10. The Babadook
“The Babadook” was one of the biggest surprises I had at the theater this year. Going into this Australian indie with very little knowledge of it’s premise, I was roped in by it’s subtle intelligence and understated psychological horror. Essie Davis turns in a powerful performance as a widowed woman whose mind begins to unravel after unwisely reading “Mister Babadook” (the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing of children’s books) to her behaviorally challenged son. With shades of both Polanski’s “Repulsion” and Kubrick’s “The Shining,” this is a truly smart monster movie that plays out as a metaphor for the parental rage that you lock in the cellar and quietly feed in the dark.
I took “Chef” to be Jon Favareu’s love letter to independent cinema. Having successfully graduated from low-budget filmmaking to mega-blockbusters, Favreau returns to form here in a small movie about a chef who loses his high-end, swanky restaurant job and opts to open a food truck, where his creativity won’t be stifled and where he’ll be allowed to re-ignite the love of his craft. Draw the parallels between food and filmmaking as well as the parallels between food critics and movie critics, which are fairly obvious, but never laid on too thick. Ultimately, what’s cooked up here is a buddy comedy, road movie, underdog story and father-son bonding experience which all end up as an endearing nod to indie filmmaking.
8. -Tie- X-Men: Days Of Future Past & Guardians Of The Galaxy
Having grown up with the “X-Men” as a staple of my childhood, I’ve enthusiastically followed the flicks and watched the series splinter off in several different directions. With the exception of Matthew Vaughn’s excellent “First Class,” I’ve always felt the best material was produced with Bryan Singer in the director’s chair and “Days Of Future Past” further cements that sentiment. The best of both worlds get to collide with the veteran cast integrating with the newcomers in what may be the best film of the series (and honestly, was there a cooler scene this year than Quicksilver single-handedly taking out the Secret Service?)
“Guardians” came out of left field for me and brought a wholly obscure gang of superheroes into the zeitgeist. By the end, it’d been as if we’d grown up with them in the culture the way we had with the X-Men or Avengers (WE are Groot!) Kudos to James Gunn for making what easily qualified as the funnest blockbuster of the year.
7. Life Itself
Siskel and Ebert may be the most chiefly responsible for bringing film criticism into pop culture. I personally grew up watching “Siskel & Ebert: At The Movies” and Ebert’s website remained on my bookmarks since highschool as my go-to movie site on Friday morning. “Life Itself” documents Roger’s career at the Chicago Sun Times, how he rose to be the well-known, well-respected personality he is today and his profound battle with cancer. The latter is sometimes hard to watch, but amazing were the relationships he formed with his wife, Chaz and his partner Gene Siskel. One of my personal goals was to eventually make a film well-known enough for him to review. Sadly, I’ll never get the achieve that dream, but I’m grateful for the wealth of wisdom he imparted onto the film community. His is a story worth knowing.
6. The Drop
A crime film about a drop bar in Brooklyn, “The Drop” contains the last performance by the great James Gandolfini and an equally compelling performance by the amazingly versatile Tom Hardy (seriously, try to wrap your brain around his work in this film, this year’s earlier “Locke” and the fact that he’s also Bane.) This has all of the brooding, skeletons in the closest and dark twists and turns you’d expect of Dennis Lehane penned screenplay – what surprised me most was how much I didn’t see coming and how eager I am to revisit this.
It may forever be the film most widely noted for the fact that it’s star (and entire cast, for that matter) age in real time over the course of 12 years – but this is more than just a gimmick or plot device. Linklater has always been an incredibly personal and introspective filmmaker and by allowing himself the patience and flexibility to shoot in spurts over more than a decade, he’s created one of the most honest (sometimes painfully so) representations of the coming-of-age film. Similar in many ways to George Roy Hill’s movie adaptation of “The World According To Garp,” “Boyhood” cuts together as almost the highlight reel of Mason’s youth, sometimes jumping months or even years between events, taking us through his trials, tribulations and “the parade of drunken assholes”, right up to that familiar moment of transcendence where boyhood becomes manhood.
I found myself thinking a lot about Victoria Snelgrove while watching this movie. She was a young woman who was tragically killed by way of a “non-lethal” weapon after the Red Sox 2004 ALC win, when police attempted to quell a riot by firing pepper spray pellets into a crowd. What I remember most about this event was the much maligned, gory image of her that was printed in the Boston Herald showing her bleeding to death in the street. The questions that flooded my mind pertained to the morality attached to the person who took the picture and the people willing to publish it. “Nightcrawler,” in a way, attempts to dissect both of these types of people. A powerhouse showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting talents (this is hands down his best work to date) the film is also a fitting indictment of our sensationalized media. 10 years after Victoria Snelgrove’s death and it seems like Nina Romina’s analogy of the news being “a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut,“ is no longer the exception, but the rule.
3. Gone Girl
Another film that examines the media as a weapon, David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is a full-on, pulpy, mystery/thriller done at the highest level. I was actually fighting eye-rolling during the ridiculous dialogue between Nick and Amy in the first act and how obnoxiously picturesque and unrealistic their relationship was being presented. By act two, I was aware of the clever trick being played by the film’s narrative and Fincher is able to mount and mount on this level of slanted uncertainty right up to the final, bizarre frames. A lot to digest in just one viewing, but a film that easily contains some of the most twisted material and images of 2014.
Presented all as one single take, “Birdman” is just a weirdly awesome cinematic experience. Michael Keaton as an aging actor attempting to launch a play while battling with the slow glide into obscurity as the shadow of his super-hero movie persona dwindles (again, draw what parallel’s you will to Keaton’s “Batman”) is now etched into the echelon of great Michael Keaton eccentric roles (one of my favorite scenes in any film this year is his encounter with the theater critic snob.) Supporting cast is all top-notch, especially Ed Norton who chews up the pretentiousness of the New York actor’s actor like you read about. At the heart of it’s strangeness, the flick tells a very human story of fighting to remain relevant while struggling with what’s actually important.
I can’t say enough great things about this flick. “Whiplash” tells the story of a wide-eyed, young drummer who comes under the wing and ultimately into the crosshairs of an overbearing, maniacal music professor. J.K. Simmons antagonistic performance as Fletcher is big, loud and ugly – he creates one of the most vile prick’s in the history of cinema who somehow manages to transcend the monster and make us ask ourselves, “do I have what it takes to be truly great?”
“And if I did, would I even want to be?”
Miles Teller is excellent as the film’s anchor and gives a great portrayal of the literal blood, sweat and tears needed to surpass mediocrity and what that actually costs. Fletcher’s philosophy is that there are no two words more harmful than “good job” – an idea shared by the film itself which sidesteps cliches and forgoes full on rewarding of the audience as it builds to it’s amazing climax in the final scenes.
“Whiplash” is the “Rocky” of Music Conservatory movies… and it’s the best damn film of the year.