2014 Top 10 Films

List by-Jarrett Leahy

Another year in movies has come and gone, and with award season in full swing, it’s time to finally choose my Top 10 Films for 2014. For many movie fans/cinephiles, creating an end-of-year Best Of List is a diverting event in which hours are spent agonizing over which movies are worthy of making the cut and which aren’t. As many of us know though, Top 10 Lists are simply a personal snapshot of a movie year, and as time passes, feelings about films can and do change, for the better and worse. For instance, taking a look at my list for last year, I’m shocked to see that I had not included Noah Baumbach’s sublime indie, Frances Ha, which easily should be in the Top 5. However, looking back on the first time I watched the movie, I remember being intrigued but not wowed. It was only after many re-watches that I completely fell in love with Frances Ha, long after 2013 Top 10 List was finalized.

I tried to postpone the creation of this post for as long as possible, hoping the opportunity to see a few late stragglers would arise. But as January now comes to an end, it has become quite apparent that I can’t delay any longer. And as much as it pains me to create this list without seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, it’s obvious that my “beloved East Texas” will not offer the opportunity to view one of my favorite director’s latest creation any time soon. So I shall just have accept that Top 10 lists are never set in stone, and Inherent Vice just might be my Frances Ha for 2014…if I’m lucky 😉 So here we go…

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Drop; Nightcrawler; Edge of Tomorrow; St. Vincent; How To Train Your Dragon 2; X-Men: Days of Future Past; Whiplash; The One I Love; The Raid 2; Under the Skin

10. The Double
– Playing both Simon and his doppelganger James, Jesse Eisenberg skillfully floats from one persona to the other, highlighting his two principal personae, socially awkward wimp and pompous jerk. Joining Eisenberg is Mia Wasikowska, who continues to impress in her blossoming young career. While it appears I’m in the minority on The Double, I simply love what Richard Ayoade was able to create with this blackly comedic ode to Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive– Offering two of 2014’s coolest performances, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play vampire soul mates to perfection. A hipster alternative to those who tend to shy away from more traditional vampire films, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the most mainstream creations of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, a founding father of independent cinema.

8. Enemy– For many, Nightcrawler was Jake Gyllenhaal’s best film of 2014. While I too enjoyed Nightcrawler (as seen by its inclusion in my Honorable Mention list), the Gyllenhaal film that left me completely spellbound is this Denis Villeneuve creation. One of the more polarizing films of 2014, I found Enemy to be a hypnotically intoxicating drama. Admittedly, some have had real issue with Villeneuve’s choice for the ending, and others don’t like the film’s ambiguity, but for me, I love how Enemy kept me guessing and never fully revealed all its secrets.

7. Gone Girl– While I’ll be curious to see how well Gone Girl ages and whether it holds up to re-watches (a sign of a truly great film), there’s little denying that upon initial viewing, David Fincher created a pulp, tour de force that can only be described as deliciously naughty. I’m happy that Julianne Moore is getting so much Oscar buzz for her role in Still Alice, but I must confess Rosamund Pike’s sociopathic portrayal of Amy Dunne will always be the best female performance of the year.

6. Life Itself (2014 BEST DOCUMENTARY)– Being limited to only ten spots makes it very difficult to justify putting a documentary on an end-of-year Top 10 list; doing so is a testament to how much affection I have for Steve James’ poignant tribute to the most beloved film critic/historian we will ever have. A true fan of cinema, I really believe Roger would be pleased with how James put together this documentary, as Life Itself does an admirable job highlighting the good times and rougher moments of this talented Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s journey, including his struggles battling cancer. I’ve experienced Life Itself twice, and it left me misty-eyed both times.

5. Ida (2014 BEST FOREIGN FILM)– A story of a novitiate whose discovery of a long-lost aunt uncovers harrowing family secrets, Ida is blessed with two impressive performances from Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska, a novice who amazingly had never acted before her portrayal of Anna. By far the most breathtaking cinematography of any film from 2014, Pawel Pawlikowski’s dark and painfully moving masterwork left me speechless.

4. Calvary -When a parishioner threatens to kill Father James at week’s end, the stoic priest must decide if the impending danger is real or just a meritless threat. John Michael McDonagh’s black comedy is another that left me speechless and remained just as moving upon second viewing. It’s a crying shame that Brendan Gleeson didn’t receive more critical praise for this career-defining portrayal, and I personally want to send some love out to Kelly Reilly, who is quickly moving up my list of favorite actresses.

3. Birdman– Getting the chance to revisit Birdman a few weeks ago confirmed what I (and so many others) had originally assessed–Birdman is an amazing piece of cinema. Any other year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s beautiful, avant-garde masterpiece would be at the top of this list, and the fact that it isn’t makes me truly excited about what 2014 has given me. All the praise Michael Keaton has received is well deserved, but my favorite performance is that of Edward Norton, and it kills me that he won’t win this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar (early congrats J.K. Simmons).

