Top Films of 2014: Staff Picks
Submitted by Eileen Li
Whiplash, which I’ve summarised and reviewed here, is now one of my all-time favourite films. Supported by a rumbling original score mixed with performances of catchy jazz hits, it hits all the right tones in terms of not only music, but also visuals and story. It deals with each aspect with a daring sharpness that somehow still meshes together into a cohesive thrill-ride. It has all the goal-orientedness of a sports film and all the artfulness of a musical.
The film tells the story of Andrew Neyman (a dashing Miles Teller), a freshman jazz drummer enrolled in a prestigious New York music conservatory. Unexpectedly, he catches the interest of the notoriously exacting professor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). The story unfolds, following Neyman’s time in Fletcher’s jazz band, a series of musical competitions and the development of a shaky (to the extent of violence) mentor-student relationship. All of this makes for a deeply psychological film that asks a lot of relevant questions about personal goals and intrapersonal relations.
Neyman, who wants to be not only “great,” but also “one of the greats,” resonates with almost every real-life pursuer of art. Instead of your average relatable character, he embodies an enviable extreme of personality. He doesn’t have much to offer in the way of conversation outside of music-related topics; he doesn’t have much personality aside from his single-minded passion. I imagine that many aspire to be like him but would rather not spend time around someone like him.
Fletcher, on the other hand, is a lonely old geezer who manages to both scare and inspire pity – a multi-faceted antagonist. Simmons delivers some of the most laughably caustic lines with a straight face. Overall, the screenplay is very solid; both witty and quotable.
Having watched Whiplash three times in theaters, I can at least vouch for how absorbing it is: the audiences’ continuous foot-bobbing, collective bursts of laughter and occassional sharp intakes of breath always seem to happen on cue. I believe this signifies the work of a good conductor (or, in Damien Chazelle’s case, a good director).
Submitted by Andrew Ferell
The success Birdman has received is somewhat of an enigma, considering the buzz generated on its limited release run is a very rare occurrence. I’m shocked an indie film so engrossed in holding up a microscope to the dirty underbelly of Hollyweird got a staggering nine nominations at The Academy Awards. Especially when the entire focus is aimed at exposing all the smoke and mirrors behind the flashy glitz and glamour of fame. In essence, Birdman is an extremely difficult film to gauge for most, as there’s an overload of introspection that really opens your eyes to the price of being in the limelight. I even found myself having to delightfully revisit the film to fully appreciate all the brilliantly jarring nooks and crannies sprinkled throughout this cautionary tale. If there ever was a dark comedy be-all and end-all, so enriched in delving into the psychological trauma at the end of a last career rope, Birdman is it.
The praise Birdman has acquired during its theatrical time is warranted for the acting alone. This is a film that has not only resurrected Michael Keaton’s career, but, in turn, has delivered every cast member’s finest performance to date. There are select moments where each actor has their soapbox and they have left audiences with their mouths open at the powerful portrayals. Once the credits roll, Birdman has made renowned thespians out of newcomers like Emma Stone and solidified the historical status of veterans like Edward Norton. The cinematography is also unreal as revered director Alejandro González Iñárritu utilizes spellbinding one take crane shots throughout the narrow backstage corridors of the Broadway setup. The smooth transitions following the fictitious adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” will take you on an unabashed ride.
It’s important to note how Birdman truly captures every painfully realist trope that exists in front of and behind celebrity culture. Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a down on his luck superhero action star has-been trying desperately to prove his worth. The quest to be taken seriously is enabled by Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who serves as his desperate agent trying to make this last ditch effort play come into fruition. A huge backbone for Riggan comes in the form of his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) through injecting hope into his plight. Sam (Emma Stone) is the antithesis to that moral support as Riggan’s recovering addict daughter who has spent her troubles in and out of rehab while now hesitantly trying to manage his assistant duties. Birdman even tackles the inner struggle between actresses like Lesley (Naomi Watts) who feel past their prime for hot 20-somethings like Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Mike (Edward Norton) shakes things up chaotically as the overbearing method actor who can’t make heads or tails of where he begins and his role ends. And my favorite, for obvious reasons, would be Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) as a no-nonsense critic with understandable doubts about the play.
