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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 10 Best Movies I Saw in 2014

I'm doubling the number from last year, and doing a proper top 10. As before, this isn't my favorite 10 films from 2014, but rather the 10 best movies, from whatever year, amongst all the films that I happened to see in 2014. So, in alphabetical order:

All is Lost. A fantastic movie, primarily because of the control which the film's makers and its star, Robert Redford, showed in its production. There were many points along the way of telling this story of an old and experienced sailor who, through a series of perfectly ordinary accidents, faces his death alone at sea, when the dialogue (of which there was almost none) or cinematography or editing could have led the viewers into easy sentimentality. But it never did. The film shows that the power of a single life story needn't depend upon some fake triumph over nature, but just a meeting of it, head on.

Annie. I honestly have no idea where all the reviewers are coming from when it comes to this very fine movie musical. Personally, I found nearly all the updated and reworked musical numbers a delight ("Little Girls" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" were perhaps the only ones which weren't quite equal to the source material), and the new numbers were well-performed and heartfelt. Is it a profound work of art? No, not really. But is it a charming, well-staged, often hilarious musical, with a sentiment worth treasuring? Absolutely.

At Close Range. A crime thriller from the 1980s which I'd missed, and which clarified my memory of why Sean Penn developed such an astonishing reputation so quickly, and why Christopher Walken's screen presence was recognized, into the 1990s, as both terrifying and weirdly unique. A fine, taut, and rather unconventional story of criminality and violence and its costs, set in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and featuring simple but powerful turns by Mary Stuart Masterson as a good teen-age girl who wants to be dangerous, and Crispin Glover as a doomed kid struggling with his own sexuality.

Don Jon. One of those strange movies that works far better than it should have. It's not a romantic comedy, though its beats basically follow that convention; it's not a personal drama, though the characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Juliana Moore--both damaged people, one who is aware of it, and one who isn't--certainly fit those stereotypes. Mostly, it's a wonderfully offbeat comedy of manners, with small but sharp performances by every bit player surrounding the action, and of course a truly audacious central conceit: the ultimately debasing role of pornography (in all its forms!) in human relationships.

The Fighter. I won't lie: when this moving wound its way to its foreordained conclusion, and the final punches in the climactic title boxing batch were thrown, I was pumping my first in the air and bouncing in my seat with excitement. Which just goes to show: when you've got a solid story, a smart script, talented actors capable of working in both subtle and defiant modes, and a skilled director pulling the whole thing together, even the most hackneyed and overdone of topics (imagine everyone: it's an underdog boxing movie!) can still work brilliantly well. The telling of the story matters at least as much as the story itself.

Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, I'm a comics geek, and was already in the tank for this adaption years before it hit the screens. And yes, I've long confessed my love for Rocket Raccoon, even though this film didn't give me the Rocket that I loved from the comic books I read decades ago. But so what? Leaving aside all of that, this film delivered the Marvel magic that we geeks have come to delight in, and it did it with a abundance of humor and--as far as I'm concerned, anyway--an absolute killer soundtrack. I loved it, and I say that even as I regret that they didn't give Cosmo the Space Dog any lines.

Lars and the Real Girl . I thought I knew everything about this movie--which is really a mash-up of one of those Oscar-bait films about mental illness and an episode of Prairie Home Companion--but I was wrong. I wasn't prepared for the honesty and fairness with which they treated everyone around Lars; its story of a town rallying to support a damaged young man in his doomed passion for an artificial sex doll never descended into "cute." By the end of this film, I was weeping with the hope that I could be as giving and decent as the people around Lars.

Ninotchka. Back at the start of the summer, inspired by the fact that 1939 is often referred to by film historians as "Hollywood's Golden Year," I decided to watch and rewatch some of the great (or supposedly great) movies released that year. Some didn't hold up, while some did. But the real discovery was this movie, an absolutely charming and dead smart--no matter how stagey by our cinematic standards--romantic comedy and political farce. I've recognized Ernst Lubitsch's genius before, but truly, my hat is off to the man's memory: he had me laughing at and caring for fictional people from 75 years ago, and that's no mean feat.

Slap Shot. I honestly have no idea how I could have missed this movie for so long. A rough-housing and vulgar comedy from the late 1970s, it's got everything anyone interested in tales from and about the end of the American Dream for the white American male could want: plant closings, feminism, gay panic, class divides, outsourcing, college kids leaving home, the changing face of American mass democracy, etc. A film with real trenchant wisdom, hidden behind ugly cars, goofball antics, and Paul Newman's always sad and knowing smirk.

12 Years a Slave. The real power of this devastating story of an early 19th-century free black man, kidnapped and sold into slavery, is not in the slaves themselves, but in the meticulous, horrifying way in which the actions of those entwined in the slave trade are presented. Religion, sexuality, education, work, marriage, and much more in the antebellum South is presented in all its warped variety through the slave traders and owners that Solomon Northup (played with a perfect balance of passion and dignity by Chiwetel Ejiofor) interacted with. The film was an education, and a terrifying and beautiful one at that.

Runners up: The Lego Movie (a delightful romp, with a twist at the end that I, at least, found genuinely surprisingly), and Maleficent (a terrific, and honestly moving, gender-inverted fairy tale).


Paul said...

All is Lost was my favorite movie of the year till I saw Interstellar. Not sure the portrayal of the story required control, but I guess in a sense if those you mentioned hadn’t, the movie would have been like the lesser Gravity—full of bogus sentimentality and a boor to watch. Guardians of the Galaxy was great in theatres, and would be in my top ten of the year, but was hard to watch more than 30min. of it at home. Did you see Interstellar? This is definitely a movie needed to be seen in the theatre. Did you see The Zero Theorem? Others I would add to a top ten would be Secret Life of Walter Mitty, if only for two scenes ( Space Oddity and the leopard) and The Book Thief. Think I’ll check out Ninotchka this weekend. Thanks for sharing.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I actually adored Gravity. Sure, the story itself was pretty pat--really just your standard "woman-in-peril" flick--but the visuals, the editing, the sound and whole structure of the thing I found utterly thrilling. Intersteller is on my list for certain. Thanks for the reminder of Zero Theorem--I'm pretty much a Terry Gilliam completist, but that sailed so far under the radar that I think I'd forgotten it existed. On to the "to-see" list it goes!