5 Best Films I Watched in 2014

I’m back! With a stupendous list. 2014 wasn’t a big movie year for me—I didn’t have as much time as I wanted to dedicate to movies, and out of the ones I did watch, a lot of them were disappointing (American Hustle was a weird mess of over-narrating and distracting hairstyles, Nymphomania Vols 1 & 2 was six painful hours of hateful characters and alarming sex (although with a title like that, what did I expect?)). In lieu of just listing every movie that I liked at all this year, I’ve decided to do a top 5 instead of a top 10—just the best of the best. To note, these are not necessarily movies that came out in 2014, but just movies that I watched for the first time this year.

…except The Darjeeling Limited. I’d seen that before. Bear with me, folks.

5. The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – Wes Anderson

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This is technically cheating because I first saw this movie a couple years ago, but I rewatched it this year and it really changed for me. I usually like Wes Anderson’s films when they’re neat, contained character studies: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom. The first time I saw Darjeeling, which tells the story of three estranged brothers (Adrian Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman) who go on a journey to India, it felt too sprawling—the constant train rides, the exotic location, the amorphous plot. It took a second viewing for me to tune in to this stranger, slower pace.

Two things ended up winning me over. Firstly, the characters, who are (in true Anderson fashion) melancholy, idiosyncratic, and loveable—caricatures and painfully real all at once. And secondly, the subtle method to the madness of the plot. True, the narrative sprawls from temples to deserts to convents, but there’s a graceful circularity to it and significant parallels from beginning to end. You have to look a little closer with this movie, but it’s worth it. It’s also incredibly funny.

4. Boyhood (2014) – Richard Linklater

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I reviewed this one when it came out this summer. The concept is pretty unforgettable—director Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over twelve years, so we’re able to see the main character Mason (and actor Ellar Coltrane) grow from boy to young man throughout the film. The effect is a fusion of documentary and fiction, and it’s a staggering cinematic achievement. The plot is meandering—it’s more a series of glimpses of a family’s life than anything else—but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s a moving, beautiful look at the beginning of a life.

3. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) – Hayao Miyazaki

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What an absolute delight this film is. I’ve just recently started getting into Miyazaki’s movies on the recommendation of my roommate, and I’ve been loving them—they’re gorgeously animated, quirky, and surreal. Out of the ones I’ve seen so far, Totoro is surely my favorite: the story of two little girls who move into the countryside with their father, and the magical creatures they meet there. As is the case with a lot of the best fantasy, the magical elements serve not only as a dazzling adventure but also as a poignant way of coping with reality, as we soon find out that the girls’ mother is in the hospital recovering from a long-term illness. It’s the type of movie where you’re giggling over the adorableness of everything (because many parts of it are excruciatingly adorable), and then the score changes and suddenly you find yourself swallowing the lump in your throat. A sweet, lovely film.

*** Note: Miyazaki’s films are truly works of art in terms of the animation. The climactic scene of Totoro takes place at DUSK, with a backdrop of watercolor sunset that slowly fades into milky blue twilight. It’s impressive to the point of being obnoxious. We get it, Miyazaki, you’re incredible.

2. Her (2013) – Spike Jonze

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This one was a close call for first place. I wrote a review when I first saw it earlier in the year—what a gorgeous piece of movie. Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a writer living in near-future Los Angeles and struggling to get over his recent divorce, who downloads a highly intelligent operating system onto his computer. Her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and Her is Theodore and Samantha’s completely compelling love story. Beautifully filmed, emotionally powerful, and gently philosophical, to boot.

1. Birdman (2014) – Alejandro González Iñárritu

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BIRDMAN! Birdman. I lost my mind over this movie. It’s bizarre and beautiful and utterly compelling from start to finish. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who achieved movie fame in his younger years playing the superhero Birdman. In an attempt to do something meaningful with his career, he’s now directing and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway—while also trying to get along with his recently-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone); keep tabs on his volatile fellow actor (Edward Norton); and debate with the gravelly voice he hears in his head whenever he’s alone. Oh, and he can also move things with his mind?

Part of what’s so fantastic about this movie is this way it combines realistic drama with something unearthly. It’s unclear whether events happen in real life or in Riggan’s head. The entire movie has the appearance of being filmed on one seamless, ever-moving shot (! I know), which adds to the surreal quality—the camera circling around the characters on stage and following them into maze of dressing rooms; time expanding and compressing dreamily. The film has real energy and momentum. And it’s tremendously acted—Norton steals the show, but not by much—and wonderfully written, the weighty concepts balanced by fresh dialog and well-placed comedic moments. Go see it. Go.

Boyhood (2014) – Richard Linklater

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Boyhood isn’t a tough sell. A movie that takes place over the course of 12 years and is filmed over that same period of time, so the actors and characters grow up before our very eyes — who wouldn’t want to check that out? It’s a stunt. Something we haven’t seen before.

The real challenge on the director’s part is to make a film that goes beyond that gimmick, something that means more than just watching a child age in fast-forward. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and while Boyhood isn’t flawless, it’s a momentous achievement. Richard Linklater manages to capture not only the passage of time, but also the emotions and meaning that go along with it.

The plot is amorphous. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their single mother (Patricia Arquette) in Texas. Their father (Ethan Hawke) makes periodic appearances, taking the kids bowling and camping, playing guitar for them; where their mother is responsible, their father is unreliable but loveable. The film begins when Mason is six years old and ends when he is heading off to college. We see him go through a series of haircuts, crushes, best friends, and hobbies. We see him change schools several times, and struggle with the “parade of drunken assholes” that are his mother’s new husbands and boyfriends. The transitions between his different ages are seamless, a tasteful choice that allows the film to focus on the overall narrative, rather than the effect of the actor changing with age. The passage of time is marked instead by songs on the radio, pop culture references, Oregon Trail on the computer, iPhones in people’s hands.

In my eyes, Boyhood’s success lies in two factors and the interaction between them: Linklater’s writing and Coltrane’s acting. Linklater has a knack for developing characters through rich dialog, and the conversations are really what make this film work. In interviews, Coltrane has discussed how when the actors grew old enough, Linklater would simply provide scenes with a basic structure and then allow the actors to improvise and take on the characters themselves. The result is that the characters feel real, and their conversations interesting and authentic (sometimes hilariously so, sometimes heartbreakingly so). Coltrane is also a joy to watch, open and genuine and confident even in the throes of puberty. By the end of the film, we’ve fallen in love with Mason — how can we not? We feel like we just grew up with him. The combination of Linklater’s writing and Coltrane’s performance means that Boyhood doesn’t feel like a movie; it feels like something lived through.

Hawke’s performance is another big standout. At first Mason Senior seems like the classic young father who isn’t ready for the responsibilities of parenthood, but he quickly sheds that archetype to become one of the more multidimensional characters. As impulsive as he is, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of the film’s emotional message — to be present, to seize the moment and let the moment seize you.  His story is particularly interesting when contrasted with Mason’s mother’s, a more traditional and responsible route, but a route that seems to leave her unfulfilled.

The film is not without its flaws. There are some sentiments that border on saccharine. There are a few brutally heavy-handed scenes (a moment of bullying in the junior high bathroom, some textbook peer pressure involving high school boys and beer) and some characters that are never fully fleshed out (most noticeably Samantha, whom we experience only as the snarky older sister). But ultimately, it’s easy to forgive the film of any missteps. Boyhood isn’t a meant to be neat, perfect package. It’s a messy and meandering film, and in that way it’s life-affirming and gorgeous.