By Johnny Pomatto
After sitting through the most tepid fall awards season in recent memory, I feared I would have trouble shaping a Top Ten List, but my fears were unfounded. After close inspection, this was a great year for movies, even if much of the studio Oscar bait fell flat. Below are my favorite films of this past year.
10. THE ONE I LOVE- This year was full of some great mind-bending, glossy, effects- laden sci-fi films, such as “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” two films that could have easily found places on this list. What impressed me so much about Charlie McDowell’s THE ONE I LOVE was how much it was able to do with so little. The primary special effect here is the performances given by Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass, and while I’m still reluctant to divulge the details of the plot, out of fear of ruining a few surprises, I love that the film is able to take a fantastical yet incredibly simple device and open up the whole film into one of the best portraits of marriage and relationships this year, and as you’ll see below, this is only one of several great films on that subject this year. (Netflix)
9. FORCE MAJEURE- A very different film about a marriage that is possibly more fragile than it appears, FORCE MAJEURE follows a Swedish family on a pleasant ski vacation in the French Alps. While having lunch on a deck at the foot of a mountain, a controlled avalanche suddenly seems to pick up speed and heads straight for the family. The husband acts quickly… as he picks up his cell phone and runs away from his wife and children. Of course the avalanche stops well short of their lunch table and the husband walks sheepishly back to the table, with his wife suddenly seeing him in a whole new light. What follows is an examination of gender roles, honor, duty, and love. Sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes it’s frighteningly familiar. This may not be a great date movie unless you’re in a really great place in your relationship, though the characters in the film also believe they’re starting in a safe place. However you react, this haunting film is definitely going to stay with you. (On Deamnd)
8. ENEMY- Having not made a feature film in over a decade, David Lynch has left a void for lovers of nightmarish, head-trip movies. Lucky for us, Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) is picking up the slack. Jake Gyllenhaal (in one of several excellent performances this year) plays a shy, lonely history professor. One night he watches a movie and sees an actor in it that appears to be his exact double. Gyllenhaal soon becomes obsessed with this man who shares his face, but leads a very different life. His journey takes him to strange places, but none stranger than his own memory and subconscious. I’ve had a few debates with others who saw this film and interpreted the story completely differently than I did. While I stand by that this is not a movie about puppet-master, alien spiders controlling our lives, (as one friend suggested), I can’t argue with what another person sees in this strange story. This is the kind of film that can only completed when you fill in the gaps with your own thoughts. This is a spectacular puzzle box of a movie that may leave you scratching your head, but undoubtedly with a new love for Gyllenhaal and a new fear of spiders. (Amazon Prime)
7. LOVE IS STRANGE- Sometimes a movie can sneak up on you. I was really enjoying Ira Sachs’ sweet drama, LOVE IS STRANGE, while I was watching it. As the film ended, and the credits began to roll, I instantly burst into tears, almost as if I had been wholly unaware as to the spell the film was casting on me while I had been watching it. The heartbreaking story of a long term couple (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, both criminally robbed of awards attention), who finally marry one another, only to be forced live separately by outside circumstances, is beautifully told in quiet, subdued way. The fact that this is the love story about two men is not what makes this film untraditional. We see very few sweet and romantic scenes between anyone. Mostly we see the characters expressing a lot of anger and frustration. This film is about the love we hold on to in our memories during the saddest and most difficult times in our lives. This is not the story that we want to see told for these characters, but Sachs is masterful in its telling, and sadly, everyone will be able to recognize and relate to the emotions on display. (On Demand)
6. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR- A huge leap forward for writer/director J.C. Chandor, (whose first two films I respected but couldn’t quite enjoy), A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a return to the gritty crime movies of the 70’s, such as “The French Connection” or “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” But while those two films were strictly about cops and criminals, Chandor’s film tells the story of a well-meaning business man, desperately struggling to stay honest in 1981 New York, where everyone around him is corrupt and playing against the rules. Oscar Isaacs is extraordinary in a performance that perfectly channels 1970s era Al Pacino. Jessica Chastain, (an actress who often annoys me), is also excellent as his wife, who makes Lady Macbeth look like a co-dependent. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great Albert Brooks, turning in another superb dramatic performance after impressing so much a few years ago in “Drive.” Despite the title, this is not a most violent movie, moving too slow for some, but a perfect, nail-biting pace for me. The detail of old New York is astonishing, and even the film stock looks as if its been dipped in day-old coffee. Any New Yorker watching this film should be fascinated to see a version of their city from not long ago when criminals were in charge and heroes had no hope of prevailing without becoming what they hate. (In Theaters Now)
