Jordan's Film Awards Ballot
Jordan's Film Awards Ballot
Top Ten Films of the Year:
As I made my list of the best films of 2014, it occurred to me just how much the passage of time has preoccupied some of the best cinematic achievements of the year. I’ve heard it said a lot in year-end lists that this is a weak year for movies (a sentiment I somewhat share), but looking at my list of favorites (which was culled down from a list so long it surprised even me, considering how down on the year’s quality I had been in some conversations), I see a vast array of excellence. More than that though, I was impressed by how daring some of these movies were willing to be in an era where articles are published weekly talking about the death of cinema from over-sequelization and blockbuster glut.
If one thing seemed to be on the mind of many of my favorite creators over these past twelve months at the movies, it was the way time marches on, changing us and the world around us whether we want it to or not. People get older, institutions crumble, society changes, for the better, or sometimes for the worse. We make choices, and the effects of those choices ripple out across years or generations. It may not sound like much to call 2014 a distinct year in film (isn’t every year?), but I mean it as a compliment. The films that graced our screens over the past twelve months took more risks than they are being given credit for, even at the highest levels of budget and expectation. Those risks didn’t always pay off, but then, real risks never do. The Next Projection Ballot allows me to select my top ten films of the year. Below is my list, with six honorable mentions that I found it pretty difficult to cut (I’d love to say I included six as some symbol for how weird and risky this year could be, but that would be a lie. There were five, until I accidentally blurbed Edge of Tomorrow and decided it was worth at least mentioning, so ignore that one if you must).
We Are The Best!
Following three Swedish teenagers who form a punk rock band in 1982 more because they feel punk than because they really particularly want to form a band, We Are The Best! is one of the most irrepressibly joyful films of 2014, a smart, nuanced look at the complexity of being a teenager that allows its characters their flights of fancy while keeping the proceedings grounded in reality. The film is fun and funny throughout, but it is always cognizant of how complicated it is to be a young person, especially a young woman, in a social group where roles are assigned as much as they are chosen, and where rebellion (even amongst a group of rebels) can have dangerous social consequences. (I reviewed We Are The Best! over here).
Edge of Tomorrow
I left Edge of Tomorrow wishing more summer blockbusters were half as confident, nervy, and willing to experiment as this one. The film uses Tom Cruise’s innate charm (and the vague hint always hanging around his performances that there is a vacancy to that charisma) to craft one of the most compelling character arcs an action film has offered in a long time. As Cruise’s Lt. Col. Bill Cage is thrown into the same hopeless battle again, and again, and again (after absorbing the enemy’s power to reset the day whenever he dies) he develops from a charming coward into something much closer to a hero, as much as a result of his situation as due to his desire to actually change things. The film treats the horror of his situation seriously, but it also takes time to be funny, action packed, and to tell a surprisingly affecting story about Cage’s increasing feelings for Rita (Emily Blunt), a woman he learns more about, even as he remains largely a stranger to her.
I’m not sure any movie I saw this year surprised or invigorated me quite like John Wick a slick revenge thriller that just keeps displaying a willingness to be bolder and weirder than most of its ilk ever dare until it wins you over. Keanu Reeves plays the titular character as he plays every role, with a stoic vacancy and the occasional stilted one-liner. But Reeves is dropped into a world so gloriously skewed it makes the proceedings, which mostly follow a standard revenge film arc, feel somehow fresh. The New York of John Wick is stuffed to the gills with colorful gangsters (played by a murderer's row of great character actors, including Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, and Willem Dafoe), runs on an underworld economy made up entirely of gold coins that seem to pay for literally anything, and is full of locations that seem perfectly designed only for action sequences. The film has a smart sense of when to take itself seriously and when to lean into the absurdity, and it also features some of the best gun-work and action sequences I’ve seen in years. It’s a slimmed down action flick that dresses up its component parts with such gleeful flamboyance it reminds you why you loved action movies in the first place.
