#11: The Wind Rises
Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, written by Miyazaki based on his comic book, English adaptation by Mike Jones
As always, #11 goes to a film that must be seen, but that I’m reluctant to include in my Top 10. The Wind Rises is a powerful and provocative film, since it comes from a Japanese man arguing that the 20th century progress in aviation was worth the wars that were largely responsible for it. Which is an overtly horrifying position, even if the evidence of war-induced technological progress is undeniable. But the film broaches this theme with depth and beauty that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and interlaces it with a touching and tragic romance. If the film has a technological thesis, it is that invention is morally neutral at worst, and glorious at best, regardless of its eventual purpose – and given that this is allegedly Miyazaki’s last film, it feels like a classical apology of his own career.
Check out my full review here:
Hiyao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” – Dream, invention, and responsibility
#10: Fish & Cat
Written and directed by Shahram Mohri
This Iranian film is one of two on this list that are apparently shot in a single continuous shot, but this is the more tantalizingly ambiguous of the two. Fish & Cat is a drama that takes place at a lakeside kite festival outside of Tehran. Several dozen college students camp along the lake or in the nearby woods, and are intermittently visited by the creepy dudes who run a nearby restaurant, which may or may not serve human meat. This film is fascinating on several levels. First, it takes a totally free hand at manipulating its own timeline, showing the same scene multiple times, each time following a different character while the remainder of the scene plays out in the background. This allows much of the film’s subtext to reveal itself very gradually as we’re getting to know the ensemble, even as we’re not sure of the precise nature of the threat they face. Second, because this film was shot and takes place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, this American had no way of knowing what sort of content would be permitted in the film. Which makes the film’s insistence on its place in the horror genre that much more interesting. The US had the Hays code, and Iran has its own regime of censorship, and I don’t know if it specifically prohibits this sort of content or not. But the fact remains, this is a horror film that doesn’t show any actual violence, and in the absence of such content, it uses many clever workarounds to evoke a persistent sense of dread that lurks just off camera.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #49 – “Age of Uprising”, “Fish & Cat”, ” Remote Control” (#SIFF2014).
#9: The One I Love
There’s generally at least one film on this list whose exact premise I can’t discuss in detail, and this is one of them. Suffice to say, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss star in an engrossing exploration of the nature of marriage and romance through a clever sci-fi/fantasy filter that remains riveting throughout the film. One of the best things about The One I Love is that these two characters have the conversation that no two characters ever have in a genre film once the Big Weird Thing starts happening. One says to the other, “Hey, a Big Weird Thing just happened to me. I think a Big Weird Thing might be happening to you too. Let’s discuss the Big Weird Thing.” Once the [married] pair teams up to figure out what’s going on (which is quite early in the film), it really gets interesting, as they each gain their own fresh understanding of their relationship through their respective explorations. If this ambiguous description isn’t selling you on the film, I’d urge you to check out the trailer, which doesn’t give away its premise.
#8: Top Five
I really hoped Top Five would be in my top 5, but alas, it didn’t work out. But Chris Rock‘s quite successful revival of the romantic comedy genre does have one odd bit of synchronicity – it has a staggering number of plot similarities with another film on this list, Birdman. It’s almost certainly coincidental, but both of these films deal with stars playing fictionalized versions of themselves, who previously starred in a trio of costumed hero movies, and who now wish to be taken seriously by way of an ill-advised dramatic vanity project. In New York City. Oh, and both films feature a complex relationship with a NY Times critic. But this is where their (vast!) similarities end – in Top Five, Andre Allen (Chris Rock)’s project is little more than a backdrop for a stirring romance with film-writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). Not only is the dialogue in this film beautifully naturalistic and authentic, but it’s also one of the most reliably funny comedies of the year. As director and star, Rock shows a deft hand managing the tone of this movie, jumping seemlessly between brief moments of gross-out comedy and genuine sentimentality without ever dwelling too long on either one. At its best, Top Five is clearly influenced by Louie CK‘s Louie, even finding its way to the Comedy Cellar for an impromptu set late in the film.
