Looking Back: Alex's Top 10 Favorite Films of 2014 - Dolan Takes #1
by Alex Billington
December 30, 2014
Not my tempo. It all began at Sundance 2014, with the opening night film, a little breakout indie called Whiplash starring Miles Teller & J.K. Simmons. Now, 12 months later, we're at the end of the year and I'm ready to reveal my Top 10 list for 2014 - which includes Whiplash. It was the first film I saw the festival and I was floored, I kept thinking, there's no way but maybe this is one film that might remain my favorite all year long. The little film that could, and indeed, it lasted the whole year because it's a perfect example of what I love in cinema - exhilarating films that leave you in a total state of awe at the end, impressed by the potential of cinema. The rest of these 10 films on my list also had that same kind of effect, the experience being a key component in my connection to the films I genuinely love. Take a look at my 2014 picks below.
A few notes: this is a list of my favorite films, not the best films of the year, these are the ones that I love for my own reasons and I'll try to explain why with each one. As always, I wish I had so much more to time to watch/rewatch films, and see everything else that played in 2014, but that's impossible so this is just what I decided to run with. Also - my film selection is based on the date when I originally saw the film at a public event, including film festivals (Cannes, Sundance) or public releases limited or otherwise. This list is not based on only film's released in 2014, but only the ones I saw in 2014, and is a good representation of the best of the best, in my opinion. I'm admittedly a bit anxious to share this, its been a while, but let's jump in.
#10. Birdman directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
A beautiful, cathartic inside look at performance art and the struggles of creativity. Aside from the fact that it's a technical marvel, thanks to the extraordinary talents of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is a cathartic release and change in direction for Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, who lets out on everything from critics to art to love and everything inbetween. It's so much fun to watch, and so meticulously crafted in the way we follow Riggan around this theater for four days as he interacts with the people that surround him. The performances are all phenomenal, but Edward Norton and Emma Stone are at their very best. I keep re-watching this film and it's just as amusing and fun as it was the first time.
#9. The Imitation Game directed by Morten Tyldum
As much as I'll admit the actual film itself isn't perfect, this is a list of my favorites, and I really adore this film. It's one film I'll happily rewatch at any time. The score by Alexandre Desplat (one of the best of the year), the performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (and everyone else in the cast), the message behind the story (that it might be the one you least expect) are remarkable. There's a very invigorating feel to this film from director Morten Tyldum, the kind of feeling that inspires, and makes us contemplate the potential of any and everyone. I've thought more about this film, and Alan Turing and what he accomplished, than pretty much any other film this year, and it deserves a spot because of the lasting effect it has had on me.
#8. Snowpiercer directed by Bong Joon-ho
"We control the engine, we control the world." I'm a very big fan of Bong Joon-ho, he's one of my favorite directors, and his first sci-fi film is close to being a masterpiece (Jeremy loved it too). Chris Evans is outstanding in the lead role, and the rest of the ensemble cast is fun to watch, especially Tilda Swinton as Mason. It's gritty, it's brutal, and doesn't hold back. The dialogue does get cheesy, but I love the setup of the train and the action is entertaining. Most of all, the film's entire setup with the train representing society and each car being a step up in the hierarchy is exceedingly brilliant, something that others who pass this film off failed to recognize. Bong Joon-ho is a masterful, one-of-a-kind filmmaker and show it with this film.
#7. John Wick directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
The best action movie of the year? Yes. (Though I still do love The Raid 2.) Not only did Keanu Reeves find the perfect role to take on after a few dull years, but this film just kicks ass and yet still has heart to it. As cliche as the puppy is, those kind of fun touches made me flip for this film when I saw it at Fantastic Fest. The action scenes are better than every other film in the last few years, except for The Raid 2, and the story is simple but effective. The world it's set in, the character of John Wick, and the streamlined focus of the film are all aspects that make it stand out. It reminded me of the kind of awesome 90's action movies I grew up with that we just don't see anymore, and it wasn't until I saw this that I realized how much I miss them.
#6. Blind directed by Eskil Vogt
When I saw this film in Berlin, the director introduced it by stating that he was no longer surprised by films, and wanted to make something that could even surprise him. He did just that. Many of the films of my Top 10 are unique, there's nothing else like them, but this one perhaps is more original than any of the others this year. Inspired by how everything in life changes for a person going blind, Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt's film twists the usual narrative structure we're familiar with for something bold, more ambitious, yet just as emotional to experience. I would argue that a film like this could only come from somewhere outside of America, as it embraces edgy cinematic sensibilities that most filmmakers are afraid of broaching.
#5. The Overnighters directed by Jesse Moss
The only documentary to make the cut, but it's also the best documentary of the year (my Top 10 Docs can be found here). Jesse Moss delivers an enthralling, contemporary documentary that examines a very sensitive issue (of religion's place in today's society) with immense complexity. I was impressed by every aspect of it, from the footage he collected and presented, to the reveal of the story and how it unfolds, to the way he handles Pastor Renke with humility and care. I suspect we're only at the beginning of Jesse Moss' illustrious career as a documentary filmmaker, but he has definitely put himself on the map with this one.
