Top Fifteen Films of 2014

By Abe Rose

I think it’s time to retroactively look at the best films in years past. These lists may not reflect how I currently feel about each film at this moment in time, but like a time capsule, my initial reactions of the year are preserved.

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15. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

This was the best summer blockbuster of 2014. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a movie with the singular bad idea of having too many prepositional phrases in its title, but it certainly makes up for it by having an abundance of good ideas everywhere else. Instead of focusing on the human perspective, for the most part, the storytellers have decided to stick primarily with a primate perspective. The first third of the movie is incredibly unusual for it is told almost entirely in ape sign language, playing like a foreign film. It explores an extremely unique culture, and the movie deserves praise for taking great chances.

The movie’s drama is stronger than any Apes movie before it, mostly because it pits the Apes and the humans as being equally desperate, equally vulnerable and equally untrusting. There would be great benefits to both cultures if the two could coexist, but fear on both sides could light sparks that threaten to burn everything down. A lot of the early interactions between these two cultures strike up many parallels in history in which native populations first encountered colonial invaders. It’s more than just another ol’ Planet of the Apes movie, this is a movie that actually has things to say about multiculturalism and coexistence. It is a deeply intelligent commentary in the vehicle of a summer blockbuster. Had it kept that up and not chickened out during a crucial plot point near the end, this movie would have been much higher on my list.

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14. Inherent Vice

This may just be the most incomprehensible movie P.T. Anderson has made yet, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. His movies are never to be taken lightly; they are all weird, paranoid and bizarrely funny. In an adaptation of the Pynchon novel, Anderson has crafted a collision of two very different cinema genres: the 1940’s film noir, and the stoner comedy. That seems like those genres would go together just about as well as nacho chips with castor oil, and that just about sums up the texture of the movie. It has a plot that is as hard-boiled as a Sam Spade crime story, but the hero here is a sandal-wearing hippie who is constantly blazed out of his mind. This is a movie that I’m sure will frustrate many, but as for me, I really enjoyed the weirdness of it all. It’s a movie that pays close attention to mannerisms and eccentricities. As for the plot, who knows what its actually about? Not even the characters themselves seem to understand what’s going on; their minds are pretty fried.

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13. Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s films are guaranteed to always look visually engaging. His palette is gorgeous, his compositions are beautiful, and his style is immensely whimsical. However, some criticisms I sometimes have with his other work is that sometimes I feel that his characters are overly-cartoonish, and his films at times meander off the tracks. What separates his standard films from his great films is if his visual style is actually in service of a truly engaging story, or not. If not, his films tend to spin their wheels going nowhere in particular. That might seem to contradict the statements I just made about Inherent Vice’s plot not mattering much, but the difference is that the characters in that movie get lost in an overabundance of plot, while Wes Anderson characters seem to be wading around in a non-existent plot. But thankfully, this time around, Anderson’s style is in service of the story, instead of the other way around.

Grand Budapest Hotel is like a Wes Anderson version of a Grand Hotel crime adventure. Its set in the fictional European country of Zubroka, and parallels the real history of the rise of 1930’s fascism. Its a light-hearted and silly poke at real oppression in a dark period of history, and a great question to ponder is whether or not this type of approach is suitable for the dark subject matter. Maybe it is. Every now and then we need to take a break from the reality of the world and simply laugh in the face of dictators. Apparently, Benito Mussolini apparently spent a year eating nothing but crackers and drinking milk, and it gave him a serious ulcer. That’s the kind of historic detail that we need to laugh at when studying history, as it gives a much needed chuckle of relief in the midst of the overpowering weight of death and genocide.