#7: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Written and directed by Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson is on a roll. Moonrise Kingdom was a delightful coming-of-age tale, but this film has reached full maturity. It utilizes every cinematic trick Anderson has picked up, including some impressive use of models and stop-motion animation for the film’s high-stakes mountainside action around the titular hotel. Veteran Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori carry the film marvelously through comedy, drama, and some surprisingly dark and violent material (“This is the first death squad I’ve personally encountered!”). The film’s fictitious pre-fascist European country is a compelling backdrop, even if it feels at times like little more than a Tarantinoesque historical playground, or perhaps a setting that merely serves salacious and nostalgic interest above all else (e.g. Southern Gothic). But for all its tricks, The Grand Budapest Hotel never once feels slight or trifling. It is a deeply affecting comedic film about an era that was bygone even when the film takes place (hence the nested flashbacks). And it is thoroughly entertaining.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #43 – “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (dir. Wes Anderson)”
#6: Edge of Tomorrow
I’ll lead off with the line I said to everyone else about this film – Edge of Tomorrow* is an instant-classic action film on par with Paul Verhoeven‘s cult classic, Starship Troopers. The aliens are top-notch and terrifying, and the film’s use of practical effects to reinforce its battle scenes made mechanized combat look cooler than Elysium or Oblivion ever could. Everything about this film works, whether the clever sci-fi rehash of Groundhog Day, the gradual arc of Tom Cruise going from executive PR flack to seasoned and capable soldier (in his 50s no less – bravo!), or the instantly capable action-presence of Emily Blunt, who spends nearly the entire film as a ruthless alien-killing badass with a Final Fantasy-tinged buster sword. Seriously, if you’re not watching this movie right now, get on it. Also – this film’s end credits introduced me to the powerhouse vocal stylings of British singer-songwriter John Newman, which was just the icing on the cake.
*Now stylized as Live, Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #50 – “22 Jump Street”, “Edge of Tomorrow”
#5: I Origins
Written and directed by Mike Cahill
Mike Cahill‘s latest sci-fi collaboration with actress Brit Marling was controversial on the FilmWonk Podcast, with Daniel dismissing the film as the same sort of superficial treatment of science vs. religion that I specifically thought this film transcended. Love it or hate it, you will walk out of this film with a strong opinion.
From my review:
That’s the scientific process in a nutshell – we find a piece of evidence that contradicts prior theories, so we test on and develop new ones. I Origins sets itself apart from other half-hearted Hollywood dalliances in science and religion by presenting scientists who really act like scientists. In the face of an anomaly that challenges their prior understanding, their reaction is…let’s do more science. This is a superlative point made in a subtle enough manner that I’m genuinely concerned about the audience taking the wrong idea away from the film.
A warning, if this premise intrigues you: Do not watch the trailer for this film – it spoils virtually every plot detail in advance. If you’re interested in further plot details, check out my [spoiler-free] review below.
Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” – A faithful rendition of the scientific method
As well as our podcast discussion:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #54 – “Lucy”, “I Origins”
#4: The Case Against 8
Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White
The Case Against 8 is a stunningly executed legal and political procedural, and this is just the beginning of its appeal. It features behind-the-scenes footage from the case preparation of the legal team that fought to overturn California’s Prop-8 ban on same-sex marriage – footage that reveals so much detail about their trial strategy that it had to remain locked in a safe deposit box until the case was disposed in the Supreme Court in 2013. You already know the outcome of this case (and indeed, the possible outcome of this issue in 2015!), but what’s so fascinating here is all the personal details that went into making this case happen. The two couples who became plaintiffs in the lawsuit against California were carefully vetted, treated essentially like political candidates. The two attorneys behind the case, David Boies and Ted Olsen, were previously on opposite sides in Bush v. Gore (2000) – one a liberal, the other a conservative, united in friendship and determination to cast same-sex marriage as a non-partisan Constitutional issue. The result is both a thoroughly engrossing and emotional drama – both familial and political – and an utterly fascinating treatise on how things really get done in American politics.
