Monday, December 29, 2014

Favorite Movies of 2014: 20-11


The past year has been filled with lots of good, great, and really great films. Yet I've only given one 5-star rating to a film from 2014. Perhaps I've become more selective and critical with my tastes, because it wasn't a bad year for movies, and I've been impressed with the diversity and quality of films. By my count, I've seen about 50 films that could be included in this favorites list. In the next two blog posts, I'll highlight my top 20 (er, 23), starting with #20-11.

Sam Adams wrote that end-of-year lists are a sort of personal statement, highlighting critics A.O. Scott and Drew McWeeny's lists and personal reflections on the past year. I suppose my list is a personal statement of sorts, a series of filmic highlights from the past 365 days, a year where I turned 30, attended an international film festivalexperienced burnout, moved from Canada, and sought to be more present with God and my family. As a pastor, a father, a husband, a writer, an immigrant, a musician, and a man wrestling with his own sense of vocation and identity, these are the films that moved me, captivated me, terrified me, challenged me, and inspired me. Included are gripping documentaries, beautiful animated films, sweeping dramas, intimate character studies, and thrilling blockbusters.

Here are my favorite films of 2014, #20-11:

20. Locke (Steven Knight). One man, one car, one eventful night. Tom Hardy's performance as a man making a series of frantic phone calls is solid as concrete. A gripping morality tale about the nature of choices, consequences, and living based on resolve and principle, Locke forces us to examine the decisions we make, and the second (and third, and fourth) decisions that follow. It's one of the best One Man in an Impossible Situation performances I've seen yet, up there with Robert Redford in All is Lost. Best supporting performance goes to the car dashboard.

19. Horse Money (Pedro Costa). Hallucinatory, foreboding, haunting, and enigmatic, Horse Money is an exercise in endurance and disciplined film-viewing. Essentially, Horse Money is a series of dream-like scenes and dialogues, culminating in a long internal "conversation" between the central character, Ventura, and a living toy soldier in an elevator, told in voiceover and with multiple personalities. Sound strange? It was. But I can't shake the feeling that I was seeing something brilliant. (my VIFF review)

18. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev). When I told my father that I was seeing a Russian film based on the book of Job, he told me, "oh, that sounds depressing and sad." He was right. Leviathan is a bleak and cynical indictment of the major social systems in Russian culture. From politics to religion to marriage to parenting to friendship, every form of system is dismantled and critiqued, revealing the hypocritical and ugly sides of all parties, leaving no one unscathed. Leviathan is well-crafted, beautifully shot, ambitious, and quietly compelling, but its despair was too overwhelming for this viewer to find it worth revisiting any time soon. (my VIFF review)

17. Fury (David Ayer). Neither anti-war nor pro-war, Fury is a film exploring the effects of war on the human spirit, both how war arises from and fosters human depravity. A bleak and brutal film, Fury is also one of the more compelling portrayals of a Christian character. While I initially found the whole exercise quite depressing, this is one film that has stuck with me and grown in my estimation over time, particularly Brad Pitt's performance and the spiritual questions this film raises. (my review)

16. Gone Girl (David Fincher); Force Majeure (Ruben Ostland). A two-way tie, as these films have strikingly similar qualities: darkly comic explorations of marriage, the evisceration of the male ego and gender tropes, the impact of media/technology on a relationship, and the hidden interior selves we cover with artificial masks. Both were surprisingly funny and devastatingly insightful in a cynical sort of way. Force Majeure is the more uplifting film of the pair, while Gone Girl is quite dark and disturbing. Not exactly "date movie" material, unless you want to have a long conversation with your significant other about the nature of relationships and human depravity.

15. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier). A taut minimalistic thriller, Blue Ruin is best experienced with as little knowledge as possible of the plot or outcome. Filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier does an excellent job of telling a compelling revenge story in an intriguing way through very little exposition and plenty of quiet suspense. The violence is quick and gruesome, the story is familiar yet unpredictable, and the whole exercise lingers in one's mind for days afterwards. "The one with the gun gets to tell the truth."

14. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer); Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves). Mutants, monkeys, and Marvel. This is a three-way tie for the Summer Blockbuster With An Uber-Long Name. Each film features a war between factions, with the central protagonists caught in the middle. Dawn was the most cynical, X-Men was the most hopeful, and Guardians was the most fun.

13. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata). Visuals, story, music, themes--this is a beautiful film on every level. The animation looks akin to a watercolor painting, perfectly embodying the simple emotions and wonder of the story. Based on a Japanese folk tale, the story is about a princess appearing in a bamboo grove and adopted by a kindly country couple. A coming-of-age film of sorts, this was one of my favorite movie-going experiences of 2014, as I had three teenage Studio Ghibli fans as my film-watching companions.

12. Class Enemy (Rok Bicek). As a youth pastor and a cinephile, Class Enemy is right in my wheelhouse--a tense, relentless morality tale set in a high school classroom which kept me on my intellectual and philosophical toes for its entirety. It's Slovenian film about a rigid substitute teacher and the escalating rebellion of his high school class in the wake of a classmate's suicide. What makes Class Enemy so fascinating and why it works so well is its ability to navigate the realms of the morally grey with apparent ease. Even the color palette is stark, using natural grey lighting from Slovenia to give a pale and monotone look to the film. Neither the teacher, the class, the parents, or the deceased student are the clear antagonist or protagonist--each elicits both sympathy and denouncement from the audience. (my VIFF review)

11. Begin Again (John Carney). The follow-up film from the maker of Once, Begin Again is a musical, a romantic-comedy, and a delightful examination of the creative musical process. Every character in this film is charming and fun, and everyone involved seems to be having a great time making music and exploring New York together. Perhaps it was because I watched this with my wife at our anniversary, but the whole experience was joyful, and I found myself humming along with a smile on my face. This also confirmed something for me: Keira Knightly is one of my favorite actresses.

Note: Many of these films on this list contain content (language, violence, nudity, sex) that requires viewers to approach with wisdom, caution, and discernment.

Wednesday: my top 10 favorite films from 2014.

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