Justin Midnight’s 10 Best Films of 2014

2014 was an insane year for movies! So much good stuff didn’t make this short list, but in a lot of years, films like The Babadook, Noah, Housebound, A Field in England, Snowpiercer and Frank (all excellent) would have easily made the cut. I hated not including all of those and a few more on this list, but who wants to read a list from some milquetoast who posts a Top 14 of 2014? Not me. So, here they are. I even ranked them, apples to oranges and all.

#10 Enemy

For me, Enemy was a grower. It’s the kind of film that’s as much fun to think about and discuss afterward as it is to watch. The film’s framework appears familiar, bearing strong initial likeness to Dostoyevsky’s The Double, where an everyman becomes aware of a better, more charming version of himself, but Enemy quickly veers from the path of mental illness and the repressed self to explore weirder, more metaphysical themes. Enemy quickly blows by questions that pertain to the (im)possibility of its scenario, and moves on to the implications of being force fed a new, slightly more symmetrical reality.

Enemy is partly taught psychothriller, and part petulant, confrontational art film. And it succeeds at being both, despite what a lot of folks think is an abortive resolution. But fuck you if you want a story to be what you want it to be. Enemy makes no apologies for its unanswered questions, but asks some interesting ones about self perception, identity, fate, and how to reconcile discovering your own recursive equivalent. Maybe you try to be friends with him/it. Maybe you ignore it. Maybe you kill it. Maybe something far stranger.

It’s deliciously disturbing to watch as Enemy’s edges fray, detach, and eventually spiral into unknown territory.

#9 Guardians of the Galaxy

Everyone saw this, right? I know a lot of people did. I’m glad. It’s so great! Fun, funny, lots of heart, Chris Pratt’s abs, Bautista’s acting chops, Bradley RaCooper, etc. Sadly, a lot more people saw Transformers and Maleficent, but what can we do against such obstinate, willful ignorance? People love shit. But sometimes, they can love shit while loving something else that isn’t shit. I feel like Guardians was that something this year. We are Groot.

#8 Interstellar

Less serious and dogmatic than The Dark Knight Rises, less convoluted than Inception, Interstellar feels like a film headed in the right direction for Christopher Nolan. Which is to say, while it still takes itself very seriously and is complicated and abstract enough to warrant at least two viewings to fully grasp its concepts (time as a physical dimension is hard), Interstellar manages to be a fuck of a lot of fun.

Its huge scale and high stakes come across as legendary stuff when seen on a proper IMax screen. Much of the film was shot on 70mm, and Nolan’s dedication to avoiding green screens and CGI where possible give the film a tactile sense we just don’t get from big budget SciFi anymore.

Mathew McConaughey’s portrayal of ex NASA pilot Cooper gives weight to his piloting heroics, which are fist-pump inducing, and Jessica Chastain’s (prettiest!) Murph is tough and smart, and she loves math. Always nice to see smart girls on screen. Anne Hathaway plays another one. In fact, there are so many huge stars in this film that I felt like clapping each time a new one was revealed, and the dialogue feels awkwardly stagey at times. But, the robots (yes!) are hilarious and provide nice foils for some real moments, and the blend of sound stage and effects creates some breathtaking otherworldly visuals.

#7 The Drop

Tom Hardy nailed both of his screen roles in 2014 (see Locke, it barely missed the top 10), but his portrayal of small time crime cog Bob Saginowski is his best work to date. Dennis Lehane’s (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) screenplay liberally applies the grimey east coast aesthetic he’s known for to a Brooklyn neighborhood where Bob and cousin Marv (James Gandolfini, RIP) run a small bar that occasionally serves as a drop site for mob collection money.

One fateful evening, the drop is intercepted by some stickup men, and things begin to get complicated. As The Drop unfolds, character’s shadowed histories begin to take form, some more clearly than others. Bob’s is the most nebulous, defined by vaguely reverent whispers about what he used to be. Which is so much fun, because when we meet him, he comes across as a little slow and overly compliant, but there’s a glimmer of something more beneath his sheepish exterior. And watching the reveal is a terrific thrill.

Gandolfini kills as ham fisted dummy Cousin Marv, and Matthias Schoenaerts is perfect as shady sweatpants scumfuck Eric Deeds. The Drop is as gratifying a realistic crime film as you can find.