Christopher Nolan’s ambition finally exceeded his reach with Interstellar, his galaxies and decades spanning space epic. Two-thirds of Interstellar was my favorite film of 2014, until a messy final act that introduced conflict that felt forced and unneeded, then literalized the film’ themes in ways that actually detracted from their power. Before that, though, the film was a wondrous rebuke to Kubrick’s 2001, a fantastic space movie that was consistently awe-inspiring in the way it should be, but also had a lot on its mind. This is a film about the human spirit to endure, about what drives us and what limits us, and about a man’s efforts to save his family, and the ways in which he often loses them in the process. It is a big, heady, occasionally unwieldy film, but it also feels like easily the most personal work from a director who is often considered cold and detached. Interstellar is an emotional work from a man decried as emotionless, a big, bombastic blockbuster that eschews most of what those require for the vast majority of its runtime. I’m not sure how well it works as a whole, even now, but damn, it is thrilling, thought-provoking, and heartstring-pulling for long stretches.
In a year that saw The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby edited together and lessened as a result, what a treat to see Bong Joon-ho win against Harvey Weinstein and get his version of Snowpiercer out to the public. It’s no surprise Weinstein had concerns about the commercial viability of the project, which is so demented, and so completely committed to its weirdness even at such a high budget, but it’s a wonder we got the film we did. Snowpiercer doesn’t aim for subtlety in its tale of the last survivors of humanity, contained in a deeply class-divided train endlessly circling the Earth, with the poorest left to subsist on little in the back cars while the wealthy have it all at the front of the train. But there is such a manic sense of joy to the pure visual splendor of the film, and such a pitch black sense of humor to the thing (see particularly the stellar supporting turn by Tilda Swinton, doing her best Margaret Thatcher as a deluded propagandist, or Allison Pill’s bleakly hysterical turn as a sunny-eyed and murderous elementary school teacher with an uzi) that it is hard not to get caught up in it. Snowpiercer takes the growing problem of income inequality and blows it up to ludicrous effect. It makes its points surprisingly well for how openly it attacks them, but it has a lot of sick fun in the process.
Love Is Strange
I’m very surprised that I’m not seeing more love for this quiet little gem of a movie on year end lists (it was on several versions of mine before ending up as the last one cut from the final list). The film follow George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), a recently married couple whose union costs George his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. Without his salary, the couple can no longer afford their Manhattan apartment, and are forced to live separately while they try to find a new place they can afford. A film that could easily have been achingly sad instead hums with a vibrant humanity and humor, taking pleasure in each and every one of its characters even as it recognizes their frustrations and their pains. I’m not sure I saw any more human movie than this one, which is such a breathtaking mix of humor and pathos, pain and hope, wisdom and silliness it absolutely bowled me over. It’s the sort of film that sneaks up on you, and then sticks with you for a long time after the credits roll.
10. A Most Wanted Man
Another film I’m surprised isn’t getting more year-end accolades, A Most Wanted Man is a tightly controlled espionage procedural that plays out with such masterful pacing, every shot feels perfectly placed to maximize the film’s effect. The film follows Gunther Bachmann (an understated and excellent Phillip Seymour Hoffman, reminding us all just how much we lost this year), a German intelligence agent working to root out domestic extremists in Hamburg. When a Chechen refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) suspected of terrorist ties enters Germany illegally, Bachmann begins expertly positioning the situation to bring him closer to capturing a local philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) he suspects is funneling money to extremist groups. Bachmann’s method (catch a fish, and use it as bait to catch a larger fish) is effective, but looked down on by his superiors. The film traces his meticulous efforts to turn various people, building a network that might allow him to make his case against bigger threats to security. A Most Wanted Man is as quietly competent and fastidious as its protagonist, a small, swift little spy story that packs a wallop by the time it reaches its ending.
9. Gone Girl
To call Gone Girl a well-constructed mystery undersells what the film is really trying to do. The story of the disappearance of Amy Elliott-Dunne (a phenomenal Rosamund Pike) and the way the case against her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her potential killer builds in the wake of that builds slowly, through flashbacks, alternate stories, and surprising revelations into the tale of a marriage in all of its prickly complexity and ugly misdeeds. But it is more than that, the story of a woman who finds herself lost in the roles she has been forced into, bored and bitter after years of living up to the expectations of her parents, her husband, and her society. What plays on one level as a clever whodunit works on other levels as a study of gender, sexism, and the vile effects of misogyny on an individual and on our society. Gone Girl is smarter than its given credit for about all of these things, and that is perhaps why it is such a troubling, sickening, fascinating film. The real surprise here isn’t any of the film’s narrative revelations—it’s the weight this story carries in terms of its real-life implications.
