By Paul Bower and Jarrod Jones. And finally, it all comes down to this, DoomRocket’s list of the 10 best films of 2014. Considering that I reviewed fewer films released this year than last (something I hope to rectify in the new year), I once again enlisted the aid of Tiny Mix Tapes‘ resident film critic Paul Bower, who saw fit to provide his personal 5 Best. Before we begin, please accept my thanks for taking the time to click over to DoomRocket every once and a while, making this endeavor of ours both a formative and exciting one. Here’s to 2015.
JJ: Noah. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Will I be the only critic who dares place Darren Aronofsky’s confounding Biblical epic on a Best Of list this year? Probably. And that’s a shame; Noah was easily the most balls-out filmgoing experience I had in 2014. (Snowpiercer, you came so close.) For a film that was made by a very skittish studio uber-wary about how they ought to be spending their money, Aronofsky’s 125 million dollar spectacle went to dark places that even exhaustive test screenings couldn’t tamp down. That level of audacity is apparent in every frame of Noah, and even when it mires itself with Hobbit levels of inanity, it’s still stronger and more potent than any other “epic” that screened this year. For a movie that came out in late March, I’m still spending far too much time thinking about Noah.
PB: 12 O’Clock Boys. Dir. Lotfy Nathan. By far the best documentary I saw in 2014, Lotfy Nathan released his feature-length debut after spending years following an impossibly magnetic West Baltimore boy as he transitioned from an energetic and dauntlessly optimistic pre-teen into a weary and somewhat hard-edged 13-year-old. Set to the backdrop of Baltimore’s infamous illegal ATV/motorcycle street scene, 12 O’Clock Boys was a bit of a revelation, with its creator neither coddling nor moralizing his subject as he traversed a super dangerous and strife-ridden upbringing in one of America’s toughest cities. While Nathan managed to capture some truly breathtaking footage and shot some downright glorious interviews, what set this film apart was the way he so even-handedly nailed the intricacies of a consummately dangerous upbringing. Confronted with subject matter that practically begged to be imbued with social commentary and the air of a social worker, Nathan decided instead to simply let the unique people he came into contact with to speak for themselves. By allowing his marginalized subjects the dignity of their mistakes and the gravity of their worldviews and experience, 12 O’Clock Boys ascended to the realm of the very best that documentary filmmaking has to offer.
JJ: Whiplash. Any film that puts veteran actor J.K. Simmons into the limelight is immediately going to curry my favor. Luckily, the man is enveloped in one of the most electrifying films of the year. Director Damien Chazelle’s labor of love brimmed with so much energy that blockbuster schlock like Mockingjay seemed like dull costumed affairs in comparison, locking his chosen titans (Miles Teller and Simmons) in a mortal combat of sheer will power. There’s really no way one film could feel like 106 minutes of climax, but Chazelle’s formidable masterwork made it happen anyway, locking you in, dropping your jaw, and leaving you breathless. Forget about Guardians of the Galaxy; the real marvel of 2014 was Whiplash.
PB: The Dance of Reality. Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky. One of cinema’s most unflinchingly original surrealists, Alejandro Jodorowsky went over two decades without making a film, so hopefully you’ll forgive me for being a little nervous about watching his latest. Thankfully, all my fears were laid to rest pretty quickly after the opening credits began to roll on The Dance of Reality, a lovingly shot and weirdly transcendental meditation on father/son relationships and the meaninglessness of politics. A liberally re-imagined autobiography, Jodorowsky shot this film in his own nearly extraterrestrial hometown of Tocopilla, an arid little burg on Chile’s desert Coast. A lot of Jodorowksy’s signature elements from films like El Topo and The Holy Mountain showed up, with loads of disfigured people and weird psychedelic visuals on proud display, but they never felt tacked-on or re-hashed. It was as if all of the elements he’d been teasing out in his artistic endeavors both on and off screen for the past 50-odd years were coming to their fruition, and watching it was just about as overwhelmingly joyous and sad as that sounds. Jodo might not have another film left in him at this point, but that might not be such a terrible thing. This great piece of work would be a fitting final film for any director.
JJ: Only Lovers Left Alive. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. It’s a strange world we live in when top-shelf auteurs find themselves mining genres to critical acclaim. Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin scoured the realm of sci-fi horror and gave it a chilling grace. Andy Serkis gave Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel/prequel to a 46 year-old franchise, one of the finest performances of the year. And now we have Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, an arthouse take on a sub-genre – the vampire flick – that had up to this point lost all of its bite. Starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as ancient, fanged paramours, Jarmusch’s film takes some seriously atmospheric detours along its moody road, using both a hollowed-out Detroit and a buzzing Tangier as its scenic backdrops. And as the none-more-goth couple espouse on the frailty of the human race we comfortably sit back, nestled in Jarmusch’s urbane cool.
PB: Under The Skin. Dir. Jonathan Glazer. Topping a lot of lists this year, Glazer’s latest effort was an entirely different kind of filmic experience than most audiences are used to/comfortable with. While the promise of a naked ScarJo surely did a great deal to lure unsuspecting moviegoers into screenings, what kept some of them thinking about the picture long after the lights came up was Glazer’s mind-boggling knack for juxtaposing minimalist, naturally lit photography with some of the most intricately arranged abstract visual montages ever seen. The story was intriguing enough, based on a sci-fi novel with a decent amount of political axes to grind by Michel Faber, about a race of aliens who harvest human beings in Scotland for their meat. However, Glazer stripped his adaptation of the novel to its most basic elements, eschewing anything particular about Johansson’s mission, and focused in on her interaction with and eventual empathy towards humanity. The film was hypnotic, spare, and brilliantly executed—a perfect example of that which film is uniquely capable. For those with the patience to immerse themselves in Glazer’s almost purely visual narrative, the film had many rewards, and begged the question of why we haven’t seen more from this director.
