Previously we looked at ten runners-up -- practically an alternate top ten if you will the year was so good. Now on to the list you've been waiting for as our own awardage begins.
The years best films marched in the streets in London and Alabama, cruised Scotland with nefarious intent, uncovered skeletons in Poland, and jogged around DC. They performed on the stages of Manhattan while also house hunting there; neither activity is for the faint of heart. Only two of them sprang from books though another cast its biggest spell while holding one. Two taught us about history in ways that felt absolutely relevant and useful to how we live now and one let us watch 12 years of it unfold. The thing that unites all ten is the imagination, fine judgement (when to employ a light touch and when to hit hard) and technical prowess of the filmmakers and actors, lifting their scenes, themes and stories however mundane, silly, deep or fanciful to greater heights that we could have reasonably expected.
With deep appreciation...
NATHANIEL'S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014
CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER
(Anthony Russo & Joe Russo)
Disney. April 4th
The public has been more than generous with Marvel Studios over the years as they stumbled into surprising glory given that they were playing with a half deck having sold so many key characters. Ten films in: perfection! Captain America: Winter Soldier artfully dodges nearly every typical superhero movie problem (as well as general sequel problems) with a stunning grasp of mood, total commitment to a "square" character, a smart choice of villain, and thrilling action scenes that feel authentically dangerous (a complete rarity in blockbusters) rather than like stop-and-gawk "setpieces" with no actual stakes. Add in Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson both embracing their supersized charisma and physical perfection (while deepening their rapport and characterizations) and you have the year's best popcorn entertainment.
IFC Films. November 28th
You can't intellectualize away its terror, though reviews and many a future masters theses will try. This alarming horror film, a brilliant debut for Australian director Jennifer Kent, is as hard to shake as its title character whether you take it as a straightforward monster film, a mental illness or grief allegory, or get hung up on its minefield of taboos (mothers who don't much like their children / over-medication of children / weapons in schools). It's as rich and imaginative a study of depression in its own creepy-crawly way as Lars Von Trier's Melancholia so it's wonderfully apt that Jennifer Kent once apprenticed with the Danish provocateur.
Eight with more than enough Great after the jump...
Roadside Attractions. Qualifying Run.
My friend Jason said it best I think when he said "Mommy's too much. Mommy's not enough, Mommy's just right" Or maybe it was Missy Elliott who said it best whe she sang "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy | Damn Mommy, roll like armies | Mommy ass like a Cadillac | Mommy give 'em heart attacks" or maybe I said it best when I said "Dolan pushes the key sequences to such heightened extremes that you can practically see the psychic umblical cord still connecting this "Mommy" to her Bad Seed son; it's made from barbed wire." The point is this: a wave of chaotic thoughts, dischordant sounds, conflicted feeling, crazy ideas, multiple songs, and memorable images wash over you when Mommy is playing. It's a miracle that the three central characters in Mommy have the stamina to make it through the whole movie they're so exhausted and exhausting. What keeps winding them up? The prolific man behind the camera and boy is his new baby alive.
LOVE IS STRANGE
Sony Pictures Classics. August 22nd
Ira Sach's romantic drama, the year's most delicate beauty, begins with a quick wedding. Though the ceremony is meaningful to all gathered, it's also a technicality: gay seniors Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina summoning incredible romantic history) have been defacto married for decades. Unfortunately the happy couple will soon be forced to separate and live with friends and relative while they embark on the nightmare for Manhattanites: the real estate search. Like many of the best films of this unusually interconnected year, Love is Strange's cumulative emotional potency is greater than any one scene though its easy to name check several delightful and perceptive ones. But it's stealth strength comes from the way it pokes and prods and shadows and tests numerous individual bonds within its tightknight commuynity(in this case closest friends and blood relatives) is greater than any one scene, though I can name several delightful or perceptive ones. By its last artistically daring but spiritually generous moment, when the film leaves Ben & George's home behind to wordlessly follow their young nephew out of their new home and back out into the world he's just beginning to live in, I was a mess of tears.
Paramount. December 25th
Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere (which made this very top ten list in its year) was a fine calling card. For her follow up she's considerably upped the scale but managed to retain the intimacy which is the best we could have hoped for. If only every cinematic history lesson were this visceral. DuVernay's interrogation (using her own words) of history feels so immediate and resonant that it's rather like one of those Shakespeare productions done in modern garb. Your head knows that the story is of the past but all your other senses tell you this is happening. right now. And come to think of it, it is. History is made in the present and Selma is a gorgeous reminder that civil rights and voting rights are not battles long since won. They are wins that must continually be defended. Selma is at once a great history lesson, a tense political drama, a tribute to the power of a communal voice (embodied in the booming voice of Martin Luther King Jr by way of David Oyelowo) and a righteous rebuke to conservative politicians today who are still shamelessly trying to surpress the black vote.