Check out my review here:
SIFF Roundup: “The Case Against 8”, “Desert Cathedral”, “In Order of Disappearance”
#3: Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher, written for the screen by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel
I can think of no greater advertisement for Gone Girl than to link to author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn‘s passage on “cool girls“, which appears in a slight variation in the film. Give that passage a read, and you’ll start to have an idea of just what’s going on with the missing character of Amazing Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), even if the bulk of the film’s focus is on her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), a tabloid archetype who is doomed to be blamed for his wife’s disappearance and possible murder regardless of what he does next (even if he does plenty to sabotage himself). Affleck so thoroughly embodies this role that I can scarcely imagine anyone else filling it. Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, and a hilarious, high-powered attorney in the form of Tyler Perry give one strong contribution after another to the film’s cast – and Neil Patrick Harris feels like the inevitable extreme of Barney Stinson. This is a gripping film – and if you’ve somehow managed to avoid the big spoiler, one that will certainly keep you guessing.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #57 – “Gone Girl” (dir. David Fincher)
Directed by Bennett Miller, screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
There is no levity in this film, and that’s probably the only reason why it ended up as my #2 – like 12 Years a Slave, it’s certainly the finest film I saw in its year, and I would likely never watch it again. The film depicts Olympian wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) being taken under the wing of billionaire heir John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell), who wishes to set up a world-class wrestling facility on Foxcatcher (his rural Pennsylvania farm). The film is based on a true story – and a story whose outcome, involving Mark’s brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) – also an Olympic wrestler – I knew in advance. This didn’t really color my enjoyment of the film, as the complex, slow-burn, paranoid relationship that develops between Mark and John is the primary focus of the film. Mark willingly becomes a kept man, and John clearly has strong expectations for him. Tatum and Carell each offer a fascinating and transformative performance, with Tatum looking slumped, dejected, and walking like a caveman with a persistent scowl for the entire film. Tatum has described this film as his greatest acting challenge, and while his characterization took some getting used to, it is certainly a success. Steve Carell, on the other hand, gives nothing short of the performance of a lifetime. His face is disfigured not only with prosthetics, but also with a persistently awkward and menacing demeanor. This is a wondrous and terrifying performance, on par with Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. This is a strange man who doesn’t enjoy life (despite his vast opportunities to do so), and whose expectations and promise willfully engulf as many lives as he is willing to take under his control. The film also features a brief and chilling turn by Vanessa Redgrave, whom I was pleased to see on-screen once again, even if she’s apparently been keeping busy out of my sight.
Check out the film’s trailer, which gives an excellent idea of the film’s appeal and ambiance without giving away too much.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #62 – “Unbroken” (dir. Angelina Jolie), “Foxcatcher” (dir. Bennett Miller)
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo
Here it is – the film that I saw multiple times in theaters without hesitation, whose wonderful Mark Woolen trailer I watched over and over again, and which I haven’t stopped thinking about since. By the usual standards of Iñárritu, Birdman is a downright chipper film, featuring the backstage relationship between Broadway actors (Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts), as well as the “Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird-suit” who wishes to take his place in their midst, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). The film is shot in a self-identified “hyper-realistic” fashion, seemingly taking place in a single, continuous shot. And as Mike Ryan at ScreenCrush deftly points out, Keaton is not a perfect match for this character’s career, but he’s certainly close enough to inspire the comparison, and Keaton’s performance feels incredibly personal either way (when his gruff Birdman persona informs him in voiceover that “60 is the new 30”, for instance). Thomson’s costar, Broadway diva Mike Shiner (Norton) makes superlative use of the charm and (alleged real-life) tendency to creatively take over whatever production he’s on. Emma Stone is marvelously and deliberately unlikable as Thomson’s acerbic, recovering-addict daughter, Sam, and Zach Galifianakis proves once again that his best comic acting involves being a crying straight-man. In the tradition of Ratatouille (and Cloud Atlas, kinda), this film directly puts its critics in the crosshairs, in the form of NY Times theatre snob Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan).
Tabitha is, in many ways, an appallingly unprofessional critic, but what the film gets right is that criticism, at its worst, is just tossing out meaningless adjectives (or in my case, adverbs), and at its best, is merely an appeal to authority. And what can I say? The film’s not wrong, and you should see it because I’m telling you to do so. Criticism is a competing force to fanaticism, despite their mutually incestuous relationship with acts of creativity. But an act of creativity is not necessarily an intrinsic good, and Birdman is happy to confront that dour reality in the most entertaining way possible.
Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #58 – “Birdman” (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves)
- The Imitation Game (directed by Morten Tyldum)
- Boyhood (written/directed by Richard Linklater)
- Force Majeure (written/directed by Ruben Östlund)
- The Babadook (written/directed by Jennifer Kent)
- Night Moves (directed by Kelly Reichardt)
- Interstellar (directed by Christopher Nolan)
- White Bird in a Blizzard (directed by Gregg Araki)
- Guardians of the Galaxy (directed by James Gunn)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directed by the Russo Brothers)
- The Lego Movie (directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
High expectations, low results.
- The Interview (directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
You know why. In every conceivable way, including factors unrelated to the film itself, this was a massive letdown.
- Citizenfour (written/directed by Laura Poitras)
This film’s subject matter is compelling – global surveillance and information security are perhaps the most important subjects in the world right now. But when it comes down to it, this just isn’t a very well-made documentary. This film couldn’t decide whether its audience was cutting-edge tech espionage nerds who already knew every detail and technical term of this story from their own reading (including Poitras’ own articles), or the uninformed masses whose eyes will almost certainly glaze over as one ugly intelligence or encryption-based term or initialism after another is revealed. And it’s downright boring for much of its runtime.
- 22 Jump Street (directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
Lord and Miller have made quite a career out of making good movies out of seemingly terrible ideas. But their bar was rather high with this R-rated comedy sequel. I adored 21 Jump Street, and while I should have known that it was impossible to strike gold in this particular mine twice, the most frustrating part of this film is that it contains some of my favorite comedy scenes of the year (a late scene between Jonah Hill and Jillian Bell certainly counts). If it hadn’t spent so much time trying to make me hate its self-awareness, I might have enjoyed it more.
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2
At the time, I referred to this as a “tedious, aggressively stupid piece of disposable, commercial tripe”. I stand by it. I’m cheating a bit here, since my expectations were rather low from the “first” film, but this sequel actually managed to plumb new depths of pointlessness. At least Sony appears to be considering handing the Spidey-reins back to Marvel, since they clearly don’t know what to do with them.
Low expectations, high results.
- The Fault in Our Stars (directed by Josh Boone)
Despite the Neustadter/Weber script, my expectations for this film were roughly at “teen romantic melodrama” levels, but it ended up hitting me on many comparable emotional notes to Jonathan Levine’s 50/50. Trust me when I say – that’s high praise. And the leads are so charming.
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (directed by Francis Lawrence)
As a grown-up, I understand that the reason this film exists is because $2 billion is cooler than $1 billion. But while the first needlessly split Harry Potter film was a resounding thud, Mockingjay – Part 1 gives itself plenty of raison d’être. Despite the occasional contrived action beat, this film really brought home the realities of warfare in a world with a substantially reduced human population and grievous inequality in its population. At its best, the film brought Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) into a bunker under aerial bombardment by the Capitol, and reminded me favorably of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. What that gobbledygook should tell you is that everything old and adapted can be made fresh and new again, as well as the fact that an economic property can also be artful. That point may seem obvious, but without the occasional reminder, we might just have to stop watching studio films. And this song is nothing if not artful. This is a film that telegraphs its every artful[ly constructed] moment [of propaganda], then delivers fully on each promise.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (directed by Bryan Singer)
I’m not thrilled about the insane jumble of IP rights surrounding Marvel properties, but this film is proof positive that a comic book movie can try doing something completely different from The Avengers, and mostly succeed. Sony learned the exact inverse of this lesson with one of my disappointments above.
- Neighbors (directed by Nicholas Stoller)
Another slight cheat here, since Stoller has pretty much never disappointed me with his comedies, but this one looked rather dubious going in. What it delivered was the right kind of comic warfare – one in which both sides have legitimate grievances, and they each take turns going too far with it. And I stand by my bizarre statement that this is the Game of Thrones of R-rated college comedies.
- John Wick (directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
Turns out I missed Keanu Reeves performing awesome stunts and killing bad guys. Who knew?
Daniel’s Top 10 Films of 2014
Everything above represents Glenn’s top (and bottom) picks for the year – but FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year, and we often disagreed! Here are Daniel’s Top 10 films of 2014.
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- The Imitation Game
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- The Theory of Everything
- Edge of Tomorrow
- Gone Girl
- Force Majeure
- Fish & Cat
- The Lego Movie