We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.
My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and some very unexpected ones in the mix:
by Kaylyn Aznavorian
Of all the Oscar nominees for Best Film this year, I can honestly say I best connected with Birdman. Besides the obvious – fantastic acting, great writing, and an overall brilliant film, as someone who is actively working in the film and television industry, this film perfectly addresses the life of a person in entertainment. The entertainment business is almost like the relationship between candy and children. If the candy’s good, kids keep buying, but then perhaps a new candy comes out. Sure, the first candy’s good, and sales continue, but over time, that candy’s sales will decrease until it eventually retires. Why? Kids like new. They like change.
As an actor, you’ve got to be able to deliver that change they crave. We experiment – different roles, different moods, and in the case of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), different means of presentation, such as the stage rather than the screen. If you fall in your prime, it can be difficult to brush yourself off and get back in the limelight, because you have GOT to convince people you’re worth watching over the shiny new actor with the nice abs or pretty hair. You’ve got to convince them all that you’re the classic – the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, if you will- and worth investing in.
Not only that, while putting everything you have into redeeming yourself as an actor, personal relationships can be difficult to handle, especially whenever most of those you care about don’t understand what it is you’re going through. Although I have yet to have my big Hollywood breakthrough, I absolutely get it, and my biggest fear, much like anyone else who is serious about a career in entertainment, is becoming that reject candy after I’ve finally made a name for myself. Bravo to Keaton and the rest of the Birdman cast and crew. By far, one of the best movies I have seen in a long time.
Kaylyn Aznavorian is a model, actress, and screenwriter from Bedford, Virginia. She has recently been featured on a 25-story billboard in Times Square, on season three of the award-winning series House of Cards, and is currently in preproduction on an original screenplay titled The Price of Beauty, which will raise awareness of domestic violence in the United States. You can follow her work here.
A “Boyhood” Searching for “Birdman”
by Qina Liu
I believe the best film of 2014 was Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I was in awe of Emmanuel Lubezki’s seemingly one-shot takes; and the wonderful performances of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and the rest of the ensemble cast; as well as the self-aware and satirical script. The members of the Academy would agree with me; the film was nominated for nine Oscars and won four of them, including best cinematography, best original screenplay, best directing, and best picture.
But while I loved how Birdman appealed to me on an intellectual level, that wasn’t the 2014 film that I connected with most. Birdman didn’t keep me up at night or leave me with a gnawing hole in my heart, wondering what I am going to do with my life. As much as Birdman spoke about art, the film was essentially actor/director Riggan Thomson’s story. You could safely watch from afar as Thomson suffered humiliation after humiliation for the sake of art and “super realism.”
Instead, my story is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a nostalgic and poignant film that captures the mundane experiences of everyday life. I know people who didn’t enjoy the film. “If I wanted to watch someone pump gas and take pictures, I’d go on a car ride with you,” one of my friends wrote on Facebook.
But to me, Boyhood didn’t feel long or ordinary. It’s my story and one I don’t want to end. Like Boyhood‘s protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane), I spent summers “soaking up the sun” to Sheryl Crow and Queueing bookstores for midnight releases of Harry Potter. Boyhood was my childhood, and to re-watch it is to re-live it.
Of course, I’m not done growing up. Like Coltrane and Patricia Arquette’s characters, I’m still searching for meaning. I still find myself at late-night diners questioning my existence. I still haven’t figured everything out. But as I watch art, I’m slowly learning to live.
Qina Liu is one of my favorite critics, a Buffalo native who excels at digging out the subtle motivations that make film narratives work. Read her work at Pass the Popcorn.
by Roy Sexton
The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.
Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.
As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.
Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.
Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his book, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats Theatre Company.
by Amanda Hatheway
As I’m still catching up on last year’s films, I am going to say that Nightcrawler left the biggest impression on me. Yes, of course it (mostly Gyllenhaal) was creepy, it’s supposed to be. I had my own theories about sensationalism in TV news before seeing this film and my concerns spiraled into a dark place of enlightenment. It almost grows to be a most twisted black humor piece. It comments most brilliantly on entertainment, stats, shock-value, and asks what really is “the news?”
