Well this is embarrassing. More on that in a second.
Having taken over as Daily Grindhouse’s editor-in-chief in 2014, I had the pleasure of editing some terrific and unique end-of-year lists. Here they are in case you missed any:
And even if you didn’t miss them the first time, please read them all again. Very proud of this site’s contributors, not only these five writers but everyone else who writes for us.
In the process, I somehow forgot I hadn’t actually posted my own list — that’s a little bit disingenuous, because of course I sporadically remembered that failing, and would go back to shuffling around my favorites, but then I would get distracted by another great submission to DG and went on to put my own stuff on the back-burner.
So in 2015 we are formally accepting applications for personal assistant to the editor-in-chief.
In the meantime, here’s my top ten.
10. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
Some would say DEAR WHITE PEOPLE isn’t the tidiest movie, but I would say it’s something better: it’s a movie that chases after ideas. I love a movie that is willing to challenge an audience. For many more reasons than the obvious — its subject matter, for example — I’d compare it to the early promise of Spike Lee, who has made at least one perfect movie (DO THE RIGHT THING) and three-fourths of a perfect movie (25th HOUR) and who has otherwise been willing in his work to frustrate and do battle with audience expectations. I wouldn’t look to Spike Lee’s work for cinematic lessons in structure and restraint, but I am constantly curious to see which projects he takes on.
In other words: If this is what Justin Simien’s first movie looks like, I can’t wait to see his next one. Already he has written and directed a movie that is not as much “comedy” per se as true satire, the way cranberry juice without added sugar is aggressively tart.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is studded with sharp-toothed nips at the heels of a still-racist society. Yes, America is still very much lousy with racism, and no, electing a black president twice, while a great step, didn’t cure it. In many ways, it only complicated things.
This movie gets that, and it gets at that. But its great strength is that, while its young characters make bold and assertive statements about race in America that often make a whole lot of sense, they all quite believably show varying levels of doubt. So much talk about race in America is hollered, with absolute certitude. That happens here, but we also get to see people thinking, “Am I right? Am I full of shit? Can I make any difference either way?”
It’s sharp work from Justin Simien as a writer, but it also must be noted that his direction elicits tough and tender performances from a promising young cast, with Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, and maybe most of all Tessa Thompson making gloriously frustrating, crush-worthy, indelible impressions. I’ll take a daring, questing movie like this one over just about any of 2014’s Best Picture candidates.
9. AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR
2013 was such a strong year for the horror genre that by year’s end I was able to crack out an alternate top ten that was made up entirely of scary movies. 2014 was not that way, in my experience. It was probably a terrific year for movies overall, but not so much for horror movies. Three horror movies I liked a lot were BENEATH, HONEYMOON, and LATE PHASES, and there were other standout scenes and shorts here and there, but otherwise not too much that moved me.
As far as those rare films that actually have moments capable of freaking a hardy veteran horror viewer like me out, AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR would have to be one of the best of the year. I liked Nicholas McCarthy’s last movie, THE PACT, and I think I liked this newer one even better. This is a filmmaker who knows how to get the maximum mood out of minimal spaces. He’s also got an interesting eye for casting. At this point any movie, regardless of genre, with not one but three female protagonists — two of them non-white — has to earn points off that alone, but this is a genuinely effective scary movie on its own merit, scary because it manages to make you care for these women and want to see them succeed.
The three lead performances are strong — the film’s unconventional structure means we spend more time with some than others, but all of them are sketched in with just enough detail and emotional momentum that they feel like people we could know and care about. To me, that’s the key to effective horror. Scary monsters don’t mean shit without sentiment and attachment to those being menaced. In that regard, AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR has an emotional bazooka in its arsenal, the luminous Catalina Sandino Moreno, an under-utilized actress who the camera adores. Without spoiling any plot points, it’s her strong presence in the movie’s middle passages that holds the whole thing together, and quietly powers the very effective final act. AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR is modest, quiet, and somewhat understated, but it worked for me.
John Michael McDonagh previously gave to us Brendan Gleeson’s glorious lead performance inTHE GUARD, one of my top three movies of that year. For that reason, CALVARY was one of my most awaited movies of this year. It reteams McDonagh with Gleeson, but this is a very different story with a very different lead character. In CALVARY, Gleeson plays a small-town Irish priest whose life is threatened during confession by an unknown townsperson. He’s told he will be killed, to make a cosmic point, on the following Sunday. The body of the film is Father James conducting his life as if this particular sword isn’t dangling overhead, but also as if it is. This isn’t as much a who-done-it? or even a who’s-going-to-do-it? as it is a why-are-they-doing-it? and a does-it-even-matter?
