The Best Films of 2014

10. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

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Shion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is the most wonderfully twisted genre film of 2014.

This, like Holy Motors from a few years ago, is a love letter to filmmaking. Bolstered by the rogue filmmaking crew the Fuck Bombers, Sono shows the love of filmmaking as being like a destiny and urge that artists need to have fulfilled.

The hunger of the crew and the unlikeliness of their assignment – filming an actual fight between two rival yakuza clans – is what brings Why Don’t You Play in Hell? into a cartoon universe of spilled blood and flying body parts that is so fully aware of what it’s accomplishing.

The Fuck Bombers’ energy and enthusiasm seems to embody Sono’s crave to be creative and through them he creates one of the most surprising and delightful films of the year.

9. Maps to the Stars

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Though David Cronenberg’s last many films have had their share of strange, Maps to the Stars is the closest we’ve come to returning to purely weird Cronenberg.

Though the film has a sort of critique of how obsessed we can all become with celebrities, it really is more about what Hollywood, fame and fortune can do to an already unstable family.

Agatha Weiss returns to the family she was kicked out of. That family, home to teen superstar Benjie Weiss, has its own share of problems that digging up its tragic past with Agatha and how they handled her sends the entire family into turmoil.

The film is supplanted by characters who are living outside of the family but share their interactions with them. Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand, an actress dealing with aging, and Robert Pattinson’s Jerome Fontana, a limo driver who wants to crack into the business, represent the industry’s fierce nature of turmoil.

Cronenberg approaches the bizarre and twisted story of love, obsession and desire with his usual approach of unexplainable feeling that can’t be put into words. It’s weird.

8. Nightcrawler

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Nightcrawler appeals to the ethical journalist in myself.

“This isn’t Hartford,” a television producer tells an assignment editor. She’s right. This is Los Angeles and, from what Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler tells us, ethics can take a backseat to ratings when you’re in the middle of a hotly contest ratings battle with other networks.

The work of Louis Bloom, who is the maniacal result of a terrific Jake Gyllenhaal performance, would never get shown on television in Hartford. Truth be told, I don’t watch enough L.A. cable news to know how graphic it gets, but the obsession we they have with high speed chases should tell you enough about that.

Nightcrawler is at once a scathing take down of the broken cable news system and a character study of a man who aspires to be something more. Bloom is a self-made man. He’s fearless and tenacious when it comes to his work. He wants it done right, but he also will get what he wants at any cost.

Watching Bloom move bodies of a crash scene around to get the perfect shot was hard to see. Watching him enter a home and filming murder victims was hard to see. But Gilory makes it all very attractive to watch.

Nightcrawler carries a grim moral message all the way to its conclusion. Bloom hardly does things “the right way” but he still gets what he wants. And that’s truly upsetting.

7. Borgman

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Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman is a suburban and modern take on what could comes off as a centuries old fairytale or fable. And at the end of it all we never learn just exactly who, or what, our titular character is.

After an opening scene that throws viewers through an intriguing rush of confusion, we finally get to meet an on-the-run Camiel Borgman. He seeks refuge at a nearby house in an upscale neighborhood and is initially turned away.

What follows is a domestic and scheming overtaking by Borgman and his other magical friends that builds with each scene. Every moment and permission that Marina, the woman of the house, allows Borgman to have pushes the process further. It starts at taking a bath and ends at something much more consuming and intense.

The truly scary thing about Borgman is how difficult it is to assess his character. We don’t know what he is, we don’t know what his intentions are and we don’t know what he’s doing. The film’s opening scene can only help us surmise that he’s up to no good, but because of how well Jan Bijvoet plays Borgman we can’t write him off as a bad guy just yet.

Van Warmerdam’s darkly funny fable is something that leaves interpretation up to its viewers. And that serves Borgman much better.

6. Leviathan

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Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a fearless take on Russian government.

With a tale of biblical proportions, Zvyagintsev makes a land struggle a contested drama. The drunken, crooked politician wants to repossess property from the drunken, simple homeowner.

Fueled by alcohol, Leviathan is a loathing journey of the human nature. Zvyagintsev shows viewers the darkest our relationships with family, friends and opposition can be. With that said, the film is surprisingly more funny, with all its dark glory still reigning supreme, than you could imagine after reading its description.

The moments that make Leviathan’s tragic explode are all conflicts between this cast of humans. They are an angry husband and his unhappy wife, a father and his misbehaving son, two friends who have lost each other’s trust and a man facing the person who is trying to ruin his life. And it’s all so hard to watch.

5. Under the Skin

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The best thing about Under the Skin is the way it can trap a viewer into thinking it’s about much more than it really is. It makes you want to go under its skin to find its depth and its other meanings. You can search, but I don’t think you’ll have much to find. And I say that all as a compliment.

Jonathan Glazer’s film is really a story of growth that can be made without aliens and without a captivating visual and audio experience. To maintain intrigue, the film doesn’t explain anything to its viewers. There are no conversations that tell us what is happening. But we can figure it out from visual cues and general understanding.