Amanda Hatheway is a fashion blogger and photographer with a focus on cruelty-free and animal-free products.
by Kunsang Kelden
Clocking in at just 16 minutes, “Butter Lamp” by Chinese director Hu Wei and French producer Julien Feret was my surprise favorite of the year. The Oscar-nominated short takes place in front of a series of kitschy Chinese-made backdrops used by a traveling photographer who has set up shop in a small village in Eastern Tibet. The film follows the photographer at work, ushering in Tibetan nomads for photos, sometimes encouraging them to swap their traditional clothes for sleek looking modern garb. Each photo in the series speaks volumes with the juxtaposition of nomadic life high in the Himalayas and modern Chinese kitsch.
Each scene is a little vignette, with an almost Checkhov-like quality in the way they’re told, the most moving of which I found was an old grandmother who was having her photo taken for the first time. The backdrop chosen was of the historic residence of the Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace in Lhasa, of which she has dreamt visiting her entire life. When the backdrop is unrolled, she is so moved she immediately begins prostrating to the image and refuses to turn around to take a photo. Eventually, the backdrop is replaced with one of a beach and a palm tree. Regardless of whether the director or producers would like to admit it, this film is inherently political. Its commentary of China’s colonialism and globalization in Tibet is a creative and refreshing narrative style that I hope influences many more filmmakers in China to come.
Kunsang Kelden is one of the most impressive human beings I know (no pressure) and is currently studying in London. She cares deeply about a free Tibet. You can read more about Tibetan culture at her blog Lhakar Diaries.
Under the Skin
by Vanessa Tottle
I am here to be put on a hook and bedded. If I say something against this, I am here for your ridicule. I am a target and an opportunity. In a bar, I am not to be left alone. From the front of a classroom, you might hint at reciprocity, as if the grades I’ve earned have a cost to be taken from my flesh. You might cop an awkward feel in a train and apologize with a shit-eating grin on your face. You might dig in my bag and hold my passport like a ransom as I refuse to show you my panic and my mind races for options. You might crawl into my tent at 2 a.m. There are times in the field I’ve slept with a knife at my side.
I am lucky. I have resources. I said no to tougher and bigger as a kid, when I was meek and small and bruises were a victory. I can make you feel “no” in your bones when I say it now. I can fucking haunt you with “no.” I have learned how to withstand the most ridiculous confrontations and pressures, but that’s never the same as feeling safe. It’s not the same as feeling what I’m told is normal, as if I’m not just here to be put on a hook and bedded.
There are many who can’t make you feel it in your bones, who don’t have resources, who didn’t learn what I forced myself to in order to feel confident and protect myself, or who may know all these things and have still been beaten or raped or killed in similar situations.
Under the Skin puts the shoe on the other foot. It’s the men on the fringes of society who won’t be missed, who no one will listen to, who no one will search for if they go missing. An unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) preys like a rapist, a social predator hiding in plain sight, who makes you feel her approval is worth a cost in flesh, is worth a ransom, because you serve no more purpose than to be put on a hook and bedded. Even if it makes you feel it for two hours, it makes you FEEL it. It makes you feel unable to withstand. It makes you feel unsafe. But you get to walk out at the end and call it “horror.” For a woman, sometimes we call that “just another day.”
Vanessa Tottle is a paleontologist by trade, and is the creative director for this site. She’s written powerfully many times on the treatment of women in the media and the increasingly organized war on women’s freedoms.
Tie – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
and Guardians of the Galaxy
by Erin Snyder
Yeah, yeah: ties are cheating. But I’ve got a good excuse. First of all, I’m not calling these two movies the “best of the year” because I think they each deserve that title individually. In fact, if only one of these movies had come out this year, I don’t think I’d have picked it. It’s the two of them together that delivered something exceptional.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t great: I thought they were. But I saw a lot of great movies in 2014. What set these apart is the larger Universe they’re part of. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is easily the most ambitious project going on in Hollywood right now. Of course, this is old news: the MCU has been around since 2008.
These two films didn’t just occupy completely different sectors of the same shared Universe; they dramatically expanded that Universe in new directions. I don’t just mean in terms of plot or setting: these movies introduced entirely new tones and genres to the Marvel Universe.
