The year’s best documentary also happens to be one of the year’s most tense films. Chronicling the few paranoid days in which NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks with journalist Glenn Greenwald from a hotel room in Hong Kong about the level of access American organizations (like the NSA) have on its citizens, Citizenfour plays like a Jason Bourne movie brought into reality. The tense style in which director Laura Poitras brings to the subject matter is what immediately draws you in making Snowden a likeable and sympathetic person despite what your own opinions of him may be. Citizenfour is both engaging and tense while only being a film featuring footage of a man talking in a hotel room. While the Edward Snowden story has been known for quite some time, it has never been examined with this much intimacy.
It is the astounding performances in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash that sets it apart from most of the other films of 2014. Miles Teller is incredible as a gifted drummer enrolled in a cut throat music conservatory while J.K. Simmons plays his ferocious and terrifying instructor. The film’s plot isn’t anything spectacular as we watch a young man shutting everything out of his life in order to succeed at his passion with admittedly unreasonable expectations fed to him by Simmons’ conductor but the back and forth, almost cat and mouse like relationship, between the two is the centre of Whiplash. With more than a handful of unbelievably intense scenes and a deft eye to style and cinematography Whiplash, to me, was the year’s biggest surprise.
Read at Unsung Films: Whiplash.
2014 brought to us Wes Anderson’s best film since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. While the “Anderson Style” may have started to feel tired and gimmicky with the last few of his films, The Grand Budapest Hotel does not seem to follow this as its heart and message seem to use its style only as tool to get to its point rather than it being front and centre with the themes taking the back seat. It also happens to be his funniest film and, in many ways, his darkest. The performances are all wonderfully stylized and it managed to reinvigorate my interest in Wes Anderson as a filmmaker again.
Read at Unsung Films: The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler managed to give us one of the year’s most memorable characters in Lou Bloom, played to perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal in what his hands down the best performance of his career thus far. A biting and deliberate examination of the media and how we consume it in our current times, Nightcrawler has drawn many apt comparisons to 1976’s incredible Network and it is easy to see the similarities. Lou Bloom is a sociopathic (possibly mentally unstable) go-getter whose dark ambitions stretch out before him like the dark streets of Los Angeles. Arriving at horrific accident scenes before police and filming graphic footage to later sell to news affiliates is Bloom’s “profession” and watching him stop at nothing to get the perfect piece of “news” is extremely unsettling. A film that forces us to take a hard look at our modern society while also making comments about loneliness, the modern day work force, employment, and insurmountable ambitions, Nightcrawler is a film with absolutely no fat with every detail essential to its overall message.
Technically impressive and almost oppressively downtrodden (by design), Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s whirlwind film Birdman is incredible. With a film that so relies upon its central conceit of being edited to appear as one continuous take it can be easy to get lost in how mesmerizing the technique can be and have it come across as a gimmick rather than something to aid the film’s themes. Fortunately, Birdman manages to forego this and instead chooses to use the cinematography as a more of a tool to emphasize the themes rather than a method to paint the film with “flash”. It cannot be said enough how fantastic Michael Keaton’s performance is in Birdman and how the surrounding cast emphasizes the power of its lead. As we watch Keaton careen out of control from one scene to the next we become lost within the frenetic, whirlwind pace of the film and when we finally crash into the conclusion we are left thinking, “I have to see that again”.
Read at Unsung Films: Birdman.
The most fun I had watching a movie this year. A sci-fi actioner that, despite the common tropes used in other films over the years, commands such an air of freshness and originality over itself that it becomes no chore to just strap in for the ride. A science fiction thriller in which Earth is pitted against a terrifying alien race sees Tom Cruise’s Bill Cage reliving the same battle over and over again (a la Groundhog Day) until he becomes trained and well-versed enough to be able to pull out hope for the human race. A great premise, fantastic action, amazing effects, and just enough humour to propel the film into fun rather than being stuck in hopelessness Edge of Tomorrow is a perfect case study in what other modern action/sci-fi films are missing these days. No forced romance, no over-the-top ridiculous set pieces, no evil corporate stooges trying to sabotage anything. Edge of Tomorrow is balls-to-the-wall fun and Director Doug Liman along with writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth mixed with Tom Cruise’s great enthusiasm towards the film make it the best action film in the last few years.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a hazy, convoluted, quirky, insane mess of a movie in the best possible way and it all happens to be by design. This hard-boiled detective noir story featuring Joaquin Phoenix as stoned out of his mind private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello has been drumming up comparisons to the Coens’ The Big Lebowski deservedly so. The plot will not make sense to anybody the first time through and it really isn’t supposed to. The film acts almost like a series of vignettes instead of scenes that are seemingly connected to form what is apparently a cohesive plot but it is unbelievably difficult to find. Much like how Doc Sportello is desperately trying to make sense of the mystery spiralling ridiculously out of control (a mystery that begins with the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend) he finds himself uncovering layer upon layer upon layer upon layer of conspiracy and intrigue getting lost in a marijuana induced haze every chance he can get. Every single character, no matter how minor, is memorable and every scene either awkward, strange, hilarious, scary, or all four. Inherent Vice is by no means an easy pill to swallow but when you are trying to make sense of a mystery as screwed up as the one Doc is investigating, nothing is going to come easy.