What really hooks us is Scarlett Johansson. Her sexy, dominating and fearless performance is one to behold and was severely unappreciated by the Academy. Under the Skin relies so heavily on her character’s transformation, which is mostly seen and not heard, as she turns from a stone cold being from another place who is harvesting men to a compassionate and conscious being who could begin to emotionally pass for the skin she wears on the outside. Johansson owns this tall responsibility.

The film’s awe-inspiring finale, filmed without an abundance of dialogue, is a thrill. Under the Skin is one of the best science fiction films of the last many years and will remain at the top of that category for more to come.

4. Boyhood

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Richard Linklater’s ambitious Boyhood is the director’s most recent exploration of how time, space and moments can affect our lives.

Boyhood’s lengthy filming process was not just a gimmick used to sell a film. It was an experiment. By using the real life time and experiences of the actors in the film, Boyhood wasn’t just characters changing in a film. The actors did too. The older actors gain more wear and tear. The younger actors gain more experience and insecurities. Everyone was changing throughout this project. And look at how Patricia Arquette comes out of it all with a well-deserved newfound respect and a likely Academy Award.

Linklater’s Boyhood is an autobiographical tale about the growth of a child, Mason, and his family. The things he sees aren’t at all uncommon for most of us to experience. In comparison to the subject matter of many other films, these are small and sometimes insignificant moments. But the bigger ones are impactful and used to show how they can impact a young and impressionable person. Mason grows, he becomes a more rounded out character, and you know why.

The consistency and patience of Linklater and his cast is remarkable. Performances, even those of the younger actors, remain consistent throughout, as does Linklater. The tone and approach never changes and that’s impressive considering Linklater completed several other projects during the elapsed time. Boyhood is a true triumph and a movie-going experience I’ve never felt before.

3. The Dance of Reality

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Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in 23 years has the surrealist filmmaker looking like he hasn’t lost a step.

The Dance of Reality is an autobiographical and exaggerated story about Jodorowsky’s upbringing in Tocopilla, Chile. Never playing things straight, Jodorowsky so wonderfully molds his personal life, the history of that time and more through his surrealistic approach.

Consider that Jodorowsky himself appears on film, speaking directly to us and acting as an anchor, crutch and voice to his young self. This is a bold film that is for Jodorowsky and by Jodorowsky. The process is so personal that it comes off as if he is working through some things while in his later stages of life and to me it’s an honor to watch that. Jodorowsky indulges not only in his personal problems, but also takes issue with his mother and father, and ties it all together with a biting look at the societal issues his family and others faced at that time.

And aside from the pure craft, The Dance of Reality is incredibly fun, amusing and consistently surprising. I found every scene to be full of something funny, scary, sad or upsetting. To have a Jodorowsky film this good in 2014 is a cinematic blessing.

2. Inherent Vice

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Watching Doc Sportello hop around Los Angeles in the search of answers that aren’t there was the most fun I had watching a movie all year.

Paul Thomas Anderon’s Inherent Vice, in all of its sun-soaked acid-noir glory, is very much a tale of mystery. But its deliciously absurd narrative isn’t this film’s true calling card. Sure, Thomas Pynchon’s novel crafted a dizzying tale, drawing back to the confusing plot of The Big Sleep and the style of The Long Goodbye, but I wasn’t focused on finding out what happens at the end of it all.

Inherent Vice is very much a film about its era. It’s about the 1960s becoming the 1970s and how maligned and paranoid hippies like Sportello are dealing with changing times and adversaries like Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen.

So what’s driving Sportello to go on his wild chase? It isn’t money. He doesn’t want it. Is it the intrigue? Maybe. But he can do without that. Sportello’s drive is love. When his ex old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth comes to his door in that dreamy opening sequence we learn all we need to know about what Sportello thinks of her. So say he solves this puzzle. Will things ever be the same again? Probably not, and he knows that, but he still sure as hell tries.

Anderson’s take on Inherent Vice is fun and stylish. I haven’t finished the novel yet, but from what I’ve read so far, he captured the essence of Pynchon’s words.

1. Winter Sleep

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Even the smallest of moments can feel explosive in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. A window is broken. A child is punished. And a conflict between two families is reborn.

The film, which makes three hours feel like a breeze, captures a cold winter life at its most vulnerable. Aydin, who embodies success and wealth in a village that doesn’t have much of it, is having struggles with his wife, his sister and his business.

Drawing closely to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Ceylan’s film is an intimate portrait of conflict. Ceylan locks viewers into small, dark rooms full of intense, scalding conversations, many dealing with Aydin’s failing marriage to his young wife. We join them at the end of their relationship. We don’t see the beginning. And we don’t need to see it to understand what is at stake between the two.

Brimming outside of his family is a dispute with a family that may be evicted from a property Aydin inherited from his father. It’s the event early on in the film that puts Winter Sleep’s wheels in motions, making it an emotional vehicle of conflict that never stops.

Winter Sleep is truly about its incredibly tense and private moments. Intimacy is channeled through the lens of the camera. It is shot closely when we enter the character’s private chambers where lengthy conversations and stand out performances from every actor rule the screen.

Winter Sleep is a major work from one of the greatest working filmmakers.

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