8. Under the Skin
My initial reaction to Under the Skin was similar to my current feelings on Interstellar: the first half of the film floored me, while the second felt like it retreated to something more conventional. Yet this film has burrowed into me over the months since I saw it, gaining resonance the more I think about it. Director Jonathan Glazer does brilliant work bringing the story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson, giving an amazingly inhuman performance that forms a fascinating triangle with her work in my favorite film of last year, Her, and this year’s Lucy, which I couldn’t get into otherwise) on earth to seduce men into a terrifying trap. In its early going, the film follows Johansson as she stalks the Scottish countryside, cannily displaying how little a woman with her looks has to do to lure men into an awful situation. But then, something shifts, and the film becomes one of the most singular character studies in recent memory. I could have watched the first half of the film (and listened to the hypnotic score by Mica Levi) for hours, but the second half elevates and complicates what has come before, requiring Johansson to modulate her performance and leaving me with a lot of sticky questions, some of which I am still pondering.
7. Bird People
Bird People is the sort of singularly French film that reminds me why I so adore French cinema, a movie that leaves its larger meaning tantalizingly obscure, and then taunts you with the idea that it should have to lay anything out for you. It’s willfully obtuse, in part because it expects you to do the heavy lifting, but it is also completely whimsical and totally engrossing. A diptych following an American businessman (Josh Charles) and a French maid (Anais Demoustier) over a few days in a Paris hotel by the airport, Bird People dances around the quest for freedom in the modern world and what it might cost, attacking the idea from angles both whimsical and tragic. Director Pascale Ferran seems focused on contrasting our conceptions of escapism and freedom with its reality, but she playfully darts between the two with enough skill and import to imply that neither is as simple nor as complete as we might expect.
6. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch does for the vampire genre here what he did for the Western in Dead Man, reinvigorating it by examining its core ideas from his own skewed perspective. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve, a pair of long-married vampires living on different continents (because what’s a few years and a few thousand miles apart in an immortal marriage, after all?). Adam is holed up in a crumbling house in a crumbling city, living in Detroit and hard at work making droning ambient music that has developed a cult following. Eve is more joyful, living in Tangier with lifetimes worth of books and the company of Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). The two reunite and mostly just hang out, discussing despair and joy, whether the world is falling apart or stumbling forward. Jarmusch has made a unique hangout movie, centered on creatures who really have nothing better to do than hang out, think, brood, and talk their eternal lives away. In the film’s best moments, Adam and Eve feel weighed down by the tragedy of time’s endless march, but also, constantly, counter-balancing that with the wonder of mankind’s ambitions and the way we as a species occasionally offer up genius that might just outdo all of our stupidity in the interim. It’s a heady, intoxicating film that spikes its sense of existential malaise and despair with a shot of hope and vitality. It’s a movie where the darkness can never wholly swallow the light, especially for vampires, who have enough time on their hands to whether a decades long depression until they can come out the other side with a new lease on after-life.
5. Life Itself
Late in life, Roger Ebert, one of the most vital and vibrant voices of the 20th century, lost his ability to speak. But he refused to let that mean he had lost his voice, engaging more vigorously over the internet than he ever had before, and speaking more personally about his past, his loves, his thoughts on life and art, and, of course, on movies. Steve James’ documentary, based in part on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, and in part on James’ time spent with Ebert as he struggled against the cancer that eventually killed him, tries its best to capture the full breadth of a complex and wonderful man. Alternating between contemporary scenes of Ebert and his wife Chaz weathering his illness, and looks back at Ebert’s fascinatingly full life of adventure and arrogance, contemplation and criticism, the film becomes a balanced look at one of film’s most beloved figures. Life Itself takes joy in exploring the rough and tumble Chicago newspaper world in which Ebert came up, tackles Ebert’s alcoholism and past womanizing head on, and tracks the love that changed his life and lead to his marriage to Chaz. The film captures Ebert’s wit and vitality, but also feels fair-minded about his personal limitations. It examines every period of his life, from his days as the dictatorial editor of his college newspaper, through his troubled partnership with Gene Siskel, and into his sunset years where he was celebrated as a Founding Father and elder statesman of modern American film criticism. Life Itself is a beautiful, wistful, life-affirming movie. It’s does its subject proud, which is just about the highest compliment I can pay a movie like this.