Music Box Films. May 2nd
Pawlkowski's merciless precision, there's zero fat on this picture, should put the world's filmmakers on notice. Suffer no fat, directors, and make every cut and lingering unbroken shot count. Ida's austere black and white visuals and cold-eyed precision of purpose could well make for stifling viewing in a lesser film but the odd framing keeps the eye ever alert, and Ida's incredibly gripping story, alien to most every viewer, surely, (unless you grew up in a convent and discovered your true heritage recently) is emphatically understood. Pawlikowski's gutsiest move may well have been in casting: He paired a novice as the novice (heh) with a seasoned professional as her worldy aunt. The friction in performance styles, one unknowable and unformed, the other layered and complicated with all the baggage expertly conveyed, plays like a miracle, a perfect bifurcated companion to the film's substance, style, and unforgettable characters.
CBS Films. September 26th
I originally dubbed it "the year's most adorable movie" and that holds. But don't misunderstand; it's no "Feel Good" trifle (though you'll definitely Feel Good - capitals intended). Deceptively light on its feet, in both senses, this exquisitely crowded ensemble picture's emotions run deep, sturdy and universal. It has important things to teach us about self-worth, empathy, activism, turning lemons into lemonade, and embracing those we have little in common with. By the end of the picture, you'll tear up at the mere mention of a logo of two hands gripping each other in solidarity. Pride is easily the year's most underappreciated "Best," and will surely have a long happy life on cable and dvd/bluray where more people will discover it and join its lively parade. They'll be quoting it as they march, too.
IFC Films. July 11th
Some movies win on performance. Others on technical virtuosity or a fine screenplay. Boyhood won -- and I don't mean this dismissively because it's no small feat -- by not fucking up. Richard Linklater's conceptual experiment, launched in 2002, was genius. And also insane. By all means do embark on a 12 year project when you can't even contract actors for that long and don't even know what your career will hold by then. (Though it seems impossible to grasp he began this before School of Rock or even Before he first reunited Celine and Jesse!) By all means make it up, sort of, as you go along though childhood will gift you with some universals. Boyhood's openheartedness and concept would be enough for an interesting decent movie. Add in the sharp unheralded comic timing of Patricia Arquette and the ragged spontaniety and lost boy charm of Ethan Hawke and you've got an entertaining moving sprawl of an experience and not just a thoughtful movie. The film's most famous line is already "I just thought there'd be more" but Boyhood is plenty. [Full Review]
BIRDMAN: OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE
(Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Fox Searchlight. November 14th
I've seen Birdman twice and both times it's completely wowed me on three levels simultaneously: technical, thematic, performative. Riggan Thomson and Michael Keaton both found redemption of a kind with their unexpected career moves, and I think you can say the same about their guide, the formerly heavyhanded killjoy Iñárritu who did an about face with this whatsit lark that's swift, verbal, inventive, strange and funny. But lately I've been thinking a lot about all the seriocomic mysteries on the periphery of Birdman's dizzying vision (glorious glorious vision provided by the master Emmanuel Lubezki). What's with the dancing reindeers? Is the play within the movie as terrible as it looks or an idiot savant success as Tabitha suggests? Does Tabitha the critic even exist? What plays did Mike Shiner make his name on? What does Sam see when she looks up into the sky or is she actually just a projection of me, watching this movie, elated. I'm marvelling that once it starts soaring it never comes back down. I'd ask for a Birdman 2 but that didn't work out so well for Riggan Thomson.
UNDER THE SKIN
A24. April 4th
Perhaps when Jonathan Glazer filmed Nicole Kidman's immortal opera scene in Birth ten plus years ago she was actually looking at a workprint of Under the Skin brought back from the future? Surely that's what everyone looks like while watching the mesmerizing Under the Skin. Earlier this year in the hopes of better understanding its inexorable hold on me I hosted an episode of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" I hoped the exercize would help me to understand it but I'll admit that I feared the familiarity would demystify it. The fears were unfounded and the articles only convinced me we'd just begun to think through this movie. Glazer's alien masterpiece, at once confounding and accessible, abstract and earthy, erotic and sickening, doesn't fade nonchalantly from the memory as so many films do. It merely recedes into inky blackness or disappears in a fog until its ready to startle you again, flashing a perfectly conceived bracing new image at you. A new image that you've paradoxically seen before. It remains alien but it can't be unseen.
Please do share your feelings about these ten beauties in the comments and, if you're done jamming movies in your eyeballs, your own top tens if you're so inclined.
P.S. If you're curious about previous years of top ten, remember there's a pull down menu from the top banner to look at such things!