It’s not too much more than a series of conversations between a dazzlingly brilliant character actor and a cast made up of some unknowns and other familiar faces, but in that, it manages to be about everything. Faith, family, vengeance, violence, revenge, regret, love, loss, and about a hundred more of the nouns that make the world go ’round.
Half a year later, I’m still digesting all the thoughts CALVARY stirred up in my mind. This much is certain: CALVARY marks a highlight in a career of high points for Brendan Gleeson, one of my very favorite actors, and also cinematographer Larry Smith makes the coasts of Ireland look as gorgeous, ominous, and forbidding as he did the nightlife of Thailand in ONLY GOD FORGIVES (which, for the record, made my year-end top-ten last year.)
7. THE DROP
I’m a dog man. After another film that appears later on this very list, THE DROP is the other great man-and-dog movie of the year. Not a lot of movies get dogs or why we love them, but these two movies do. Unlike that other very loud and bombastic film, this one is a modest character piece that only sheds its civility and starts kicking in teeth comparably late in the game, but it’s such a well-done character piece, and we should be so lucky in this current climate to get a movie like it.
THE DROP has the highest return value for me of any other film this year. I’m sure that has plenty to do with this film being the last big-screen appearance of James Gandolfini (who is reliably wonderful in it), but then this film is a neighborhood populated almost entirely by welcome faces — Matthias Schoenaerts, James Frecheville, Anne Dowd, John Ortiz, the totally under-utilized Elizabeth Rodriguez — not to mention the warm, touchingly tentative performance by Noomi Rapace and in particular the astoundingly rich performance by Tom Hardy, who you’d never know wasn’t from Brooklyn if this were the first time you’d ever seen him. His character Bob Saginowski is so seemingly simple, direct, and genuine that he’s a pleasure to spend two hours with — but forget about him, check out his dog Rocco!
6. GONE GIRL
It’s ironic that David Fincher already made THE SOCIAL NETWORK because this is the ultimate Facebook movie. Some of us may log onto Facebook and see all our acquaintances from over the years, having great adventures with loving spouses and beautiful kids and then feel inadequate and disappointed by comparison. I know I’ve had the feeling before. The best advice I’ve ever heard in this new age of social media is “Don’t compare their outsides to your insides.” Because the truth is that some people may in fact be as happy and as perfect as they present themselves to be, but probably not.
GONE GIRL is all about the dark underneath. I’m not sure I’ve seen a suburban subversion this mischievously black-hearted since the first time I saw BLUE VELVET. Either I was on this movie’s viciously cynical wavelength the day I saw it, or else I’m a total freak, but I cackled all throughout. Either way, I’m pretty sure that was the point. This is a really fucking dark comedy. Considering how popular the book it’s based on was — and still is — it feels like the movie didn’t hardly make much of a dent in the cultural conversation. My general feeling is because it’s a nasty movie. It’s a poison pill, a burn book. It’s cold fire. This movie burns everydamnbody.
Nobody comes off well here, with the possible exceptions of the sister and the lady detective. It’s an indictment of blue-state pretension, of red-state idiocy, of gossip-magazine back-biting, of ghoulish true-crime rubbernecking, of dumb cops and crooked lawyers, of pretty people and their seemingly perfect lives, of family, of community, of media, of relationships, of Tyler Perry, and so on and so on, for more than two hours.
I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to its insane popularity, but I can absolutely understand why this movie wasn’t for everybody. This movie is sharp and designed to puncture swelled heads of all kinds, and most people are afraid of needles.
5. TOP FIVE
Funniest movie of the year. I could name the scattered flaws, but where’s the fun in that?
4. JOHN WICK
Best action film of the year. Again, I could name the scattered flaws, but where’s the fun in that? And besides, look at that widdle face…
3. UNDER THE SKIN
Jonathan Glazer’s latest film as director — after SEXY BEAST and BIRTH — has been most often called a science-fiction film and it has been called an art film, and I suppose both classifications are apt. By any measure it’s one of the most fascinating films to hit American screens all year, but personally, my own experience with it came closest to horror. UNDER THE SKIN is eerie and deliberate, and while nothing that happens in it is specifically scary by definition, the way it all plays out is extremely unsettling — but not, aside from the roiling ambient score by Mica Levi, in a way that makes you look over your shoulder when you hear a sound at night. It’s troubling in the way it presents humanity as such a fragile, fluid element, one which very easily drains away.
Scarlett Johansson, who normally feels to me like a very warm presence onscreen, bleaches all color from her performance — as an audience member, just as any of the hapless passengers who cross her path, you look for some way to connect with this figure and it just isn’t there. The most emotive, affecting performance in the film comes from Adam Pearson, a severely disfigured man who in real life has neurofibromatosis. Due to his affliction his expressions are scarcely scrutable, though objectively speaking he’s probably the most relatable, recognizable character in the entire picture. That would be a callow irony in almost any other film, but here nothing quite that heartwarming is at play. When she lets this man live, the nameless alien predator played by Johansson begins a shift towards sensation that is more of a chink in the armor than an optimistic development. It’s sort of like what happens when Neil MacCauley lets Waingro into the crew in HEAT, and later fails to eliminate him. Letting anything remotely resembling emotion into an efficient and remorseless system turns out to be a fatal impurity. If I’m right, that is a real dark reading. No wonder I haven’t been able to shake this movie for several months and counting. And if I’m wrong, let me know! This film is never going to lead to a dull conversation.
2. COLD IN JULY
Most critics will go with BOYHOOD as their 2014 movie of choice, as far as the matter of fathers and sons goes. This one is more my speed. COLD IN JULY is a tense rural thriller that even managed to surprise me, despite having read and loved the original novel by Joe R. Lansdale. And it still totally works on that level, even on multiple viewings — but there’s more to resonate here than simple edge-of-seat suspense and dynamics and old-fashioned East Texas shit-kicking. And don’t get me wrong, Don Johnson is an absolute gas. If this movie could have ignited a Jim Bob cable series, no one would be happier than me.
But what lingers for me are the quiet moments, the history unexplained, the things unsaid. That’s what you get when you have Sam Shepard on board. His is not an overly verbal character, but his anguished close-ups carry the Biblical weight of what his Ben Russell grapples with when he finds out what’s become of his son Freddy, who he never knew because the boy was a baby when Ben went to prison. Michael C. Hall’s character, Richard Dane, is a far more immediately relatable figure, but he’s got some dad stuff to grapple with as well — not just his fears and hopes for his young son, Jordan, but the unseen, barely discussed specter of his own father, most noticeably in the form of his dad’s old cabin, a pivotal setting in the film. This movie is about a bit more than thrills and chills, though of those it’s got more than most.
Plus, the hero has a mullet. Beat that, anything.
What I said about horror movies, how the best ones only manage to upset us profoundly after they manage to make us care first, is resolutely true about historical biopics like this one. And in truth I experienced SELMA as I might a horror movie — because I knew what fate still awaited its hero (which this film is wise enough to leave unfilmed) and because I saw first-hand in 2014 how little has changed in this country, how very far we still have to go.
One scene in miniature sums this up — after the initial scenes, where we meet Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) as they prepare and then attend the Peace Prize ceremony overseas, we then are taken to America, where a group of young girls in Sunday dresses laugh and talk and giggle and descend a staircase. To many viewers of SELMA, this scene plays out as a shock. Even though I somehow intuited quickly that this was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, it still played as a shock when a vicious explosion ripped through the building, wiping the girls out of existence. That shock ripples through the rest of the film, promising more evil violence to come, some we might know is coming and much we won’t.
There’s something in the presentation of every scene of SELMA that has an uncommon warmth and intimacy. If you’ve seen any of the previous work of director Ava DuVernay (I WILL FOLLOW) and cinematographer Bradford Young (AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS) you know this is what they bring to a story like this one. The special genius of this approach is that it takes the epic and the unfathomable, the extraordinary patience and selflessness and courage that was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and makes it fathomable, understandable, maybe even putting it within reach (if we’re lucky).
Everyone grows up with knowledge of Dr. King and his accomplishments, and anyone who isn’t total garbage looks up to him and admires him, even worships him. The amazing achievement of SELMA is that it takes Martin Luther King off the pedestal and puts him at eye level. This is not myth-making. This is a work of empathy. We see Martin fiddling with his tie, fretting over where he should focus his mission, joking around with his friends, taking a punch with style — along with facing off with the then-President and standing down angry racist mobs. In SELMA, he’s the man before he’s the symbol, the guy before the guy on the postal stamp, and that makes it matter so much more.
This is a movie with life in it.
So that’s my list. These were the runner-ups:
I was baffled when Clint decided to direct JERSEY BOYS, but AMERICAN SNIPER is so good it all makes perfect sense to me now. All the clarity and good editing that comes from putting together a solid movie musical (which JERSEY BOYS is, make no mistake) is apparent in AMERICAN SNIPER, which is so snappy and so efficient in its storytelling that even I, a longtime Eastwood devotee, had to double-check that Clint directed it and that Clint’s longtime editor, Joel Cox, put it together. It feels like the work of younger men, energized and aggressive.