JJ: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dirs. Joe and Anthony Russo. Well, we all knew that at least one Marvel movie was going to sneak into the list this year, with the House of Ideas utterly decimating the summer movie season with the financial (and critical) one-two punch that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. The trick was choosing only one. (C’mon, we are GROOT.) The Russo Bros’ star-spangled sequel stormed in with the brio of its leading man, Chris Evans, who finally got some free time to inhabit a character that got lost in the chaotic shuffle of The Avengers. Evans’ man out of time finally enjoyed real pathos in a movie that constantly strove to improve over the first Captain America entry. At this point, Marvel has a license to print money. That they bother to inject this level of quality in a silly superhero flick shows that this is a studio that respects their audience. You simply can’t say that for the majority of big budget filmmaking.
PB: Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Dir. Shion Sono. The most exuberant and genuinely joyful film I saw all year, Shion Sono’s masterwork was a heartfelt and absolutely insane love letter to cinema. It’s exceedingly easy to make a forgettable movie about making movies, and for the most part, films that try end up either annoyingly self-involved, or worse, purely gimmicky. Sono, however, managed to pull off a movie about the process of filmmaking that beautifully embodied the energy, frustration, and childlike joy of shooting something cool and then showing it to your friends. Sono’s gained a well-earned reputation for being able to produce incredibly well-made movies in a short amount of time (sometimes in mere weeks, as was the case of 2009’s exceptional Love Exposure), and no doubt his experience informed Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and lent it the authenticity that shields it from everything saccharine or sappy. In the midst of this ode to moviemaking, he seamlessly wove in a nearly boilerplate yakuza film, whose culmination and intersection with a young group of hyper, broke filmmakers was one of the most bloody and gorgeous last acts of any movie ever.
JJ: Gone Girl. Dir. David Fincher. If you look closely enough at David Fincher’s insidious Gone Girl, you’ll get glimpses, brief flashes of the smoldering chasm that lies just underneath it. This lurid thriller was easily the biggest surprise of the year for a fellow who never bothered to read Gillian Flynn’s incredibly popular novel, and it was a film that thoroughly sapped what little remained of my innocence and kept it for its own. In crafting yet another atmospheric crime saga, David Fincher has effectively created the anti-date movie: a romance film that would make perfect sense in the Bizarro World, featuring two people who were totally made for each other. What it leaves behind is the nagging feeling that this level of evil just might exist in us all.
PB: Child’s Pose. Dir. Calin Peter Netzer. Criminally under-represented at American theaters in 2014, this remarkable Romanian film was one of the most devastating ruminations on family I’ve ever seen. Set to the backdrop of Romania’s infamous and systemic corruption, the narrative itself is fairly straightforward: a relatively wealthy aging matriarch (played exquisitely by Luminita Gheorghiu) comes to the aid of her pampered manchild of a son, who has just struck and killed a poor teenager while driving drunk. At first, it seems to Gheorghiu is willing to sacrifice just about anything to provide a better life for her son, but pretty quickly we come to understand that her own sense of pride and self worth are just as important to her. Meetings with dirty officials and witnesses of the accident as well as awkward moments with her son’s put-upon fiancee serve to establish the lengths to which Gheorghiu will go to preserve her family social standing and the level of need her son has for her. A fascinating character study that hinges as much on Gheorghiu’s deftly-wrought performance as it does on Razvan Radulescu’s incendiary script, Child’s Pose is the kind of film we’d like to see a hell of a lot more of.
THE REST OF 2014:
JJ: Films I watched but didn’t review: Whiplash, Non-Stop, Under The Skin, The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
PB: Favorite Music Documentary of 2014: Breadcrumb Trail. Dir. Lance Bangs. Hugely influential and frustratingly short-lived, Slint was a band that evaded easy categorization. Emerging from the math-rock scene of mid 1980s Louisville, the band of four relatively immature teenagers made some of the most lingering sounds in the history of post-rock, which most would argue is a genre they created without meaning to. What director Lance Bangs does exceedingly well in this film is to illustrate just how down to earth and goofy these young dudes were, and how it was they came to craft such intriguing music. Beyond any existing interest in the band or its music, the documentary works on its own as a great film, and one of my all time favorite music docs.
JJ: Honorable Mentions/Good, But Not Good Enough To Be The Best: Guardians of the Galaxy, John Wick, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Snowpiercer, Edge of Tomorrow, Nymphomaniac.
PB: Honorable Mention: Hard to Be a God. Dir. Aleksey German. Aleksey German spent well over a decade on his lengthy and intriguing adaptation of the Russian sci-fi novel of the same name. In fact, he actually died before he could finish the film, which is a total bummer. Concerning a group of people sent to observe a nearby planet still in its version of the dark ages, Hard to Be a God is a challenging and sometimes brutal film that opens up all sorts of questions about the nature of observation and the moral implications of allowing individuals to make tragic and avoidable choices. Definitely not a feel good movie, but something to watch out for when it comes Stateside in 2015.
JJ: Best Performances of the Year: J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, Whiplash, Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin, Russell Crowe, Noah, Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jenny Slate, Obvious Child, Rosamund Pike/Connie Coon/Kim Dickens/Tyler Perry/Ben Affleck, Gone Girl.
Agree? Disagree? What were the films that YOU loved the most this year? Tell us in the comments section below.