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


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


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


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


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.


Her (2013) – Spike Jonze

her-movie-wide-560x282This film is really something special.  Lately there’s been a good amount of art focused on the way technology is reshaping our lives (Dave Eggers’s new novel The Circle being a prime example — read it, it’s stupendous), but Her has done something unique with that subject matter. The film takes place in a lightly futurized Los Angeles, and Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man who falls in love with the operating system on his computer.  But this is no ordinary operating system; her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and she has been programmed to grow and learn through her experiences — essentially, to have a real and evolving personality.

Theodore is a writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he crafts professional “handwritten” love letters (which he dictates to his computer, and the computer then prints out in a loopy scrawl).  He’s a melancholy man — “Play a melancholy song,” he mumbles to his smartphone as he walks home from work — and is still reeling from the recent collapse of his marriage, so it makes sense that he would download an operating system that could provide him with some sort of artificial companionship.  Equally believable is his attraction (first platonic, then romantic) to Samantha, who is instantly likeable: upbeat, curious, spirited, and — let’s face it — kind of sexy.  Characterized only by her speaking voice, her personality is distinct and appealing from the moment she appears in the film.  Which is important.  We understand Theodore’s love for Samantha; in a sense, we fall in love with Samantha ourselves.

Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is this ability to make us care deeply for its characters.  Phoenix renders Theodore particularly sympathetic — genuine, thoughtful, softspoken, sensitive.  (“You are part man and part woman,” a coworker tells him seriously after reading one of his letters. “It’s a compliment.”)  We like and care about Theodore, and by extension we care about his relationships: his romantic relationship with Samantha, his affectionate friendship with his college buddy Amy (Amy Adams).  This allows the film to be very intimate; we share the characters’ emotions, we have a stake in their interactions.

In some ways, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is just like any other romantic relationship: they argue, they have thoughtful conversations, they make each other laugh, they have sex (so to speak).  But of course, they also inevitably run into challenges that are specific to their obvious differences.  Samantha struggles with frustration over the limitations of not having a physical body.  Theodore finds himself “coming out” to friends and coworkers, revealing that his girlfriend is an operating system and not a human being.  Some don’t bat an eye, while others (namely his ex-wife, volatile and coldly beautiful, played by Rooney Mara) scorn Theodore for dating “his laptop” instead of having a real relationship.  “Is it not a real relationship?” Theodore later asks Amy, his brow furrowed.  What is a real relationship?  What constitutes a real person?

And that’s the film’s second great accomplishment: its ability to resonate so gracefully on both an emotional and an intellectual level.  This is an incredibly emotional and evocative story — it will make you cry, laugh, marvel, ache inside.  And it’s also gently philosophical, considering existential questions, questions of love and relationships, questions of the role technology plays and should play in our lives. The concept of this film could have easily proven to be gimmicky, but writer/director Spike Jonze avoids that trap by engaging deeply with the feelings and ideas the premise raises.  Her is complex, captivating, and — for all its involvement with technology — an exquisitely human film.

The Master (2012) – Paul Thomas Anderson


Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams star in The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest and perhaps best feature film yet.  Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an idiosyncratic, alcoholic WWII Naval veteran who, in his drunken wanderings, stumbles onto a yacht about to set sail.  There, he is introduced to the yacht’s owners, the Dodds — Lancaster (Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Adams) — and their controversial, Scientology-like philosophy called The Cause: the idea that a person’s soul has moved from body to body through time for trillions of years.

Freddie Quell is a shocking character.  Within the first five minutes of being on screen, he describes to someone how to remove crabs from one’s testicles (his advice involves a razor, a lighter, and an ice pick) and pretends to have sex with a sand sculpture of a naked women (and then leaves to go masturbate into the ocean).  He is crass and utterly sex-crazed, trying to seduce almost every woman he meets.  He is also a severe alcoholic, willing to drink any liquid with an alcohol content, and he specializes in creating alcoholic concoctions so potent that they can kill a man.  Freddie lives in a state of volatility, constantly erupting into emotional, violent outbursts, willing to pick a fight in any context.

Phoenix’s performance is utterly compelling.  He seems to go beyond acting and simply becomes this character, right down to his physicality — thin, hunched over, his face lined.  He mumbles and slurs his words together.  He smiles childishly when he is proud, and he flails his skinny limbs at anyone who comes near when he is angry.  Phoenix is able to achieve a performance that is both overstated and subtle, both caricatural and believable.

Hoffman’s acting does not suffer by comparison.  Lancaster — or “The Master”, as he is called by the followers of The Cause — speaks formally and elegantly, a stark contrast to Freddie’s coarse vernacular.  He is a man who values his own intellect and who is passionate about his ideas.  He is charismatic and confident, and he takes himself extremely seriously (and is at times almost laughable for this reason).  But he is also sincere, and his moments of vulnerability make him both interesting and sympathetic.

The collision of these two characters is the collision of the animalistic and the cerebral.  Lancaster is recorded as saying that man is not an animal; man transcends the animal kingdom.  The entire philosophy of The Cause centers on the concept of the soul moving beyond its corporal limitations.  Freddie, on the other hand, is an utterly physical being.  He is sexual, emotional, violent.  There is a tension when these two forces come together, and also an attraction.  Lancaster frequently scolds Freddie for his unrefined behavior.  After Freddie picks a fight with a man who has insulted Lancaster, Lancaster calls Freddie “naughty” and compares him to an animal that eats its own feces when hungry.  At the same time, however, Lancaster also seems somehow moved by Freddie.  He enjoys Freddie’s toxic concoctions, and he begins writing his second book around the time of their introduction.  As his wife Peggy points out, Freddie seems to “inspire something in him”.

It is through Lancaster’s eyes that we begin to appreciate and like Freddie.  He assesses a real value to Freddie, which mystifies both his family and (at least at first) the viewer.  Lancaster invites Freddie to participate in some “casual processing”, which consists of a series of questions through which Freddie will become more in touch with his transcendent soul.  In this scene, an initial bond forms not only between Freddie and Lancaster, but also between Freddie and the audience, as we see a vulnerable side to him that up until this point has not been apparent.

As the film progresses, the bond between the two men grows stronger, and there are even hints of romantic tension between them.  Freddie picks a fight with a cop to defend Lancaster, and Lancaster desperately begs the cops “not to hurt him”.  When reunited after a night in the police station, Freddie and Lancaster’s embrace crumples into a rolling, tumbling, full-body hug.  Lancaster hires Freddie to take professional photographs of him, and Freddie pushes Lancaster’s hair out of his face in a motion that is almost a caress.  The homoerotic suggestions are there, but they seem to go deeper than sexuality.  There is a sense that the two men’s souls have found kinship in each other, and while that can be confused with romantic love, at least on Freddie’s end those feelings do not seem to be there.  Lancaster’s feelings are more ambiguous, and there is a question of whether he is too afraid to act — too afraid to engage with his animal side, his emotions and his physical urges.

Throughout the film Freddie seems to be searching for something, and it is unclear whether he will find it in The Cause.  The use of the word “master” is significant, applying not only to Lancaster’s position as the head of The Cause, but also to his position as Freddie’s master.  Lancaster feels an urge to “help” Freddie, and in the process of doing so he takes control over him, subjecting him to a series of tests and exercises.  Earlier, when both men find themselves in the police station — the screen split between Freddie thrashing about, handcuffed, kicking the toilet bowl until it shatters, pounding his head repeatedly against the upper bunk; and Lancaster standing stoically, leaning against the upper bunk in his own cell — Lancaster points out Freddie’s fear of being imprisoned.  He asserts that this fear of imprisonment is an essential part of Freddie’s immortal soul.  Ultimately, Freddie must decide whether The Cause is the answer to his searching, or just another form of imprisonment.  As Peggy Dodd tells him fiercely, The Cause is not something to be handled casually.  “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.”

This is a compelling and original film.  The writing is smart, the acting is superb, and it all comes together in the end in a mysteriously satisfying way… even if you leave the theater not quite sure of what you just experienced.