Reel Reactions’ Best of 2014: Mike Murphy’s Top 10 Films

foxcatcher 1

Back so soon.

Compared to previous years, 2014 proved to have more films than ever in contest to make my final Top 10 tally. Both 2012 and 2013 were packed to the brim with marvelous films, but for me 2014 felt like it was overflowing. My initial whittle, that discarded all of the duds and middle-of-the-road films that I had no problem leaving behind, numbered just under fifty films! Chopping that list in half was no easy feat, but I’m sure that films I let go will pop up on my co-critics’ lists so they’ll thankfully get their due. However, I know I can’t include everything and even with that being the conclusion I come to terms with each year, accepting that was harder than ever this year.

Still, that acceptance speaks to the overall quality of the year itself: It was a massive success with greatness sprinkled throughout. There were gems to be found in just about every month, and at some points, weekly movie going provided multiple films to fawn over. I feel like every year that I’ve been making these lists for Reel Reactions, I’ve been exceedingly gratified by the year’s output, and every year I remark that if the next year delivers even a fraction of the previous year’s greatness then we will be in for a treat. 2015 has the biggest challenge yet because 2014 was one for the books, and as sad as I am to see it go, the movies I have to remember it by are miraculous and the achievements numerous.

DAwnFor starters, Matt Reeves’ incredible sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” showed off the most captivating use of mo-cap technology yet and gave us a scene-stealing Toby Kebbell as Koba, a terrifying villain opposite Andy Serkis’ heroic Caesar. Timothy Spall’s inimitable work in “Mr. Turner” is the subtly effective center of Mike Leigh’s sprawling, painterly biopic. The most celebrated actioner of the summer, as frustratingly low-key as it was, Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” used astounding production design and an imported eye for action to make up for its lack of metaphorical sophistication. Steven Knight’s “Locke” was the most triumphant formal exercise of the year with Tom Hardy, one of the few actors capable of accomplishing such a singular feat, delivering undeniably compelling work during a literal journey to an uncertain future. Jonathan Glazer’s alluring “Under the Skin” and Pawel Pawlikowski’s stunning “Ida” couldn’t be more different, but they both showcase a remarkable lead female performance and discuss the search for identity: One an alien desperate to understand humanity, the other a novitiate nun dealing with a dark familial secret. J.C. Chandor followed up an elegiac character study with an icy one, focused on a pragmatic businessman coming to terms with compromise. His rich and dense “A Most Violent Year” is a slow burn, thinking man’s thriller photographed with Gordon Willis-like grace by the up-and-coming Bradford Young and showcasing Oscar Isaac in another award-worthy performance. The bone-crushing “The Raid 2: Berendal,” as amazing as action filmmaking gets, expanded upon its predecessor’s technical insanity and “The Immigrant,” James Grey’s scrapbook classical melodrama, retained all of its emotional resonance thanks to actress Marion Cotillard and Darius Khondji’s exceptional photography (that last shot!) even though it could have easily been made 80 years ago.


Charlie McDowell’s directorial debut, “The One I Love,” was an inventive, full-length episode of “The Twilight Zone” about projection of personality preferences. Chris Rock’s “Top Five” bested every other comedy in 2014, but it matched it raucous humor with affecting pathos, the comedian taking a hint from his influences, like Woody Allen and Richard Linklater. Darren Aronofsky used a blockbuster size budget to craft the strangest, most personalized studio tentpole in recent memory; the director’s own frustration with faith worn on ever frame of his big, bold and flawed “Noah.” Concerns with ego and celebrity were on menu for “Birdman,” making clever use of Michael Keaton’s star persona and exhibiting the finest supporting cast of the year, not to mention the wowing camera work that exemplifies movie magic. Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” might be the most emotionally and psychologically powerful horror film since “The Exorcist,” and director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is a powerfully topical, unconventional biopic that utilizes the charisma of David Oyelowo to practically resurrect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

selmaThose are fifteen remarkable films, every one fought valiantly to make the selective ten. But ten is ten, and ten it must stay. There will be many, many films that remind me of 2014’s excellence, but below are my definitive picks.

