With each annual list that I compile, I find myself saying the same thing: it’s difficult to come up with a definitive “Top 10”. It’s one thing when a film has secured a spot in your favorites the minute the credits have started rolling, something that speaks to you in a very specific way or comes closest to your definition of “perfection” (my top 3, in this case). But it’s the multitude of great films — ones in the 4 1/2 and 4 star range — between which the margin is almost too narrow to measure, that makes it tough to reach a conclusion about the rest. Let’s not even get into the business of comparing apples and oranges. And here we are, the end of another year, and the fact that there were so many solid films didn’t help. So, to dispense with my usual and unnecessary commentary, here’s what it boiled down to after much deliberation.
10) “DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” – Not only has director Matt Reeves created a compelling action hero out of a computer generated chimpanzee (with a lot of help from actor Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit), but he’s also given us the cure for the common Michael Bay movie: a coherent blockbuster with heart, brains and plenty of action. “Dawn” completely cashes in on the promises of its predecessor without succumbing to the terminal dumbness we often see during the summer movie season. Michael Seresin’s cinematography is spectacular, and the film reaches a new level of realism with its computer-generated primates. But none of this would have amounted to much without the terrific script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, which requires the apes (among them Judy Greer and Toby Kebbell) to produce some raw emotional moments. The cast is filled out by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and an always all-in Gary Oldman as humans seeking out a source of electricity that happens to be in ape territory. This is big, creative, intelligent sci-fi action cinema at its best.
9) “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” – Director Wes Anderson has always been hit-or-miss with me, which is why I went back for a second viewing of this ambitiously surreal, geographically cattywampus period comedy cum thinly-veiled tragedy, to make sure my initial impression wasn’t just the result of too much wine. I liked it even better the second time. The film centers on a ridiculously buttoned-up but deep-down sympathetic hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is falsely accused of murdering a wealthy client after she leaves him a priceless painting in her will, and who must be rescued by his protegé (Tony Revolori) who’s been left to run things at the renowned hotel. The film is like reading a pop-up book written by Agatha Christie on acid, its meticulously crafted, multi-tiered narrative a mixture of murder mystery, historical allegory and Vaudevillian fantasy. Being a Wes Anderson film, the ensemble is too long to list here — his usual players are all accounted for — but most noteworthy are Revolori as Fiennes’ bellhop-in-training, Saoirse Ronan as the girl he courts, Willem Dafoe as a creepy assassin, Adrien Brody as a spoiled-rotten sociopath and Jeff Goldblum as a comically erudite lawyer. It’s Anderson’s best film to date.
8) “THE SKELETON TWINS” – Performances from both Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as estranged, unhappy siblings deserve serious consideration from the Academy. The script by director Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman elicits every dramatic instinct imaginable from these actors, whose ability to convert laughs into tears and then back again repeatedly defies what we might expect from two ex-SNL cast members. If “Hateship Loveship” and “Girl Most Likely” were a preview of Wiigs’ range, then “The Skeleton Twins” is surely the feature her fans have been waiting for. But the real revelation is Hader; if his subtle yet emotive turn is a harbinger of what’s ahead in his career, he should be accepting some meaningful awards very soon. This is an all-around great film, neither clichéd nor depressing, as it approaches life’s hardships with straight-faced honesty but goes on to show how humor can be derived from just about anything.
7) “WILD TALES” – This Argentinian anthology is sheer diabolical fun and requires very little reading into, though I suppose it could be mined for deep social commentary if one were so inclined. Four payback-themed stories make for a wacky, bloody collection: it begins with a vengeful mystery character who manages to gather all of his targets on a commercial airliner in order to exact his revenge in one fell swoop. The cinematography by Javier Julia is astounding, the directing by Damián Szifron is sharp, and the stories (also written by Szifron) are invariably insane. There is really no stand-out segment, as they are all wildly entertaining, but the most grisly of them involves two motorists who get into an altercation on a remote road; the funniest centers on a doomed wedding in which the bride discovers that her brand new husband has been sleeping with one of their guests. Some might think of it simply as a guilty pleasure, but I’d describe “Wild Tales” as the best foreign language film of the year.
6) “FURY” – Unsparingly graphic, sporadically concussive and relentlessly unnerving, “Fury” evolves from mind-rattling WWII movie into intensely sobering drama before thrusting us back onto the front lines with the dwindling members of a tank battalion. Not only does it exceed what anyone might have expected from director David Ayer after the atrocious “Sabotage” earlier this year, but it should also be regarded alongside films like “The Hurt Locker” and “Saving Private Ryan” as one of the most memorable of its genre in the last two decades. Ayer has created an incomprehensibly stressful, claustrophobic atmosphere for his audience and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (of Ayer’s 2012 film “End of Watch”) effectively captures the vast hell on earth that engulfs the soldiers. “Fury” boasts an excellent ensemble led by Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman, with a riveting performance from Shia LaBeouf. And there’s a more distressing dinner table sequence than that in “Inglorious Basterds”.
