So I have an absolute FAVOURITE little tiny detail from Baby that I have seen absolutely no one mention yet.
Its right when Dean starts playing Night Moves and the first lyric comes up.
‘Was a little too tall / could’ve used a few pounds’
And then he points to Sam in this adorable little way. “Bro, you’re tall and skinny, man.” But he’s got this cute little affectionate grin on his face like he adores that about Sam. How Sam is a little too tall, and thinner than he had been a few years ago. Like he realizes the song fits even after he starts it. Its so cute. And Sam’s little smirk, and shake of his head while he’s sexily buttoning up his rumpled shirt.
Its just the cutest little moment, and I’ve seen no one mention the lyrics here and Dean’s point at Sam.
This is coming a few weeks later than I would have liked, but I’ve finally seen everything I wanted to in order to consider the year completed for me, so without further ado here are my Top 25 Films of 2014, counting down from #25:
25. PRIDE (Matthew Warchus)
The history of the world is rich with stories of diverse groups of people coming together in the face of adversity, but one such joining of forces that hasn’t been well-covered in film is that of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign, wherein a group of lesbian and gay activists sought to raise money in order to help those making a stand during the UK miners’ strike of 1984. Pride captures a moment in time that we sadly don’t see enough of in the world, even today – people from different sides of society coming together and recognizing a unity in one another which creates a bond stronger than any hardship that seeks to tear them down. It’s not a particularly heavy picture, as even the weighty themes are handled with a lighter touch than your more substantial efforts, but what director Matthew Warchus brings to the table is a jubilant atmosphere that keeps things on their feet with a rich surplus of well-timed humor to go along with the inspiring narrative. His energetic, almost musical direction keeps things flowing in a charming spirit that makes it impossible for Pride not to keep a smile on your face and he’s aided by a cast rich with talent both young and old, with the relatively fresh faces bringing a rambunctious spirit that meshes well and further illuminates the dependable efforts of a rich veteran class.
24. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (Woody Allen)
The common perception lately has been that whenever Woody Allen makes a great new film, he follows it up with something significantly lesser by comparison. I can’t say I follow that belief to the letter that some do, but signs indicated that after the Oscar-winning triumph of Blue Jasmine, Allen’s next film – the much lighter romantic comedy Magic in the Moonlight – wasn’t going to be up to snuff. For this viewer, however, I found this frolic in the south of France circa 1928 to be a welcome change of pace in a summer loaded with one drab, over-produced blockbuster after another and as I walked out of the theater I found a warm smile across my face and the opinion that it’s one of Woody’s best in recent years, even better than Jasmine. Starring Colin Firth (a natural fit for the filmmaker) as a magician who is sought by a friend to try and unmask a woman (Emma Stone) parading herself as a mystic, Moonlight wears its thin plot on its sleeve but its predictability belies a genuine charm that kept me delighted throughout its entire run regardless of the fact that I knew more or less where it was going the whole way. Ultimately, the film is about how finding the beauty in life is something anyone can do, whether it’s in the magic or not, which may be too slight for some, but it hit me in just the right spot.
23. WILD (Jean-Marc Vallee)
Perhaps rejuvenated by seeing the career renaissance of fellow Southerner, rom-com stable and general punchline Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon has clearly put herself on a mission for returned glory in the past few years and with Wild, it looks like all that hard work is starting to pay off. Her longtime passion project come to life, this is held up on the shoulders of what is easily the best, most committed performance of her career. Director Jean Marc-Vallee brings us a much more grounded, uncinematic experience than you’d expect this true story of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail to be, foregoing the usual emotional manipulation, big walloping scenes and over-reliance on lush scenery shots. The decidedly muted ending was a decision that could come off too abrupt and unrewarding for some, but I think it cements the fact that Wild isn’t the kind of inspirational epic that many may be expecting from its somewhat generic trappings. This was never a story designed to reach out and show you how to take hold of your life, to go out into the world and face the dangers of the wild just like Strayed did. It’s a true telling of one woman’s belief that she needed this experience to find herself, and watching Witherspoon convey the serenity she feels when her journey is completed is as satisfying and emotionally cathartic as any grandiose finale could have ever been.
22. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson)
The fact that The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily my least favorite Wes Anderson film to date says more to the fact that this is one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers working today than anything else. I found it missing the core element of emotional resonance that has made me fall in love with his other films, but even without that it’s an absolutely joyous romp of an adventure with tons of entertainment value and incredibly consistent laughs. It’d be hard to argue with anyone who would state that Anderson is the most efficient and creative world-builder working in cinema today. Each of his films exist in their own universe outside the realm of the normal and even further outside anything existing alongside them in the industry, and Budapest is far and away his most elaborate and inventive world to date. Taking place in several time periods, but primarily in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in 1932 on the verge of the great war, Anderon’s attention to detail is so dedicated, with no hint of the slightest bit of imperfection, from the choreography to the set design and beyond. Grand Budapest is a swift breeze of a film that’s a lot more focused on narrative than any of his other work, which doesn’t allow much time for character development or dynamics, but nevertheless it’s a wild ride filled with eccentric characters and sharp humor.
21. LOVE IS STRANGE (Ira Sachs)
In the tradition of Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story, Ira Sachs has brought us a look into the generational divide as seen through the experiences of an aging couple in his newest feature, Love Is Strange. One of the most surprising aspects of the film is the way that Sachs takes something which could have been incredibly plot-heavy and loaded with subplots that are teased along the way and instead turns it into a naturally told story of human beings trying to connect and the way that we can cross lines into each others’ lives. There are no villains, no outwardly menacing characters in Love Is Strange, yet quietly these people struggle in dealing with the intrusions of their friends and family into their every day lives in a way that they had never experienced before. In establishing the relationship between Ben and George (played marvelously by John Lithgow and especially Alfred Molina), we see two people so familiar with one another that they’re comfortable with all of their flaws and niggling qualities but as the two separate and become acquainted with the lifestyles of others, they become burdens or find themselves burdened by their new surroundings. It’s a familiar story to anyone who has had relatives or friends stay with them or vice versa, and yet Sachs brings it to such vivid, unemphasized life.
20. NIGHTCRAWLER (Dan Gilroy)
Even for someone like myself who has been astonished by Jake Gyllenhaal’s recent work in films like Prisoners and End of Watch, his turn as the mischievous and ambitious central figure in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler is something that I don’t think anyone could have ever expected from the actor. The way that he portrays the darkness of Louis Bloom through his serpentine veneer, all with a Cheshire Cat grin, puts a lump in the throat and chills the bones. That’s not to say Gilroy (making his directing debut) doesn’t play a key part in establishing and orchestrating the cold, clinical (a little too much so) atmosphere of the movie, or the subtle as a sledgehammer commentary on the modern media news cycle and their culpability in the kind of illegal, morally disturbing behavior that people like Louis feed on, but at the end of the day this is Gyllenhaal’s movie through and through and it’s simply another startling turn in a string of phenomenal performances from the star. The actor is fully immersed and committed to this part on a primal level; he’s deeply unsettling and perhaps even more disturbing is the simultaneous way in which he (and the film) is dementedly hilarious. As much as Nightcrawler is a captivating thrill ride through the dark, bloody streets of late-night Los Angeles, it’s also in many ways a pitch black comedy that keeps the laughs coming in the most unexpected of places.
19. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (James Marsh)
The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s film detailing the life of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his struggle with motor neuron disease, has all the makings of yet another bland couple of hours that can’t possibly succeed in condensing one person’s life into such a duration, but refreshingly it doesn’t strive to and in actuality it’s not necessarily a biopic on Hawking at all – at least not in the traditional sense. Adapted from a novel by Stephen’s ex-wife Jane, it’s about the relationship between these two people and it’s there in which this film separates itself from the pack of familiar, disposable pieces of Academy catnip in exchange for something far more grounded and emotionally potent. To say that the audience I saw The Theory of Everything with spent the whole of two hours openly weeping would perhaps be an understatement and through the strength of the performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, along with the delicate, unmanipulative direction, not a single tear was unearned or contrived through any pandering means. Sure, Marsh’s film isn’t “edgy” or “unpredictable”, but why should it be? It tells the story of these two people beautifully without hiding their individual, personal struggles outside of Stephen’s disease and it still manages to not shave off any of the less-glamorous sides of their relationship. It’s part traditional biopic and part love story, with the bittersweet awareness that sometimes you can fight through this kind of war together and make it to the other side but still lose sight of one another.
18. INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson)
After charting a new path down heavily dramatic, philosophically dense and structurally vague avenues with There Will Be Blood and The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson has again made a sharp turn towards the lighter side of things with Inherent Vice, his most purely entertaining picture to date. Closer to Boogie Nights, without reaching the darkness that the ‘80s bring, this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is light on its feet but retains the twisty nature of its source material and is distinctly the child of its creator. Anderson may be having more fun than we’re used to seeing, but there’s no denying that this is a unique and ambitious filmmaker at work, with the result as conceptually original and narratively befuddling as his previous effort. Inherent Vice may be too narratively erratic and structurally aimless for its own good, but it does seem that there’s a method to the madness in Anderson’s attempt to capture the spirit and experience of its leading character, hippie private detective Doc Sportello, and time period above all else. It’s a film loaded with surprises, from the technical mastery that accompanies all of Anderson’s work to the rich ensemble of memorable performances (Josh Brolin in particular absolutely steals the movie), all guided through the narrative perspective of yet another unique and inventive character that Joaquin Phoenix brings to life in its fullest possible form.
17. BEGIN AGAIN (John Carney)
Two lost souls spurned by life coming together after a chance encounter has been the basic premise of a lot of films over the years, most of them trite and sentimental romantic comedies. Seven years after John Carney brought us the tiny musical-that-could Once, whose plot could be broadly described this way, he’s delivered another entry in that same vein on a slightly larger, Americanized scale with Begin Again. Back in the world of music, the film sees Mark Ruffalo’s spiraling downward record producer and Keira Knightley’s jilted ex-girlfriend of a rising rock star come together one night in a small, cramped New York bar and light up a spark in one another that sets the course for a charming and easily appreciable experience that takes two great actors and simply lets them win the audience over as they take their act to the streets to record a raw, guerrilla-style album of songs performed by Knightley’s Gretta. Begin Again is a love story, but not in the way that you’d expect or even that Carney’s script teases it becoming from time to time. Gretta and Ruffalo’s Dan do find themselves thanks to their relationship with one another, but the most refreshing thing is that it’s not about finding themselves within the other person. It’s about finding your own love in whatever that may be, whether it’s riding your bike away from your past on a lovely New York night or sitting on a bench listening to an iPod with someone you cherish. It also feature Knightley’s best, most luminous performance, from a year full of her displaying her underappreciated versatility in a string of individually marvelous work.
16. CALVARY (John Michael McDonagh)
John Michael McDonagh's Calvary centers on Father Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), a good priest who’s never done any of the type of acts that others in his field have been convicted of but he still has to suffer for their crimes in his own way. He remains a member of the community but he can’t seem to walk around without being reminded of the kind of thoughts that come to mind when people see that collar in the modern day. Every scene in Calvary is from Lavelle’s perspective and yet we become privy to every dark temptation, twisted secret and perverted behavior that the people in this small Irish town are party to. As a priest, whether it’s from people mocking you, looking for absolution or just aware that they can say whatever they want to you under the guise of seeking counsel and you can’t do anything about it, Lavelle is forced to harbor all of this knowledge in his mind and with that kind of a life it’s no wonder that someone could maybe want out, an idea that forges one of the many running themes of McDonagh’s deceptively complex screenplay. When I first reached the end of Calvary, I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it; I found it interesting but without enough meat on its bones for it to truly make an impact. Strangely, I found it sitting with me and as I reflected on it more and more I grew to appreciate it and come to realize the many fascinating, thoughtful layers that McDonagh textures underneath what at first could be seen as almost mundane.
