Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for that staple post every film critic must do, the annual top 10 list. These posts are the perfect double-edged sword for us film writers because they automatically get lots of clicks, but are also great way for readers to complete dismiss our entire body of work, and all based on a semi-arbitrary ranking system. You don’t even have to read an entire review! Let’s just call that lost esteem my gift to you. You’re welcome!
Movies I Have And Have Not Seen
This is the dirty little secret critics refuse to acknowledge: none of us have seen every film released every calendar year. I’m not sure it’s even possible. I saw two films a week at a bare minimum and traveled to four countries and two states for three or four different film festivals, and I still frequently see films on other critics’ lists that I haven’t seen. As a non-NY/LA critic or critic’s association member, I don’t get to see Inherent Vice, Selma, A Most Violent Year, or American Sniper until next week. Sorry! Truth is, some films aren’t on here because I haven’t seen them.
A Note On Methodology
I’ve heard some film critics talk about trying to rewatch their favorites of the year before they compile a yearly top ten list. I don’t do this, for one because it would take forever, and for two because it’s cheating. If I spend the time I could spend trying to watch new movies watching movies I already liked a second time, it’s only going to reinforce my previously held opinions. Shawshank Redemption is a great movie, sure, but it wouldn’t be as universally beloved if we hadn’t all seen it on cable twelve trillion times. For movies you already like, rewatching just makes you like them more.
I also start at one instead of ten because I’d rather lead with movies that I’m sure about rather than ones that barely sneaked onto the list. Also, sometimes I contradict my own initial grading system. Look, my methods are my methods. DO NOT QUESTION ME!
Obscure Films Sold Separately
There are some film festival and foreign films that would absolutely make my top 10 but feel like cheating to include, like a way to outflank detractors. It’s like when you argue the best all-time running backs and some guy picks a dude who played before television or integration. Cool pick, bud, here’s a feather you can put in your cap for being so worldly. There are some obscure choices you should definitely see, but I will leave those out of the main list.
Numbered Bullet Points, Since You Probably Skipped Everything I Just Wrote Anyway
There’s been a backlash equal to or if not stronger than the hype with this one, but that’s because a certain segment of people are always going to misconstrue deliberate absurdity as some pretentious metaphor (“I dunno, bro, I just didn’t get it.”). I think these are the same people who read that scene with Michael Keaton’s character ranting at the critic as Inñaritu’s broadside against critics. Instead of, you know, just something it would have made sense for Michael Keaton’s character to say. Can’t you go two seconds without demanding to know “What’s he trying to say??!” He’s playing with ideas. It’s fun to watch.
Birdman married small absurdities (locking yourself out of the house in your underwear) with big ones (what is the meaning of life?) like the bastard child of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Black Swan, all wrapped up in a slick continuous shot gimmick. By the way, was that really a “gimmick?” A gimmick is supposed to make the job easier. That continuous shot conceit made their work that much harder, where they couldn’t hide behind editing. I loved every minute of this movie. I think it’s Edward Norton’s best work. And I still want to know what special effect they used to make Emma Stone’s eyes so big.
Michael Keaton is the sentimental favorite and will almost certainly win the Oscar, but on a straight up acting level, Gyllenhaal was better. This was the kind of strangely compelling weirdo performance that probably less than 10 actors in the world could pull off. Louis Bloom was charming and repellent, timeless and thoroughly modern, a guy who could learn anything from the internet except empathy. Pretty timely concept these days, isn’t it? He belongs to the all-time pantheon of singular cinematic weirdos, alongside Patrick Bateman and Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle.
Boyhood thoroughly kicked my ass. While it is made up of a series of not-especially-important conversations, that was kind of the point. That life is this gradual accumulation of little moments, the Nick Diaz pitter patter rather than the crushing Tyson uppercuts, that don’t seem like much in and of themselves but eventually floor you (as Peter Travers would say) through their cumulative effect.
Again, I love the vein of criticism that says Boyhood being filmed over the course of 12 years was somehow a “gimmick.” I know, what a gimmick, right? It wasn’t even that good except we literally got to watch a child grow into a young adult before our very eyes. It’s sort of like looking at a stealth bomber and going “Well if you take away the fact that it can vaporize a tank from space, it’s really just an ugly hunk of metal.”
