Saturday, January 17, 2015

Top Ten Films of 2014

I've missed a few films I wanted to see, but I am very happy with this list. You can also find my list, as well as those of David J. Fowlie, Tim O'Brien and Matt Streets at Keeping it Reel.

Simply the best piece of Hollywood franchise filmmaking I saw this year.  One could speak about the amazing technology on display, but I feel the real story lies in how well that technology was used to execute an emotional, strikingly paced story. The genius of how both this film, and the previous entry, work is that they provide a fully-rounded, compelling, fulfilling story that ends at the exact point where the audience does not feel cheated by the story in front of them, and is still dying to know what happens next.

9 – WILD
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoirs, but what I didn’t expect was to find tears running down my face when I reached the end.  The film itself benefits from the simplicity of its execution, from Reese Witherspoon’s performance to Nick Hornby’s straightforward script.  The story proceeds and the dawning self-forgiveness sneaks up on the character as much as it does on the audience.

What should’ve been a disjointed exercise in art-house navel-gazing with a clever gimmick surprises with the crystal-clear unity of vision that somehow survived shooting a film in short chunks over twelve years. The story isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the somewhat overwhelming sense that you are literally watching a young man grow up in front of your eyes gives the entire enterprise true depth. Richard Linklater deserves every accolade for keeping the project alive and on-track.  Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke must also be noted for giving freely of themselves to aid such young, and amateur, actors in revealing the little truths that make up the fabric of life.

A striking and powerful telling of a specific moment of Martin Luther King Jr’s life.  David Oyelowo finds just the right tone to make MLK a man, and not an unreachable symbol.  Yet, he also nails the big moments. The speeches we have all heard, the cadence, the, frankly, symbolism.  Which leads to the other element that Ava DuVernay’s  film openly grapples with, King was a political animal.  We see that the marches, the expectation that violence would be endured, was orchestrated and managed just as much as Lyndon Johnson handled legislation from the Oval Office.  It’s an amazing, visceral choice.

 6 – LOCKE
Of any film on this, possibly the one, for me, that struck me the closest to the bone.  There is a certain belief that is hewn into the notion of “manhood,” that, somehow, there is a formula, the right words to say, an amount of planning that can be executed, that will allow one to “fix” any problem.  For myself, it has driven a hero complex that has been as destructive as anything in my life.  As we watch Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke take his harrowing hour-and-a-half drive, shot in real-time, we see a man who has every relationship that has given his life meaning stripped away, and yet there is hope. There is hope.

A film that cannot be separated from the epic, terrifying performance of J. K. Simmons, who provides a screen villain that is among the greatest of all time.  This film immediately made my top 10 when I began engaging in conversations about our own teachers, and what being a teacher means.  Simmons’ Mr. Fletcher may be a terrible teacher, and a horrifying person, but when the image fades out on the last shot, it’s hard to deny that he has inspired greatness from his student.

OK, yeah, sure…It’s Christopher Nolan trying to make his “2001”. However, even with that knowledge, the film is a truly thrilling, beautiful piece of work. It’s a melodrama, with meticulous consideration of actual (if not 100% accurate) physics.  Nolan’s always-excellent sense of reality gives us a world that supports several truly excellent performances (Matthew McConaughey watching 20 years of missed messages from Earth is, for me, THE acting moment of the year), as well as offering questions about not only our stewardship of this world, but strong arguments for why we should always be looking beyond it.

I had a revelation about this film this very evening.  For all the spectacular camerawork and performance that swirls throughout this film, the core, the very beating heart of it is about having the strength to tell your own, personal story.  Your story is yours, and it is not beholden to anyone else, not critics, not even an audience.  The story of Michael Keaton’s Riggan struggle against producers, agents, critics, other actors, his fans’ expectations, and even himself, to tell a story that is very nearly meaningless to anyone but him.  We see, explicitly, how easy it would be for him to give in to the easy, lucrative path, and how hard it is to make your own road to travel.

Just see it, OK?  It’s important.  Remember a great man who lived well, rose above the challenges the life handed him, and just loved film.  Steve James has crafted a love letter to a man who’s words, upon loss of his voce, truly became transcendent.  Roger Ebert would’ve been a man I looked up to if he’d only written about film.  He went beyond that, and the idea that life would see such a heartfelt and moving monument on film is so utterly poetic that my heart may burst.

Christianity, and specifically Catholic Christianity, has endured much in recent years.  As with most things, we are inundated with the ugliest of stories, and we often do not acknowledge the people who toil within that institution for all the best and right reasons.  Who do, in every day of their life, find the strength and faith to embody the teachings of Christ.  Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is yet another towering performance and collaboration with writer/director John Michael McDonagh.  The film is dark (it is an Irish story), and does not shy from the failings of the Catholic Church, but also finds the moments to fully and wildly embrace the humor that pervades life.  It is the most stunning experience I’ve had in a theatre this year.

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