Editor's Picks: The Top 10 Films Of 2014
2014 was a year dominated by big budget behemoths that again showed off Hollywood's knack for investing vast sums of money into CGI spectacles. Some of it was lots of fun like "Guardians Of The Galaxy" or "X-Men: Days Of Future Past," but among the big box office hits, there were also notable works of pure vision and storytelling. Here are 10 that stood out. 1. Snowpiercer
The English-language debut of Korean master Joon-ho Bong, director of the cult hit "Mother," "Snowpiercer" is a grand filmmaking gesture in the tradition of classic, dystopian science fiction like "Metropolis," "1984" and "Children of Men." It was the year's best combination of an action-driven narrative with an intelligent, imaginative concept. It imagined the future in a unique way rarely seen in mainstream films. Gritty yet visually elegant, Bong's film is also a searing political commentary. In a post-ecological apocalypse world, covered in ice, survivors find themselves on a train divided into compartments in accordance to social class. A lower class occupant, Curtis (Chris Evans) soon finds himself at the head of a rebellion making its way, inch by bloody inch, up the train's cars towards the sections of the lavish elite.
Bong's images are powerful and unforgettable ranging from security men dressed more like 18th century executioners with steel axes to a car used for raving by the train's oligarchs. The performances are also formidable, especially a buck-toothed enforcer played by Tilda Swinton who in one scene, coldly tells the poor masses their fate by using a shoe in a scene even Karl Marx would have smiled at. In a Summer dominated by candy-colored popcorn fare, "Snowpiercer" was a visually dazzling heart of darkness. It showed audiences new sights, but with a visceral conjuring of not just the future, but of the world as it is today.
2. Gone Girl
"Gone Girl" was the moment when director David Fincher came close to ranking with masters of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock. In this adaptation of the runaway bestseller, Fincher delivered a tale of love and darkness fit for our recession-smacked age. With its story of a disappeared wife and her accused husband, "Gone Girl" is a thriller driven by atmosphere, tension and focused performances. There were bloody moments of ferocious violence, but like a true craftsman, Fincher used them like sharp, precise cuts, never letting them over overflow above the characters and plot twists. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike delivered two of the year's most subtly charged performances. They embodied everything that is true and disturbing about today's brand of shallow, cold relationships formed within a world defined by careers, money and reputation. The screenplay by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the novel), is baroque and delicately weaved in the way it uses a thriller to also explore our culture's obsession with media and innuendo. Expect several Oscar nominations, especially for Flynn, Pike, and Fincher.
What a wicked, imaginative and witty film. "Birdman" marked an energetic, refreshing return to the screen for both actor Michael Keaton and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Inarritu, known for his dreary dramas, here ventures into dark comedy with the joy of a filmmaker who loves his camera, crew and story. The film is a combination of psychological drama with backstage Broadway romp. Keaton is edgy yet warm as an actor attempting a comeback on the theater stage after years of playing a superhero named Birdman. His band of misfits cast includes a wild method actor played by Edward Norton. It's a hilarious, yet touching and evocative film about who we are as we grow. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki steals the screen however with masterful, uncut tracking shots (he is already renowned for his work in the films of Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuaron). Visually immersive but always engaging. A unique film.
4. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1
The best film so far in the "Hunger Games" series, "Mockingay- Part 1" was the moment when the series grew up and dived into darker, more politically upfront territory. The revolution has now begun in Panem and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is no longer a celebrity but a foot soldier in a bloody struggle against the Capitol. Pop art made for the times, this was also simply an excellent film on every level. A hopeful sign that blockbusters can still consist of well-crafted cinema, this was an exciting epic with moments of eloquence and human depth. Like "Snowpiercer," but at a more mainstream level, "Mockingay- Part 1" was a powerful statement about a world undergoing bursts of unrest.
5. Life Itself
When Roger Ebert died last year he left a great void in the world of film criticism. "Life Itself," a beautiful biography of Ebert and a record of his struggles with cancer, was exactly what the maestro might have wanted: Not a tribute, but an actual film. Using interviews, photographs and archival footage, director Steve James abandons gossip and Hollywood flash to tell the story of a great writer. As much as he loved movies, Ebert was a man of the pen and "Life Itself" chronicles the life a born wordsmith. You grow to enjoy the company of the people featured here including his late rival, Gene Siskel and Ebert's wife Chaz. This was a biography that also celebrated the beauty of words and the immortal power of movies.
One of the year's most unique, memorable comedies. There was no other movie in 2014 quite like "Frank," in fact there wasn't a single character quite like Frank himself. Michael Fassbender plays the title role as the lead singer/composer of an asylum-bound band of loons, his identity is defined by a giant, fake head he wears. Their psychiatric salvation is to compose a mish-mash of wild, cryptic songs with a free flowing, maniacal sound. Like the characters, "Frank" is a fun yet charming experience with characters who are crazy, but you grow to love them precisely because of their insanity. The songs on the soundtrack were some of the year's most heartfelt and honest, especially "I Love You All."
7. The Lego Movie
One of the year's most visually dazzling movies. "The Lego Movie" was a sneak attack of visual delights in the tradition of smart animated films like "Antz."Creating a lego world full of life, sound and energy, it was also a sly commentary on our consumerist culture (characters happily buy $40 coffee). But this film is worth watching simply for its visual imagination and hilarious gags. It's genuinely funny, but also visually unforgettable.
After the mass success of "Black Swan," director Darren Aronofsky went large scale with "Noah," his ecological interpretation of the Biblical tale. In his hands it was turned into a powerful fable for our times. Like the writings of thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Aronofsky uses religious iconography to instead make a secular comment on themes such as war, the environment and the cruelty of an industrialized era. Yes, there's a big storm, yes, the film can thunder like a big Hollywood movie, but in the subtext, there's poetry.
Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" marked the moment this highly popular director decided to go for grandeur instead of brain teasers, symphonic sounds instead of just cold, electronic drones. Done with Batman, Nolan here goes into space to tell a story of mankind seeking a new home while facing the threats of space travel and the torture of relativity. Visually the film is an opus of eloquent special effects, Nolan wants us to gaze on amazing vistas the way Kubrick did in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Despite its flaws, the film stood out among its less bold peers.
10. Magic In The Moonlight
Woody Allen makes them like clockwork and yet there's something to be said about a comedy like "Magic In The Moonlight," which tells a classic romantic yarn with the kind of wit and sly rib-nudging you won't get in garbage like "The Best Of Me." Unlike most comedies these days, with Allen you still enjoy simply hearing the characters jabber on. Colin Firth plays a rational skeptic who unknowingly starts falling for a supposed psychic (Emma Stone) in the 1920s. We've been here before, but Allen is so adept at churning these out he still manages to make the familiar enjoyable. Films today lack wit, this one had it with very human, accessible touches.