As you can imagine, sparks are bound to fly as Birdman features such a colorful and damaged cast of characters. The turmoil Riggan faces alone with trying to be the family man he never was while trying to jumpstart his fading star creates heartbreaking dramatics. To add to the boiling pot, mental illness is also ambiguously touched on and lends to some of the more scarier and random fever dream action scenes. The pulsating jazz drum soundtrack intertwined into these blaring moments also adds such a flair to them. It’s honestly an understatement when I say that I’ve never in my life seen a film quite like Birdman, and it’ll without question become a cult classic, meticulously studied for decades to come. I’ll be surprised if Birdman won’t be an immediate prerequisite for film students no matter what line of work they choose to embark on after graduating. I could talk about this film until I’m blue in the face for all the flooring qualities it possess, and that’s why it’s my top pick for 2014.
Submitted by A.J. Wales
One of the more interesting films of 2014 is most certainly Gone Girl. It is a movie packed with twists and turns and leaves the audience wondering if we could ever trust people, especially our significant others, ever again. Gone Girl gracefully takes the audience on a thrilling journey of love, betrayal, and revenge. The movie was adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screen play (it has been nominated for all the awards…except an Oscar). Having never read the book and only seen the trailer, I had very few expectations going into the movie.
All I knew was that a seemingly innocent man was being framed as the murder of his wife who was missing. This interested me on several levels since I’ve always been interested in how media characterises people to the public. I also enjoyed the fact that the film includes a Nancy Grace-like character to demonstrate the ridiculousness in the nature of the news media as entertainment. The film doesn’t focus on elaborate sets, the score is forgettable, and the lighting remains fairly dark throughout, allowing us to keep our attention on the character’s actions and dialogue instead. The plot is actually presented in a way very similar to the popular podcast Serial, where each character, plot point, and premature conclusions are made in sections throughout the duration of the movie. With such a strong debut on Flynn’s first screenplay, we are sure to expect a great adaptation of Dark Places in 2015.
The Lego Movie
Submitted by George Pierce
“Everything is awesome!” Or at least, that’s what the protagonist of The Lego Movie is led to believe. If he were talking about the movie itself, he’d be correct. The Lego Movie was a huge success, and not just in terms of box office revenue. It was naturally funny–I can’t remember the last movie that made me laugh so much. The wit was spot-on, and the inside jokes (like the rundown of play sets that wouldn’t be visited in the film) made long-time Lego fans feel like the film was theirs. The 3D animation was superb, with the Legos looking realistic even against fantastical backgrounds (look closely, and you can spot signs of wear and tear, as though the pieces had been played with before). And the voice cast was incredible, with Chris Pratt giving main hero Emmitt a relatable, everyman voice, and Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnet and Elizabeth Banks each giving superlative performances, as well.
But as funny as the movie was, it was its heart that made it one of the most endearing films I’ve seen this year. Chalk it up to nostalgia, but the emotional climax of The Lego Movie, which reminds us why we played with Legos in the first place, truly choked me up. Prior to that point, it seemed like the movie was simply going to be a film made with toys. After that moment, however, you realize that the whole movie is, very simply, a love letter to the little bricks themselves, as well as the people of all ages who use them to fulfill the whims of their imagination, whether by following instructions or constructing something that makes sense only to them.
The Lego Movie is one that requires multiple viewings, and not simply to make sense of the many Easter eggs and funny background events. The film stands among the best of this year, live action or animated, and deserves to be enjoyed over and over again.
Submitted by Joss Taylor Olson
I have friends who study quantum physics. According to them, the first rule of their field is “If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t.” I had to drop beginning calculus my freshman year of college; I can’t do math, let alone solve the mysteries of the universe. Now here are the people who can, telling me that they can’t. Intimidating, isn’t it?
Christopher Nolan spends the whole of Interstellar immersing the audience in that sort of existential fear. His future Earth may have achieved world peace, but at the cost of human curiosity. It’s a blight-stricken, agrarian world that scrubs space exploration from the history books in favor of mass subsistence farming, and while the human race survives, its sheer tenacity burns everything else out of its soul.
By now you’ve heard the buzz about how scientifically accurate this movie is, and how accessible the basics of wormhole travel and gravitic time dilation are to the general public. Nolan channels this research into incredibly novel sequences of suspense, making the fantastic-sounding passage of twenty years in the space of hours as believable as it is terrifying. On a purely visceral level, the sheer silence and scale of outer space utterly dwarf the sparse action in a way that makes abundantly clear to the audience just how small they are.
