by Patrick Allocca
In the words of Paul Thomas Anderson, “I can’t remember a year in recent memory where there were less complaints about the quality of movies” (Rolling Stone, January 2015). And while I was massively disappointed in the director’s own “Inherent Vice”, I have to agree with him—even if many of 2014’s best movies didn’t play in theaters outside of LA and NYC. In fact, that’s why I made a Top 15 list instead of the more-typical Top 10: I simply couldn’t choose just 10.
Shot intermittently over the course of 12 years, “Boyhood” is a (narrative) film unlike any other*. It’s also probably the closest I’ll come to experiencing the inherent pain of being a parent. Richard Linklater’s film begins with 6-year-old Mason Evans, Jr. and follows him until he’s 18—and the powerless audience watches as he grows and makes mistake after mistake, hoping he’ll make the right choices. I can’t think of a better metaphor for parenthood.
*Its closest analog is perhaps the “7-Up” documentary series which has followed a group of people (now in their 50s) since they were 7-years-old.
Featuring an all-drum score and shot/edited to give the illusion that it’s one continuous take, “Birdman” takes big risks and they pay off. Even though the movie is incredibly funny, it’s also pitch-black in tone—and perfectly depicts what it’s like to go mad. If Michael Keaton doesn’t win an Oscar for his performance as a washed-up film actor, I’ll eat my hat for dinner and my shirt for dessert.
Kinetic editing and fantastic performances add up to a feverishly powerful movie about a student jazz drummer and his monster of a teacher. Like most quintessential jazz songs, it builds to a crescendo unmatched in any other film I’ve seen all year. It’s also the only movie on this list that actual made me sweat due to the palpable anxiety and anticipation burned into every frame.
Under the Skin
If you’re a fan of experimental science fiction in the style of Kubrick, I’d advise you to check this out, the antithesis of sub-par “2001” garbage like “Interstellar”. Starring a fearless Scarlett Johansson, the film follows an alien who lures horny young dudes to their doom in order to harvest their nutrients. If it sounds cheesy or like an art-house “Species”, I apologize. It’s more experience than plot—and what an experience. I guarantee you’ll have a visceral reaction to this polarizing movie, even if that reaction is one of intense love or hatred towards me for recommending it.
Jake Gyllenhaal goes full-blown sociopath in a career-defining role that stands above his already-impressive filmography. The fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar makes me wonder whether the judges just spin around three times and throw darts to make their selections. Anyway, Gyllenhaal is chilling (and also strangely funny) as a thief named Lou Bloom who decides to start selling video footage of grisly accidents and crimes to local news stations in Los Angeles. This side-job builds and builds, with morally-bankrupt Lou becoming obsessed with obtaining footage at all cost. The ending really stuck with me.
Shot in glorious black-and-white, this Polish film is a small masterpiece that’s so restrained it doesn’t even rely on music or camera movement. Set in the 1960s, “Ida” tells the story of Anna, an orphan who was raised by nuns. She’s all set to take her final vows to become a nun when her whole sense of self is ripped apart: she learns that her parents were Jewish and murdered during World War II. This revelation turns the repressed Anna’s world on its head, bringing up questions of identity that are not easily resolved.
A movie that takes the controversial topic of abortion and turns it into the most successful romantic comedy of the year. Wittily-written and deftly-directed by Gillian Robespierre, the film features the unstoppable Jenny Slate who effortlessly delivers an honest and hilarious performance. Instead of being a message movie, “Obvious Child” works because it doesn’t preach. There’s never any doubt that the main character is going to have an abortion. It doesn’t dwell on ethical questions—which is, of course, what gives it its political power.
Watching this documentary on the life (and last days) of film critic Roger Ebert was like witnessing an old friend waste away in front of me. I must admit to openly sobbing during most of this movie; to say it’s difficult to watch is an understatement. Yet there’s a cathartic element in celebrating a great man, a man who was partially responsible for my pre-internet cinematic education. Documentarian Steve James doesn’t try to paint Ebert in a saintly light: he shows us the critic’s abusive side, his alcohol abuse, his issues with food. Because of that, Roger Ebert becomes something even more than an icon: he becomes a human.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 &2 (Extended)
Ah, here it is. Even if you haven’t seen this, you’ve likely heard about the controversies surrounding “Nymphomaniac”. Being a fan of writer/director Lars von Trier, I eagerly anticipated this film, though I didn’t have a chance to see it in theaters. I only recently watched both extended volumes (which I’m considering one movie, since that’s the way von Trier intended it) and I was shocked more by the emotional and intellectual depth than by the graphic sex scenes (of which there are plenty). By the by, when I type “graphic”, I mean “GRAPHIC”—as in, genitalia-and-penetration galore. If on-screen sex strongly offends you, I’d recommend it to you even more. Why? Because the taboos that exist around sex shouldn’t and it’s people like you who are holding us back. The film was made to be loved or hated. Either way, you’ll dissect and discuss it.