#6 20,000 Days on Earth

I’m sure that being a big Nick Cave fan helped me love this movie, but mostly in the sense that it prompted me to buy the ticket. The ride that is 20,000 Days on Earth is something much greater than I had hoped it would be, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, even if you’ve never heard his music. Formally, this is a strange film that begins and ends in the present, but sort of meanders through time, memory and daydreams thoughout. The portrait of Cave that emerges is a compelling one. We are witness to someone positively obsessed with his craft, who has been heralded as a genius for decades, and who openly admits to being possessed of equal cravings for both personal and commercial satisfaction.

But 20,000 Days on Earth isn’t great because Cave is. It stands on its own as a stunning blend of beautiful ideas, sounds and visuals. It is a celebration of the creative spirit shown in its complex, frustrating glory. I wrote a review of it here.

#5 John Wick

John Wick’s greatest strength is definitely in its super styley, perfectly choreographed action sequences. It blends hand to hand combat with close quarters gunplay to form an exhilarating hybrid it can truly call its own. Sometimes it leans more heavily on gunplay, sometimes it’s straight up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but I was happy to return to the film’s unique brand of violence again and again. There are also some pretty amazing driving sequences that almost go unnoticed because everything is happening at such a high level.

But Wick is more than just near perfect violence on film. True, the plot isn’t overly ambitious, but it’s not totally lacking for complexity either. The criminal underworld is a wonderfully surreal society that trades in murder and gold doubloons, but operates by a strict code. As we are introduced to this world, so are we becoming familiar with John, or John as he once was. A legendary hitman who retired four years before the film’s opening scenes, Wick’s name is spoken in hushed, nervous tones. As word spreads that he’s on a path toward vengeance, the angst behind the whispers turns slowly and inevitably to horror. John Wick is the real life Boogeyman, or as the film’s crime boss (Michael Nyqvist) says, “he’s the guy you send to kill the Boogeyman.”

Of course, this would be hyperbole if Reeves weren’t so perfectly fit to play this role. His action pedigree precedes him here, but this is a new brand of violence for him. The fighting is mostly the kind of gritty, practical stuff you might learn as, say, an Israeli Special Forces operative. And Reeves nails it. His demeanor throughout the film adds to the gravity of the violence he finds himself creating. He’s a man of few words, but his face is often a mask of intense focus, and there is a plodding grace to his gait, not unlike a retired athlete’s. Most of what he sees is unsurprising, depressing, even to him. But when his temper is stirred and his ire is unleashed, it’s fucking scary.

#4 The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s 2014 film is his best, which is really quite something when you look back on his directorial resumè. I’m personally a big fan of most of his work, and The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a culmination of elements he’s gotten right in the past. Yes, the twee trappings of every Anderson film are here, but they feel natural in the fictional setting of a grand old european hotel caught in the crossfire of war. Familiar plot elements like paternal substitution/mentorship, young love, and high stakes, fantastic adventure find happy returns to Andreson’s lens, each carefully played out in diorama-like settings. Grand Budapest’s sense of adventure shares some DNA with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, its story of unlikely friendship a close cousin of Rushmore or The Life Aquatic, its tale of innocent love one we know from nearly all his works. Each is an expertly placed layer in a complex and sprawling tale that elicits more real emotional response than anything hes’s ever done.

But honestly, this film doesn’t work half as well without Ralph Fiennes as the endearingly enigmatic M. Gustave. Strong casting has become a hallmark of Anderson’s films, especially with regard to old guys getting top billing. Fiennes is as good or better than Gene Hackman or Bill Murray ever were here. His comic timing, empathy, and violence never fail to be pleasantly surprising. If there is any justice (there isn’t, and who cares anyway) he’ll get the Best Actor nod for this one.

#3 Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers
Jim Jarmusch has made a film that explores love and connectedness through a centuries old vampire couple as they pick their way through our era. Lead characters Adam and Eve are typical of civilized movie vampires in the expected ways, but Jarmusch has made them far more interesting by weaving them into human history. Tom Hiddleston’s Adam is a reclusive, altruistic composer and musician responsible for writing some of history’s finer pieces of music. His discontent with humanity’s actions find him living in secrecy, releasing limited recordings of drone music anonymously. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is possessed of a greater, more hopeful wisdom than Adam, and her vast knowledge of science, literature, fungi, and things arcane are barely hinted at in the film’s 2 hours. They are perfect foils for each other, and Jarmusch has a lot of fun visually with the concept that they are truly two halves of a whole.

Only Lovers also feels like a love letter to Detroit and Tangier, the film’s two locations. Their mutual decay is simultaeneously celebrated and lamented, but always with a dark sense of humor and irony. In fact, it’s the film’s sense of humor that truly elevates it to such great heights. And it’s perfect, because how could a person survive for centuries in this world without a well developed sense of humor?