5) “BLUE RUIN” – Kind of a revelation in the indie crime-drama department, “Blue Ruin” is virtually devoid of predictable moments, focusing on an unlikely vigilante born of a homeless man (Macon Blair) who haphazardly blazes his way through the family of the man who killed his parents. Acting as writer, director and cinematographer, instant auteur Jeremy Saulnier has concocted a film noir that fractures the rudiment of its very sub-genre to expose the fragile nature of such a scenario, and also given us a bizarre protagonist whose lethal nature is almost never the result of precision or proper planning. There’s something unusually down-to-earth about this film, which on the surface looks like something completely unimaginable, but it unfolds in such a disorganized frenzy of violence that it ends up being wholly believable. Whether Blair and Saulnier are a perfect convergence of talent or a total fluke, this is a must-see for revenge/thriller enthusiasts. Movies like “Next of Kin” and “No Country For Old Men” come to mind, yet I fear such comparisons would do “Blue Ruin” no justice, as it’s really one of a kind.
4) “JOE” – Joe might be the character that Nicolas Cage was born to play, and “Joe” might very well be the film that David Gordon Green was born to direct. Not only is it Green’s best picture yet (you’ll likely recognize him for less impassioned bread-and-butter comedies like “Your Highness” and “The Sitter”), but it will erase all of Cage’s recent and increasingly horrific film choices over the last few years from memory (with the possible exception of this year’s Worst Picture frontrunner “Left Behind”). The actor returns to the greatness of his ’90s roles, if not exceeding them, in his agonizing duel between self-restraint and pent-up rage as the title character, an ex-con who takes an endangered youngster (an outstanding Tye Sheridan) under his wing. The film intermittently shocks — there’s one scene during which I nearly had to turn my head — but it’s really the acting that makes this one of the year’s most memorable dramas.
3) “GONE GIRL” – I’m a huge fan of David Fincher, and like in any filmmaker’s canon, you’ll find films that are better than others. Occasionally, you’ll stumble upon one that seemed designed specifically for the director’s hand. Such is the case with Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her own best-seller, “Gone Girl”, which disposes of the overly-mechanical feel that made Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” one of Fincher’s more labored efforts. The film is extremely taut, despite a whopping 150-minute run-time, continuously shifting focus as it follows an ominous missing persons case and the media frenzy surrounding it. A mesmerizing score from regular Fincher collaborator Trent Reznor helps keep the mood one of extreme apprehension, as the film careens into the type of territory that only a few talents could bring to the screen with such precision. Ben Affleck is ideal as the husband who may or may not be responsible for his wife’s disappearance, and Rosamund Pike should be bound for an Oscar nod as the missing woman whose story is at least partially revealed through her diary.
2) “WHIPLASH” – A volatile relationship develops between a prodigious jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and a tyrannical music instructor (J.K. Simmons) at a prestigious Julliard-esque performing arts school. The film, written/directed by Damien Chazelle, is tight and simple, essentially a two-man show that makes the dynamic between Vincent D’ONofrio and R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket” look like a pillow-fight at a Boy Scout retreat. If you’d told me earlier this year that Teller, who’d played irritating, relatively irrelevant characters in sub-par films like “That Awkward Moment” and “Divergent”, would be on my best actor list, I would have laughed. But here we are, and not only does he show surprising acting range, but he absolutely kills it on the drums. All that said, the reason to see this film is Simmons, who could make some of this year’s most sinister comic book villains curl up in the corner and cry for their mommies.
1) “BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) — Michael Keaton digs so deep for this film that it’s hard to believe he walked away with all his marbles. He plays a washed-up movie star best known for a series of blockbuster superhero films in the late ’80s and noted for little else. Now he’s trying to make a splash by adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. Taking place almost entirely in NYC’s St. James Theater (in the illusion of one long take — “Gravity” DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s handiwork), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dark, funny, emotional film immerses us in the behind-the-scenes turbulence leading up to the show’s premiere. Emma Stone and Edward Norton turn in some of their best work to date, and Keaton inhabits his character(s) with such verve that it’s as if he’d created an amalgam of his most memorable roles, adding a dash of himself for good measure.
Runners-up: Citizenfour, Still Alice, A Most Wanted Man, Virunga, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Imitation Game, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Calvary, The Equalizer