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12. A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year is a Macbethian story plopped into the New York crime wave of the early 1980’s. While the Oil Tycoon may not synonymous with Shakespearean Anti-hero, the struggle to climb upwards to power on a treacherous summit of ethical dilemmas is the same timeless theme in both stories. Abel Morales has been lured by the American Dream, and all is almost within his grasp. He plays by the rules for the most part. But how is he able to still keep climbing upward if his competitors don’t play by the rules? This is a film about a man truly being challenged to simultaneously have it all, while keeping his family safe. It’s the Eat-Your-Cake-and-Have-It-Too Gangster Edition.

The American Dream is an ideal that assumes that everyone plays by the rules and does not cheat. If two businessmen go about their competing businesses, they both are given an opportunity to achieve economic success. Its a fair game. But if one of them, say, repeatedly steals the others product, and nothing legally can be done to stop it, then what would a good, moral businessman do? Could a good man still remain a good man when his livelihood and his family is threatened? These are extremely thoughtful questions that the film explores. This is not a movie about violence, as the title might suggest; it is about trying to live by wisdom when faced by violence.

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11. Jodorowsky’s Dune

This should be required viewings in film classes for a number of reasons. Hailed as “the greatest movie never made,” the Jodorowsky version of Dune certainly could have been the pinnacle of 70’s space opera. Jodorowsky’s cast included Salvador Dali as the Emperor, Orson Welles as the Baron, and David Carradine as Duke Leto. For the soundtrack, he got Pink Floyd to agree to do it. And for the art department, he got Jean Giraud and H.R. Giger to create the art style. But the film was too ambitious, and the studios had no frame of reference for what the movie would be like. Usually, Hollywood studios tend to greenlight movies if they have a precedent in mind. “It’s like Star Wars mixed with The Godfather!” But this movie was so revolutionary for its time that no studio would touch it.

But the studios had no problem disassembling the crew that Jodorowsky discovered to use them for newer projects like Alien and Star Wars. A lot of those classic sci-fi movies that we know and respect now may not have even been created if Jodorowsky’s version of Dune hadn’t permeated through the Hollywood consciousness.

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10. American Sniper

Here’s a question: why is it the norm to filter war films into two categories, “pro-war” or “anti-war”? I’ve always felt that great movies about war are about the emotional experience, because message movies rarely ever will change anyone’s political views about war. What you feel about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq likely won’t change by watching Clint Eastwood’s newest film about the best sniper in U.S. history. What can change, however, is the emotional insight it could leave you with concerning the weight and baggage of war. PTSD is a serious symptom that should never be taken lightly.

On the other hand, the film does not humanize the targets of the sniper. They are not given backgrounds, and no insight is given into their motives. This movie isn’t the platform for that. It is a movie about the mindset of Chris Kyle. It is narrow in its views of good and evil, without a slightest shade of gray or anything in between. With 160 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle did not afford himself the luxury of hesitation. He would not allow himself to linger on the moral ambiguities when he had to make quick, life-or-death decisions. To him, it was always about defending America first. That is his justification, but what the movie explores is show the lasting effects of having those many kills on a conscience despite the justifications. Its imagery is haunting. The movie succeeds in sympathizing with the American sniper. Whether the viewer is pro-war, anti-war, or anything in between, the film can present all with an opportunity to examine a specific mindset, and specific individual that had to carry out ethically difficult decisions in painful situations. This is Clint Eastwood’s best film since Letters From Iwo Jima.

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9. Life Itself

Whenever I had to do those assignments in school that had me write about my personal hero, I wouldn’t go for the most likely responses. I’m sure I confused a lot of my teachers when I would write down “Pulitzer-winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert.” Ebert had the most educational influence on me. His reviews shaped my understanding of film. His questions challenged me to think critically. This movie encapsulates all of why Ebert was so dear to so many people. I’ve read Ebert since I was about twelve, so I had a pretty good idea that I knew Ebert well, but there were things in this movie about Ebert that surprised me. Its a well-documented film about a man who set the standard for American film criticism.

