Friday, January 16, 2015

2014 has flown the coop

Well here we finally are, at the end of the 2014 ranking season. And what a ranking season it was.

If you told me that my first full year in Australia would result in the most movies I've ever ranked, I'd say "What? You're crazy. Movies are more expensive here than in the U.S., and a lot of the big awards contenders don't even get released until after my ranking deadline."

If you told me that the first full year of having two children would result in the most movies I've ever ranked, I'd say "What? You're crazy. Parenting one child is hard enough -- if you add a second into the equation, something has to give."

Well maybe something did give, but if so, it wasn't the amount of movies I watched. My 2014 total beats my previous record (set last year) by a whole eight movies. I somehow cranked out 136 viewings that I deemed to qualify for 2014 -- and yet am more aware than ever of the films I didn't get to see. (Thanks, 67 movies on my Letterboxd watchlist, for giving me such crippling cinephile guilt.)

So in the spirit of one of those movies, here are the top five movies I wish I'd had access to see before my ranking deadline:

5. Wild
4. Dear White People
3. Selma
2. Top Five
1. Inherent Vice

Honorable mentions: American Sniper, Mommy, A Most Violent Year, Still Alice, The Theory of Everything

So yeah, movies not having released yet in Australia is still a problem. But at least that problem was somewhat mitigated by seeing Birdman, Foxcatcher and The Interview, all before their Australian theatrical releases. Which ended up being pretty significant for this year's list, as we shall see.

To what do I owe this uptick in movies? My trip to the U.S. was a pretty big factor. I watched 11 movies on four plane flights on that trip, which was a big boost to my total. I also pushed harder than usual in January, with a lot of factors falling my way to either get me to the theater more regularly, or to give me the stamina to stay up for viewings that finished after midnight -- sometimes well after midnight.

It was a pretty good year to set a record, as 2014 is top-heavy with quality. There may have been a comparatively small group of movies I truly loved, but the movies I gave four stars stretch on down into the 50s on this list. (Which isn't to say there aren't some 3.5-star movies that may have crept in ahead of them -- that's the nature of a list like this.)

But before we get to my actual rankings, it's time for the resumption of a tradition I started last year -- counting down my top ten in reverse order, with a blurb on why I chose each. It restores some of the drama that certain pictographic choices I've made on the layout of this post have already dissipated.

10. Under the Skin - This is the movie on this list I most admire without being able to say I truly love it. I wasn't sure exactly what I felt about it when I first saw it, then lived with it awhile and felt it grow, then saw it again and began to question whether it is indeed a masterpiece. It is, almost without argument, the most arresting series of pure images caught on film in 2014, and the most vital reminder of film's unique ability to move us via the image rather than dialogue or plotting. It is clearly a major achievement for director Jonathan Glazer, whose only misstep (Sexy Beast) has been amply answered for first with Birth, and now this. Though it's the type of movie where analyzing the themes seems an almost pedestrian activity, one certainty is that it was a masterstroke to cast one of our most beautiful women -- Scarlett Johansson -- as an observer of the behavior of human beings when confronted with the physical ideal. The growth of empathy in her character is tender in a manner that's at odds with how Glazer's images and soundtrack are often dischordant. Great movies can have it both ways, and Under the Skin is such a movie.

9. Enemy - Never before have I been so happy to watch one of those video film essays on the interwebs. After my viewing of Denis Villeneuve's film, I thought it was an odd little mystery about identity and gender politics that favored surreal imagery and metaphors, one that I suspected was quite good. However, one of the members of the Flickchart Facebook group had posted a link to a Youtube video by Chris Stuckmann that had a much more unified theory of its layers of meaning and interpretation ... and this video made me fall in love with the movie. In fact, I loved it enough that I purchased it again on iTunes, although that second viewing ultimately didn't transpire before the 30-day rental window closed. It'd be higher in my top 10 if there weren't that nagging part of me that questioned whether I arrived at my love of the movie purely. But I do love it, and that's enough.

8. Boyhood - I did not experience quite the same transcendent pleasure others experienced while watching this movie. My consistent question to others has been "Did you love Boyhood, or just really like it?" I have felt, and I guess still feel, stunted in a state of "really like" when it comes to Richard Linklater's grand cinematic experiment. But when I think about any individual moment from the life of Mason, our young boy who grows into a young man over the course of two-and-a-half hours, I think about how lovely it is, and how it fills me with a sense of melancholy about the passage of time in my own life. Of course, even just writing these words now, I'm getting chills, because I realize that the melancholy that runs through this film is always rubbing elbows with the joy. I think that's the kind of life any of us would like to live, and they make for the ingredients of an unforgettable movie ... one I may eventually say I truly love.

7. Love is Strange - Guess my top ten wasn't so finalized after all. If you recall yesterday's post, you'll remember that I chose this story of an aging gay couple (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) who finally marry after decades together as my final viewing of the year, hoping not to create a disruption to too much I had in place. Well, it was a welcome and wonderful disruption. Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful and elegiac films I have seen in some time. Ira Sachs skirts the hot-button issues you'd expect a film like this would court through his enviable low-key approach to the material. There's no need for Ben and George to stand in for every gay couple contemplating marriage, and perhaps failing to contemplate the unintended consequences of their actions. They are simply two human beings who care for each other, surrounded by caring friends and family, and how all that is put under stress by a society that is as it is, and erects regular roadblocks to their happiness. If there's outrage in this film, it's in the margins; it's incidental to this intimate look inside a relationship that is more real than any I have seen on screen in some time.

6. Whiplash - Whiplash stands as the exception to the rule that states "the more you see a trailer for a movie, the less chance you have of liking it." I saw the Whiplash trailer at least three times before buying my tickets ... and was enthralled by it anyway. Whiplash is not only a major technical step forward for Damien Chazelle from the grainy indie Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, but it actually has the kind of maturity of form that the driven musicians in the story aspire to. I'm not a jazz fan, but I'm a fan of how it is used here, as a way to symbolize (cymbalize?) the rhythms of great storytelling. And Whiplash is storytelling at its finest, detailing the physical and emotional sacrifices necessary to attain greatness ... and being shrewd enough not to endorse a particular viewpoint on whether such sacrifices are ultimately worth making. Two of the year's best performances, by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, leave this thing pretty damn close to perfection.

5. Edge of Tomorrow - The biggest surprise about Edge of Tomorrow was not Doug Liman's handling of the sci-fi and action elements, or the delirious joy of the repeating structure. It's that the thing is so damn funny. Yes, it wasn't only this year's most exhilarating and deliciously plotted summer movie, it was also the funniest. A hybrid of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers that earned it the nickname Groundhog Troopers, the movie had plenty of title changes and identity problems that culminated in one of the poorest marketing jobs since The Iron Giant. Let's hope the ultimately positive response by critics and audiences will encourage studios to continue taking risks on this type of original material, the kind that feels familiar yet fresh, without relying on superheroes or other reliable brands. As hard as Tom Cruise works and as awesome as Emily Blunt is -- both in general and in this movie -- Edge of Tomorrow gave me my purest adrenaline high of the year, and the year's first perfect rating on Letterboxd.

4. The Skeleton Twins - Ever since seeing this movie at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I have been wondering if I might have watched it through "festival goggles." It has not turned up on any prominent top ten lists and it has actually been derided in some circles as little more than "typical indie movie fare" which may in fact fumble its handling of suicide as a social issue. However, I can't forget that I sat in such a contented stupor on the tram ride home that I forgot to even listen to my iPod. SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig blew me away with their flawless dramatic turns, yet also made me laugh harder than almost any other movie this year. (And let's not forget one of the most deceptively lovable performances you'll ever see from Luke Wilson.) More than anything though I was moved by the strength and realism of their brother-sister bond, the kind of bond that made me eager to see my own sister as soon as possible.

3. Ida - Let's get this out of the way at the start: I'm into nuns. Okay, that's not really true, but you'd suspect that were the case after I ranked Beyond the Hills #1 last year, and then gave my #3 spot this year to Pawel Pawelkowski's masterpiece. One of the things I loved about both films was their exquisite composition, and in the case of Ida, that isn't only the unusual framing (characters are often sunken low into the frame, giving the screen a cathedral effect and leaving space for a Bergmanian deity), but the astonishing use of black and white. Bergman is indeed an obvious point of comparison, but here's one that's not so obvious: The lead character's quest for a sordid truth through a dangerous Polish countryside reminded me of Winter's Bone, one of my favorite films of 2010. Pawelkowski so densely packs his film's 80 minutes with such rich material that you kind of want to start watching it again as soon as you finish -- even though it's also damned depressing. But in reality, moviemaking this superlative can never truly depress us.

2. Like Father, Like Son - Another film suspiciously absent from top ten lists, possibly because many critics saw it in 2013. But Hirokazu Koreeda's remarkably moving and perfectly scripted family drama opened in the United States on January 17th, so some critics are just snoozing on this. In an unimaginable scenario that raises questions parents dare not answer, two Japanese families realize that their sons were switched shortly after birth as part of a hospital clerical error. The problem is, their sons are now six years old, and the families must decide whether to "switch back" -- a choice made all the more problematic by a society in which patriarchy and blood are prized above all else. The film struggles with the clash of modern Japanese society with its ancient traditions, and it has a field day with the nature/nurture questions at its core, exploring why the children have become what they are, what we can expect from them in the future -- and whether their parents are satisfied with that. Basic parental love is caught somewhere in the middle. It's the most moved I was by any film this year.

1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - No 2014 film exhilarated me more. If it wasn't the ostentatious "single take" technique of DP Emmanuel Lubezki leaving me absolutely floored, it was the performances of the best ensemble cast of 2014, led by Oscar frontrunner Michael Keaton. Rarely have a camera and a cast been able to so intimately bring me inside the lives of such a fragile cross-section of individuals, each with their own relatable foibles and moments of surprising transcendence. Instead of feeling like a fly on the wall, though, I felt like a fly in flight, especially as the camera zooms in with discomfiting intensity on the face of Emma Stone as she lays all her father's delusions bare. What's even more exciting about Birdman is that there's a whole interpretation of the events of this movie, relating to an incident on a beach involving jellyfish that may not be as far in the past as we think, that I haven't even heard put forward. The richness of this movie continues to unfold for me, and it represents a major comeback for its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

And to think ... if I hadn't seen Birdman in the U.S. in November, I would have been faced with that dilemma I am always trying to avoid: seeing your potential #1 on the last day of the ranking period. Birdman didn't open in Australia until yesterday, which is today for people in the U.S. I would have had to see it after the kids went to bed on Thursday night, and then had only 90 minutes until my self-imposed ranking deadline to consider whether it was truly my favorite movie of the year. If Inside Llewyn Davis had had longer to sit with me after a final-day screening last year, it might have been my #1 of 2013 rather than just #3. (I didn't expect Unbroken to give me the same type of headache, but skipped it this year for similar reasons of getting its Australian theatrical release just hours before my deadline -- and because I don't like Angelina Jolie.)

Now, my five worst:

5. I, Frankenstein - Movies involving demons and winged creatures and, oh yeah, Frankenstein's monster don't get much dumber than this. Why, Aaron Eckhart? Why?

4. The Nut Job - One of the five worst animated movies I've ever seen, and one of only two I'm sure I gave a one-star rating. All Dogs Go to Heaven, you've got company. A simply abysmal collection of unlikable characters and animated pratfalls.

3. I Origins - The best thing about this pretentious piece of B.S. existential philosophizing is the nickname my wife came up with for it: I Snorigins.

2. Dom Hemingway - Jude Law begins this movie with a three-minute ode to his own member while it's being serviced by a fellow prison inmate, and things never get any better.

1. Wolf Creek 2 - A mercilessly brutal horror sequel that is entirely devoid of cleverness, and anything else of redeeming value. Its worst sin, though, is to rob the killer of all his mystique by showing him in every damn frame of the whole movie.

Now on to the good stuff, the movies ranked from #1 to ... shit, I've lost count.

1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2. Like Father, Like Son
3. Ida
4. The Skeleton Twins
5. Edge of Tomorrow
6. Whiplash
7. Love is Strange
8. Boyhood
9. Enemy
10. Under the Skin
11. The Interview
12. Life Itself
13. The Lunchbox
14. The Babadook
15. Snowpiercer
16. Foxcatcher
17. The Grand Budapest Hotel
18. The Congress
19. Begin Again
20. Only Lovers Left Alive
21. Night Moves
22. Cheap Thrills
23. Locke
24. Two Days, One Night
25. The Sacrament
26. Mistaken for Strangers
27. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
28. Why Don't You Play in Hell?
29. Mood Indigo
30. Happy Christmas
31. Blue Ruin
32. Frank
33. Oculus
34. Tusk
35. Joe
36. Magic in the Moonlight
37. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
38. The Final Member
39. The Taking of Deborah Logan
40. Gone Girl
41. What We Do in the Shadows
42. Starred Up
43. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
44. Mr. Peabody & Sherman
45. Belle
46. Venus in Fur
47. Winter Sleep
48. 20,000 Days on Earth
49. The Unknown Known
50. Draft Day
51. The Lego Movie
52. Young & Beautiful
53. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
54. They Came Together
55. Felony
56. Space Station 76
57. Listen Up Philip
58. Force Majeure
59. Advanced Style
60. Dumb and Dumber To
61. The Fault in Our Stars
62. Lucy
63. Predestination
64. Big Hero 6
65. Walk of Shame
66. Interstellar
67. The Trip to Italy
68. How to Train Your Dragon 2
69. Sabotage
70. The One I Love
71. Manakamana
72. These Final Hours
73. Life of Crime
74. Non-Stop
75. The Wait
76. X-Men: Days of Future Past
77. Cuban Fury
78. Neighbors
79. Obvious Child
80. Men, Women & Children
81. Tracks
82. God's Pocket
83. Maleficent
84. White God
85. Paddington
86. We Are the Best!
87. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
88. Memphis
89. Noah
90. The Imitation Game
91. The Rover
92. 22 Jump Street
93. A Most Wanted Man
94. Guardians of the Galaxy
95. Pompeii
96. Black Coal, Thin Ice
97. Alan Partridge
98. Nightcrawler
99. Bad Words
100. Rage
101. Wish I Was Here
102. Nymphomaniac Vol. II
103. Earth to Echo
104. Into the Storm
105. Veronica Mars
106. Grand Piano
107. Tammy
108. Willow Creek
109. The Zero Theorem
110. Life After Beth
111. The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
112. St. Vincent
113. Calvary
114. Ride Along
115. Particle Fever
116. The Immigrant
117. The Pretty One
118. 3 Days to Kill
119. Nymphomaniac Vol. I
120. Odd Thomas
121. Godzilla
122. Into the Woods
123. Sex Tape
124. Le Week-End
125. The Double
126. That Awkward Moment
127. Heaven is for Real
128. Vampire Academy
129. Chef
130. The Monuments Men
131. Fading Gigolo
132. I, Frankenstein
133. The Nut Job
134. I Origins
135. Dom Hemingway
136. Wolf Creek 2

That's it. That's all. Except for your comments. Please be generous with them!


Nick Prigge said...

So much to take in! So much I want to write in response! I don't do honorable mentions, as you know, but 4 of your Top 10 would have been in my honorable mentions. Birdman, Love is Strange, Boyhood, and Under the Skin. And speaking of which I love your thoughts on Under the Skin, particularly that it's something you can admire and not love and how it's best to perhaps just let it HAPPEN to you rather than reading it.

You also make me want to rewatch Birdman RIGHT NOW.

And I need to see Whiplash again. It made me feel more like I was watching a monster movie than a deconstruction of how a genius is or isn't made.

And I still have to see I Origins. I do. And I know. Because I believe you when you say it's that bad. But I'm in the bag for Brit. I have to go through with it. At some point. Maybe. (I will.)

I also really love that reading your year-end post is one of my Oscar nomination day traditions now...

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Nick! I love that it's become a tradition for you too.

Love is Strange really knocked me out. It might have crept a little higher if I'd had a week or so to chew on it. As is, #7 is pretty darn good.

Do you know the theory I alluded to about Birdman? I haven't heard anyone talk about it (though someone surely has), the idea that the whole movie may be in his mind as he's lying on the beach recovering from (fatal?) jellyfish stings. I would like to see it again too, obviously.

I understand the remove from Whiplash, but ultimately I just found it to be symphonic filmmaking.

You might like I Origins. I doubt you will connect to these characters as star-crossed lovers, though, which I know can be a draw for you. I'm also in the bag for Brit (Another Earth was my #4 that year), but she feels kind of incidental to this movie.

Thanks again for the comment. This post reverted to a draft by accident and I had to recreate some content. Glad I did not lose your comment.

Groundskeeper Willie said...

Hot damn, you keep seeing more movies every year! It's amazing. As always, I'm pleased by the breadth of the list -- you are omnivorous.

I'm really pleased to see The Skeleton Twins so high on your list. I love Bill Hader, but I still managed to give this one a pass based on some tepid reviews and the fact that it played in Providence for like five seconds. I'll definitely check it out on Netflix.

More later!

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Keeper. I think I like The Skeleton Twins more than just about anyone else (except for this one person I know who ranked it #1 for the year), so I don't want to say that it will be a slam dunk for you. But Hader in particular is terrific, since it seems the most different from what we've seen from him (Wiig has dabbled in drama before).

Carly Paradis said...

I love this! I have not seen a majority of these movies, but I HAVE seen all of season one of the transformers cartoon at least 100 times, so that's something. I'm going to use your tops as a bulleted check list and start working my way through them... many I have wanted to see but haven't had the chance yet. Now I am super excited! Thanks so much for taking the time to share once again. :)

Derek Armstrong said...


Thanks so much for checking out the post, and trusting me as your watch list!

You know, Peter Cullen does some great vocal work as Optimus Prime. So there's that.