Here’s my annual Best of the Wurst compilations of the best films of 2014. Enjoy!
1. The Better Angels
My favorite film of 2014 was little seen and didn’t appear to have a high caliber, awards season campaign to elevate its awareness-level. When a movie this good slips through the cracks, it typically finds an appreciative audience down the road with the VOD/DVD/blu-ray release (be sure to catch it when it comes out in March). A.J. Edwards’ film portrays the childhood of Abraham Lincoln in a way that makes the experience a vivid, emotionally rich and visually immersive experience. Shot in black and white, the gorgeous cinematography, sound, editing, sets and costumes put you into young Lincoln’s world. The terrific performances by Jason Clarke, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley and especially Diane Kruger portray the adults in young Lincoln’s life, who shaped and inspired him in varying ways. Braydon Denney, in his film debut as the boy who would grow up to be one of our greatest presidents, gives an endearing turn and has a spot-on profile. Edwards’ debut film recreates a lost time and evokes so many universal feelings from our childhood experiences. The stories of Lincoln reading by candlelight, finding escape, and coming to grasp his place in life is now a relatable, engrossing and near tangible cinematic experience. The Better Angels is a work of art.
Another great film about growing up and finding there’s no straight or easy path to a life of rich surprises and experiences. Richard Linklater’s life-spanning drama would be great even if we didn’t know he’d been filming it for 12 years. Full of sequences so powerful, funny and honest, Linklater’s film is made up of dozens of great stories, with characters you won’t want to leave behind.
3. American Sniper
Taken at face value, this is a tough, no-nonsense and exciting tribute to an extraordinarily courageous soldier. Playing a man defined by his do-or-die patriotism, Bradley Cooper brings intriguing layers to the role of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. Yet, when you consider that director Clint Eastwood was 84 years old when he directed this, one of his absolute best films, you’re reminded why he’s one of the most consistently surprising, essential American filmmakers.
Christopher Nolan continues his streak of going all-in, combining tricky, blatantly risk-taking narratives with smart, state of the art filmmaking and spot-on casting. His latest is flush with mind-boggling ideas, incredible visions and the nerve to keep pushing his story as far as it could possibly go. I loved his movie, with its strange fusion of heart and cold science, epic ambition and earthbound sentiment. Nolan is another filmmaking treasure. Interstellar may be odd at times but Nolan and his movie are fearless.
5. Gone Girl
Don’t let anyone ruin the big twists. David Fincher’s latest will be remembered, quoted and imitated for years to come. This is as lucid a cinematic nightmare as Fatal Attraction, another movie that pushed our buttons and gave us a much needed wake-up from the social facade of “the perfect couple.” This unapologetically cynical love story is the cure after suffering annually through The Notebook.
A most unusual road movie, about a reserved woman of faith and her alcoholic aunt, who take a journey to learn of a shocking family secret. A fine, haunting work of Polish cinema that has a deceptively understated approach, but offers big surprises.
7. Blue Ruin
This skillful, breakthrough film from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is one of the most memorable thrillers in some time. With a playful edge that reminded me of Blood Simple, this revenge tale is anchored by another discovery, Macon Blair, an actor with a haunting vulnerability in his eyes that made me root for his mysterious character, even when he’s up to no good.
8. Jodorowsky’s Dune
It was a great year for documentaries on filmmaking and the love of movies. Persistence of Vision was another absorbing, eye opening look at an unfinished film, and Life Itself, on Roger Ebert, offered a warm but complex look at our most essential film critic. Yet, the reason I’m giving the edge to this documentary on the initial un-making of Dune is that it made me a believer. I agree with the grand point it makes: had visionary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky made his version of Dune in the early 1970s, it would have changed how we view sci-fi and influenced everything after it.
There were dozens of lavish, CGI-heavy extravaganzas in 2014. This one took me off guard. I was drawn in by the emotional untidiness of the characters and a story with an unconventional mother/daughter relationship and a refreshing message of empowerment. Atop all the visual splendor, there’s Angelina Jolie, whose perfect embodiment of a classic villain matched the film in showing us dark, new layers.
10. The One I Love
The less you know about this one, the better. What begins as a relationship comedy, with Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a couple headed for a retreat, goes down a weird rabbit hole. Inventive, hilarious and kind of scary, this feels like a breath of fresh air after too many disposable romantic comedies.
Photo from American Sniper: Movieweb.com