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8. The Lego Movie

Had it only been a blistering social commentary, The Lego Movie would be remembered as being a hilarious comedy. Had it stayed at only being a property tie-in, The Lego Movie would be remembered as being a wonderful crossover, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But this movie soars beyond what is expected of a children’s toy movie. It is an endlessly inventive film that seems to take advantage of all the Lego affiliated products to create unique and inspiring scenarios. I don’t think I’ve ever expected to see Gandalf interacting with Dumbledore, or to see Ninja Turtles, Superman, Star Wars, and Abraham Lincoln all in the same movie. And the way that it brings these crossover titles together is reminiscent of actually playing with toys as a child. I full-well remember having similar adventures with having my GI Joes get into car chases with Ariel, the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy edition.

The movie is incredibly funny. It understands that adults are sitting in those audience seats just as the kids, and the film does not dumb down all the jokes to a 4-year old level. Kids will like the pretty colors and the Lego Batman, but the adults will understand the social satire from Lego Starbucks coffee costing 47 dollars to WyldStyle’s criticism of the song “Everything is Awesome” for being too mainstream. It fully understands that its audience is not exclusive only to kids. For many adults, Legos have a lasting appeal, and when it is time to say good-bye to toys, Toy Story 3-style, many decide, “Okay, but I will at least keep this Lego set for sentimental value. And that one too. And perhaps these, and these, and these.” And the entire basement remains a Lego mansion. The movie gets that, and even makes one of its core themes about the differences between how adults approach Legos as opposed to kids. Are Legos meant for kids or adults? Should they be assembled to appease a collector, or should they be actually be, you know, played with? The film has great respect for the creativity of children and it encourages kids to paint outside the lines to create something new. Even the main character, a standard, generic Lego construction worker gets the starring role to serve as a reminder that the undervalued still have meaning.The ending of the film transcends the genre and it goes to a really special place. This is the funniest movie I’ve seen this year.

The only downside to a movie this well-loved is that we have to expect a gazillion sequels likely with diminishing returns in quality.

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7. Snowpiercer

Much could be said of the distribution fiasco concerning the Weinstein Company wanting to cut pretty much all of the parts spoken in the Korean language to appease a wider American audience. They ended up not doing that after an outcry. But the decision was made at the expense of giving this movie a limited U.S. Theatrical release. It’s a shame too, because had this movie had wide exposure, it could have been a bold step into the future of globalization and the movie market. The movie is made by the Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, starring Korean, American and European actors, and financed by an American company. About a fourth of the language is in Korean. That shouldn’t be scary to a movie-going audience in a world that is increasingly heading towards globalization.

The film, like many Bong Joon-Ho films before it, is a great dish of differing genres- not so much a uniform blend, but rather a lasagne of layers. On the outset there is a fine exterior of sci-fi dystopia, followed by a healthy serving of Terry Gilliam-esque inventive creation. The film’s first setting, an economy-class train car is an entire world unto itself, breathing grungy atmosphere. As the people in the lowest class struggle to climb up the social ladder to the upper class, each new train car is like its own unique unit of social parody. The film works as a great social commentary, as a sci-fi dsytopian, as a stellar action film, and at times, even a weird comedy. It’s a wonderful mishmash that just slipped under the American public’s radar.

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6. Interstellar

True sci-fi is a rarity, and Interstellar is a gold needle in a haystack across the event horizon. There have been movies and books that have tried to explain the idea of bending spacetime like a piece of two-dimensional paper to instantly travel from one point to another, but I have never seen this idea visualized by taking four dimensions of space to fold into three dimensions. The effect is astonishing. And even in the most popular sci-fis, there is rarely any talk at all about relativity causing time to move faster on some planets than other planets with lower gravity. That doesn’t even happen on Star Trek. But it’s the primary dilemma here.