Andrew (Miles Teller) wants nothing more than to be the greatest jazz drummer of his time, and Whiplash, the most startling and visceral exploration of artistic obsession since Black Swan follows him as he tries to learn under the tutelage of a cruel master, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, giving one of the best performances of the year). Fletcher believes that only pain, anguish, and abuse can produce genius, and he expects nothing less than virtuosos to play in his well-regarded band. Pitched as a battle of wills, a collision between two immovable forces, Whiplash is more than just a struggle between two forceful presences. As the film wears on, it reveals that it is as much an internal struggle, as Andrew has to contend with the possibility that Fletcher’s methods may be right (and that he may just never be good enough), while Fletcher comes up against the limits of what his strategy can produce. A jaw-dropping finale is mind-blowing in the moment, but puts into stark relief all of the film’s thoughts on genius and its cost in ways the resonate far after the film’s final performance ceases to echo in your head.
3. Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice is less a detective story than a meditation on the passage of time, the end of an era, and the fleeting nature of love and happiness wrapped in the trappings of classic noir and set amid the weed-fueled haze of southern California in 1970. Paul Thomas Anderson’s hysterical and invigorating adaptation masterfully captures the feel of the novel and the moment in time it depicts, and similarly seems to consider the labyrinthine plot as a silly little diversion from all of the heady ideas floating somewhere beneath its pot-addled surface. The film follows Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, whose every facial tick and forlorn glance adds layers of comedic and dramatic complexity), a stoner sleuth drafted by his ex-girlfriend (a phenomenal Katherine Waterston) to look into the disappearance of her new lover (Eric Roberts). The plot makes more sense than it is getting credit for (at least, as someone who has read the novel), but it is largely beside the point anyway. It’s a film about the dawning realization that a moment in which you find yourself at home is slipping away, a meditation not on paradise lost but on paradise slowly sold in a series of tiny sacrifices, minute compromises, and silent submissions to an evolving status quo. Yet with all that as its undergirding, Inherent Vice still manages to be one of the funniest films of the year, with a cadre of hilarious comedic creations bouncing off each other in a world that was at peace out of balance and is being forced back into some sense of imposed order. The term “inherent vice” refers to the tendency of objects to deteriorate because of a fundamental instability at their core. It describes the film’s characters, but also the world in which they find themselves, a paradise that is falling apart because its foundations were always laid on sand. But the film is wistful about this fact: the beach on which this society is built is certainly prettier than the concrete that is sure to follow it, and Inherent Vice laughs with tears in its eyes about the world we lost, and what we built in its stead.