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel– Lavishly sumptuous with a perfect cast, The Grand Budapest Hotel highlights the comedic talents of Ralph Fiennes.  After my initial viewing I gave The Grand Budapest Hotel a B+, which is a solid rating, but by no means a grade that screams number two film for the year. However, after FOUR additional viewings, each one more exuberantly captivating then the last, Wes Anderson’s latest masterful concoction steadily climbed my list and finally landed at this runner-up position. And even more personally impressive, The Grand Budapest Hotel dethroned Rushmore as my favorite Anderson film. “Take your hands off my Lobby Boy!”

1. Boyhood– A twelve-year project that allows us to watch a young boy (and girl) grow before our eyes, Boyhood is a true cinematic achievement that delivers a time capsule of this post 9/11 period of explosive cultural and technological changes. Some may find this choice to be obvious and slightly anti-climactic, but after walking out of the theater back in August, I knew there would be little chance for any other film to take the number one spot from Richard Linklater’s unpretentiously poignant and sublime look at growing up. Boyhood is the “coming of age” film to which all others will now be compared. This makes back-to-back #1 movies for Linklater, joining Before Midnight in that honor.

Here’s hoping 2015 is a great year in movies for you all. Happy viewing…-JL


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Big Eyes (2014)

1848023898606948516Review by-Jarrett Leahy

Based on a true story, Big Eyes is the intriguing tale of painter Margaret Keane, an artist whose uniquely styled portraits became extremely popular during the 1960’s despite being derided by much of the art establishment as “hack work.” However, instead of this being a time of great joy, Margaret’s life becomes an unending nightmare, as her husband Walter, an aspiring artist in his own right, begins taking credit for her work to “help drum up more sales.” Fueled by Walter’s gift for self-promotion, Margaret’s work becomes more and more popular, setting in motion one of the largest cases of art fraud in U.S. history. Fearful of what might happen if their secret is revealed, Margaret reluctantly agrees to continue painting her “Big Eyes” in silence while Walter, a promotional virtuoso, becomes one of the biggest-selling artists of the 1960’s.

big-eyes-4Over the last thirty years, thanks to movies like Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Edward Scissorhands, director Tim Burton has carved out a singular and easily recognizable style that has made him an auteur of the kitschy macabre. Personally, I must admit I’ve never had a great affection for most of Burton’s work, other than his enchanting 2003 fantasy drama, Big Fish, but I can certainly appreciate that there are those out there who connect with Burton’s peculiar filmmaking techniques and subject matter—peculiarities missing in this film. If I were an ardent fan of Burton, I’d be sorely disappointed, as the film has so few recognizable attributes of a Burton creation. I remain curious then as to exactly what it was about this long since forgotten stain on the art world that would appeal to a man of much more…bizarre tastes.
bigeyes_aSet in San Francisco during the late 50’s and 60’s, Big Eyes is one of Burton’s most straightforward storylines, topping even Big Fish in that distinction. The shining highlight of this period drama, as with just about everything else she’s in, is the first-rate performance of Amy Adams. A modern day Deborah Kerr, Adams, a 5-time Academy Award nominee, has become one of the preeminent actresses of this generation. Through Adam’s capable depiction, we feel Margaret’s artistic passion and emotional connection to her paintings. Adams also captures the insufferable pain of a woman being asked by her husband, the man who is supposed to be her partner in life, to lie about her work, not only to outside world, but also to her beloved daughter Jane. In the film, when asked why she paints her eyes so big, Margaret’s response is simply, “The eyes are the window of the soul.” And like many of Margaret’s famous paintings, Adams’ affectionate stare unveils a kaleidoscopic range of emotions, as if her character’s inner strife has become too great to suppress and conceal.
Big-Eyes-1A story so artfully deceitful as this has to have a villainous type as its mastermind, and Walter Keane, a would-be artist with a quick-witted tongue, is just that character. A natural salesman with a zest for the limelight, Walter saw the opportunity to turn his wife’s work into an art empire and ran with it. A two–time Academy Award winner with an astute ability to play more brash characters, Christoph Waltz’s exuberant portrayal of Walter captures the brazen and unabashed glibness of this swindling con-artist who, despite glaring evidence to the contrary, never wavered in his claim of being the real artist behind the Big Eyes paintings. While admittedly feeling a slight uneasiness over the fact that Walter, who passed away back in 2000, couldn’t defend himself from the film’s more disparaging depictions, after reading up on the man’s background story, I think it’s fair to say that, based on the Walter’s real-life reputation, Burton and Waltz had little need to exaggerate to come up with this devious portrayal. And I must concede that, regardless of how I or anyone else feels about the man’s audacity or conniving ways, there’s little denying that Walter Keane’s P.T. Barnum style of self-promotion had a lasting impact on the art world, as he was later credited for inspiring fellow artists of the time including Andy Warhol.
big-eyes-5For much of this country’s younger generation, the story of a woman agreeing to let her husband take/steal credit for her work will probably seem inconceivable. However, to their credit, what Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the writing team also responsible for Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon) are so adeptly able to capture is the archaic, male chauvinistic beliefs that Margaret Keane and so many other women of that generation were subjected to as well as how those beliefs played into Walter’s ability to prey on his wife’s naivete. Unfortunately though, as a whole, and I say this in the nicest way possible, Big Eyes tells a fairly fascinating story in a fairly vanilla way. While Adams does a commendable job articulating Margaret’s side of this scandalous tale of fraud, similarly to how I felt about The Momument’s Men, another recent art history movie, Big Eyes’ standard, predictable narrative left me walking out of the theater feeling a bit underwhelmed. And in this age of $10-20 movie tickets, I have a hard time saying this film is worth more than a Redbox rental.-JL

Grade: C+

Edited by-Michelle Zenor

2014 in review

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Frank (2014)

frank-movie-poster 2Review by-Jarrett Leahy

Jon Burroughs is a novice songwriter/musician floundering in a dead-end office job. However, after witnessing a suicide attempt, Jon serendipitously finds himself the new keyboardist of the Soronprfbs, an eccentric rock band led by Frank, an enigmatic frontman who dons a giant, papier-mache head. But as Jon quickly discovers, not all is right with his new bandmates, and while passionate about music, Jon slowly realizes that perhaps he’s overestimated his actual talents as a musician.
Frank9Originality in cinema has become a rare commodity, as every year I feel like I have to scour a little harder to track down films that offer a fresh and creative experience. So when I heard of a comedy about a capricious band whose mysterious lead singer never takes off his giant fake head, even while showering, I must admit to being slightly intrigued, for that’s a story I’d never seen before. Loosely based on the late British comedian Chris Sievey’s character, Frank Sidebottom, Frank is the fourth feature film of Dublin-born filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson. Experienced as a director of television commercials in Ireland and the U.K., Abrahamson made his feature debut back in 2004 with indie dramedy, Adam & Paul. Since that time, Abrahamson’s reputation among Irish filmmakers has steadily climbed, thanks to a pair of moderately successful independent creations, Garage (2007) and What Richard Did (2012).
photo_02Written by the author (Jon Ronson) and the screenwriter (Peter Staughan) of The Men Who Stare at Goats, Frank is blessed with an impressive cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Domhnall Gleeson, and Scoot McNairy. Gleeson, son of Irish acting star Brendan Gleeson, plays the film’s protagonist, Jon, a wide-eyed optimist whose naive belief in his musical abilities blinds him to the fact that he isn’t very gifted. Ignoring the fact that he just witnessed the previous keyboardist’s mental breakdown, Jon heedlessly joins this group of musicians, thinking this is the big break he’s been waiting for. Embracing the ego-stroking gratification that comes from social media, Jon begins tweeting, blogging, and posting videos of his new experiences with this cadre of nonconformist oddballs. Only later do we find out his bandmates are unaware of his online shenanigans—and are not too pleased to have their creative processes shared with the outside world.
Michael Fassbender as FrankThe drawing attraction of Frank is the stupefying, far-out portrayal of the band’s lead singer, fearlessly delivered by Michael Fassbender. Ever since his transformative performance as the infamous Irish hunger striker, Bobby Sands, in Steve McQueen’s startling directorial debut, Hunger, Fassbender has become one of the most diversely gifted actors in Hollywood, highlighted by his menacing Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave. Like a carny show from the 1920’s, Fassbender’s performance is a hypnotic portrait that, no matter how bizarre, you just can’t look away from. Poking fun at the stereotypical, rock-god conventions, Frank is an idiosyncratic artist whose unconventional outlook on life and music has turned him into a type of cult figure for his bandmates.
frank_smallExploring the fickle nature of the music industry during this age of YouTube and social media, Frank also pokes fun at the avant-garde music scene, playfully lampooning the “seriousness” required to make true art. The film’s most amusing moments involve a Spinal Tap-esque parody of the band going off into isolation to construct their innovative new sound. Unfortunately, the film’s laughs are too far and between, instead replaced with a bevy of perplexing, cringe-worthy moments that more often then not left me scratching my head. I love Abrahamson’s valiant attempt at creating a film of uncompromising originality. As many of my close friends know, I’m quite the connoisseur of quirky cinema, but I must humbly concede that Frank is too outlandishly peculiar even for me.-JL

Grade: C-

Edited by-Michelle Zenor
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Happy December Everyone

As December comes upon us, Oscar season has arrived. Over these next few weeks I hope to get caught up on my reviews that have backlogged including Nightcrawler, Fury, The One I Love, Cold in July, and Venus in Fur. As for our End of Year Top 10 List, while I’ve seen 81 films from 2014 so far, there are still a large handful of films I must see before making final decisions. These include: A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, Frank,
The Imitation Game, Big Eyes, The Theory of Everything, Unbroken, Selma, and Foxcatcher. This means the release of our Top 10 List will likely be delayed until sometime in January at the earliest, so stay tuned. One film I just can’t see myself watching this last month is the final chapter of the Hobbit trilogy. Having hated the first two movies Peter Jackson needlessly created, I have little desire to put myself through a third installment (however anything is possible).

As this first year of AmateurCinephile winds down, we’d like to thank you all for visiting and sharing in our love of cinema. We hope you have a wonderful holiday season and happy viewing.-JL