There is so much that happens in this film that I feel like I can’t get to any of it in short form, so I will say this: Watching Only Lovers Left Alive is kind of like going a secret party in a centuries old brownstone on the outskirts of modern Detroit. It’s low-lit walls adorned with richly colored, tattered old tapestries and portraits of cultural icons. The best music you’ve never heard is playing just loud enough to hurt your square eardrums, but you’re getting used to it. And everyone there is cool, interesting, attractive, and maybe a little bored. It sounds intimidating until you realize you’re at the party because you’re invited. I remember thinking as I left the theater that Only Lovers felt like this kind of inviting, warm space full of cool shit. I could hang out in it for hours.

#2 Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut about a crimescene videographer is many things, but it is foremost the character study of a psychopath. Lou Bloom is smart, driven, and fearless, and his lack of human empathy allows him to manipulate who or what he needs to achieve his ends. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Bloom is equal parts mechanical and charming, and often terrifying as hell behind either mask. Over and over again, I thought back to Jon Ronson’s excellent novel The Psychopath Test as Bloom steamrolled his own unique path through LA’s “stringer” community. Plenty of credit has and should go to Gyllenhaal for this performance, which is his best to date. His hard, placid stare and deadpan pragmatism communicate concise emotion (or lack thereof) in such perfect subtlety that just watching him react in a scene is an insane thrill.

Secondly, Nightcrawler is a commentary on America’s addiction to fear. Americans know that “if it bleeds, it leads”, and that the “news” major networks are pumping out is sensationalist bunk meant to raise our blood pressure and sell more advertising. These ideas have been explored in great films before, but Nightcrawler’s street level perspective is a fresh take. Bloom stalking a newborn crime scene from behind his camera before even the police arrive is real edge-of your-seat stuff, the kind that had me anxiously holding my breath for long stretches. His willingness to go further than his competitors into moral grey areas to get footage finds him instant success on LA’s “breaking news” meat market. Bloom’s television station contact and mentor (Rene Russo) is more openly ruthless than he is at times, but they play off of each other, each pushing the other’s boundaries to new lows in the name of commercial success.

Third, it is a celebration of the American fucking dream! Like it or not, Louis Bloom is America. He is a ruthless capitalist with zero empathy who wants success and success alone. He doesn’t even really know or care why. He is a success automaton. He appears to gain little more than the simple, giddy satisfaction of a job well done from his achievements, and he reinvests everything back into his work. Is what he’s doing wrong? Illegal? Maybe to you or I, but that matters very little to someone with no moral compass and enough guile to not get busted. Nightcrawler is like a 2 hour long Grand Theft Auto mission. You watch him do horrible shit, it terrifies you, sickens you, but most importantly, it thrills you.

On top of all this, it’s a great looking movie. The dusk til dawn LA landscapes are hauntingly vacant for most of the film, which allows for long, uninterrupted shots that take us further into Bloom’s nocturnal world. Great sound and score, great everything. Great!

#1 Boyhood

Boyhood 2014 720p (2)
Richard Linklater’s story of a young boy’s journey toward adulthood contains more truth and real emotional impact than any film I’ve ever seen. Mason’s trials of boyhood aren’t at all dramatic by Hollywood standards, but are made up of the real stuff of a young person’s life. In fact, they are statistically average for someone growing up in the US. He’s a child of divorced parents, his dad isn’t always there, his mom is overworked, and he has a shitty stepdad. He also has girlfriends, awesome, formative experiences, and begins to figure out who he is.

But Boyhood is about the journey, not the dramatic events.

Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, Boyhoods’s characters begin to feel like real family as the film progresses. The empathic response this creates with its audience is unprecedented in its effectiveness. I’ve never rooted for a film’s characters so hard before. And while it’s far from a portait of an idealized life, Boyhood does benefit from the sense that Mason is one of those rare kids with a good head on his shoulders. He feels unique, but in an ordinary way. Maybe that’s the way we all feel about ourselves or our kids.

Boyhood’s supporting cast is excellent as well, and Linklater clearly gives them the room they need to naturally fall into their characters. It’s great, and it’s a tough film to describe because it’s about the huge significance of the mundane things in our lives. The things that feel small at the time, but stay with you forever. Boyhood gets the thrill of real life right for the first time on film. I wrote a long-winded review of it here.

So that’s it! Here’s hoping 2015 can hang with this year’s level of quality. Inherent Vice and Selma appear to have us off an running in the right direction.

-Justin Midnight

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