Top 5 Films of 2014

Despite the fact that 2014 was a comparatively dismal year for movies, and an under-performing one at the box office, I still find myself passionately defending the state of the medium when confronted by the argument that TV has surpassed film. The fact is: television started as and still remains a literary medium in which the script rules supreme. There are of course exceptions to the argument, like the elaborately choreographed six minute long take in episode 4 of True Detective last year, but by and large movies use images to provoke us while TV uses words. I’m a junkie for both images and words, but when it comes to “moving pictures” nothing sticks with me quite like a powerful shot and there are certain things you still can’t get outside of a movie.  Here are five films as proof:

5. The Imitation Game
This British thriller hinges on a moment in time when the Nazis were winning the war and closeted English mathematician Alan Turing, brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, was hired by British intelligence to decipher coded tactical messages intercepted from the German enigma machine. The story’s compressed structure alternates between the World War II story and the police investigation some years later into Turing’s private life.  What it all amounts to is riveting and succinct cinema at its finest. It also has a surprising amount of humour for such a serious, cerebral film.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the dashing but effete concierge at the Hotel Grand Budapest who is mistakenly accused of murdering Madame D the elderly heiress with whom he had an affair. In fleeing both the police and the true murderer he befriends an unassuming lobby boy, forming an odd couple friendship that’s comedic gold amidst the looming shadow of war in the fictional country of Zubrowka.  This being a Wes Anderson movie, the heiress is played by Tilda Swinton and in addition to regulars like Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, the cast includes newcomers like Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham and Saoirse Ronan.  Anderson’s quirky, hermetically-sealed, storybook adventure comedy is a work of exquisite cinematic precision. Light as frosted sugar but layered with deeper concerns, every shot, cut, camera move and line of dialogue is vivid, imaginative, and meticulously choreographed. Anderson’s obsessive focus on set design, shot composition and camera blocking is the product of a luxurious prep period and directorial freedom unheard of within the confines of television production.  The movie’s gallery of characters, zany plot and layered historical subtext is proof of just how much you can fit into just 99 minutes given the means and timeline afforded to great filmmakers.  It is also a uniquely visual comedy.

3. Under the Skin
In Under The Skin, Scarlett Johansen plays an alien who trolls the streets of Scotland luring men to her remote inner sanctum where they are enveloped and consumed by a mysterious black pool that she appears to control.  Is she seeking sustenance or is hers a bizarre quest for earthly knowledge that can only be satisfied when she digests both the bodies and souls of her victims?  The movie debuted at TIFF in 2013, but it didn’t receive a theatrical release in Canada until this past spring.  It isn’t easy viewing, but if you’re willing to get on its wavelength Under the Skin is loaded with chilling and ambiguous moments that play out in protracted silence and are often plotless and challenging to read but still exact a hypnotic hold over you.  Scarlett Johansen disappears in the role and the direction by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) is like a master class in cool minimalism. The movie’s haunting imagery will stick with you long after you it is all over.

2. Birdman 
This brilliantly-acted backstage melodrama is one of the strangest and most daring American movies to come out of a studio in years. Michael Keaton plays a washed-up movie actor who was once the poster boy for a comic book-inspired movie franchise and is now attempting to revive his career on broadway with a play that will either make or break not just his career but his entire life.  The performances are pitch-perfect, the script is densely layered, and the illusion that all of it is unfolding in real time via one continuous long take without a single cut is something that would never be possible on TV — if for no other reason than the fact that there are no commercial breaks.  Watch and marvel at how expertly the movie forces you to contemplate how much of what you’re seeing is acting vs. real life.  

1. Boyhood 
Boyhood has already made history within the film community.  At the risk of sounding like a cliche I am on the bandwagon.  Watch it and you will bear witness as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) matures from an ordinary five year old boy into an ordinary 18 year old who goes off to college to pursue a possible career in photography.  There is nothing forced or preconceived in the telling of this story and yet it captures the casual, everyday wonder of life.  The whole thing is so seemingly quaint and simple that it’s easy to overlook the keen intelligence and editorial judgment that went into choosing which “episodes” to put into the film and which to leave out on the cutting room floor. The movie was filmed over one week per year for twelve years and what’s incredible is how well it all flows. Richard Linklater’s seamless and profound contemplation of what it’s like to grow up has the pace and feel of real life and artfully condenses a lifetime into less than three hours without feeling episodic. It will also stick with you for days and reward repeat viewings despite being surprisingly light on plot.