4. Gone Girl
I don’t think any movie this year generated as much conversation as this one, and incredibly, not all of it was about Ben Affleck’s dong. Gone Girl started out as a sort of dark, art movie about marriage and then took a hard left into airport fiction and was equally entertaining as both. That stupid, forced smile on Ben Affleck’s face will stay with me. It’s a movie you could read all sorts of things into or take completely at face value and be equally inspired by either. It also helped to normalize dong-hanging in mainstream movies, which is important..
5. The Drop
Yes, admittedly this is where my list gets wonky. I’ve had my top four set for quite a while, and the rest I could probably be talked in or out of. But if I’m being honest, I scarcely had as much fun at the movies as watching Tom Hardy play a knockaround doofus with an adorable puppy. Yes, I’m probably biased by virtue of being totally gay for Tom Hardy (the most hetero thing in the world as far as I’m concerned), but watching his slow burn simpleton finally snap was such a pants-jizzing crescendo of uncomplicated joy that it was one of my most memorable theater moments. I didn’t even recognize Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts as The Drop‘s heavy until I checked IMDB, and I only checked because he was so damned good. I hereby nominate Schoenaerts and Ben Mendolsohn as future go-to supporting actors who improve everything they’re in. The John Goodman Award, we could call it.
I know I only gave this a B in my review and I stand by that, parts of it were truly painful. Anne Hathaway’s speech about love transcending science in order to persuade the crew to visit a boyfriend we never see and who she had never mentioned before that moment come to mind. And I could’ve done without pretty much all of Casey Affleck’s “sullen farmer” storyline. Still, I wholeheartedly support filmmakers biting off more than they can chew. Cinema needs the hip jazz trios, sure, but it needs the arena rock band shredding a flaming guitar on top of a monster truck just as much, which is what Interstellar was to me. BIG. This makes the list for that giant wave planet scene shot in 70 mm IMAX alone.
I really didn’t want to put a movie about a jazz drummer starring Miles Teller on my list, if we’re being honest. But it’s such a singular, intensely myopic movie that you can’t help remembering it. How did people not realize JK Simmons was an amazing actor before this? He was awesome in the Spider-man movies. He was awesome in Juno. He was awesome in Burn After Reading. He was awesome in Oz. In fact, Whiplash is even better if you imagine it as a prequel to Oz. How is this guy still doing insurance commercials? It’s like watching Picasso paint tit murals on the walls of strip clubs. (Wait, did Picasso ever do that? I’m not looking it up.)
8. Blue Ruin/The Babadook
I’m already hedging, combining two movies in one entry. Whatever. Blue Ruin and The Babadook were my favorite “indies” of the year. Blue Ruin flipped the script by giving us a plot driven shoot-em-up when we were expecting moping and introspection, and The Babadook gave us a horror movie that was less “scary” than it was unsettling. Yes, The Babadook hit a rut about halfway through the film (I couldn’t help but think “how the hell do you end a movie like this?” as I was watching it), but THAT BOOK THO. The actual ending was pretty great as well.
9. Guardians Of The Galaxy/Snowpiercer
I don’t wholeheartedly love either of these movies. Guardians of the Galaxy can’t get its own spot on the list, because as good as it was, it was still a superhero movie featuring a giant laser pointed at Earth for some reason. Is there an economic reason for this always being a plot point? Are these movies all being underwritten by Big Laser? Still, if it existed in a vacuum, that probably wouldn’t be a complaint. I had a big, stupid smile on my face throughout that entire movie. It would take a hundred goofy, fun Marvel movies like Guardians over another gritty thump fest like Cap 2.
Snowpiercer, meanwhile… The ending wasn’t the greatest, but it was “big” in the same way as Interstellar. Not budget big, but concept big. Thematically big. And Tilda Swinton as a dowdy fascist functionary is easily one of the best characters of the year. She is incredible.
10. The LEGO Movie
I don’t know if this is on here as much for how much fun it was to watch or for what it is. Because what it is is pretty special. Remember when Michael Bay was tasked with making a movie about a modular 80s toys, and he kinda just said “f*ck it” and painted flames on some CGI? Lord and Miller made a Lego movie entirely out of Lego pieces. It offers a blueprint on how to make a two-hour toy commercial actually good. Which might be one of the most evil things anyone has done in history, but is shockingly competent work at the very least.
They took a two-hour toy commercial and turned it into a grand metaphor for creativity and a satire of the rat race, which, again, is either evil, brilliant, subversive, or all three. Are they subverting commerce for art, or subverting criticism of commerce for commercial purposes? That’s the tough question. “Are Lord and Miller stupid talented?” is the easy one. I personally think the movie kind of dies when the father and son are introduced, but that entire first act is perfect satire. There’s no way you’re not going to be thinking of that first “Send in the micromanager!” scene every time your boss does something obnoxious after watching it.
