I wanted to revisit this list before the Oscars later this month – and before we get too far into 2015, because as 2014 proved, great movies can come at any time of year. So without further ado, here we go:
10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Yes. It’s actually the best of the series so far. For as much as Catching Fire was Francis Lawrence’s Empire Strikes Back, this is his A New Hope. To me, that’s more impressive than anything with Catching Fire‘s considerable bravado because it succeeds without the centerpiece of The Games. The centerpiece here is Jennifer Lawrence’s nuanced performance. If it’s possible to have a post-apocalypse of a post-apocalypse, Katniss is its cause and its hero. This film gets considerably darker than its predecessors (yes, I realize that all the films involve a dystopian future in which children and adults are forced to fight each other to the death) on the shoulders of its love triangle. Katniss’ seeming obsession with the men in her life distracts her from the real mission of creating propaganda against The Capitol, but the obsession ends up becoming the mission. This transition of circumstances is a slow one, and I really appreciated how this Hunger Games film takes its time with its storytelling in contrast to the others, which do tend to speed through story points just to get to The Games. Maybe it’s just me, but other than the Twilight ‘Saga’, I’ve never been annoyed with part-one, part-two series endings. And the last image of this part one is a chilling one that stuck with me for days.
9. Jodorowsky’s Dune
In 1975, famed surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky assembled a ‘who’s who’ of science fiction artists to help him make his vision of Dune, loosely based on the Frank Herbert novel. In this revealing and exciting documentary, that team pines on the movie that never was. H.R. Giger, Moebius, Dan O’Bannon and Chris Foss all met as a result of Jodorowsky’s passion and leadership. When the director tried to pitch the film to various studios, the studios all shied away because he had a reputation for making films that had zero popular appeal. His films, while indescribably great, are all cult classics, and nobody wanted to sink millions of dollars into something that might not have found a big audience. But Jodorowsky’s team later proved their worth with the Alien franchise, and the rest is history – excluding Jodorowsky ever making his Dune. Frank Pavich’s film animates the amazing storyboard book that was made for Jodorowky’s vision, in addition to telling a true story enveloping film history, world politics, and one of the most entrancing conversations ever caught on film (with who else but AJ?).
8. Under the Skin
Again with the sci-fi.
What follows are selections from cinefalcon’s August 9th, 2014 review:
Imagine this, fellas: you’re walking down the sidewalk one day, and a white van pulls up beside you. The driver of the van is Scarlett Johansson and she offers you a lift to her place. Pretty good day, right? Well, it would be if she was actually human. That’s the basic premise of Under the Skin, the new film by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). I say ‘basic’ because this is a very unconventional alien invasion movie. Most of its plot points are told through gazes, not explosions. Johansson’s character, a very nondescript being who puts on the body of a beautiful woman, is in quiet cahoots with another being who is masquerading as a human man. He seems to have already figured out his human form, but she definitely has not. The things she learns about body image as she gains more human experience are probably in direct conflict with what he believes about it, because their professional relationship goes through a significant rift. Johansson’s performance is top-notch – her wonder at each new interaction totally fits the character and supports the mood of the film. Glazer’s direction is what makes it all tick, though. A film about studying life appropriately has a life of its own.
Many people call this the best film of 2014, and that’s not far off. As you get into my top 6, a lot of it is just splitting hairs. But Nightcrawler is memorable as hell. It stars a top-form Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a thief-turned-amateur newsman. He starts off as a hermit who learns everything he knows online, and this learning propels him up the ‘corporate’ ladder of a local L.A. news station. With Rick, his partner (Riz Ahmed) he soon cements his footage of crimes and accidents as a necessary part of the station’s programming – and ratings. But the way he goes about getting the big scoop is ethically cloudy at best, and criminal at worst. The film makes no bones about its being a metaphor for corporate America, as Lou gets more and more ruthless in the pursuit of establishing L.A.’s most successful news-gathering service. Rene Russo (wife of screenwriter and director Dan Gilroy) gives an elite performance on Gyllenhaal’s level as Lou’s station’s producer. Thanks in no small part to its performers and Robert Elswit’s beautiful nocturnal cinematography, Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut is destined to become a classic along the lines of Network.
6. Listen Up Philip
What follows is cinefalcon’s December 22nd, 2014 review:
There’s a moment very early on in Listen Up Philip that indicates the value of Alex Ross Perry’s direction and writing. Philip (Jason Schwartzman), a successful novelist, denies one of his exes the ‘gift’ of seeing his newly-published sophomore effort because she was late for their meeting. When he eviscerates her and storms out of the diner, she and the cook share a knowing, sister-to-sister glance. Thus, Perry’s thesis is born: the strikingly narcissistic Philip is at once entertaining and acidic, but because of his selfishness, the women in his life will always be one step ahead of him. In a callback to Philip Roth, Perry has created a singularly tart comedy with an equally searing likability factor. This is due partly to the film’s construction. Philip’s girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) finally allows herself to fall out of love with him just as he starts to become disillusioned with one of his literary idols. Schwartzman’s penchant for delivering Perry’s biting dialogue with unique and bittersweet flare helps us acclimate to Philip’s narcissism right off the bat. He takes a writer’s retreat at the second home of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an older author with a legacy Philip respects almost more than anything else. This vacation becomes a second life for Philip, whom Ike recommends for a position at a nearby university. The absence of Philip in Ashley’s life makes her question everything she once loved about him, even the charm of his boyish, careerist attitude. Moss shines in the role of Ashley, taking full advantage of a twenty-minute stretch of celluloid all about her. The movie sings in this segment, but even in the preceding and following minor notes, it’s an unforgettable character study. Listen Up Philip is as multi-dimensional and polished as anything I’ve seen this year. Not only that, but it’s easily the funniest movie for adults I’ve seen in a few years. Philip struggles to connect with people because, as he says, he would rather be remembered as a famous author than as a real person. The movie almost becomes a nega-Forrest Gump as it unfolds, showing how he throws a wrench into the lives of everyone he meets, including Ike and his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). But it also takes us deep into his good side when he meets fellow English professor Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume), who, after leading a workplace campaign against him, genuinely falls for him. I would be remiss not to mention that one of the film’s best qualities is its even-handedness, even when it plays around with linear storytelling. For this I have to credit the fourteen-year dynamic duo of cinematographer Sean Price Williams and editor Robert Greene.
Stay tuned for 5 through 1!
– George Napper