Here are my Top 10 Films of 2014:

Ebert10) “Life Itself”

The bitter irony about my favorite documentary of the year is that it would have been beloved by its subject, Roger Ebert, who unfortunately passed away about 12 months before the film was released. This beautiful film by documentarian Steve James, a filmmaker whom Ebert championed vehemently, is a richly detailed and affectingly well-rounded tribute to the Pulitzer Prize winning critic based on the late writer’s own memoir. Though it uses Ebert’s writing as its basis, and incorporates passages from the book recited by a pitch-perfect Ebert impersonator, the documentary extends beyond the admirable merits of the man and covers his near fatal alcoholism, the antagonistic friendship he shared with Gene Siskel, and his life-saving marriage to Chaz Ebert, a powerful woman who is as much the living lead of James’ doc as Roger is the spiritual one. Through archival footage, thorough interviews, and raw material captured upon Ebert’s request shortly before his passing, “Life Itself” is a moving, unbiased and poignant eulogy to cinema’s most loyal customer. Yet more than a sendoff, it’s an examination of struggles and triumphs, the defining factors that contribute to making life something worth living. In Ebert’s own words, “I was born inside the movie of my life,” and what a masterpiece of a life it was.

LEGO9) “The LEGO Movie”

 I pride myself on having faith that directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller would yet again upend consensual expectations and deliver their third surprise success after “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatball” and “21 Jump Street.” Ten months after its release, this brilliant animated comedy is one of the most widely beloved films of the year. Sporting mesmerizing animation, blending stop motion photography with flawless computer graphics, and a winning voice cast headlined by Chris Pratt, who couldn’t have been more perfectly cast, it’s easy enough to call the film enjoyable but that would be criminally underappreciating the other wowing creative components. It’s script, for one, is of the year’s most original, cleverly appropriating the nostalgic attraction of LEGO’s and personifying the processes of the millions of people who have ever ‘played’ with them. There’s the terrific irreverent humor, staples of Lord & Miller’s writing, and the expected boyish giddiness that is consistently on display from its whipping fast pace to the catchy anthem, ‘Everything is Awesome.’ Also, its scope is slyly miniature and expansive all at once, culminating in a delectably meta third act twist that not only stuns but ends up delivering a genuinely heartfelt message. “The LEGO Movie” is a super smart, joyful comedy that could easily be the next generation’s “Toy Story.” Don’t be misled, like actual LEGOs themselves, the ‘ages 5-12’ recommendation is merely a suggestion.Gone Girl

 8) “Gone Girl”

“Gone Girl” is a satire pretending to be a mystery. In another world, this story would have fallen into the possession of Brian De Palma and been a totally different film altogether, but with someone as prolific and precise as David Fincher, the film strikes an even more tricky tonal balance and skillfully crafts, builds, delivers, and narrows a dicey narrative that is never too campy and never too self-serious. Even if “Se7en” and “The Social Network” leave much more to chew on, “Gone Girl” is still ace work, and masterful as an exercise in ushering a book to the screen. Kudos, then, must be extended to the original scribe and screenwriter, Gillian Flynn, who compounds her 412 page novel into a 148 page screenplay that retains all the narrative muscle, and lead actress Rosamund Pike whose performance is literally a study in acting – a series of transformations, a barrage of masks, a swell of performances. The film is an immaculate adaptation on all accounts, and even if it sits firmly in the middle of Fincher’s filmography, it demonstrates the filmmaker’s wicked sense of humor (his ‘funniest’ film since “Fight Club”) and his adroit capabilities at tackling genre. Like its source material, David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is a real marvel.Budy Ralph

7) “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

 After rewatching “The Grand Budapest Hotel” with my dad, who was also watching it for the second time, he remarked, “I have no idea what I just watched, but man do I enjoy it.” That right there is the beauty of the newest Wes Anderson film: You can choose to identify the clear homages, like the borrowing of the name Henckels from Charlie Chaplin, or abundant influences, like the irrefutable emulation of director Ernest Lubitsch’s “comedies of manners,” but you can also let the ceaseless energy and enchantment of Anderson’s storybook tale absorb you into its vivacious and delightful atmosphere. With its generation-lapsing framework, along with the expanding and receding aspect ratios, Anderson’s classicist techniques are more pronounced than ever; his writing remains snappy and enviable, especially when delivered from his colorful ensemble, headlined by a magical Ralph Fiennes expressing his delectable comedic chops. Sophisticatedly silly, molding his one-of-a-kind style into sight gags and visualized like a vibrant diorama, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” never misses a beat; it’s the best work the auteur has crafted since “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and certainly his most finely directed work to date.mommy antoine

