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

darjeeling

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

boyhood

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

totoro

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

G001C004_120530_R2IZ.0859800

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

birdman flying

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.

Advertisements

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – Wes Anderson

Image

Wes Anderson is so consistent.  If his style weren’t so quirky and likeable, I would say he was in danger of becoming a caricature of himself.

Setting: A small New England island in the 1960’s.  Synopsis: Two pre-teens—Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphaned khaki scout; and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a troubled schoolgirl—fall in love and decide to elope.  Their disappearance prompts the formation of a search party, consisting of the rest of the khaki scouts, Suzy’s parents, and the chief of police.  Wacky, Wes Anderson-style high jinks ensue.

For me, this film had a lot going for it right away because of the cast alone.  Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Edward Norton are all actors who can pretty much do no wrong in my book.  Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman are also favorites.  Bruce Willis, I am neutral towards you, but you did a great job in the film as well.

Overall, this movie was sweet.  We see in a montage of clips of Sam and Suzy’s letters back and forth that they are both social outcasts of sorts.  Suzy goes “beserk” sometimes and loses her temper at her parents, her teachers, her fellow students.  She is upset because she has found a book entitled Dealing With The Troubled Child hidden on top of the refrigerator in her house.  Sam has been asked not to return to his foster home because he is too difficult to look after, and he is the least popular khaki scout “by a significant margin,” according to the Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).  It is heartwarming that these two lonely kids have found each other and fallen in love, and there is something enchantingly sincere (albeit odd) about their interactions together when they are alone.  Sam makes Suzy earrings out of fishhooks and dead beetles, and they pierce her ears with them.  Suzy reads aloud to Sam from her favorite books until he falls asleep.  They have found a sort of haven with each other in a world where no one else particularly likes them.

At the same time, there is a certain darkness to this film that is hard to identify but hard to ignore.  First of all, there is a bizarre theme of violence that makes an appearance every once in a while.  When the Scout Master Ward rounds up the other scouts to form a search party for Sam, one of the boys asks if they are allowed to use force to bring him back.  The answer is no, but the boys still bring a variety of weapons, including a bow and arrow, a BB gun, and a very alarming homemade club with sharp nails sticking out of the end.  (YIKES, I could barely look at it, please do not hit me with that.)  When the scouts and the two runaways finally come face to face, Suzy stabs a scout with her lefty scissors, and the scouts’ dog Snoopy is a casualty of war.  “I guess I do go beserk sometimes,” Suzy says.  Ha ha, but oh my god!

These kids are constantly in physical peril throughout the film.  At several points, angry groups of scouts chase them around.  There is a lot of play with lighting, and I have to say that I kept worrying Anderson would insert some deus ex machina and have them all killed in the storm.  This weird sense of peril and violence served to undercut the sweetness of the story, making Sam and Suzy’s successful escape literally a matter of life or death.

Image

I thought Suzy’s character was fascinating.  I didn’t find her particularly likeable.  She is completely stoic, even when she is alone with Sam, and there seems to be a sadness to her and a desire to grow up and escape her hateful childhood.  Specifically, I found her to be very sexual for her age.  She wears a good deal of make-up throughout the film, and she lies seductively on her side in her underwear so that Sam can paint her.  When the two slow-dance in their underwear on the beach, Suzy asks Sam if he knows how to French kiss, and she explains to him how it’s done.  She then tells him to put his hands on her chest.  There is a sense of her acute awareness of sexuality, both in achieving it herself (initiating the canoodling with Sam) and in perceiving it going on around her.  She is the only person who notices that her mother (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and she shamelessly calls her out on it.

Suzy’s solemnity, thus, is mirrored in the behavior of the adults around her.  Her mother is not happy either—she also desires an escape from her life, and tries to find that escape in her affair.  Suzy’s father (Bill Murray) is vaguely suspicious of his wife’s infidelity, but he does not seem to know how to act on those suspicions.  The behavior of the adults, in a way, validates the behavior of Sam and Suzy.  The film does not treat these children like children.  Their feelings and their choices seem very adult, and their sadness and loneliness pervades the entire film.

In the climactic scene, Suzy and Sam stand on the steeple of the church in the rain, planning to jump into the flooded graveyard below and to swim to freedom.  Sam tells Suzy that he doesn’t have his life preserver.  I expected Suzy to tell him that she will help him swim, but instead she tells him that if the water is shallow they will break their necks anyway, so it does not matter.  Sam says that in case this is a suicide, thanks for marrying me.  They prepare to jump.  Luckily, the young lovers do not succeed, but there is still something dark and upsetting about watching two young kids about to jump to their deaths, even if it is mostly by accident.  (Another “ha ha but oh my god” moment.)

I think there is more to this film than just a sweet love story.  Anderson has really perfected the art of creating microcosms, and in the microcosm of this little island we are able to see the details of the characters’ lives.  Some of those details are sad, and some of that sadness is not resolved.  Luckily, the Wes Anderson quirkiness is able to make that melancholy easy to swallow, so you leave the theater feeling thoughtful and hipster-fabulous.