So I’ll try to be succinct with my choices for the best films of 2014, especially since we’re already a month and a half into the year. I’ll just jump right in:
10. The Homesman
After Tommy Lee Jones’ first effort – 2006’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – I was excited to see what direction my favorite actor would pursue in his time as a budding director at the ripe age of 60. Instead, he took several years off amid decent acting projects, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Lincoln as bombastic senator Thaddeus Stevens. Well, as 2014 rolled around, he decided to adapt another Western – and I’m absolutely pleased with the results. Never in my wildest dreams would I consider Hilary Swank to be among the best performances of the year, and yet here we are. Her understated, subtle performance as Mary Bee Cuddy, a plain middle-aged maid who is finally realizing her lot is life is to never be married, is easily her best role to date (I’ve yet to see Boys Don’t Cry, but Million Dollar Baby is highly overrated). Her plan in the film is to find purpose in her life by transferring three Nebraskan women who’ve lost their minds to a safe home in Iowa. The travel will be harsh and unforgiving, and early in her journey she discovers Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs, an ex-Confederate soldier who has meandered around the rugged countryside not particularly caring if he finds purpose himself. By the end, they’ve both realized what their purposes are, and tragically it’s not always what they might have expected. Top-notch, even better than Melquiades, which gives me hope for Jones’ future as director. If he ever decides to direct again this decade, that is.
Simply put, this is the best war film I’ve seen since Apocalypse Now. The horrors of war may be easy to imagine, when put up on the screen is massive battles like the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. But what of the psychological horrors that the grunts had to deal with? Fury answered this question – one that may have just as easily been answered in other films – but to a point, with a tank. The camaraderie between the four soldiers left inside Fury when their assistant driver is shot is unsettled when Logan Lerman’s typist Norman is thrust into their group as his replacement. Norman learns very rapidly what he has signed up for amidst burning bodies, decapitated gunners and captured Nazis. As Norman grows to accept the group for what it is, and settle into a situation he thinks he might be able to get out of, the tank finds itself stopping in a German village for a short reprieve. The scene that unfolds between Norman, his commander (Brad Pitt) and two German women is the most striking of 2014 – it stays clearly with me now, and as unsettling as it is – nothing untoward happens. It’s simply put, a masterful expression of the differences between men and women, soldier and bystander, German and American during the height of the war. Instead of rampaging through the countryside like Pitt’s earlier Inglourious Basterds may have done, director David Ayer settles in for a nice twenty minute set piece to illustrate what the whole damn war meant. 8. Gone Girl
A flurry of reasons for this to be a special film – but the most important is that this should have failed spectacularly. An extremely popular novel, Gone Girl was in the highest of stratospheres of expectations. When Rosamund Pike was first cast as Amy Dunne, people were either livid or impressed at the gall of casting a virtual unknown. It turned out to be a brilliant move, as Pike simply owned the movie with her presence. The script was no slouch either, especially having been adapted by the novel’s author Gillian Flynn. Ben Affleck was perfectly cast as the potential killer husband – his dashing Scott Peterson looks blending well with Affleck’s true life fall from grace after Gigli and other box office bombs. He was a natural choice to play the lead, and Pike matched his star power. Expert supporting turns from Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, newcomer Carrie Coon who also matched well with on-screen brother Affleck, and most of all (I never expected to say this) Tyler Perry, whose lawyer Tanner Bolt nearly steals the screen from its luminary leads. The dim cinematography and moody music is the same as it was in David Fincher’s previous efforts, and that was perfectly fine for me. A perfect storm of everyone at the top of their game.
