phenomenal dialogue and sheer perseverance.
8. The Babadook
The surviving heroine is an essential archetype of horror. Essie Davis exhibits sneaky range as Amelia, a tortured mother and widow. However, The Babadook’s strong female presence also extends behind the camera. While certainly not the first female-inspired scare fare, Jennifer Kent’s debut may be the spark that finally ignites a movement. When the villainous Babadook leaps from a children’s book into reality, mother and son open the gates to a living nightmare. Outstanding sound design emits unsettling creaks throughout the house, where expert lighting casts menacing silence behind the shadows. The screenplay flexes its muscle with Kent’s dramatic prowess, all towards an ending that will no doubt elicit discussion within horror circles. Such unique balance crowns this Aussie export the Queen of 2014 horror.
7. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s slice of life offers a unique approach to vampire cinema, substituting its more horrific elements with a rather observational meditation on humanity. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton wax poetic, as an undead couple separated by choice. Hiddleston is Adam, a recluse inspired by Detroit’s gloominess and musical history. The worn neighborhood is a perfect studio for his sound, akin to funeral music performed by The Doors. Swinton’s Eve wanders the Tangier nightlife, with its bright lights and bold colors accentuating her curiosity. A FaceTime meeting reveals Adam’s suicidal mood swing, prompting Eve’s flight to Motown. Their rekindled passion extends to a robust compendium of art, science and technology. In addition to a fine glass of O-Negative, they also share a thirst for knowledge. Eve’s mind is open to the world’s ever-changing winds, in contrast to Adam’s nihilistic view of mankind. The lovers spin at the vinyl speed of 33 rpm, their evening wonders captured in beautiful composition. Jarmusch defies vampire mythos with ultra-realism. When birthdays are counted in centuries, boredom is the real wooden stake.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s creepy turn as independent news documentarian Louis Bloom fits Dan Gilroy’s dreary Los Angeles nightscape. The calculated go-getter zips his Challenger around the city in search of the evening’s bloodiest accidents and crime scenes. The news footage gets rawer as his journalistic scruples begin to fade away. Partnering with a local producer and a naive assistant, he quickly moves up the news gathering ladder. As stakes are raised, Louis’ grip tightens around his comrades. Gyllenhaal wears Bloom’s uncomfortable mask a bit too seamlessly for the ultra-conservative Academy. Social commentary aims its crosshairs squarely on broadcast news. Louis is Gilroy’s mouthpiece, spotlighting its unapologetic slant towards gratuitous exploitation. The film’s momentum builds to an explosive climax that will shape the trio’s destiny.
Amores Perros’ Alejandro González Iñárritu transforms the Broadway stage into a dazzling exhibit of cinematic excellence. The two mediums collide to paint a washed up actor’s portrait of relevance and legacy. Michael Keaton digs deep to navigate Riggan’s journey through unforgiving critique and self-doubt. In what will likely be considered Keaton’s tour de force, the film’s meta arc is not lost. Riggins’ ego forces the audience to view the world through his lens, brilliantly imagined by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Long tracking shots weave the magic on stage with the fantasy flying around it. Iñárritu orchestrates a technical achievement, despite rare instances of intentional melodrama. As viewers discover the real stage play, the bloviated dialogue reveals its design. Offstage, the viewer becomes voyeur while witnessing Riggins’ self-destructive behavior and subsequent alienation. Like a twisted tennis match, these players serve vitriol and lob insults. Star-studded billing will undoubtedly overshadow an abnormally restrained Zach Galifianakis and the under-appreciated Amy Ryan.
4. The Raid 2: Berendal
Raid: Redemption was 100 minutes of pure adrenaline. Transport a swat team into Indonesia’s most dangerous high rise and hope they can survive their way to the top. An endless barrage of bullets, knife play and violent fight choreography set the bar for an entire genre. Welsh expat Gareth Evans turned the action world upside down. The sequel drops three years later and now he’s just toying with us. Unlike its predecessor, Berendal wraps an involved story around its visual wizardry. Casting directly from Indonesian cinema’s A-list, the sequel is much more than eye candy. With an extra hour of run time, the pacing is much different than Redemption. Nonetheless, Rama’s undercover assignment remains engaging throughout. The action sequences are epic in scope, the camera work is innovative and the editing is insanely stylish. Berendal barely cleared $2.6 million domestically. The lack of exposure both masterpieces receive is a damn travesty.
3. The Drop
For a throwback flick set around an Irish bar in Brooklyn, The Drop features uniquely international talent. Director Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead delved into the nasty Belgium underworld of illegal beef trading. Taking the reins of Dennis Lehane’s grimy screenplay, Roskam successfully captures the criminal belly across the Atlantic. Tom Hardy eschews Bane’s immense persona to summon the much quieter role of Bob. Sparse with words, Bob seems to enjoy the mundane tasks of tending the bar. In his last role before passing, James Gandolfini slips back into his Tony Soprano skin as Bob’s cousin Marv. A stick-up at the bar disrupts their daily routine, putting them in the hole with the establishment’s not-so-rosy Chechen owners. Nailing the borough’s accent and never breaking a simple demeanor, Hardy is an absolute chameleon. Lehane’s character study progresses with a subtlety that demands multiple viewings. The Drop feels like a European film that just happens to overlook the Brooklyn Bridge.
2. The Rocket
Australian Kim Mordaunt ships his mystical fable of loss and determination to post-war Laos. Circumstances surrounding young Ahlo’s birth stamp him cursed among his people. His tribe is forced to relocate due to impending floods and Ahlo’s journey to fulfill a promise (and erase his bad luck) begins. When tragedy strikes, his fate aligns with a pair of unlikely companions. Purple, an alcoholic veteran, emulates James Brown in raggedy threads and pure soul. His young niece Kia shines light into Ahlo’s darkest corners. When a local rocket contest promises hope of a better life, Ahlo enlists the help of new friends (and old ghosts?) to turn his curse into a blessing. Mordaunt beautifully captures moments of youthful innocence amidst a suffering nation’s despair. Ahlo’s grandmother is a jukebox of hilarious insults, offering sporadic reprieves from the film’s weight.
The road to greatness is a lonely one, often forged in sweat and paved with blood. J.K. Simmons owns the screen as apoplectic jazz instructor Fletcher, dropping the gavel as the year’s best performance. Combine Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman with Entourage’s Ari Gold and we’re just scratching the surface of his madness. Fletcher’s obsession to discover the next Charlie Parker-like prodigy lands squarely in young drummer Andrew’s hands, for better or worse. Miles Teller, whose talented chops actually performed his own percussion, reverently sits second chair to Simmons during much of the first two acts. As unrelenting teacher pushes aspiring student to the brink, the spotlight shifts across stage to Teller’s slow burning powder keg. Fletcher’s ego-maniacal armor is cracked on occasion, allowing signs of humanity to pierce through. These rare scenes of vulnerability elevate an already nuanced script penned by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle. Extracting masterful performances from his two leads, Chazelle is a revelation-in-waiting. Killer jazz and slick editing trigger sensory overload. Whiplash grooves at a different tempo than the rest of the field.
And that’s a wrap folks. Feel free to heap your praise and hurl your tomatoes in the comments. Also be sure to add your favorites of last year. I plan to start writing my own stuff in 2015, so wish me luck.