#4. Selma directed by Ava DuVernay
The people! Ava DuVernay's masterpiece is an enraging, extraordinary, evocative film. It really got to me, I love this film with all my heart and want everyone to see it. The film mirrors contemporary society in the most powerful, poignant way, and yet doesn't ever lose its edge in telling the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's endeavor to organize a protest march in Alabama in 1965. David Oyelowo as MLK, oh man, THIS is a performance for the ages, but I can't forget the rest of the superb cast. It's a masterpiece not only for its cast, but for the way DuVernay concentrates on the intimate moments that become the important factors in this defining moment in history. Do not ignore this film. It is your cinematic duty to see Selma.
#3. Force Majeure directed by Ruben Östlund
A Swedish dark comedy set at a ski resort in the Alps about a family on a ski vacation? This film was made for me. I saw it at the world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and knew the moment it was over that I would be singing its praises for the rest of the year. I totally love the gorgeous shots of the mountains and the resort, and I love the way director Ruben Östlund gives us a very real skiing experience (unlike anything Hollywood has ever produced involving skiing). But it's the ingenious screenplay that makes this film so amazing, weaving complex human relationship drama with clever comedy all wrapped around a story that actually speaks volumes about the way we interact with each other. Anyone game for a ski trip to the Alps?
#2. Whiplash directed by Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle, you rock. This was the first film I saw at Sundance 2014, effectively the first real 2014 film I saw this year. And yet it has lasted all year long, topping my list (it was almost #1) at the end because it's just so fucking good. My heart was beating so fast the first time I saw this. My mind was racing by the end, I couldn't stop thinking about how inspiring, how exciting, how remarkable this film is, I wanted to jump up and cheer. It epitomizes the against-all-odds independent spirit, and shows that passion can triumph over incessant discouragement in a cynical and brutal world. The two lead performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are both phenomenal, watching these two battle with words (and drums) was electrifying, and it's just as exhilarating to watch again (and again). A tip of the hat to Mr. Chazelle and his cast/crew.
#1. Mommy directed by Xavier Dolan
THIS film! My favorite. There is a moment in Mommy (I won't ruin it, but the music cue is "Wonderwall") that took my breath away. Thanks to this scene alone, which I would argue is the most progressive moment in cinema all year, still leaves me in awe every repeat viewing, this film deserves the #1 spot. Nothing has topped that moment and I consider it the defining scene in cinema in 2014 (article forthcoming). But on top of that, the film is meticulously crafted by one of my favorite young filmmakers, Xavier Dolan, who gives us an incredibly rich, intimate Quebecois character study of mother and son. This film doesn't have any flaws, it's perfect, from the soundtrack to the cinematography, the performances, the costumes/production design, the direction, the story, everything works in harmony. I had to see it again to confirm that it's my #1, and that I don't feel as strongly about any other film. I don't. This is it. Xavier Dolan tops my 2014 list.
Runner Ups: Laura Poitras' Citizenfour, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Richard Linklater's Boyhood, David Fincher's Gone Girl, Marah Strauch's Sunshine Superman, Gareth Evans' The Raid 2, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, David Ayer's Fury.
Here's some extra categories that I'll toss up to peruse; I wasn't able to write about every last one of these:
Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game is my #1 performance; followed by David Oyelowo in Selma, though there are so many others: Michael Keaton in Birdman, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice, even Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Best Actress: I want to give it all to Jessica Chastain for always being amazing, in everything from The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby to A Most Violent Year plus Interstellar. But Marion Cotillard is also incredible in Two Days, One Night, and I need to mention how terrific Rosamund Pike is in Gone Girl.
Best Scores: The Imitation Game by Alexandre Desplat is my #1 of this year; followed by Tracks by Garth Stevenson and Interstellar by Hans Zimmer. Love these scores, they're beautiful, and I listen to them often. Also, originality award to Mica Levi for her Under the Skin score. More Top 10 Soundtracks.
Best Cinematography: Ah this is a tough one, but it was a great year for Bradford Young with A Most Violent Year (my top pick) and Selma. But I also must add Emmanuel Lubezki for his work on Birdman, so brilliant; and I'll toss in Ryszard Lenczewski & Lukasz Zal, the two DPs for the B&W Polish film Ida.
That about wraps up my Top 10 of 2014 and some extra selections. I had a great year seeing films all over the world and I agree with Jeremy when he says that if you claim this wasn't a good year for film, you didn't see enough great films - there are so many out there. They may not always be playing in your local art house all the time, but they do make it out there. I love the variety of films that are offered every year, and even if you don't agree with my own list, you are sure to find some gems out there. If you're looking for more tips and more year end coverage, review our Looking Back posts and check out Jeremy's Top 10 of 2014 here.