Interstellar teases us with incredibly mind-blowing ideas about space and then questions why Americans have become disinterested in the whole subject. In an early scene, a school teacher emphasizes the reasons why the school curriculum deems the moon landings to be faked. In her view, the emphasis should not be on space travel and outer space; the emphasis should be placed on the economy, and farming. Too many resources are wasted on scientific endeavors. Cooper responds by pointing out that the moon landing brought about many scientific inventions that benefited humankind, like the MRI machine. This is a movie that serves like a wake-up call, a reminder that there are numerous benefits to studying space flight. All of space is still out there, waiting to be explored. Like sharks, if we do not keep moving forward, we will eventually die. This is a thoughtful, brilliant film and it is a true example of what real science fiction should be.

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5. Birdman

Birdman is expertly crafted piece of art that has a deeply pessimistic view toward expertly crafted pieces of art. Here, Avant-garde is an understatement, this is movie that takes a look at the highest forms of human art as its highest source of human pride, and effectively says, “So what? What does this all matter, if all it takes is a relatively small meteor to end it all?” It’s art that ultimately questions why it, itself, matters. It’s a movie that Nietzche might have loved, if he could were to see all those scenes of Michael Keaton flying as the superhero, Birdman, around New York City, and interpret the meaning as Birdman representing a personal ubermensch.

Describing the plot is tricky. The movie is about an aging superhero movie star going through a mid-life crisis, demanding to be taken seriously as an artist. Yet probably a more apt description would be to say that Birdman is about the decaying mind of such movie star. You never quite know if Keaton’s character really can fly over all the small people because of superpowers or an over-inflated ego. The movie delights on such ambiguities, as well as blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, theater and superhero flick, meaning and non-meaning. It creates a unique world in a crumbling frame of mind, like a Death of Salesman for the film world. This is a masterly crafted film.

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4. Selma

Its been fifty years, and we just now got a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. And upon release, it was subsequently beaten at the box office by Taken 3. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Geez. Had the movie just simply be renamed “King,” would more people be aware of its existence? Do they even know that Selma focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr.? Are the younger generations just not familiar with what took place in Selma, Alabama in 1967?

Regardless, Selma is a great movie that honors that great man. It skips with all the usual, conventional elements that make all biopics feel the same (childhood flashbacks, rough and wild youth, declaration of making the world different.) Instead, the movie is tightly focused on the events leading up the march from Selma to D.C. Something that I feel is severely lacking in modern classroom discussions about King is just how incredibly smart the man was. We talk about his accomplishments, his philosophy, his abundance of love, and his beauty with words, but rarely have I heard any discussion of how perceptive and knowledgeable he was in using his talents to utilize social change in the day-by-day planning. He could navigate the political landscape. He knew how important cameras were; that Americans had to see what was really going on in their own backyard. The movie even shows us King recognizing Malcolm X’s important contributions to the movement, despite their radically different ideologies. King was a deeply intelligent man and the movie does him great service by taking us through his strategies one step at a time to give us a clearer picture of how the man’s incredible brain worked to make the dreams of his heart closer to reality.

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3. Boyhood

This movie is one of the great feats of filmmaking, perhaps even in all cinema history. Here is a movie made over the course of twelve years, an odyssey, taking a boy into a journey to adulthood. There have been films that have done similar things, such as the Up Series, which documents moments of the same group of individuals every seven years. But Boyhood condenses those moments yearly. Instead of macro-evolution, here the focus is micro. This is about every year from childhood to adolescence. The changes are gradual. It could be called Timelapse: The Movie.

One of the major accomplishments of the film is the illusion of seeming unscripted. You have no idea where this boy’s life will go. The writing style is always present tense, and the storytellers can never give us a glimpse into the future; it is always focused on the moment, now. As the years pass, the boy has many discussions that are relevant to the culture at that time. From discussions of the Iraq War to The Dark Knight being the best movie of the year, I was constantly being brought back to each year, thinking, “Whoa, they nailed 2008. Yeah, I remember that discussion from 2003.” The reason for it feeling so spontaneous and natural is that every year they reflected on what was going on around them. Linklater has revealed how culture can directly influence the development of a young boy’s mind.