7. Dom Hemingway
It’s been a while since we had a decent Jude Law vehicle – the shorter his hairline has gotten, the chances he’s gotten to shine have slimmed. In 2004 he had a remarkably high output of films, 6 – Alfie, I Heart Huckabees, Lemony Snicket, Closer, the abominable Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and even a bit part in The Aviator – which all made him seem to be a bit diluted in the market. Well, over the past decade, he’s been relegated to supporting roles where he has found himself discovering the quality that made him great in the mid-90s. Luckily this helped to translate at the right time to the remarkable role of Dom Hemingway. Helmed by Richard Shepard (The Matador), Dom Hemingway tells of a convict who has served his time in jail and, upon release, comes to his original benefactor expecting to get something for his part of not narcing on the team of thieves. Jude Law turns in quite simply the best role in a decade – a smarmy cockney bastard who doesn’t give a shit about anything or anybody – including best pal Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I) or his daughter Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) who has long since given up on expecting anything from her deadbeat dad. Easing a bit into sentimentality towards the end, Dom Hemingway doesn’t ask for too much in the way of expectations. Like a bad gambler who holds all his cards on his face, Dom states everything quite frankly, and I appreciated the film much more for that. Doubly, like a great gambler, Dom will charm his way into cult classic status, I’m sure.
6. A Walk Among the Tombstones
Going into this, it was easy to expect it to simply be another Taken clone, as Liam Neeson films are wont to be as of late (Non-Stop, The Grey). However, this oft-delayed potboiler found its perfect Matthew Scudder in Neeson – originally this was a 2002 Harrison Ford vehicle – then a decade later it found its way into Scott Frank’s well deserving hands who utilized Neeson well. The best parts about it – the cinematography, the supporting work from Dan Stevens & Boyd Holbrook, and the genuinely intriguing mystery – are all trumped by Neeson’s dedication to his role. Scudder’s flippant attitude and callous demeanor towards the victim he’s helping to find and later avenge is light years away from his recent work. It even shows promise that Neeson hasn’t totally clocked out, but rather that we might yet see some outstanding work in the future.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Like a perfect little dollhouse, Wes Anderson knows how to craft masterpieces of cinematic splendor. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception, as every piece in the film is meticulously engendered towards Anderson’s vision. Ralph Fiennes gives one of my favorite performances of the year as M. Gustave, head of the title hotel, who finds himself running into trouble when a dear old friend is discovered murdered (and he is the recipient of the most expensive item in her will, rather than any family member). On top of this, he must protect his lobby boy (played nicely by newcomer Tony Revolori) from Fascist soldiers infringing on the hotel’s territory and trains. As Gustave and his boy galavant across the countryside, it brought to my memory Agatha Christie plays and madcap 1930’s comedies. It seemed as if Anderson had developed a love letter for the time period, and you can tell he spent his time and research preparing to create what may be seen as his signature film. I loved The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, but this hit at just the right time – mostly to become his most popular and rewarded film. This is no small dismissal, but I’m glad Anderson is continuing to build his legacy in the most beautiful way possible.
The anticipation for this one was solid – trailers depicted everything we’d wanted from the ’98 version of Godzilla – the behemoth finally coming to our American shores and wreaking rampage – it was certainly everything I wanted from the film. What I didn’t expect was the amount of disregard for human characters in this – from the outset, actors I thought to be playing major characters were thrust aside in death. This is a great plot twist to set out with, as it heightens the stakes. Unfortunately, the biggest flaw here is coincidence. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Brody seemingly drops in on every single instance Godzilla has an encounter with any other human. The luck this guy has for getting out of destruction is only eclipsed by his talent for getting back into it. On the other end of the spectrum, his girlfriend, played by Elizabeth Olsen, barely warrants any screen time, as she sits in their apartment and even misses all the action playing out on their TV. Once the action finally makes it to her, there’s no reason to really worry if she’ll make it out alive. Now, this isn’t to disparage anything I loved about this film – it’s merely that I’ve accepted the flaws with which this film has with its living humans. The ones who are taken in by Godzilla and the other monsters are far more fascinating and I kept hoping for more great supporting actors. Godzilla himself is a thrill, and while I’ve heard much on the fact that he is very much left in the shadows, I knew going in that director Gareth Edwards had a knack for keeping the best parts of the film shrouded in mystery. While that was great enough for me, it left some people feeling a bit left out, like Olsen’s character. To me, though, this was miles ahead of the ’98 version, and left me feeling hopeful for the future of American Godzilla films.