15. NIGHT MOVES (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt has made her name as a director who can take the most typical of genres, from a love story between a woman and her dog to a western set on the Oregon Trail, and turn them on their head for something far different than what you may expect to see. As a result, it’s no surprise that her newest feature, Night Moves, is far more meditative and complex than the initial premise would lead you to believe. Centered on a trio of radical environmentalists who plan an explosion of a hydroelectric dam, Reichardt and her writing partner Jonathan Raymond have taken the measured, methodically paced atmosphere they’ve cultivated on their previous three pictures together and brought it to the realm of the environmental thriller. The results are typically captivating, with the duo focusing their lens on the psychological ramifications of those who hastily endeavor in acts such as these in a way that other films of its type rarely have an interest in delving into. If Night Moves represents a transition for Reichardt into more accessible material for the mainstream crowd, it certainly doesn’t bring with it any sense that she’s going to lose sight of the perspective that makes her such a distinctive, standout filmmaker in the industry.
14. STARRED UP (David Mackenzie)
There aren’t a lot of prison movies out there, especially these days, and there are even fewer good ones but it’s a subgenre that I take a particular shine to so when one comes along that I can fully embrace, I am more than happy to take the plunge. Such is the case with David Mackenzie's Starred Up, a brutal and explosive journey into the world of Eric Love, a violent teenager so dangerous he’s transferred to the adult prison where he comes face to face with his own father, another inmate he’s now locked up with. Written by Jonathan Asser, who took inspiration from his own experiences as a voluntary prison therapist, Mackenzie pulls no punches in getting to the nitty-gritty of prison lifestyle in an almost clinical fashion, wholly unafraid of putting his actors through the wringer. Chief among them is Jack O'Connell, giving a true “star is born” turn as Love, exploding like a force of nature from first scene to last, fully immersing himself in the untempered rage that Eric lives with every moment of his life. Admittedly, the narrative movements of Starred Up aren’t quite as engaging as the performances that really bring it to life but it’s thanks to those, alongside Asser’s personal experience with the world, that Mackenzie is able to create such a vivid, authentic environment that feels far truer than the vast majority of prison dramas we see put on screen.
13. IDA (Pawel Pawlikowski)
Taking minimalism to its furthest point, Pawel Pawlikowski’s deeply personal black-and-white drama Ida draws on his own history to cement the themes of familial background and how that can shape who you are. Set in early 1960s Poland, this is the tale of a young woman about to take her vows to officially become a nun when she discovers that she has an aunt she never knew, her only living relative, and the two embark on a road trip to discover what really happened to their Jewish family during the war. What follows is a beautifully restrained study of a woman who never knew her true self having to look into the history of the family she never had in order to discover who really is. Agata Trzebuchowska takes on the lead role, in her first performance ever, and you’d think she’d been at it for years with her remarkable ability to say so much with her muted expressions and silent glances. Just as impressive is Agata Kulesza, as her aunt, using her body language to let the audience in on the fact that there’s a deeper sadness lurking in this woman than she is willing to reveal. Pawlikowski keeps the film at an economical 78 minutes and at first things feel a bit rushed in getting to the meat of the story quickly, but it comes to really milk every minute it has and the evolution of these women is incredibly felt by the end of it, with both of them so far off from where we first met them.
12. EDGE OF TOMORROW (Doug Liman)
I’ve made no secret of my general disdain for the state of blockbuster filmmaking in recent years, with its endless factory machine of dreadful, derivative sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and whatever else pumping out a new financially-driven piece of forgettable fluff every week, but once in a while there’s a big-budget summer movie that truly takes me by surprise and Edge of Tomorrow is the best one to come along in years. Seeing such a well-written, phenomenally paced, tremendously entertaining action adventure with a human element that is neither too shallow it diminishes the overall product nor too prominent that it distracts from the pulsing narrative, I was reminded of the capacity to be amazed by this kind of film. Taking its Groundhog Day premise, where Tom Cruise’s unwilling soldier is granted the ability to relive the day every time he dies during a war with an alien enemy, Edge of Tomorrow is like a video game brought to the big screen, without any of the negative assumptions that conjures up, perhaps because it’s adapted from a graphic novel rather than an actual game. Director Doug Liman executes this film with an exhilarating sense of fun, combining the gripping action sequences with a surprisingly sharp script and able performances from Cruise and especially Emily Blunt as one of the most kickass action heroes of any gender this year.