The movie is great for reasons beyond its unique filmmaking accomplishments. It’s great for reasons beyond the dedication it took to create the film. It’s unique for how it utilizes its elements to reveal new insights about time, itself. If the body of directorial work of Linklater were to be labeled with a single theme, I’d say its all about Time. And it’s about time that he is overdue for an Oscar. This is likely to be this year’s Best Picture winner.

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2. Whiplash

Had this movie gone wide release, I suspect it would have been a real crowd-pleaser. True, it is emotionally challenging in the confrontations between a verbally abusive jazz orchestra conductor and a student who aspires to be the greatest, but that isn’t to say that the movie is a downer. It is far from it. It is exhilarating. It is electrifying. It’s more of a battle of wills than a somber introspection of the teacher-student relationship. It is a clash between a drummer at Schaefer Music Academy who is determined to become one of the legendary musicians and a music conductor who uses techniques akin to torture to bring out the best in aspiring musicians. His main philosophy is, “there is no words more harmful than ‘good job.” He pushes his students to their limits, and if the student can’t handle it, they break down. It’s as if he applies social Darwinism to conducting his music lessons. The drama that results from it is turbulent and wild. Anyone who has fond memories of high school band conductors getting flustered at wrong notes will really get a kick out of J.K. Simmon’s hunt for someone out of tune in the brass section. In fact, J.K. Simmons may have just given the best performance that I have seen this year.

Whiplash is a movie that can show off an actors range through mastery of music. Most of the dynamic range of the drama comes from Miles Teller’s drumming. He plays a perfectionist, and plays far beyond the point of bloody palms. Just playing some of these songs in a 7/8 time signature would take a master musician, but these actors here are required to do it in double time, faster, slower, half tempo, all on a moment’s notice. This is one of those films in which the actors really do have to go through the same frustrations as their characters. While sweating profusely, and bleeding all over the drum set, he wrathfully punches the drum set over and over. Is that the character’s wrath, or the actor’s? There’s no telling. He had to play those drums for real and get that time signature exactly right. The fact that they shot the film in 19 days is incredible. This is the best American film of the year.

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1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Masterful. This is animation of the highest form. If Studio Ghibli truly is closing its doors, this is a great film to end on. This is among their absolute best work, and I say that having seen every Miyazaki film and just about every film that comes affiliated with Studio Ghibli. Like Grave of the Fireflies, here is an animated film that proves that the genre can be used to tell dramatically compelling stories without watering anything down to remain relatively safe for consumption. There are no quirky comic relief characters here like a Timon or a Pumbaa to distract from the darker themes; it is more Hamlet than Lion King, and it is more Snow Queen than Frozen.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on a Japanese fairy tale, much in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. A princess from the moon is curious about life on Earth, so she comes to live as a human child, and is raised by an old, poor woodcutter and his wife. But knowing that she is heavenly, the woodcutter does everything he can to make her happy, and of course, to be happy, she must live like a princess, right? That’s what every young girl wants, yes?

The movie is like an anti-Disney princess movie. It strips away the glamour of the dream and presents the day-to-day reality of what is to be expected of royalty. A princess is rich, and she has many suitors and servants, but why would that make for a happy life? She isn’t allowed to run outside because princesses must be proper. There are no simple pleasures of running through the grass, or dancing in the stream, or whistling to the wind. The film does not paint life as a princess as a enviable dream. Life like that is like living in a prison, and the film presents the case that the poor farmers live life with more freedom.

All of these themes are ones that appear in a good many stories, but rarely do other stories tell it with this much sheer power. The film comes from the director of Grave of the Fireflies, after all. Expect that same level of emotional devastation. I consider myself to be a titan when it comes to emotionally draining movies, but this one brought me shaking at my knees. It is the most powerful film I have seen of 2014, and that is why it is the best film of 2014.

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