Movies You Probably Didn’t Or Won’t Be Able To See For A While That Would’ve Made The List Otherwise.
Blind – An odd little Norwegian movie about a blind woman’s imagination.
It Follows – An indie horror even better than The Babadook.
Why Don’t You Play In Hell – Shion Sono’s batshit love letter to 35mm film.
St. Vincent – Absolutely seems like a paint-by-numbers Sundance comedy and sort of is, but got to me nonetheless. Fighting back tears during this hokey ass movie was my most embarrassing moment.
The Trip To Italy – Food porn, British men doing dueling Tom Hardy impressions, and a running Alanis Morissette joke. Perhaps not a great leap forward for cinema, but an impressive exercise in finding my own personal happy place.
The Identical – The strangest film I saw this year by a mile.
Movies On Other People’s Lists Pointedly Left Off Of Mine
I want you to know that I definitely saw these and I’m not putting them on my list for a reason.
Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson is refining his technique but creatively stagnating. Every time I talk less than reverently about Grand Budapest (which I did like, mostly) I get yelled at. “If you like Wes Anderson, you HAVE to like Grand Budapest Hotel!” I could sense that as I was watching it and it’s exactly what I hate about it. Wes Anderson has become a genre, and this film some litmus test for “true fandom.” Wait, so because I liked certain story elements once, I’m supposed to like them more every time I see them? It just goes to show, “true fandom” is a dick measuring contest for idiots.
Wild, Foxcatcher, Theory Of Everything. I tend to throw out the most blatant Oscar bait, not necessarily because they’re made only to win awards, but because they sort of feel like cover songs. Wild is probably the best of the three, and Foxcatcher had some great wrestling scenes, but it offers only the hokiest A Current Affair take on its subjects. And Theory of Everything is just a patronizing mess. For God’s sake, someone straighten Stephen Hawking’s glasses, this is ridiculous.
Edge of Tomorrow. The live, die, repeat formula was fun, certainly, and that first crash sequence was one of the best action set pieces of the year (the other being Quicksilver in the X-Men movie). But the aliens just didn’t do it for me and they sort of pissed the ending down their leg. Also, stop it with the asexual love interests.
The Immigrant. People look at me funny when I tell them I’m a sucker for period pieces. When I say this, I’m thinking of things like Boardwalk Empire, Gangs of New York, Masters of Sex – hell, I even watched Marco Polo and The Borgias, and those shows are terrible. When people say they hate period pieces, I have to imagine they’re thinking of The Immigrant. Stories where life is hard and all the characters are unrelentingly dour. All I could think of when I watched this was that Seinfeld episode where Elaine insulted ponies at a dinner party and offended the old Polish lady. “When I was little girl in Poland, we all had ponies. My sister had pony, my cousin had pony… He was a beautiful pony and I loved him!” Replace pony with Marion Cotillard’s sister and you have The Immigrant.
Under the Skin, Nymphomaniac. I’m not saying these movies weren’t smart, I just don’t have the attention span for them. The look on ScarJo’s face when she tried to eat that cake was beautiful, but it surely wasn’t worth the 90 GODDAMNED SECONDS it took for her to get the fork from her plate to her mouth. I was also pretty well sorted for scenes of her aimlessly walking around after about the first 10 minutes.
And for all of Nymphomaniac‘s great moments, that scene where Christian Slater craps himself and dies (and I saw the longer version) was one of the most painful things I had to sit through at the theater this year, and I saw Tusk and Horns. It reminded me of that old joke where the kids are in class and the teacher is asking them what their parents do. Little Johnny says “My dad’s dead.” The teacher, taken aback, pauses and then asks, “Well, what did he do before he died?” And Johnny answers, “He turned blue and shit on the carpet.” I got the feeling Lars Von Trier wanted to make an entire movie out of that punchline.
Top Five. I keep hearing people call this “Chris Rock’s Annie Hall,” which is absolutely true, I just have very little interest in seeing anyone’s version of Annie Hall in 2014.
Ida. Yes, it’s Polish, and black and white, and Holocaust-themed, and has a protagonist who spends much of the movie silently staring at things, and it was reasonably compelling. Would I watch it again? Would I recommend it to friends? Not really.
Anyway, folks, that’s it for this year. Weigh in with your own opinions below, and be sure to phrase them in the form of an insult to my mother.