1 – BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Looking back at the films I loved the most this year, I see a wide range of genres: comedy, drama, science-fiction, action, romance, superheroes, eroticism… What do these movies have in common? Energy! Whether through effortless storytelling, dynamic cinematography, brilliant editing, an avalanche of ideas, non-stop gags and stunts (™ LexG), overwhelming emotion, exhilarating music, lively performances or a combination of those things, my favorite movies displayed plenty of energy.
And if there’s one picture in 2014 that was particularly filled with energy, it was Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s hyperkinetic, surreal backstage yarn. Almost entirely shot in a series of stunning long takes set to a percussive score by Antonio Sánchez, “Birdman” is a veritable technical tour de force, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera relentlessly wandering around the sets, never missing a beat. Equally impressive is the way all the actors not only hit their marks, but also deliver stellar performances. There’s been a lot of hype about how great Michael Keaton is in the lead and he is, but he often comes close to having the film stolen away from him by Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and especially Emma Stone. Heck, even Zach Galifianakis does wonderful work here! Everyone in the cast is amazing, really, passionately bringing the their characters to vibrant life and biting into the snappy dialogue. This is absolutely electrifying filmmaking, a cast and crew at the top of their game, all over Broadway and in one particularly memorable scene, right through Times Square!
2 – GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
I first saw the year’s most popular movie at an early private screening and loved it then, but it was when I saw it again at the big Fantasia International Film Festival premiere in a packed house of enthusiastic geeks that I completely fell in love with it. This is close to being my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movie so far, give or take “The Avengers”, thanks to witty writing and dynamic direction by James Gunn, the best soundrack of the year and a totally awesome cast of actors having a great time playing some instantly iconic characters: Chris Pratt as the cocky Starlord, Zoe Saldana as the lethal Gamora, Dave Bautista as the humorously humorless Drax, Bradley Cooper as the badass Rocket Raccoon and Vin Diesel as the irresistible Groot. Some people are all about Cannes-approved international cinema or they can’t get enough of middlebrow Oscar-bait biopics. To me, there’s not much that can be as satisfying as a perfectly well-oiled Hollywood blockbuster firing on all cylinders. This is why we go to the movies.
3 – WHIPLASH
First, there’s how frenzied, almost possessed Miles Teller is when he’s sitting behind the drums. Then there’s the hilariously and/or disturbingly mean, ruthless, cruel and arrogant J.K. Simmons as a teacher who keeps pushing him beyond his limits, leaving him in a puddle of tears, sweat and blood. As great as Damien Chazelle’s writing can be, it’s nothing compared to how masterful his work behind the camera is. From his use of inserts and close-ups to his sense of rhythm and his direction of actors, Chazelle endlessly impresses, earning comparisons to such genius filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone. You have to see the rivetingly intense performance scenes to believe them – they’re action scenes as much as they are musical numbers! All the while, “Whiplash” is also thought-provoking, making us question our notions of ambition, motivation and determination. How far are you willing to go to be the best? Does the end justify the means? Wisely, the film leaves it up to us to decide…
4 – INTERSTELLAR
Reminding of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Gravity”, but also of “Signs”, “Interstellar” is driven by the hope that there is a meaning to life and a sense to the chaos of the universe. This is hardcore science-fiction, with a lot of talk about wormholes and blackholes, relativity and singularity, quantum mechanics, etc. Matthew McConaughey gives a very emotional performance that anchors the film and he’s well supported by a wonderful cast that also includes Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain. As intellectually challenging as “Interstellar” can be, it’s also a very entertaining picture with things like an endearing robot sidekick, awesome spaceships and riveting action scenes. And as great as I found the screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, I was even more amazed by the stunning visuals courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and the epic, quasi-prog score by Hans Zimmer. A truly grandiose cinema experience.
5 – WILD
Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, “Wild” stars Reese Witherspoon as a young woman who, in the mid-1990s, set out to hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. As written by Nick Hornby and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the film begins in media res, without telling us why Cheryl decided to put herself in this ordeal or who she is. It’s only little by little, via a series of flashbacks, that we’ll find out more about her. “Wild” goes back and forth in time seemingly randomly, fascinatingly following its main character’s stream of consciousness. The storytelling is amazingly organic. I don’t know how much of it is Hornby’s screenplay, but one of thing’s for sure: the editing in “Wild” is absolutely brilliant. Kudos to Vallée himself and Martin Pensa for giving the film an incredibly involving, unpredictable, impressionistic flow, making “Wild” a purely cinematic character study. As for Reese Witherspoon, she gives her all here, physically and emotionally. She’s embodying a rather flawed woman, but that doesn’t make her any less endearing.
6 – THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
Before this film, I hadn’t cried at the movies in years. But how much sadder can you get than a film about young people dying of cancer? Now, here’s the thing: that isn’t the thing that got me. What’s most moving is that these young people are so full of life and love. That’s what you come out of the theatre with, not death. And for that, it’s the incredibly heartfelt and charismatic lead performances by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort that you have to be thankful for. The chemistry between them is to die for (no pun intended) and you really fall in love along with them. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking to know that they only have a limited amount of time they can enjoy… But enjoy it, they do, and so do we.
7 – BOYHOOD
Even though the film lasts 165 minutes, it doesn’t feel long because the storytelling is so effortless, skillfully using ellipses to capture 12 years in the life of a boy and his family. Richard Linklater really lucked out when he cast Ellar Coltrane. You’re immediately taken in by his big expressive eyes and by his very natural performance. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch him, his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) get older right in front of us; kids especially change so fast! Some drama happens here and there, but for the most part, this is a thick slice of life or a hanging out movie, very much in the vein of Linklater’s “Slacker”, “Dazed and Confused” and “Before” trilogy.
8 – NYMPH()MANIAC: VOL. I
“I’m just a bad human being,” says Joe (alternately Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, both tremendous) early into this first and best part of Lars von Trier’s epic, supposedly pornographic film. We listen to Joe as she tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) the long, “moral” story of her life as a sinner. The events she recounts are captivating, but there’s also something to be said about the way von Trier presents them, throwing in various visual inserts, on-screen captions and whatnot, not to mention a lot of really interesting dialogue laced with philosophy, psychology and of course, black humor (that Uma Thurman scene!). It all culminates with a stunning split-screen sequence and a great cliffhanger.
9 – EDGE OF TOMORROW
“Groundhog Day” and “Starship Troopers” are two of my favorite movies, so a mash-up of them had to be right up my alley, right? Tom Cruise stars as Major William Cage, who finds himself in the middle of a post-apocalyptic D-Day, battling aliens and quickly dying… But then he wakes up, realizing that he’s gone back to the previous day. Before long, the movie starts rebooting over and over, leading to a lot of alternately thrilling and hilarious beats. Behind the camera, Doug Liman directs the hell out of this, nearly reaching James Cameron levels of awesome sci-fi action. There’s even a Cameron-style tough female hero involved, played by Emily Blunt, who out-machoes Cruise.
10 – 22 JUMP STREET
I liked, but didn’t love “21 Jump Street”. Best thing about it was definitely the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. And guess what? That’s also true of “22 Jump Street” and right from the get-go, it’s a hoot to watch the two of them goofing on Michael Bay/“Bad Boys”-style action posturing. It’s also amusing how the film throws in a bunch of self-aware jokes about sequels, how they tend to be more of the same, but bigger and whatnot. So now, our buddy cops are going undercover in college – hilarity ensues. I’m not kidding, it really does! I haven’t laughed out loud during a movie as often in a long time. I’ve seen better films this year, but very few managed to make me this happy.
SPECIAL MENTION – THE INTERVIEW
I haven’t even seen Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s latest comedy. You probably haven’t either, because of those North Korean motherfuckers who are using terror to stop people from seeing a dumb little funny movie. As such, sight unseen, this seems like one of the most important movies of 2014. Let’s not let terrorists decide what we can or can’t watch. I’m hoping I’ll get to enjoy “The Interview” sooner rather than later.
“The Interview” has been released in a few hundred independent theaters in the U.S. and online! Freedom!