As for the film’s politics, I feel fairly confident in stating that most everyone on either side of the aisle is wrong about this one. I come to this conclusion only by having seen practically everything Clint has ever directed, whereas many of the most ardent advocates and detractors haven’t even seen AMERICAN SNIPER, let alone the rest of the director’s long resume.
Normally I can’t stand period dramas with wigs and corsages. So the fact that this is on my best-of-2014 list at all is the highest possible compliment I could ever pay a movie. Check it out.
A convict recently freed from incarceration sets out on a remarkably underdeveloped revenge plot for which he is uniquely unqualified to perform. The director, writer, and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier and the star Macon Blair are gifted pranksters who take a pure black-comedy premise and slow it down, a masterstroke which ends up unearthing the beauty and the pathos of a situation any other filmmaker might play strictly for laughs. Blair’s performance is unshakably affecting and Saulnier’s imagery is crystalline and lovely.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Chimpanzees fight a bear in the opening action scene of this film, which makes me regret I held myself to a top ten. That kind of a zoological spectacle really deserves to be crowbarred in there somewhere, and towards the top. I have all kinds of sociopolitical observations about this impressively-mounted franchise sequel, which deserves a seat beside its excellent predecessor as an example of how to do big-budget studio sci-fi pictures right, but really, it comes down to the simplest elements. A damning excoriation of the George Bush Jr. era AND an awesome series of animal fights — what the hell is there not to love?
This is a movie about a young nun in 1960s Poland, about to take her vows when she’s informed that she was born Jewish. With her one known relative, a caustic aunt with a troubled history, she sets out to find her family’s final resting place.
IDA looks like a prestige picture and it is one, but also it’s a road movie and a buddy movie, a coming-of-age movie and even a detective movie. That’s not to imply that this is a film that is light of heart; it very literally carries the weight of the world. But I invoke those genre touchstones as a way to say that this is one highly watchable prestige picture.
Sadly, most people — myself included — look at a black-and-white period picture about a Polish nun, and worry it’ll be a chore to sit through, a homework movie. It’s not that. For a movie set in the 1960s that looks for all the world as if it could have been made then also, IDA feels remarkably alive, current, relevant. It accomplishes so much in half the running time of any given superhero movie.
This is a movie about faith, family, nature, nurture, history, pain, hope, hopelessness, and acceptance. It’s about so many of the most important things in life, and it’s only 80 minutes long. Time-wise, that’s a steal at the price of three modern-day superhero movies.
Gorgeous, indelible, affecting — this is the kind of historical epic we rarely see anymore, and the kind we almost never see done this well. The lead performance by Marion Cotillard is astonishing, moving and fascinating, and while I’ve always admired her work, I’m now a fan for life.
THE RAID 2: BERANDAL
The second-best action film of the year, but it’s a photo-finish, and the only reason I’d rate it under JOHN WICK is that THE RAID 2 runs a bit long and leaves the viewer feeling exhausted. I’ll probably regret saying so in retrospect because there are some sequences in this film that will find their way into legend.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES
What you’ve got here is three masters coming together — Lawrence Block, the master crime novelist, Scott Frank, the master screenwriter and adapter, and Liam Neeson, the master actor when it comes to gravity and advanced-age ass-kickery. The opening shoot-out that kicks off the film is one of the best I saw in any movie in 2014 outside of JOHN WICK, and while the rest of the film settles into a more deliberate and fatalistic pace, it’s no less engrossing. There’s not much here you haven’t seen before, but a good story is in the telling, and this one is — yup — told masterfully. Shamefully under-seen. We should be getting more Liam-Neeson-as-Matthew-Scudder crime flicks, not any more whatever-that-character’s-name-from-TAKEN-is movies.
Finally, here are my previous five Top Tens from 2008-2013, just so you know the kind of guy you’re dealing with:
5. drug war
10. the bay
6. killer joe
4. the raid
3. cloud atlas
1. the grey
10. the tree of life
9. viva riva!
8. 13 assassins
5. black death
3. the guard
10. four lions
9. the wolfman
7. the town
6. get low
1. true grit
6. the road
4. big fan
3. district 9
8. the wrestler
5. hellboy 2
2. gran torino
1. in bruges
NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM,
— JON ABRAMS (@JONNYABOMB).
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