The Highlighter’s Top Ten Films of 2014

By WSN Arts Staff

Via Variety
Via Variety

2014 was undoubtedly a great year for women in show business. Reese Witherspoon led Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” with a heavy backpack and a career-defining performance; Gillian Robespierre directed her first feature film, “Obvious Child” to the tune of critical praise; Rosamund Pike proved convincing enough in “Gone Girl” to terrify all happily married men until at least 2016; Scarlett Johansson shifted gender roles as an almost literal maneater in “Under the Skin;” Angelina Jolie stepped behind the camera to direct “Unbroken” — to name just a few.

Broadening the scope, 2014 was also the year of the underdog. We had Miles Teller, bloodying his fingers as a conservatory student bringing new meaning to the good old “college try.” There was “Unbroken’s” Louis Zamperini, an incredible true example of indomitable perseverance. “Birdman’s” Riggan (Michael Keaton) struggled to make a comeback in show-biz, fighting against a demanding public and an even more demanding theater critic.

Much of our generation’s cynicism seemed to melt away with this year’s film slate. 2014 restored a bit of the magic movie-going has lost over the years. Optimism, the enduring underdog, has come out on top at last.

 

10. The Lego Movie

Courtesy of Fandango
Courtesy of Fandango

With “The Lego Movie,” writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have earned their seat on the throne of comedic cinema. It’s a film that recognizes the value in each of its quirky characters, a delightfully meta hero’s journey where the most important forces in the world are creativity and imagination. It’s filled to the brim with incredible, out of this world ideas — made possible by the beautifully detailed animation — but Lord and Miller never get lost in all the madness. The script is focused, heartfelt and insanely layered, with new gags revealing themselves upon multiple re-watches. That’s what’s so awesome about “The Lego Movie.” It’s one of those movies that you’ll never get tired of watching, because you’ll be smiling the entire time. And it’s really funny, too.

—Jeremy Pick

Read our review of “The Lego Movie” here.

9. Obvious Child

Via Youtube
Via Youtube

Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature film, “Obvious Child” — 2014’s self-proclaimed “Abortion Comedy” — is far more sincere than the film’s abstract genre would lead you to believe. Comedian Jenny Slate (“Girls,” “Parks and Recreation”) plays Donna, a spunky twenty-something who finds herself pregnant after a drunken one night stand and makes the painstaking decision to have an abortion. For what feels like the first time, the concept of abortion is not presented in a hush-hush subplot or regretful flashback — Donna is a woman, in the Lena Dunham realm of young adulthood, who’s just trying to get her life together. Slate portrays the character honestly, showing off her comedic prowess, but also her legitimacy as a dramatic actress. Teetering on the edge of controversy, “Child” saves face with its underlying sincerity. Robespierre and Slate’s collaboration is dramedy at its finest.

Read more about “Obvious Child” here.

8. Inherent Vice

Via Variety
Via Variety

It’s the 1970s. The Age of Aquarius has come and gone in Gordita Beach, California, and the good vibrations have started shaking things up a little too much for stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). When he’s asked to examine the disappearance of his ex-lover’s gangster boyfriend, Doc is drawn into an absurd web of postmodern intrigue: Asian hookers, Black Panthers, straight-laced cops, runaway teenagers, anti-government revolutionaries, mega-corporate drug-pushing dentists — and, uh, other stuff I, um, don’t remember, man — they’re all here, and they’re all hilarious. Paul Thomas Anderson has been always willing to indulge a quirky punchline here and there, but who knew that he’d make “Inherent Vice” this year’s funniest film? And while the visual gags are enough to keep you doubled over in your chair, PTA begins to slowly, masterfully inoculate you with Doc’s own sense of existential dread. It’s the best bad trip you’ve ever been on, and I mean that in the grooviest way possible. Right on.

—Nathan Roberts

7. Snowpiercer

Courtesy of Collider
Courtesy of Collider

It’s very easy to marginalize “Snowpiercer” as a late-to-the-party guest to 2012’s Occupy Wall Street bonanza — while the question of class conflict is absolutely at the heart of this film, to mark it as simply being about this is an injustice to director Bong Joon-ho’s fully realized vision of the future. Chris Evans plays the leader of an insurgency on a high-speed train carrying and protecting the last of humanity through a global warming ice age — and though his performance is admirable, “Snowpiercer’s” real star is the thorough consideration of the concept the film is premised on. As we follow Evans and his rebels as they travel from the last car of the train toward the front, bits and pieces are given to us to both provoke and answer questions: how would one feed a train of people for eighteen years in a closed system? What compromises are made to life and human thought to comfortably survive in such an enclosure? What is the end-game, both of the rebels and of the train itself? The closing act of “Snowpiercer” pulls together everything we observe from each car of the train and builds a tantalizing world — it’s also worth mentioning that this final act evinces perhaps the most soulful moment of acting from Evans I’ve seen from him yet and delivers an ending nobody could expect.