I had a lot of great experiences in the theater this year – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The LEGO Movie, Edge of Tomorrow, Her… but in my opinion the clear winner is Marvel. They’re building something we haven’t seen before, at least on film. We’re seeing plot lines developing across multiple franchises and platforms. We’re seeing characters interacting with each others’ stories without realizing it. And most importantly, we’re seeing movies try to do something they haven’t done before.
These two movies expanded the possibilities for where Marvel can go. They’re developing larger, connected stories on a scale we’ve never seen on film.
And that, hands down, is the best thing I saw in a theater in 2014.
Erin Snyder is a novelist and critic. You can check out his latest novel Facsimile, read his reviews at Welcome to the Middle Room, and experience some seasonal shock to the system at Mainlining Christmas.
Interior. Leather Bar.
by A.E. Larsen
When I was asked to submit a brief piece about what I thought the best movie of the year was, I was initially hesitant, both because I haven’t seen a lot of the big releases this year and because most of what I have seen simply hasn’t moved me or stayed with me in any real way. But eventually I decided that I did have a choice, though not an obvious one by any means: James Franco’s arthouse piece, Interior. Leather Bar. The film is a docufiction that purports to be about Franco’s attempt to reconstruct the lost 40 minutes of William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 movie Cruising. Franco casts a straight friend, Val Lauren, in the Al Pacino part as a straight cop going undercover in a gay leather bar where he watches men having sex and engaging in sadomasochistic acts.
I say the film “purports to be” about reconstructing the lost footage, because as a number of critics pointed out, only about 10 minutes of footage actually gets reconstructed, and instead most of the film is a discussion about how Franco, Lauren, and other straight actors feel about what they’re watching. But what many of the film’s critics failed to recognize is that the film isn’t actually about Franco’s attempt to reconstruct the lost footage. It’s actually Franco using the reconstruction to study the reactions of vanilla straight men when confronted with open demonstrations of kinky gay sexuality. Lauren is confused about what he’s doing because Franco hasn’t told him that what he’s really filming is Lauren’s discomfort with the loss of his heterosexual privilege that has kept him from having to view gay sexuality in action.
So why am I calling this the best film of 2014 (or more precisely, the best film of 2014 that I’ve actually seen)? It definitely has problems; it’s very talky, and at times it gets way too meta. But it actively pushes its audience to think about the way that conventional cinema privileges heterosexual romance over all other forms of sexuality to the point that, as Franco comments in the film, he’s internalized his hetero privilege even though he doesn’t want to. He complains that audiences are trained to accept extreme violence but to blanch at gay sex. Whereas The Imitation Game embraces its heterosexual privilege by exaggerating the meaning of Alan Turing’s brief engagement to Joan Clarke and cannot bring itself to show Turing actually engaging in homosexual activity even when that activity is central to the plot (he’s being investigated for homosexual sex, after all), Interior. Leather Bar. actively pushes its audience outside the bounds of hetero privilege and dares to treat explicit kinky gay sex as a suitable subject for a movie. It’s not the best movie of the year by any conventional set of standards, but it was a far more thought-provoking and bold film than any other I saw this year.
But if you want a more conventional best film of the year, I’ll say Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was fun, had a smart plot, had lots of violence, and absolutely no sadomasochistic gay sex.
A.E. Larsen writes the absolutely essential An Historian Goes to the Movies, which considers how far movies stray from historical reality. Sometimes, a movie is forgiven and sometimes it’s not. Either way, I always learn something.
by Jessica Greenberg
My pick is Interstellar, if just to bring focus to the sound design. The score is evocative, sometimes minimalist, and the sound as a whole has a retro-futuristic flavor that I love. The use of silence, or near silence, at appropriate moments is equally well done. I thought it was interesting that the world of the spaceship was less dominated by the typical beeps and blips you might find in a sci-fi blockbuster, which I think supports the more philosophical tone of this movie. Sound design by Richard King, and music composed by Hans Zimmer.
Jessica Greenberg is a lighting designer and assistant professor of Theatre Design at Weber State University. Check out her impressive design portfolio.
by Keith Ward
“There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than ‘good job.’” – Fletcher
Most stories about the relationship between a mentor and student are safe, empowering, predictable, and frankly hokey experiences. Whiplash subverts this cliché genre in surprising new ways. Out of all the movies I watched in 2014, it both disturbed me and challenged my preconceived notions the most.