6) “Mommy”

I had never seen a film by Xavier Dolan until “Mommy” and now I want to watch every film he’s made previously and anything he makes from here on out. At just 25, “Mommy” marks Dolan’s fifth full-length feature and its one of the most electrifying films I’ve seen this year. Squished into a 1:1 aspect ratio, this heartbreaking familial drama feels claustrophobic, but a volcanic intensity infects every one of its 140 minutes, unspooling toward a third act that will render you emotionally paralyzed. Anchored by a trio of affecting performances – Suzanne Clément as the fragile neighbor, Kyla, Antoine-Olivier Pilon as the manic Steve, and Anne Dorval, in one of the year’s finest lead performances, as the emotionally crippled Die – “Mommy” transcends basic melodrama by earning our investment and, eventually, our hearts. Beautifully simple, kinetic and liberating, “Mommy” is a tremendous piece of vitality from the young Quebecois filmmaker.Katherine Vice

5) “Inherent Vice”

Having made a career out of evident appreciation and appropriation of both Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, one of our most gifted stylists, Paul Thomas Anderson, has delivered a beautifully sprawling, character centric comic noir fusing elements of his idols, the prose of Thomas Pynchon, and the director’s own singular visual vocality. A purposeful narrative confoundment, “Inherent Vice” might tonally be more attributive of the Anderson who directed “Punch-Drunk Love” rather than “The Master,” but his newest is no less enigmatic. This is a sensory experience through and through; a speckled ode to an era of transformation viewed in a cannabis haze by Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello – our paranoid, heuristic P.I. avatar – who confronts characters embodying ideals that are slowly leaking into the public attitude, and traditions that are slowly evaporating. Marked by a swell of feelings enlivened by the hooks of songs by Vitamin C, Sam Cooke, and Neil Young, PTA’s “Vice” is a window into a bygone era, draped in a cloak of melancholy achieving a sure timelessness that rings of the ‘classic’ label. “Inherent Vice” is a film that has earned my love; it’s a movie that I will revisit for many years to come, over and over again, discovering new things every time. Each successive viewing will amazingly feel like the first.

4)  Jake Gyllenhaal delivered three of the year’s most engaging performances in just two wholly different films. In celebration of one of my favorite actor’s newfound rejuvenation, I’ve tied these two films at #4.Jakey Night

4a) “Nightcrawler” 

Equal parts “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” with a dash of “American Psycho,” Dan Gilroy’s LA-set character study is scarily funny, alarmingly tense, and just downright creepy. Lou Bloom, instilled by an animalistic menace, both in his gaunt appearance and soullessness, is one of the year’s most ravenous creations as personified by an emaciated Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor is a force in the role, wired by the night like a nocturnal predator, scouring the violent urban underbelly inciting violence when he can’t find any. Dark, haunting, and cynical, this unconventional success story also has an eye for the savagery of the media, blurring the difference between ratings hungry producers and sadistic nightcrawlers so very slightly. Dark and haunting, “Nightcrawler” is much more than just an intelligent thriller, it’s a brave, crackling two-hour short fuse of a movie that has made first time director/long-time screenwriter Dan Gilroy a voice to be reckoned with. This titanic little film is a ticket worth having the money for.Jakes Enemy

4b) “Enemy”