But what really struck me about Interstellar was its dedication to hope. The last generation of our dying race gambles everything it has on its search for a new world, and while the film’s individual characters succeed through their own initiative, knowledge and perseverance, ultimately the human race is saved by itself as a whole: an unseen, shadowy future civilization that engineers its own survival. The mysterious beings that enable Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to save humanity are intangible, voiceless and entirely unknown to us, but their existence hints at a humanity that transcends boundaries of every sort for its collective good. It’s easy to write off the ending as a deus ex machina, but it just feels right. It feels right because that spirit of cooperation is reproduced on a smaller scale throughout the rest of the narrative.
That’s what Interstellar is about: possibility. Mankind earns and will continue to earn its continued existence, and the tools to do so are already here.
The Theory of Everything
Submitted by Lena Yang
Director James Marsh of Man on Wire fame brings to life a biopic chronicling the relationship of Jane and Stephen Hawking from their time at Cambridge University to Stephen’s diagnosis and struggles with motor neuron disease. Adapted from Jane Wilde Hawking’s Travelling to Infinity – my Life with Stephen, the script took screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, a whopping 10 years to pen, and the result is nothing short of exceptional.
The Theory of Everything picks up in the midst of Stephen’s academic career at Cambridge University—a period of his life that is virtually undocumented and much less publicized, which ultimately makes for a much more compelling narrative in that it provides the ground for discourse on the early personal impacts of Stephen’s disease. After all, there is no definitive before and after; rather the disease triggers a spectrum of bodily deterioration that works in stages. The choreography is simple and realistic, which lends an air of authenticity to the scenes chronicling the early stages of Stephen’s physical decline without ever being offensive.
The film benefits from Marsh’s delicate direction and is propelled to exceptional standards by notable performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who play Stephen and Jane, respectively. Redmayne’s meticulously choreographed movements are respectfully realized, while Jones’s intimacy and emotional resonance adds authenticity to their relationship. The more controversial moments of Stephen’s life (i.e. his relationship with his nurse) is executed tastefully without tarnishing the established story of Jane and Stephen because The Theory of Everything, after all, is not strictly a biopic about Stephen Hawking himself, but rather a film chronicling this singularly poignant period of time, one that belongs solely to Jane and Stephen.
The film is carried by Johann Johannsson’s lilting score which lends gravity to the film’s poignant moments while also adding colour to more humorous scenes.
Altogether, The Theory of Everything is a delicate piece of filmmaking that chronicles the tangled lives of two incredibly compelling individuals. The film may not have offered a definitive theory for everything that governs the universe, but it still stands as one of the most sensitive and enthralling films of the year.
Submitted by Max Szyc
When one is endlessly told that over-hyped, Rotten Tomatoes-approved fare like The Lego Movie is considered the pinnacle of modern film, you can’t help but wonder if you’re gradually drifting into the dreaded “uncool” category. So thank goodness a movie like Nightcrawler came along and allowed me to regain some degree of critical sanity. Here was a film so captivating, well-acted and flat out fun that I briefly considered the benefits of tinkering with my moral compass and investing in the evil genius lifestyle. Then I remembered that jail cells are cold and occasionally lack toilet paper, so I immediately squashed those thoughts. But what matters is that Nightcrawler was the only film from last year that had me truly engrossed and on the edge of my seat.
Jake Gyllenhall plays Lou Bloom, a man constantly looking for unorthodox ways to make money. He eventually discovers the exhilarating world of “nightcrawlers,” camera men who scour the late night streets in search of crime/accident footage that they can then sell to news networks. While this entertaining premise is enough to lure me in, Gyllenhaal’s performance is what made me stick around. His character constantly pushes moral boundaries, testing how much the audience can like such a character. But despite how much of a creep Lou Bloom becomes, Gyllenhall always remains watchable and captivating. These elements, coupled with a bloody good climactic scene, make for the most irresistible thriller of the year.
So if you didn’t buy into Gone Girl’s hype and want your faith in modern thrillers restored, you owe it to yourself to spend a night with Jakie and co. Just don’t be surprised if you feel a sudden inkling to follow blaring siren afterwards. Yes, he really is that convincing.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Submitted by Sam Henry Miller
To the world of screenwriting, a formula boasts—and will always boast— a flawless success ratio if adopted and employed scrupulously. Writers have the choice to deviate in any other formal aspect, save this ‘bible’ of peaks, troughs, and beats, if they wish to apply their “idiosyncratic, creative genius” to the yield. However, bottom line: every story’s been told a thousand times because this formula works. It’s an emotional equation catered specific to human psychology. It also works with apes (and aliens and whatever talking poop George Lucas puts on a screen).