11. SNOWPIERCER (Joon-Ho Bong)
While Edge of Tomorrow was the cure for my increasing dissatisfaction with the Hollywood blockbuster, Snowpiercer (another graphic novel adaptation) was the balls-to-the-wall kick in the teeth from the independent world that proved you don’t need $100 million to make a genre flick that is explosive, energetic, entertaining and, most importantly, brazenly unique. The first English-language picture from the great South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, Snowpiercer sets itself entirely on board a massive, luxurious train that travels around the planet non-stop in a future where a failed attempt to prevent global warming has resulted in the destruction of all life and a new ice age. With the train’s chambers divided by class, Snowpiercer uses this socially relevant starting point for what is ultimately a much larger and more complex weaving of themes. Taking a sprawling international cast on a journey through the many different, exquisitely detailed chambers, Bong sends up genre convention with a balance of vastly contrasting tones that he masters with effortless ease. Whether it’s Tilda Swinton giving monologues with a shoe on her head or an absolutely riotous Alison Pill, with her angelic presence, leading a classroom of children to sing a jaunty tune about the many ways they could all die, Snowpiercer keeps the laughs coming as ferociously as it does the heart-pumping violence.
10. BORGMAN (Alex van Warmerdam)
A priest delivers a sermon before loading up a gun and heading into the woods with a group of men, stern determination on their faces. A disheveled man with wild hair and an ungroomed beard wakes up in his shelter underneath the ground, hearing the footsteps of these men above him. The group starts poking holes in the ground, attempting to cave in the shelter and uncover the man. The disheveled man makes his escape through a secret passage, running through the woods and exposing other similar shelters where he informs other men that they have been discovered and must run. We are given no understanding of who this man is, why he was living underground or why the priest and these other men were after them, presumably on a mission to bring their deaths. This mysterious, breathtaking sequence is the opening to Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman and it only gets more strange and fascinating from there. It’s a potentially infuriating film due to its lack of straight answers, but for those who give in to what the director is aiming towards (as I did), Borgman is an utterly intriguing experience practically unlike any other I’ve had to date.
09. THE IMITATION GAME (Morten Tyldum)
Knock it down as Oscar-bait if you want, but The Imitation Game is a riveting piece of history telling a story that deserves to be witnessed. Award season is loaded with movies about important men who did significant things, but what was interesting about this year was the surprisingly unconventional decisions as to the directors assigned the task of bringing these stories to life. Nowhere was this more true than with Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian director making his English-language debut after his last effort, Headhunters, provided one of the most unpredictable, deliriously entertaining experiences of 2012. The decision to put him in charge of this powerful biopic of Alan Turing (played in a career-best turn by Benedict Cumberbatch), whose vital role in cracking the Enigma code during World War II couldn’t prevent the unjust crime his own government perpetrated against him for his homosexuality, was a daring one that gives it an energy far removed from the stuffy trappings you may have expected to find contained within. The Imitation Game is an intelligently designed portrayal of a man whose story deserves to be told and for too long was hidden in the backroom of a nation too afraid to admit the injustice that was committed against him. At the same time, that atrocity shouldn’t take any attention away from the significance of his contribution to his field and the war, and finding the proper balance is the film’s greatest strength of all.