The central conceit of Boyhood—it was filmed over twelve years, tracking its protagonist from age 7 until he left for college—is so powerful the film was likely to be something special regardless of its ultimate quality. Yet Richard Linklater’s relaxed, episodic structure ends up packing a greater punch than I had even imagined, for the way it builds little moments, across years, into the tapestry of a young life forming before our very eyes. Watching Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow from children into young adults without the film placing much emphasis on this passage of time creates a bond with these characters that is almost impossible to describe; it ties us to them, while also forcing us to contend with how closely the film’s structure replicates our own memories of the passage of time. There is no real narrative to Boyhood, and its episodic segments feel more like a collection of moments recalled from great distance, but then, that is how our own lives look in reverse, a series of incidents half-remembered and moments lodged permanently into our consciousness that collectively make up our sense of self. Boyhood has a lot on its mind, but it submerges all of that beneath an unassuming story of a kid growing up in Texas, bouncing between his estranged parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) until he begins to find himself.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Much like Boyhood, this film takes place over a vast expanse of time (decades, in this case), and like Inherent Vice, it is a lighthearted comedy that masks an elegiac story about the end of an era and the loss that comes with it. Yet where Paul Thomas Anderson created a surreal comedy about the loss of an era of laid-back relaxation and personal freedom, Wes Anderson created a tightly controlled screwball comedy about the end of a time of fastidious isolation, when the world could be just as you made it because no one was coming to play in your sandbox. The Grand Budapest Hotel hides its emotions deep beneath its outwardly frivolous surface, but this is a hilarious and endlessly energetic film that trusts audiences to understand the tragedy it mostly eschews for a lighthearted farce. Ralph Fiennes gives my favorite performance of the year as the masterful concierge M. Gustave, whose strong sense of decorum and fastidious control over the titular hotel makes him a legend in his field. On first viewing, this tale of Gustave’s efforts to recover a will that will leave him the hotel is a madcap adventure filled with Anderson’s particular dry wit and deadpan absurdism, a brilliantly designed semi-heist movie filmed with visual flair and executed with a constant sense of invention and experimentation. Yet the film’s ending, which comes abruptly and doesn’t linger over its point as Anderson’s other masterworks (especially The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, both of which I love) sometimes have, leaves you pondering the way the narrative is unfurled through 1968, 1985, and a present day graveyard where a young woman has come to read the story we see before us. The Grand Budapest Hotel makes you fall in love with a time that has since passed, and with people whose lives don’t always turn out as you might hope. Its characters frequently deserve better than they are left with, but then, perhaps, so did the era it depicts, one that has been left behind like each is in turn. Time marches on, caring not for frivolity or devotion, for joy or nostalgia. But in the moment, there is still a chance for happiness and laughter, for love and hope. We all live in this moment, even as it passes us by. Too often, we just don’t notice until its gone.
Worst Film of the Year:
After that initial category, the Next Projection ballot only allows three nominees in each category. Because I am a rebel, I am also including a single honorable mention for each here.
Honorable Mention: Don Peyote
3. Awful Nice
(I reviewed Awful Nice over here)
2. Odd Thomas
(I reviewed Odd Thomas over here)
1. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Best Foreign-Language Film:
Honorable Mention: Ida
(I reviewed Ida over here)
3. Two Days, One Night
2. We Are The Best!
1. Bird People
Honorable Mention: Pascale Ferran, Bird People
3. Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
2. Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Honorable Mention: Tom Hardy, Locke
3. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
2. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
1. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Honorable Mention: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night/The Immigrant
3. Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive
2. Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
1. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Honorable Mention: Haris Zambarloukos, Locke
3. Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
2. Hoyte Van Hoytema, Interstellar
1. Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
Best Supporting Actress:
Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Moss, Listen Up Philip
3. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer/The Grand Budapest Hotel/The Zero Theorem
2. Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Best Supporting Actor:
Honorable Mention: Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
3. Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
1. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Youth Performance (under 21):
Honorable Mention: Gina Piersanti, It Felt Like Love
3. Mira Barkhammar, We are the Best
2. Alex Lawther, The Imitation Game
1. Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood
Best Animated Film:
Honorable Mention: The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises is technically a 2013 release, declared ineligible for 2014 lists by my personal system, but it deserves mention somewhere, and since I didn’t see it until this year, it’s getting an Honorable Mention slot here.
3. The Boxtrolls
2. Big Hero 6
1. The Lego Movie
Best Romance Film:
Honorable Mention: The Fault in Our Stars
3. Obvious Child
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
1. Love Is Strange
Best Horror Film:
Honorable Mention: Borgman
3. Under the Skin
2. The Guest
1. The Babadook
Best Comedy Film:
Honorable Mention: Listen Up Philip
2. Obvious Child
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Action Film:
Honorable Mention: Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
3. Edge of Tomorrow
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
1. John Wick
Best Science Fiction Film:
Honorable Mention: Edge of Tomorrow
1. Under the Skin
Best Documentary Film:
Honorable Mention: Finding Vivian Maier
3. Jodorowsky’s Dune
2. Tim’s Vermeer
1. Life Itself
Most Anticipated Film of 2015:
3. Avengers: Age of Ultron
2. Knight of Cups
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens