It's the final week of 2014, so we're wrapping the year up the usual way: with lists! Friday, we each announced our five worst movies of 2014. Today, we start counting down our favorites, starting with our respective picks for Nos. 6-10; tomorrow, we finish off with our Top 5s.
We'll confess to being overly nerdy about our Top 10 lists. In fact, we're so weird about them that we won't even compare ours until January 14, the day before the Oscar nominations come out. This is a tradition that has gone on since we were sophomores in high school, and will surely continue until one or both of us are dead. So as you read our Top 10s—we each only hit Nos. 10-6 today—know that neither one of us will be reading the other's. This means that this post has spoilers for the people who wrote it.
10. Only Lovers Left Alive (directed by Jim Jarmusch). The strangest thing about vampire stories is that they generally seem obsessed with youth, vitality, and urgency. The brilliance of Only Lovers Left Alive is that Jarmusch understands that what's really relatable about vampires is the getting-old part: the sense, illusion or not, that as you get older, everyone younger than you is somehow stupid, crass, immature, and just not at all like you. As the immortal vampires at the movie's center, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston pull off a magic trick: They not only nail a sort of eternal hipsterdom, they convince you, all the while, how in love with each other they truly are. And if you've been around for 400 years and seen every fad come and go, well, you'd be a snob, too.
9. Gone Girl (David Fincher). Wherein a trashy, undeniably addictive page-turner of a novel is turned into something more than its author could have ever intended. The trick that Fincher pulls off is not to try to expand the canvas, but instead to focus so intensely on every aspect of the story that it elevates the whole; what could be just a story about tabloid TV and an unhappy marriage turns into a big, brash statement on How We Live Now. Not that he ever seems to be reaching for that: He's such an amazing filmmaker that he coaxes you deeper and deeper even as the story is getting more and more lurid and ridiculous. Every role is cast dead-perfect, down to Tyler freaking Perry, and as surprising as Ben Affleck was, the real star is Rosamund Pike, who is so perfect as Amy that anyone else in the role is now unimaginable. Honestly, David Fincher should just direct every movie.
8. The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans). The first film, entertaining as it was, felt almost too gimmicky at times, as if cornered by its own constraints. Freed of those limitations, though, this action-movie sequel explodes, sprawling but never reckless, with one inspired, jaw-dropping set piece after another. And it's all tied to a story that, while far from revolutionary, sneaks up on you with its power. But let's not get carried away: Quite simply, this movie will kick your ass.
7. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood.) Old Clint's best movie in almost a decade—and the first time he seems to actually be trying in that span—tells the story of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL known as "The Devil of Ramadi" for his 166 confirmed kills during the Iraq War. The result is an unapologetic flag-waver, but in a way that's surprising coming from Eastwood: It argues that our soldiers, whose honor transcends any missions foisted upon them by idealogues and bureaucrats, are the ones carrying out the closest thing anyone can muster as "the American ideal." But it's also a crackling action thriller with a soul, thanks largely to a career-best performance from Bradley Cooper, who fully captures Kyle without ever condescending or pandering. When Eastwood knows he has a great story, he brings his A-game, and he sure does here.
6. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle). Sure, the plot machinations that lead to the last scenes are implausible and a bit of a cheat. But so what? With a payoff like this, it's churlish to complain. This is a riveting, electrifying film about an obsessive drummer (Miles Teller) being pushed by a demanding music teacher (J.K. Simmons, in a role that's about to win him an Oscar) who makes R. Lee Ermey look like Mr. Holland's Opus, but it's also a thoughtful, fascinating reflection on the costs of genius ... and whether genius just happens, or whether it must be jolted into existence. I am sure no jazz school is actually like this—and thank heavens for that—but this isn't just about jazz, of course: This is about how we push ourselves, how others push us, and if any of that ends up mattering at all. And boy, that ending: You'll leave the theater in a dead sprint, looking for someone to tackle.
Honorable Mention: The Babadook, The Dog, Force Majeure, The Imitation Game, The Unknown Known.
10. Manuscripts Don't Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof).
A thriller that chills the blood rather than gets it pumping, this is set in the world of a terrifyingly repressive government that systematically silences and murders those who speak out against it. Of course, that's not some futuristic dystopia: We're in modern-day Iran. Rasoulof, who in 2010 was sentenced to six years in prison by Iranian authorities for criticizing the government (he served just a year), has crafted a dark tale concerning two regime stooges whose job it is to kill dissidents and make it look like suicide. It's miracle enough that the movie even got made—everyone involved with the film aside from its director goes uncredited, in part to protect themselves from retribution—but Manuscripts Don't Burn is all the more amazing for how Rasoulof humanizes his hitmen. That doesn't make them more likable, though. Instead, it better illustrates the filmmaker's point: The scariest oppression doesn't come from up on high, but through everyday people who blindly accept the situation, dutifully following orders.
9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves).
This year had plenty of superb action/event movies—Edge of Tomorrow, The Raid 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Lego Movie—but the best of the bunch was the most exciting while also being legitimately thought-provoking and emotional. Picking up where 2011's fine Rise of the Planet of the Apes left off, this sequel is incredibly bleak: We're now on an ape-run Earth where the few human survivors must learn to coexist with their hairy overlords. Deftly sneaking in man's-inhumanity-to-man commentary, Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) has given this franchise its Dark Knight: a magnificently entertaining summer blockbuster that has the grandeur and scope of an epic. Andy Serkis won't be nominated for an Oscar for his mo-cap performance. But after Dawn, it's getting increasingly difficult to deny the level of craft and nuance he brings to the role of the reluctant, haunted ape leader, Caesar. (My original review is here.)
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson).
How likely is it that 20 years into his career, Anderson would be making some of his best films? And that his most recent would be his biggest commercial hit? We've seen plenty of elements that make up The Grand Budapest Hotel in the director's earlier films: the off-center characters, the imaginative worlds, the funny-sad tone, the dollhouse construction. But to see his trademarks as mere shtick is to miss the deep emotional resonance he's been tapping into of late. Beyond being a nimble piece of page-turning storytelling, this is a rich study of two very different melancholy souls: a lobby boy who as an elderly man (F. Murray Abraham) has plenty of memories to share, and the comically elegant, geezer-shtupping concierge (Ralph Fiennes) whose identity is so wrapped up in the hotel he cherished. The film boasts plenty of great performances, but they're all overshadowed by Fiennes. He's never been this vulnerable and hilarious at the same time, so willing to risk embarrassment playing a man unable to feel shame.(Original review here.)
7. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt).
Reichardt often makes movies about communities falling apart, whether it's aging hippie buddies (Old Joy) or Old West pioneers (Meek's Cutoff). Here, she turns her attention to extreme environmentalists—played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard—who are planning to blow up an Oregon hydroelectric dam. Some saw the film as a condemnation of eco-terrorism, but in the context of the director's previous films, Night Moves more accurately seems to be another chapter in her ongoing study of how all close-knit groups break down. An intensely gripping Crime and Punishment-like thriller, it features a terrific turn from Eisenberg, who's playing a variation of his arrogant-punk persona from The Social Network, except here the downfall is subtler, and much harder. Militant activism isn't the problem here—it's the misguided certainty that you can control the world around you. (Original article here.)
6. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller).
Though set in the mid-1980s, Foxcatcher and its themes couldn't be timelier: economic inequality, our fascination with athletic glory, the chasing of the elusive American Dream. Similar to his 2005 Oscar-winning film Capote, Miller's plunge into the unlikely partnership between millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and struggling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is a too-good-to-be-true tale that taps into something elemental about male ambition without ever exactly putting its finger on it. Carell has been positioned as the Oscar contender here, but all three actors are exceptional in their own right, each character living in his own little world of fears and desires. Foxcatcher doesn't explain why one of them turns to murder, but in a weird way, it also doesn't not explain why. After all, tragedy is always hovering above this movie: We're just never sure who's going to pull the trigger. (Original review here.)
Honorable Mention: Manakamana, National Gallery, The Raid 2, Still Alice, Stray Dogs.
Tuesday: We unveil our dueling Top 5s.
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