08. THE ROVER (David Michod)
Only the second film from David Michod, after 2010's Animal Kingdom, The Rover proves that he was no one-hit wonder as this cements his position as one of the most exciting and bold filmmakers to emerge so far this decade. Whereas Animal Kingdom took a conventional story of a criminal family at odds with law enforcement and turned it on its head, The Rover is a much more polarizing film from the structure up. Animal Kingdom played with expectations in a way that revitalized the crime genre; The Rover doesn’t even tease the idea that you know what you’re getting into. Michod strips down the picture as far as he can, removing from the film any desire to give the audience knowledge of the background of its situation in any respect. We don’t know what caused the apocalyptic event that led to this barren world other than the vague description of a “collapse”. We don’t know why the overwhelmingly nihilistic Eric (a career-best turn from Guy Pearce) is so adamant about getting his car back from a group of men who stole it in this world where you can take whatever you want and have no need for possessions. Leaving so much open for the audience to fill in as much or as little as they please can be frustrating at times, but Michod creates the world of The Rover so vividly and his two-hander road movie (with Pearce sharing the screen with a sensational Robert Pattinson) is ultimately just the blink of an eye amid a sea of something much more expansive.
07. ENEMY (Denis Villeneuve)
The unexpected team of director Denis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal did wonders last year with the dark kidnapping thriller Prisoners (my second favorite film of the year), but Enemy took things in a decidedly bolder and more abstract direction. The logline tells us that it’s about a college professor (Gyllenhaal) who seeks out his exact look-alike (also Gyllenhaal) after spotting him as an extra in a movie, but the calamity that results from this chance sighting is far more complex than at first glance. With Enemy, Villeneuve constructs a piece that feels like a fusion between the great Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. While the premise feels like something out of the former’s canon and there’s a palpable feeling of foreboding suspense the way there was in many of his works (Vertigo springs to mind for obvious reasons), there’s also the surrealism and hypnotic, deeply unsettling atmosphere present in much of the latter’s work. It’d be easy to classify this as a mood piece above anything else and maybe that remains true, but it’s also a fascinating dissection on the idea of identity and the reconciliation of ones fantasies with the reality of living in a world where sometimes you have to settle and stop living in your dreams.
06. THE IMMIGRANT (James Gray)
Only the fifth feature from director James Gray, The Immigrant maintains many of his traditional themes like the familial ties that bind his characters and keep them questioning their decisions, along with the New York setting, but it’s a departure for him in many ways. He’s done period work before, but this one sends him much further back to another time and a very unique style of filmmaking. What’s fascinating about what he brings to the film is how it feels so much like a lost relic of another era, yet at the same time is imbued with the brooding, heavy atmosphere that has defined his career. The Immigrant is best described as the old made new again. On first glimpse it may feel like an homage or imitation, but the further it cooks along the more it feels like nothing but the genuine article. There’s no stench of artifice to his directing here, no wink at the audience to let us see that he’s in on the fact that this isn’t how films are made anymore. With a career-best performance from Marion Cotillard, as expressive and heartbreaking as ever, and another addition to the strongest actor/director collaboration in film today that is Gray and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant is a breathtaking experience from start to finish, with one of the most defining closing shots in years thanks to the great Darius Khondji.
05. FOXCATCHER (Bennett Miller)
For better or worse, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is the most interesting, deliberately uncomfortable American film of 2014. Depicting the ominously tense dynamic that developed between Olympic wrestlers (and brothers) Mark and Dave Schultz with the peculiar millionaire John du Pont, Miller has created a film that is by its very design cold to a fault. He purposefully places us at a distance from these characters (with the help of the astonishing work from DP Greig Fraser), which can make it hard to engage with or invest in at times, but this remove also helps in establishing the eerie, foreboding mood the director confronts the audience with that creates a positively chilling atmosphere from first frame to last. In his previous film Moneyball, Miller handicapped the surprisingly thrilling script with his bland, tediously vanilla direction but here it’s the opposite effect. A shaky, inconsistent script threatens to derail the magnificent work of the man at the helm, but Miller keeps you entranced, aided by stars Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell and especially Channing Tatum. Foxcatcher appropriately stands out as an incredibly physical movie, one which says more without words than it ever does with them.