A far cry from last year’s “Prisoners,” French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villenueve oversaw the year’s most impenetrable psychological thriller that pitted Jake Gyllenhaal against himself in a harrowing doppelganger scenario abstractly concerned with the detriment of the male id. As two sides of the same coin, Gyllenhaal conquers more than just personality, it’s two distinctly inward performances that evidences the actor’s ability to derive character work from the inside out. Like Detective Loki in “Prisoners” and Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal finds a way to do more with less, and in “Enemy” that challenge is doubled. An even greater digestible challenge than his previous two films, Villenueve doesn’t concern himself with answers; “Enemy” is concocted through a haunting blend of Charlie Kaufman and Alfred Hitchcock communicating through symbols and moods in a way that is continuously absorbing if rarely revealing. Like if “Vertigo” was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Enemy” is a must-see if only to try and decipher Villenueve’s perceptions, to revel in Gyllenhaal’s profundity as an actor, and to freeze in shock over the picture’s horrifying final frame.the Tribe

3) “The Tribe”

It automatically speaks to the immediate power of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s “The Tribe” when one of the year’s loudest, angriest, and most amazing films features a fully deaf cast and is told entirely through sign language without ANY subtitles. It doesn’t matter that in most moments you don’t understand what is being said, it doesn’t matter that there are portions of the plot that I still can’t make exact sense of, what matters is that in every scene the emotions are conveyed without confusion. The performances are jaw-dropping, each character so clearly defined and developed, every decision they make perfectly vocalized through nothing but movement and gesture, not a moment goes by where you don’t somehow grasp what is elementally going on. There is a script, but diction and syntax have no pull in a film that is so furious and fearless and emotionally destructive. Photographed only in cleanly blocked, staggering long takes, Slaboshpitsky operates like a Ukrainian Steve McQueen, achieving beauty through carnage, marked most alarmingly by the explicit, terrifying display of sexuality and the apocalyptically necessary violence. “The Tribe” is of the toughest films anybody will ever see, it requires an intuitive A-game to stay on board and a formidable nervous system to stomach the imagery, but the end product is an undeniable masterpiece. This is one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen. [Note: I kind of cheated here. “The Tribe” currently has no fixed release date in the United States, I saw the film at AFI Fest in Hollywood. When it finally arrives, do your best to seek it out if and when you can.]Whiplash-5547.cr2

2) “Whiplash” 

Maybe the most aptly titled film of the year, writer/director Damien Chazelle adopts the title for his electric sophomore feature from the Hank Levy jazz composition, but it also perfectly describes the feeling that this whirlwind of a film provides its viewers. Rightfully buzzed about since it debuted at Sundance in January, “Whiplash” is full force from its opening title card and never settles for anything less than 110% until its nail-biting explosion of a finale. An ace pairing of talent – Miles Teller gives it his all in the physically demanding lead of Andrew Neyman, letting premature excellence destroy his humility before he eventually, and regularly, bleeds for his art. J.K. Simmons, as strong a character actor as ever, scorches the screen as Terrence Fletcher, a sociopathic studio instructor who’s determined, uncompromising philosophy is warped by a sadistic pedagogy. The two face off in a psychological power play that culminates in a stirring, provocative, nearly wordless final sequence that outdoes even the best action movies. Like “Black Swan” by way of “Full Metal Jacket,” you’ll be shaking come the end credits. “Whiplash” is one of my new favorite films.Foxcatcher Steve

1) “Foxcatcher”

A handful of 2014’s better films have come seriously close to flirting with ‘masterpiece’ status, but I believe “Foxcatcher” has made that step; Bennett Miller’s film is an incredible triumph on all levels. It’s a film that’s mastery can be clearly identified during a first viewing, but is packed so deeply with astute observations, critiques and engaging themes that it warrants several more. It’s an introspective true crime drama handled with such impressive subtlety and methodical craftsmanship – it remains steadfast and direct, never playing toward an audience leniency, but demands viewers’ attention. This slow-motion psychodrama is a challenging, affecting watch that evidences not only Bennett Miller’s induction onto the list of America’s greatest working directors, but revises and revamps the talents of it’s three leads – Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo – who deliver three of the most brilliantly channeled and transcendent performances to grace the big screen in some time. As great as Capote and Moneyball are, Foxcatcher is that third film security; it feels like the culmination of everything that has identified Miller’s previous works, including his documentary, The Cruise. As his third ‘based on a true story’ film, it even feels like it goes well beyond the biographical significance, taking aim at America and donning a spikey cynicism that is more at home in an 80’s feature than in something of the 21st Century. And yet, Miller finds a way to integrate these themes and continue his fascination with obsession, sports, and troubled icons.