3. The Fault in Our Stars
Speaking of expectations – I never thought I’d be impressed by a film adaptation of the most popular young adult novel of the last few years. Yet when this film dropped in our laps, I was immediately and intensely charmed by the rapid romance that bloomed between Ansel Elgort’s Gus and Shailene Woodley’s Hazel. As many smart teenage films have done in the past, it doesn’t pander to the lowest denominator. Gus and Hazel act as adults because their lives may end up shortened. Now facing death at a young age because of cancer diagnoses in the past, neither takes any moment for granted. What results is the best romance I saw all year. Neither holds any punches in their performance, and the screenplay (written by Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber, of The Spectacular Now and 500 Days of Summer) masterfully sends the pair in remarkable directions. Typically, my favorite films are ones that surprise me, and Fault in Our Stars is no exception. From the moment the film began, I was enraptured with Hazel’s story.
2. Edge of Tomorrow
Speaking of surprises, recent years have lowered Tom Cruise’s quality. Despite his star power being brighter than ever before, he had thrown out clunker after clunker with Knight and Day, Rock of Ages and Jack Reacher (which some still liked enough). Oblivion was a step in the right direction, and while I liked that film, many saw it as a story that had been done before. Cruise himself never seemed to be coasting, but his films were undercooked. Luckily in 2014, Cruise found the fire again and ignited a great sci-fi action adventure. Edge of Tomorrow (originally called All You Need is Kill, and later Live.Die.Repeat) is essentially Groundhog Day in the not-too-distant future. While this is a great basis for the plot, the lynchpin that makes the film great is Cruise’s role. As Cage, Cruise finds himself reluctantly thrust into battle against a fierce alien invading force when his arrogant American ways piss off the British general, played gruffly by Brendan Gleeson. While it’s obvious Cage is a coward, he’s also quite a bit inept. Stateside he likely did his initial boot camp and found himself at a desk the rest of his military career. Well, almost immediately Cage is killed. This would typically be a strange way to begin a film, but a chance encounter with a specific alien has forced Cage to re-live his first day in battle over and over. Along for the ride is Emily Blunt, who continues her trend of tough women after her turn in 2012’s Looper. Turning it up a notch, Blunt is in the warrior position, and Cruise finds himself relying on her to get himself through this ridiculous situation. Their chemistry is palpable and the action even more so, resulting in the best sci-fi film of the year, and Cruise’s best since Minority Report.
Much has been said about the resurgent film of Michael Keaton’s. It’s fairly obvious that when he began to collaborate with Alejandro Inarritu on the film about a comic book film star trying to redeem himself with Broadway ‘art’ that Birdman would have several reference to the actor’s own past as Batman. It’s almost impossible to separate him from that previous work, which is one of the main points the film has to make, especially with the subtitle ‘or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’. That unexpected virtue becomes much clearer as the film proceeds, showing us every angle of what show business can be to a person. To Riggan Thompson, it means that he has a chance at redemption, a meaning, a purpose. To his ignored daughter, it means a chance to overcome the years of invisibility and show the world you have something of worth – albeit in 120 characters or less, or through a viral video at lightning speed. His main actor (Edward Norton, in his finest role in a dozen years) is trying to prove that art is bullshit and anything can happen at any time. He’s almost like Ian Malcolm’s chaotician from Jurassic Park, if Malcolm had decided to just start climbing the fences or letting the dinosaurs free. Through all this, Emmanuel Lubezki’s phenomenal cinematography flows as if produced into one singular shot. Enough has been said about the mechanics of the film, but the finest part of the year was Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson. Nothing is more believable and unbelievable at the same time. Nothing else proved that someone can be so utterly human and at the same time be crushed under the weight of what it means to be human. Inarritu and his team of writers discovered something in themselves and all of us that simply show what entertainment in our society can mean when brought down to a simple thing such as time. Inevitably we all fly away, and inevitably those around us that care will let that memory go as well. This took me several weeks, and I hope that I don’t take that long with my next piece. We’ll see, I’m growing as a writer with each passing day! Look below for Cory’s glowing review of Better Call Saul!