5. LIFE ITSELF- I’m more than a little biased in my love for the Roger Ebert documentary LIFE ITSELF. Were it not for Ebert, I might not be writing these words now. He instilled a love and respect for movies in me at a very early age and I’ve always admired him. His life story was always worthy of being told and celebrated, but the fact that Steve James didn’t begin making this film until the last few months of Ebert’s life is what makes this film such an achievement. A film that was meant to feature a man whose work ethic and passion were not thwarted by debilitating illness suddenly became the story of him letting go of a life he never wanted to leave. As a film lover, there’s always an upcoming film that one is looking forward to that you can’t imagine not being around to see. This film celebrates an incredible life, even while being about his death. While we will never have another Roger Ebert review to read, this film shows a life and love that couldn’t be contained in print alone. (On Video and On Demand February 17th)
4. THE LEGO MOVIE- Many animated films these days have become formulaic, simplistic, and pandering. Kids will watch anything, so little attention is given to most plots, and the humor injected in for bored parents is usually comprised of decades old references and tired jokes. Chris Miller and Phil Lord did something incredible with THE LEGO MOVIE. They didn’t try to make a movie with a little bit of something for everybody; they simply made a movie that everybody could embrace and love. It’s simultaneously a spoof of animated adventure movies, and a reminder of what made these sorts of movies so great in the first place. Children and adults laugh at the same jokes for completely different reasons. Just when you think this is just an excuse to make a bright, colorful toy commercial, the climax of the film shows you that there was a plan and purpose in place all along. Not that this isn’t a highly effective toy commercial. There’s a Lego set in progress sitting on my coffee table right now. No other film has celebrated creativity and the joy of playtime better since the original “Toy Story.” (DVD and On Demand)
3. MR. TURNER- One could surely read a biography of painter JMW Turner and learn all the significant beats of his life story, but what about all of the moments in between? What sort of dinner guest was he? What was he like as an employer? Or as a lover? There’s no precise way to know these details of Turner’s life, but if one uses a scattering of facts as a blank canvas, a skilled artist could connect the dots. Mike Leigh is a director unlike any other. He spends months with his actors prior to filming where he develops every word of dialogue in his scripts through improvisation. Timothy Spall isn’t merely portraying Turner, he becomes him. He’s supported by an outstanding cast, including Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, and Ruth Sheen, all regular performers in Leigh’s company of actors. When I see a great performance, I want to be able to think, “there’s no other actor who could do what that person just did.” I think that every time I see a Mike Leigh film. With Dick Pope’s stunning cinematography, which will make you rethink what digital cameras are capable of, MR. TURNER doesn’t ever feel like any other period film, but more like looking through a window to the past. (Now In Theaters)
2. WHIPLASH- The most thrilling film experience I had all year was at Damien Chazzelle’s WHIPLASH. Considering this is only Chazzelle’s first feature film, there’s no way of knowing if he will be one of the great directors, but this is one of the best and most confident debut films I’ve seen in quite some time. I feel like Chazzelle had every moment of this film storyboarded in his mind for years before ever even picking up a camera. No action sequence this year could match the intensity of watching Miles Teller play a drum solo, which is edited with such care and precision that each tap of the drumstick is like getting punched in the face. WHIPLASH also gave us the year’s best villain in J.K. Simmons’ performance as Fletcher, the barking, drill sergeant instructor who torments Teller to bring out his greatness. Some feel that Fletcher is let off the hook and validated in the final moments of the film, but I think the powerhouse ending can be viewed with equal levels of triumph and tragedy. I go back and forth, myself. While the film can be difficult to watch at times, it’s hard not to love something that is so exhilarating. (Now In Theaters)
1. BOYHOOD- Richard Linklater has been making movies about the passage of time for years, but with BOYHOOD he uses time as his tool for telling his story. Filming the same actors, (most notably young Ellar Coltrane as the central child, Mason), over twelve years could have just been a gimmick, but the film rises above that and tells a story so universal, there isn’t a single person who couldn’t see a bit of themselves in it. No, I was not this boy, but all of us were once 6 years old, and 13 years old, and 18 years old. This is a film that evokes memories. There are no major events so dramatic that they would be considered major plot turns or twists, but each moment of the film is a piece of young Mason’s life. The film is a short 175 minutes, considering it spans 12 years. You could make several more films comprised of the thousands of hours that we’re not seeing of this one life. It makes one contemplate what specific moments we would include in a film about our own lives. Watching the film on the big screen was a special experience. At home we’re spoiled by the “pause” and “rewind” buttons, but watching the film on the big screen was like experiencing the life in real time. Once a moment had passed, you know you’d never see it again. Mason gets older and time never reverses or flashes back. This is a film that shows us our future by making us reflect on our past, and it’s the best film I’ve seen this year. (DVD and On Demand)
Honorable Mention: AMERICAN SNIPER, THE BABADOOK, BIRDMAN, BLUE RUIN, BORGMAN, CHEAP THRILLS, THE EDGE OF TOMORROW, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, HAPPY CHRISTMAS, JOHN WICK, JORODOWSKI’S DUNE, LEVIATHAN, MOOD INDIGO, A MOST WANTED MAN, NIGHTCRAWLER, PRIDE, THE RAID 2, RICH HILL, SELMA, SNOWPIERCER, THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAYUGA, and TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT
And… The Worst Films of the Year: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, ARE YOU HERE, DRAFT DAY, THE EQUALIZER, THE FOXY MERKINS, FURY, GAMBIT, I FRANKENSTEIN, THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, JERSEY BOYS, THE JUDGE, MEN WOMEN & CHILDREN, SAINT VINCENT, TAMMY, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, THIRD PERSON, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, TUSK, WINTER’S TALE, and WISH I WAS HERE.