—Jesse James Read

6. Nightcrawler

Via Youtube
Via Youtube

Having the audience root for the good guy in a film is fairly straightforward. But to have the audience root for the bad guy takes a talented individual to pull off successfully. In the case of “Nightcrawler,” there are two talented individuals that made the feat come to fruition. First time director Dan Gilroy skillfully writes the main character Lou Bloom both as a hard worker with perseverance and a scum bag who preys on people at their most vulnerable. Then you have Jake Gyllenhaal, who transformed physically (losing up to 20 pounds) and mentally to bring this fascinating character to life. Never before have Gyllenhaal’s large eyes been put to as good use as you unravel the dangerous psyche in Lou Bloom while he performs his job of videotaping the horrific aftermaths of various crimes in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. However, you cannot help but admire some of the hard-working attributes that Bloom demonstrates throughout the film. Overall, “Nightcrawler” works not only as a taut crime thriller, but also as a dark satirical comedy about the American mentality of working your way up the corporate ladder to achieve success at any cost.

—Zack Grullon

5. Gone Girl

Via Indiewire
Via Indiewire

Based on Gillian Flynn’s unpredictable novel, “Gone Girl’s” cinematic adaptation is just as haunting and deceptive as its original source material. While remaining true to its roots, director David Fincher masterfully adds a dose of camp and an underlying taste of irony to the film — media personalities Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry occupy minor roles while Ben Affleck stars as the fictional media’s main target (Ahem, the great “Bennifer” breakup of 2003). In addition to the adaptation’s impressive synchronicity with the novel, it must be noted that “Girl” plays host to one of the greatest breakout performances of 2014. “Gone Girl’s” gone girl, the wildly erratic Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) commands all focus with the skill of her constant manipulation. With her untraditional break from the female archetype, Amy is a standout in the league of female leads. If anything, this is Pike’s film — if not her year!

Read more about “Gone Girl” here and here.

 

4. Under the Skin

Via Entertainment Weekly
Via Entertainment Weekly

Arguably topping the list of Scarlett Johansson flicks this year, “Under the Skin” proves to be one of the more memorable and artistic forays of Johansson’s career. Her portrayal of a seductive man-eating — well, “thing” — links naturalistic, disarming dialogue showcasing Johansson’s (obvious) ability to lure men back to her home with subsequent scenes that both pay homage to Kubrick’s own distinctive vision of the alien within film, yet entirely unlike any other big-budget spectacles to come out this past year. The exposition of Johansson’s character is also strictly Kubrickian (slow at times, it must be said) and we as an audience aren’t given enough to understand what happens on the screen (á la most of “2001”), yet Johansson manages to inflect her character with both sympathy and danger, development and incomprehensibility, uncanny humanness and unnerving emptiness.

—Jesse James Read

Read our review of “Under the Skin” here.

Read more about “Under the Skin” here.

3. Birdman

Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly
Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest project utilizes each of its show-stopper elements to the best of its ability. To take an all-star cast — Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Michael Keaton — all arguably at their very best, stir in a stimulating psychological narrative and thread everything together with one beautifully executed, continuous shot — magic. Going against the melancholic grain of his past endeavors, Iñárritu has not only cemented his reputation as a versatile director, but he has built a cinematic world that will withstand long after 2014. Completely unique and brilliantly executed, “Birdman” is a true gem.

Read our review of “Birdman” here.

2. Whiplash

Via Entertainment Weekly
Via Entertainment Weekly

Miles Teller proves himself a force to be reckoned with in Damien Chazelle’s anxiety-inducing masterpiece. A performance as indomitable as his character’s unrelenting determination, Teller breaks free from the naïveté that marred his reputation (“That Awkward Moment,” “21 & Over”).  In addition to showcasing the skill of relative newcomer Teller, “Whiplash” reminds its audience of veteran actor JK Simmons’ immense talent. Starring as the somewhat stock instructor-from-hell, Simmons brings a new level of complexity to the archetype. In fact, the film itself runs a risk of falling into a very familiar musical conservatory “Raise Your Voice”-type trap. But between Chazelle’s unique direction, Teller’s passion and Simmons’ unpredictability, the film is anything but cliche. I daresay that “perfection” would not be misused in describing “Whiplash.”

Read our review of “Whiplash” here.

1. Boyhood

Via The Hollywood Reporter
Via The Hollywood Reporter

12 years in the making, Richard Linklater’s revolutionary film is just that — revolutionary. Shot a few days each year from 2002 to 2014, the film encapsulates an average boy’s childhood. But Linklater doesn’t focus on the milestones one would expect from this type of cinematic experiment. The film’s focal point, Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) bypasses his first kiss, heartbreak and other cliche “coming-of-age” moments in favor of a more naturalistic approach. In this, Linklater succeeds. “Boyhood,” in typical Linklater fashion, is so authentic and organic that it loses all Hollywood convention. By the end of the 165-minute film, the audience knows Mason and his family intimately — they’ve grown up with them, too.

Read more about “Boyhood” here.

Isabel Jones is film editor. Email her at ijones@nyunews.com.

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