Whiplash focuses on aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller). A first-year student at a Julliard-like music school, he rejoiced when renowned instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) recruits him into his band. Neyman soon must re-evaluate his ‘good luck.’ Fletcher’s methods are brutal. Rather than offering praise to encourage the best in his students, he uses humiliation and sadism to push them past their limits. To him, the ends always justify the means. But Fletcher’s cruelty is matched by Neyman’s own obsession with becoming a great musician. As the story progresses, the line between victim and accomplice becomes increasingly blurred.
I was raised in the “feel good” generation. It was during my childhood that kids started to get awards at sporting events just for participating. Many of us never really knew what it was like to be a loser until we were thrown into the terrible post-2008 job market. I certainly didn’t learn to appreciate criticism until halfway through college. Maybe my generation’s fear of hurting other people’s feelings has held us back. Personally, I like to think that positive reinforcement is important and feel pride in some of my generation’s accomplishments. Whiplash’s narrative does not side with Fletcher, depicting the dark repercussions of his methods, but it does show us that his mean-spirited technique can be effective. Achieving greatness in any medium, from music to acting to filmmaking, must come at a personal cost to the artist.
I recommend that you go see Whiplash. But keep in mind that it is definitely not a date movie. The story revels in making its audience feel uncomfortable and it kept me on the edge of my seat. It features an excellent jazz soundtrack, creative editing, brilliant performances by Teller and Simmons, and an intelligent story that challenges the viewer. I couldn’t ask for much more from a motion picture.
Keith Ward is an actor making his feature film debut this year as the lead in a film I’m very excited about, the upcoming romance Beyond Hello.
by Justine Baron
Sometimes, the films that speak to you the most are the ones you never imagined you would love so much. To me, Whiplash is one of the most affecting films of 2014, and this is coming from someone who has little knowledge of jazz music and no musical skills whatsoever. When someone comes along and creates a story built in a world you don’t necessarily relate to, about a subject you know little of, and you become not only pleasantly lost in it but also so on-edge the whole time that you feel physically tense, that is what I believe is a part of great filmmaking.
Some of the credit goes to the performances, and I think plenty of us who saw this can agree that J.K. Simmons was the most intense and scary he’s ever been. Miles Teller also stepped out of the box and into a role that really showcased his true talents as not only an actor, but a musician as well. I had no idea he had those skills. Credit also goes to Damien Chazelle for a smart, bold, and engaging script with plenty of witty dialogue and layered themes, the biggest of which asks the question: how far is one willing to be pushed to achieve greatness? A question I don’t often ask myself. Along with the outstanding performances and great writing/directing, the music, the editing, and the cinematography here work so well in accordance together. Whiplash is such a skillfully crafted film. It shocked me and really made me question the moral implications of this abusive student/mentor relationship. I fell in love with this film instantly, and that’s why I believe it’s the best of 2014.
Justine Baron is a production assistant with a passion for movies. She runs the incredibly informative film site Justine’s Movie Blog. I may not always agree with her, but I do always read her, and she’s one of the few critics I consider go-to.
by Tim O’Neill
Let’s talk about Whiplash. It may not be my definitive favorite of 2014, I had a few this year, but it fills a dark horse niche that I’d like to celebrate. Like Foxcatcher, another favorite of 2014, Whiplash is a nail biting, mano a mano study of masculinity, whose plot evokes yawns when explaining it to friends. This movie isn’t great because of what it is, but how it is. This lean story of ambition, competition, and motivation almost feels like it spontaneously appeared out of the hands of its craftsmen: the actors, cinematographer, editor, and sound mixers. To his credit, Damien Chazelle’s direction feels like the invisible hand of a composer himself, letting the instruments do the talking.