The Raid 2
Sequels occasionally expand upon the original, but they almost never completely annihilate the first film. “The Raid 2” does just that, as it renders “The Raid: Redemption” obsolete. An Indonesian action movie, “The Raid 2” picks up immediately after the events of the first movie and, for 2 and a half exhilarating hours, it balances brutal, fantastic action scenes with great plotting and memorable characters. From what I’ve read, its world premiere at Sundance last year caused an overwhelming response as the audience just about lost it. I can believe that: this was the most fun I’ve had in a theater all year. Watch it with a group of friends.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson has made a career out of movies like this but I never tire of them. They’re always the perfect length, filmed impeccably, colored beautifully, and acted wonderfully. I’m also perpetually smiling at the screen when I watch one. “Hotel” is no exception. Watch it to laugh and smile. Then, if you’re like me, resist the urge to re-watch it immediately.
It’s quite refreshing to see a gross out comedy with a female lead. 5 minutes in to this German sex comedy, I thought I knew what I was getting: a charming, off-beat, film about a sexually-open 18-year-old named Helen. Upon viewing it in its entirety, I’d still use those adjectives to describe it—with the addition of a few more. But I don’t think I’ll tell you those adjectives here, as it’d color your experience too much. Suffice it to say, the movie isn’t just what it seems to be. Yes, Helen (Carla Juri) uses vegetables for masturbation and goes to the hospital because she cuts herself while shaving her anal hair. But, like the aforementioned “Nymphomaniac”, it uses shock value to draw viewers in and then pulls the rug out from under them. Carla Juri is a sheer joy to watch (just try to look away), and I hope to see more of her.
An Irish drama about a priest doesn’t sound too thrilling but when said priest is played by Brendan Gleeson, it changes everything. “Calvary” begins in a church confessional, with Father James (Gleeson) receiving a death threat from an unidentified parishioner. The parishioner tells him he will kill James in a week’s time. From there, we’re introduced to the small Irish town’s residents, many of whom are potential suspects. Yet the film doesn’t dwell on the mystery. Its focus is on the concept of faith, and “Calvary” explores that subject masterfully. Gleeson imbues Father James with a real sadness, his burden is a burden of faith. He experiences both literal and spiritual pain, his beliefs are put through the wringer. No answers are given but the questions “Calvary” raises are more than worth the price of admission.
Guardians of the Galaxy
I won’t dwell on this one too much, as it is a massively-popular Marvel movie that you’ve probably seen at this point. If you haven’t, then you probably are actively trying to not watch it. I will say this, though: even if you’re not a Marvel fan, you should see it if you enjoy great popcorn movies. On that level, it’s close to perfect—especially when compared to most of the shit Hollywood churns out nowadays. Even though it made a ton of money, the goal wasn’t JUST to make a ton of money. There’s love here.
Yes, this is a movie based on collection of short stories by James Franco. Yes, yet another Coppola wrote and directed this film. Yes, there was a brief controversy surrounding Franco’s unusual promotion of the movie on Instagram. And yes, Franco is in the movie. Oh, and Emma Roberts (niece of Julia) stars in it. If you’re still with me, then you’re prepared to view this coming-of-age film which (despite all of the baggage mentioned above) manages to portray a group of teenagers in a very truthful—and sometimes brutal—light. Franco is quite good in it, but it’s Roberts who proves that she’s not just coasting on her Aunt Julia’s name (though I’m sure that’s gotten her through many doors). She’s the real deal, exuding teenage heartbreak and anxiety without any bit of overplaying. And Gia Coppola proves that she’s got talent, though I’m sure she will develop more of her own style in future films.
I actually made a Top 25 list, but really didn’t want to turn this article into a novella. Here they are, if you wanted to check these out as well. They’re all excellent (at least to me):
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
- Begin Again
- Imitation Game
- John Wick