I’ve been called “cynical” a few times in my life (actually I think technically the word used was “asshole”). I couldn’t possibly comment on my own disposition, but I’ll admit that when it comes to movies, I have a definite love in my heart for the cynical, the bitter, the unsentimental in filmmaking. Especially when it comes to the endings of movies. There are just so many Hollywood endings out there giving us the emotional catharsis that we crave: punishment for the bad guys, hope and redemption for the good guys. Sometimes I worry that American audiences are too used to that immediate emotional gratification they’re used to getting at the end of a film. So it fills me with hope, ironically, to see something as dark and cynical as Gone Girl do well at the box office.
That’s not to say that I don’t like happy endings – there are certainly some uplifting and sentimental endings in my top 10. But happy endings are best when filmmakers show the cost of a happy ending – what price the protagonists had to pay to get where they needed to be. That’s why I’m so enamored of a film like Selma, which portrays MLK as a great man staggering under the human cost of his victories. Or an ending like that of Birdman, where the main character both literally and figuratively gives up a piece of himself in pursuit of his art.
Wow, this is getting pretentious – on to the top 10! Usual disclaimer: I am purely an amateur film critic (and not a particular good one) so don’t take any of this too seriously.
- Whiplash. One of my favorite films of all time is Amadeus (thirty years old this year!). Whiplash reminded me a lot of Amadeus in exploring how creating great music can exact a terrible toll. This movie is about a young jazz drummer who suffers at the hands of a sadistic music teacher. The film gradually forces us to ask ourselves whether the abuse this kid endures is actually exactly what he needs to become the musician that he desperately wants to be. Terrific film all around and unquestionably my favorite of the year (last year I wavered on what #1 would be, this year it was no contest). I’m really hoping it picks up a Best Picture Oscar nomination this week.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s a great video series called Every Frame a Painting. In the case of this movie, I think that sentence is literally true – there’s not a single shot of this movie that isn’t carefully composed and beautiful. The amount of work that Wes Anderson puts into each and every scene is staggering – I really could frame almost any shot and hang it on the wall (maybe not the one where Jeff Goldblum’s fingers get chopped off).
- Selma. This film wins the 12 Years a Slave award for “Most Essential Film of the Year” – meaning the movie that I wish every American would go out and see (runner-up: Citizenfour). But putting aside the historical importance, this is just a great human story and also a fascinating explication of how protest movements work.
- Nightcrawler. Remember when I said I like my movies with a healthy dose of cynicism? They don’t come more cynical than Nightcrawler. One reviewer called it a “dose of jet-black bile”. Although it sometimes feels like the best film of 1974 (does anyone even watch local news anymore?), it has a lot to say on the way in which our society rewards terrible people for indulging our fears and desires.
- Guardians of the Galaxy. No cynicism here – just good old-fashioned popcorn movie fun. I got in an argument a few months back over whether this was a better film than Interstellar. Interstellar is a more serious and ambitious film on every level, but I believe in judging movies on what they are trying to do – and GotG succeeds at what it’s trying to be (a rousing sci-fi comic book action comedy) far better than Interstellar succeeds at what it’s trying to be (too many things at once).
- Inherent Vice. I’ve tried to read like six of Thomas Pynchon’s books and this is the only one that I’ve actually finished. Paul Thomas Anderson predictably does a great job capturing the book’s mix of drug humor and melancholy. It’s basically like a stoner Chinatown.
- Gone Girl. Any literary adaptation is going to lose something from page-to-screen, and this is no exception. Compared to the book, I thought the movie did a worse job of humanizing the Amy character and exploring her motivations and character conflicts. That said, the movie gained something from the book – the intense perfectionist eye of David Fincher, a director who I’ve never been able to love but always admire.
- Birdman. This movie is pretentious as all get-out, and I intensely dislike the director’s earlier work (ugh, Babel). But it won me over on the strength of great performances and bravura cinematography (the whole film appears to be one long, unedited take). I like a good dose of surrealism, and will take the bizarre strangeness of a movie like Birdman over the low-key realism of a Boyhood any day.
- Wild. This verges on being too saccharine for me. It probably helps that I saw it on the same weekend as The Theory of Everything which is sentimental enough to make Wild look like Nightcrawler. The narrative where a character finds their true self in the outdoors is tired, but I really enjoyed the vibe of this movie and the way in which it crafted flashbacks that felt like real memories.
- Coherence. I love small, cerebral sci-fi movies. It’s hard to discuss this movie without spoiling it, but I highly recommend it for fans of thought provoking science fiction. Terrific cliffhanger ending as well.
Honorable Mentions: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (best superhero movie of the year), John Wick (best action movie of the year), Ida (best nun movie of the year)
More Honorable Mentions: Hmmmm. How about Muppets Most Wanted, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, and Top Five
C’mon you got more honorable mentions than that: More? OK, let’s see. Noah, Hunger Games: Something or Other, Veronica Mars, Boyhood, They Came Together, We Are the Best!
Still not enough honorable mentions. Goddamn it, fine. The Lego Movie, Cheap Thrills, X-Men: Whatever Whatever, Under the Skin, Proxy, The Imitation Game, Locke, Big Hero 6, The Guest
Worst of the Year: I, Frankenstein