04. GONE GIRL (David Fincher)
The must-talk-about novel of 2012 has become the must-talk-about film of 2014 with David Fincher's Gone Girl, a twisty labyrinth of bad people doing very bad things. Adapted to the screen by the book’s author Gillian Flynn, the writer and director combine to pull off a seamless transition from page to screen. While excising unnecessary characters and subplots, the duo have maintained the page-turner aspect that keeps the audience on their toes with every insane twist and turn in Gone Girl’s dizzying narrative littered with one fascinating character after another, where the center stage is taken up by a venomous marriage that exposes a dissection and utter skewering of the modern idea of matrimony and the way that we put on a facade for the media, our partners and ultimately ourselves. When reading the basic logline (wife goes missing; husband is suspect), it’d be easy to assume that Gone Girl is simply a generic thriller but Flynn employs a deceptive, incredibly tricky framework that seamlessly combines flashback and voiceover to split perspective and unravel a mystery far more fascinating than that of where Amy Dunne is. Dunne herself is a character for the ages and she’s an enigma right in the heart of a wonderfully layered, masterfully designed and howlingly bitter dark comedy of utter despair that sees Fincher having the most fun he’s had in ages.
03. THE SKELETON TWINS (Craig Johnson)
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are primarily known for their multiple Emmy-nominated work on Saturday Night Live and after leaving their long stints on that program behind in recent years they found themselves coming together again in a very Sundance-typical tale of two troubled siblings in Craig Johnson’s darkly comedic, surprisingly abrasive and endearingly heartfelt drama. Yet despite its cliches, The Skeleton Twins is loaded with moments that pull on the heart strings in natural, believable ways without ever descending into nauseating “indie quirks” that would pull you out of the authentic experience of these two characters colliding forces with one another and knocking their damaged lives back into perspective. Their Milo and Maggie stray the line between likable and loathsome, even teetering over into the latter at times, but Hader and Wiig constantly keep you invested in them and the clever, impactful writing makes sure to leaven the heaviest moments with plenty of warmth throughout. The film’s centerpiece, in which the two come together over a lip-sync rendition of Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, is as crowd-pleasing a moment as any you’ll see on screen this year and a testament to the fact that no matter how much Maggie and Milo can dig their claws into one another they will always have a bond that no one can manage to break or fully understand.
02. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (J.C. Chandor)
It may be set in 1981, and released in 2014, but A Most Violent Year feels like the kind of New York cinema that emerged straight out of the dark, crime-ridden climate of the 1970s. Up there with Lumet and Coppola, J.C. Chandor has captured an ambiance that builds in the pit of your stomach and reaches around you the same way that this world does for his characters. Another admirable venture into a drastically new territory, after the dialogue-driven financial crises of Margin Call and the almost entirely wordless man-at-sea survival story All Is Lost, Chandor has delivered what is easily his strongest work yet by combining complex character drama with lasting universal themes to create a slow-burning thriller that only ratchets up the tension when you’re about to reach fever pitch. Highlighted by one of the best performances in years from Oscar Isaac (who led Inside Llewyn Davis, my favorite film of last year), the director assembles all the right ingredients and calibrates them to peak efficiency for a film that breathlessly captures an intimacy of character in collaboration with a far wider scope that lends so much texture to the world these people inhabit.
01. WHIPLASH (Damien Chazelle)
The drive for artistic perfection is naturally nothing new in the world of cinema, but in Whiplash, writer/director Damien Chazelle has brought us a two-hander so aggressive, combustible and emotionally violent it will make you feel like you’ve never seen anything like it. Only 29 years old when the film was released, Chazelle has the precision of a director twice his age as he captures a precise, elaborate style that sucks the viewer in and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but at the same time this is a film that relies heavily on the two men at its core. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are two actors at very different points in their careers, one a veteran whose work spans decades in supporting roles and the other a fresh face just breaking out into the spotlight, but there’s a good chance that neither of them will do anything this strong ever again. The war between these two men is fraught with emotion and turmoil, and Chazelle’s direction elevates Whiplash to something that works as more than just a riveting two-hander with great characters and performances. Whiplash centers on two characters who are hungry to cultivate one of the great artists of their time, and watching it gives the impression that we may have found one ourselves in Damien Chazelle.