Like Black Swan, Whiplash confronts the horrifying sacrifices one makes in the pursuit of artistic brilliance. But not since Fight Club have I seen a movie that so daringly grapples with the subject of masculinity. Most films that do center on stories of extreme violence, and of course here there is a little of that. But here, violence – or perhaps more accurately machismo – comes in the form of competition. Men learn by doing, and doing better than the next guy. Fathers scold, brothers fight, and the scars define us. Or at least that’s what J.K. Simmons is yelling at me. I had a theatre professor in college a lot like Simmons’ character, Fletcher, who offended a lot of students with his abrasive style. He used to say that we would never learn if he wasn’t brutally honest about our work, emphasis on brutal. This idea that artists, like athletes, have to be pounded into the ground in order to be great is certainly compelling. I still think what few basketball skills I have are primarily the result of the pickup games I played with my cousin, whose early growth spurt gave him a full head over me. On the other hand, you can’t throw a chair at a student, c’mon guys. And would he have thrown a chair at a female student? Oddly, I found Whiplash to be a fairly positive portrayal of masculinity. This isn’t a depressing movie about an alcoholic father who beats his son, there is something genuinely, unsettlingly rational at its core. I may not completely agree with Fletcher’s philosophy, but he does seem to get results.
People have been calling Whiplash a horror movie, or a monster movie. I can get on board with that, but perhaps what’s truly horrifying is the notion that Fletcher might be right, or at least not entirely crazy. The ending certainly leaves that question up for debate. Speaking of which, the ending alone makes this one of the best films of 2014. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie climax so dependent on editing.* Plenty of movies have great action climaxes built around superb editing, but those would still read well on the page. I haven’t read it, but I assume the script for the final scene of Whiplash reads something like “then Andrew takes control of the band and proves that he has what it takes.” Seriously, the last 5 minutes are essentially a live jazz performance covered from every conceivable angle cut together by the ghost of Keith Moon. I saw the movie weeks after it came out in a small, half-full theater and the audience still erupted in applause. Now THAT’S filmmaking.
*Full disclosure, I’m an editor.
It’s true, Tim O’Neill is an L.A. based editor, whose credits range from the feature The Unidentified to the TV documentary Tracker and the comedy series Compulsive Love. His edit reel shows a rare flexibility across genres.
by Olivia Smith
Australia. Our art is driven by what pleases American and English critics who hardly matter to America or England anymore. We want to be like our bigger brothers. We’ve killed our own art. While New Zealand poaches local and Polynesian artists, we chase them all out like dogs. Where once we loomed large, Australian movies now make up 3.5% of our domestic box office. We even chased the new Mad Max trilogy to Namibia. The Australian movie industry has been choked to death.
When something like The Rover arrives, it’s special. It’s not just special because it’s Australian – like writer Joel Edgerton, director David Michod, and most of its stars, including Guy Pearce. It breathes Australian. It feels the desert. It features actors of Cambodian and Chinese descent, which may seem inconsequential but is something much Australian film ignores. It feels like the madhouse circus this place can be, finds brilliance hidden in among the xenophobia and paranoia that pervades our politics. Its story is simple, yet deceptive. A man (Pearce) and his kidnapped protege (Robert Pattinson) pursue the man who stole his car. Along the way, Pearce trains Pattinson to interact with the world by dominating others, by murdering them. Yet Pattinson only ever does it for Pearce’s respect. Both men are haunting. The film is parched of all emotion, cast in the pall of a hurt Pearce won’t reveal. Pattinson feels like the wood from the bonfire a night before – crisp, flaking apart where the wounds are, disintegrating before your eyes. You watch with tremendous sorrow, but it makes no difference. What you watch has already burnt. It can no longer be fresh again, it can no longer be restored.
Olivia Smith is an Australian-based writer who’s offered us a unique perspective from a country struggling with whether to publicly fund or privatize the arts.
by Andy Crump
Horror movies tend to be treated as though they’re disposable; this is as true today as it has been for most of horror fiction’s existence. But then a person like Jennifer Kent comes along and makes a horror film that makes 90% of what her genre peers output, as well as most of 2015’s Academy Awards nominees, look like absolute clown shoes. Few horror yarns founded on a driving metaphor work that metaphor as beautifully as The Babadook does. The film is terrifying, but it’s also heartwrenching, gorgeously made, and indelibly true. How can a movie about a boogeyman feel more authentic than most films that purport to root themselves in reality?
Andy Crump is a film writer and critic at Movie Mezzanine and Screen Rant. He and I get in some pretty legendary battles over films, but I always appreciate the writing he does and the care he puts into it.
We had enough reaction that we’ll be featuring Part 2 of this article next week. That’ll be featured and posted here once it’s up!