Identifying a great film is no challenge, but the aroma of a cinematic masterpiece is quite potent, and “Foxcatcher” possess that familiar scent. “Foxcatcher” will have an enduring legacy and it might be the first long-staying cinematic masterwork to arrive publicly in ages. It’s of the year’s most important films and set a near impossible bar for others to reach. For me, this film is 2014 at its finest.

Bottom Five: 

Jerseys5) “Jersey Boys”

Absent of theatricality, charisma, star-power, any serious attempt at high-spirited entertainment, or real directorial creativity, Jersey Boys is the worst kind of adaptation…it isn’t one at all. In the director’s chair, Clint Eastwood proves that he was an uninspired choice to helm the biographical musical – he plays things sluggishly straight, presenting the drab anti-musical as a product of lulled filmmaking, right down to its monochrome and muted cinematography. It should come as no surprise that instead of yelling “Action!” Eastwood whispers, “Whenever you’re ready…” when on set. The man is in no rush to get things moving, and at 135 long and droning minutes, neither is Jersey Boys. For those who cherish the show as it was on the stage, it’s a memory that is best left to thrive as the viewer chooses to remember it.

4) “Transformers: Age of Extinction”

Michael Bay followed his most provocative film with arguably his most tasteless. There’s a time and a place for Bay’s mean-spirited affinities, but the “Transformers” franchise is not one of them. For a lucrative series that started off as a nostalgic burst of entertainment, sporting Bay’s most fantastically fun work ever, it’s become more and more self-serious to the point of major detriment. This sway in tone is worsened by Bay’s offensive direction, pandering to international markets through contrived storytelling, overdramatic patriotism, crude humor, spray-tanned color grading, and the most pedophilic camera movements I’ve seen the director lay out yet. The future of this franchise should take a hint from this installment’s title; at this point, fossilization is its only saving grace.SPidey

3) “The Amazing Spiderman 2”

Outside of an early sequence that arguably represents Spiderman as close to his comic book origins as ever before, Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spiderman 2” is a bloated, incohesive mess of a blockbuster providing enough disassociated moving parts to fill two or three sequels. Misguided on a moment-to-moment basis, the presence and imagination of Sam Raimi has never been more sorely missed. This is about as bad as superhero films get and I shudder to think what Sony will do from here on out (it seems that based on this film’s underperformance, critical panning, and other extraneous circumstances that the franchise might be indefinitely stalled…sad, but necessary). 

2) “Maleficent”

In my scorching review for this reimagining of a Disney classic, I said that it would do right to bomb for a number of reasons. For those who have been paying attention, you’ll realize that that didn’t happen and this limp and torturous fantasy went on to become of the year’s highest grossing films. Even beneath the weird psycho-sexual overtones, half-baked scariness, soupy special effects, lack of imagination, and horrid acting (minus Jolie, who is undercut by the script despite being game to get hammy), I struggle to grasp why any parent would chose to have their child endure this despicable cash-in when they could appease youthful wonderment by showing them the animated original. Aurora might be the dullest princess in the Disney catalogue, but at least in the animated version Maleficient turns into a dragon (one of the many things this new version thought best to eliminate).melissa-mccarthy-in-tammy

1) “Tammy”

As the most insulting thing I watched in 2014 – not only to me as a viewer but to every single talented actor thrown into this horrid piece of filmic waste – many months later I’ve landed on a flickering sensation of hope that the disastrous outcome of this film might force Melissa McCarthy to make smarter, better choices from here on out. It’s a shame to see her many talents (writer, actor, producer) used so embarrassingly. For most performers, films like “Tammy” would be career killers, but McCarthy still has a chance to reroute herself and I sincerely hope she does – this film made me despise her.

Still to See:

“Leviathan,” “Citizenfour,” “Manakamana,” “Listen Up Philip,” “Nyphomaniac Vols. 1 & 2, “Wild Tales,” “Winter Sleep,” “Goodbye to Language,” “Calvary,” “Joe,” “Cheap Thrills,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”


Article by Mike Murphy







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