Read at Unsung Films: Inherent Vice.
Heartfelt and touching while utilizing a strange detached sentiment, Richard Linklater’s ultimate coming-of-age story Boyhood also happens to be the best edited film of 2014. Chronicling the real span of 12 years as a young boy grows, moves to different cities, attends school, gets a girlfriend, and attends college might seem like arbitrary points to focus on buy somehow Linklater manages to bring such weight and momentum to these events that causes you to realize that, yes, these events do carry weight within an individual’s life and as you become more and more removed from them by age the importance of remembering these life-defining details becomes essential. The editing that carries you through all 12 years is never forceful, there is never a title card telling us “2 years later” and many times the appearances of the characters does not seem to change that much but the time “feels” different. The film unfolds so organically that watching this boy go from living with his mom, to escaping an abusive step-dad, to swimming in a lake with his biological dad is hypnotic. Boyhood is about a literal slice out of an individuals life while acting as a sort of time capsule of the last 10 years. Never overly sentimental, nostalgic or sappy Boyhood now holds the title of the best American coming-of-age story we have seen.
Read at Unsung Films: Boyhood.
I know, I know, this is cheating… But, HBO’s first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s masterful True Detective ranks amongst the best works of fiction of the past year. Acting as a self-contained story within its first season, True Detective is frightening, engaging, disturbing, thrilling, mesmerizing, and exhilarating. The show holds some of the best character development I have ever seen in both film and TV and much of it is thanks to the two lead performances of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey who, in my opinion, both turn in their best performances of their careers. The plot concerns a murder investigation that spans decades as disturbing conspiracies and secrets are turned up. Crushingly dark in a way that does not seem to suppress, True Detective’s inherent darkness is mainly unmatched in modern day forms of entertainment. As the plot unfolds, the series draws you in deeper and deeper exposing the darkest and most disturbing parts of humanity as its relentless pursuit of an answer works for both the audience as well as the main characters. Perhaps nothing better can sum up the first season of True Detective than the show’s tagline: “Touch darkness and darkness touches you back”.
But, for those of you that will be unsatisfied with my inclusion of a television series on a list of my “10 best films”, take True Detective off the list, move everything up a spot and put Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin in the #10 spot.
At this point, you can expect a few things you will be getting when you sit down to watch a David Fincher film. First, there is the polish. Every frame of his work is so well composed and deliberately crafted that you are immediately pulled in to whatever he chooses to show the audience. Second, is the command Fincher exerts over the film. Only a handful of filmmakers have a distinct enough style to know that it’s them before truly learning of it and Fincher is one of them. And finally, astounding performances. This one speaks for itself. In his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s thriller novel, Gone Girl, Fincher is at the absolute top of his game in all of these areas. So slickly put together and expertly crafted is the film that absolutely no cracks can be seen at all. The twisty, turning plot about a missing wife of a detached and somewhat depressed writing teacher is the stuff of soap opera storylines but the way in which it is handled, from the beautiful and haunting cinematography, to the unnerving and incredible score all aid to propel Gone Girl into the realm of masterpiece thriller. I have trouble remembering the last time i felt myself leaning forward in my seat while watching a film thinking I would somehow glean more information or find some piece of information the detectives of the film missed. Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, and Tyler Perry are all so incredible in their respective roles and the script (also written by Gillian Flynn) so razor sharp with wit and intensity. Gone Girl is my personal best film of 2014 in a year of truly great movies.
Read at Unsung Films: Gone Girl.