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply a case of ‘monkey see; monkey did’ (with regard to this bible), and did they ever, in a slick and furry, enthralling fashion. Our story here is ancient: warring factions have more in common, at the individual/filial, sentient level than they initially ignorantly believe; there’s good and evil on both sides of war. Does that mean there were good Nazis?! Not going to even touch that can of sauerkraut… but yes.
Regimes have a nasty habit of coloring their grunts with the sentiments of their leaders. But deep down we’re all just hairy hominids, warped by fear, ignorance, obedience to authority, and the propensity to toss feces for sport.
Since films are manifold, proclaiming one “best” seems outright obscene. More prudent perhaps would be to select a formal aspect, genre, and/or nationality and put an annual exemplar on its earned pedestal for a while. With screenwriting, of the year 2014, it’s monkey-bars none: Dawn of the Plant of the Apes.
The Fault in Our Stars
Submitted by Michelle Gajewski
Based on the best-selling novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars follows the ‘little infinity’ of two teens: Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters. Hazel is a 16-year-old Stage IV cancer patient forced into support group where she meets Augustus, a cancer survivor. The film follows the book almost perfectly to a tee, incorporating many details from the novel that is sure to please readers, but does not alienate those who are unfamiliar with the story. This is hands down one of the best book-to-screen adaptations of all time.
The overall lightheartedness keeps the plot fresh, though the knowledge of impending heartache promises to make the audience feel all the feels for these intelligent yet flawed teens as they navigate through love and hardships while maintaining hope and humour. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort perfectly bring Hazel and Gus to life, and paired with witty and insightful dialogue, they really demand empathy from the audience. The chemistry for these two young actors does not fly off the screen, but it is the type of chemistry that is understated and one could tell that they have an affinity for one another. This film is also supported by Willem Dafoe, who gives a crucial character life like no one else could. The soundtrack and use of animated text bubbles when Hazel and Augustus message each other add to the adorableness and indie tone of the film, further cementing that the story is not about illness, but about people who happen to be ill.
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
Submitted by Patrick Fenton
The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies was the best movie based on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien by director Peter Jackson since The Fellowship of the Ring. I’m saying it. It followed the important parts of the book and all that was added helped the story; switching a warg army helping the goblins to battle trolls gave the battle necessary scale. Galadriel along with Sarauman, and Elrond saving Gandalf from wraiths and Sauron (the great eye) himself before banishing him back to Mordor was icing on the cake to beginning that included a fire-breathing dragon being fully wrathful.
The romance between Kili and Tauriel introduced in the last film actually manages to have some pay off giving meaning to his death, which was almost a footnote in Tolkien’s original text. Unlike Return of the King the ending remained unmolested and kept more or less to the page. Alas, poor Bilbo got two less trunks of treasure than in the book…greedy dwarves.
Many have accused Jackson of re-working Lord of the Rings themes such as elves and dwarves showing feelings for each other, and to that I say reusing themes blatantly over between the two sagas fits within Tolkien’s writing. The Lord of the Rings could be described as the same story as The Hobbit albeit much more lengthy and wordy for a more advanced reader. Both are stories about a Hobbit travelling with a group to a mountain and they don’t have a very nice time about it. They travel to the same destinations, and to spice things up one group is mean tempered (dwarves) while the fellowship took good care of Frodo (until the Anduin river…), and of course the ring ties it all together. With the introduction of the orcs out of the way, no clunky exposition was needed and they could be all about getting to the Lonely Mountain and causing a ruckus.
While Tolkien’s work is still called un-filmable by a few people out there Jackson proved when he was cutting this book into two, then three for the right reasons (not money cough Hunger Games cough). According to the commentary of Desolation of Smaug the first film would have ended with the dwarves meeting Bard after their ordeal on the river and I couldn’t imagine the last leg of the journey, a stay in Lake town, looking for the door, Bilbo’s burglary and the waking of Smaug being added to the beginning of this movie without a lot of stuff being chopped and the whole thing being rushed. The cut into three films added more time for things like Thorin’s descent into madness, which even the book glossed over, and was necessary to understand his motives other than being a stubborn dwarf, not too mention a huge battle. It’s what The Return of the King should have been; the third act without the non-sense of the first half of that movie and an ending that stuck with the page.
No Grand Budapest Hotel? I gotta say I regret not participating in this list when I had the chance lol