It's the final week of 2014, so we're wrapping the year up the usual way: with lists! Friday, we each gave you our five worst movies of 2014. Yesterday, we counted down the bottom halves of our Top 10s. Today: both our Top 5s.
5. Birdman (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu). Annoying, obnoxious, and almost suffocatingly self-satisfied ... and still just about as much giddy cinema-dork fun as you can possibly imagine. I tend to dismiss most of the tortured-artist themes here and embrace the overwhelming fear and insecurity, but your mileage may vary. But this is such a riotous, virtuoso piece of filmmaking—a pulsating ode to just freaking going for it, man—that it doesn't really matter. Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are both fantastic, but for my money, it's Emma Stone who grounds the movie and gives it its heart. The movie is full of flaws, but I'd watch it again, this second.
4. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer). It's bizarre, jarring, and challenging, but stick with it. This cold, creepy thriller features Scarlett Johansson as an alien sent to earth to observe humanity (and murder a few of its members); as her travels continue, she learns that that she may be more compassionate and merciful than those who sent her here, but just in time to see the horrors humanity is in fact capable of. Filmed in Scotland with Johansson and mostly non-actors—many of whom did not know they were in a movie until later—it's a daring, sometimes impenetrable work, but one that grabs you from the very first frame. If the movie weren't so weird and purposely alienating, we'd have been talking all year about just how courageous and dangerous Johansson's performance really was. And the beach scene is one of the most harrowing things I've ever seen in a movie, or in life.
3. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (Sam Fleischner). It's all about Mom. The central premise hereinvolves a 13-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome wandering off in the middle of the school day and ending up stuck riding the subway all throughout New York City in a Dante loop while far above him, Tropical Storm Sandy approaches. But the movie's center is his mother, played by Andrea Suarez Paz in a performance of quiet, desperate power. She deals with the vanishing of her son, her daughter's increasing belligerence, a husband who pops in and out at difficult times, and a job that's off the books but all-encompassing all at once, with the larger brewing storm nothing compared to her helplessness. And yet she never stops. The result is moving, and a New York City movie through and through—never before has the NYC subway seemed so mystifying and terrifying.
2. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn). It seems like another densely plotted John le Carré thriller—and it is—but this movie, more than anything else, is a character study of a man who knows better than to believe he can make a difference ... but still can't stop himself from trying to make a difference. As played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in what honestly might be my favorite of his performances, German secret agent Guenter Bachmann is beaten, tired, old, and exhausted, but he plods along, picking up strings, following threads, navigating minefields, barreling over everything and everyone and still not getting anywhere. And yet he still sees an answer where no one does. A political thriller, sure, but mostly a study in sad, defeated obsession ... and how goddamned cruel the world can be. I've never missed Hoffman more: How many of these did he have in him, taken away?
1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater). Boyhood is a movie you find yourself protective of: You almost don't want to praise it too much, less someone come in expecting it to be the Big Moment Movie that it so studiously and wonderful avoids becoming. Some have criticized Linklater for the movie simply being its central gimmick, but, a) that's stupid, because the "gimmick" legitimately has never been done before (why didn't you do it, pal?); and b) the film is meant to roll with the rhythms of life rather than artificially inflate them into something Cinematic. Which just makes the overwhelming power of the film that much more of a miracle. It's full of so many well-thought-out, agonizingly real moments, from the fear of powerlessness under a replacement parent, to the adults who find solace in the least expected places, to the muted tragedy of a mother who one day looks around and realized all she has worked for and cared about has left her ... and that that was the goal all along. A thorough document of the first decade-plus of the new century that studiously attempts to avoid such a classification—making its achievement that much more impressive—Boyhood breaks my heart in a different way every time I see it. (I'm going on watch No. 7.) It is one of the greatest movies I have ever seen.
5. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh). When making a movie about an artist, whether it's a singer or a painter, there's often the challenge of convincing audiences that the star playing that person is actually really good at the specific talent. What's so striking about Mr. Turner is how completely believable Timothy Spall is as J.M.W. Turner, the acclaimed 19th-century painter about whom writer-director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) has wanted to make a movie for decades. But it's not brushstrokes that sell this performance: It's his restless artistic temperament, portraying Turner as a grunting, peculiar, exacting man who lives and breathes his work. This is no paint-by-numbers biopic, though: Covering about 25 years in Turner's life, it skips the book-report treatment for a broader meditation on aging, fame, and loneliness. Like a great work of art hanging in a museum, Mr. Turner asks you to give it time to let its full impact wash over you, rewarding multiple viewings.
4. The Unknown Known (Errol Morris). The trick here is not to expect Morris (an Oscar-winner for The Fog of War) to "crack" the enigma that is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This documentary isn't about getting Rumsfeld to admit to the sins of the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. Rather, Morris shows us what utter certainty looks like—unflappable, arrogant, unearned certainty. Sparring with his inquisitor, that insufferable grin always plastered on his mug, Rumsfeld adores the verbal jousting. But if Morris doesn't "win" the debate, it's because he's after something else: reminding Americans about the sort of poisonously self-confident, unreflective mindset that thrust us into the Middle East quagmire from which we may never escape. (Original review here.)
3. Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer. Since so much time is spent documenting the tabloid horrors that have befallen once-promising young stars like Lindsay Lohan, it's worth taking a moment to praise one such talent who escaped those traps. In a career that features both strong dramatic work (Lost in Translation, Match Point) and studio success (the Marvel films, the wonderfully loopy Lucy), Scarlett Johansson may have delivered her best performance in this, an unsettling sci-fi/horror/existential creeper about an alien come down to Earth to seduce hapless men and harvest their bodies. Director Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) shoots the film from his E.T.'s perspective, making ordinary life look chillingly inhuman while subtly shifting our sympathies throughout.
2. The Overnighters (Jesse Moss). We tend not to worry about spoilers in documentaries, but The Overnighters is one nonfiction film in which the less you know going in, the better. Director Jesse Moss spent two years chronicling a small North Dakota community suddenly beset with outsiders looking for jobs in the booming fracking industry. This isn't a movie about environmental impact, though: Instead, it focuses on Jay Reinke, a local Lutheran pastor who wants to help these wandering souls, many far from home, find food and shelter—especially since there are far more job-seekers than there are jobs. But when crime starts to flourish in the community, the townspeople begin to resent the so-called "overnighters," and Reinke and his Christian spirit of charity are caught in the middle. That's the setup, but plenty of twists occur along the way, as Moss examines how our preconceived notions can prove stunningly incorrect. That goes for the people in The Overnighters as well as the audience—I can't remember the last time a movie so blindsided me, setting me up to expect one scenario and then presenting me with another that's far more surprising and heartbreaking.
1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater). For years, the secret to Linklater's career was that he made movies that we could all see ourselves in. (If we weren't Dazed and Confused's Wooderson, we at least knew that guy.) The Before trilogy wouldn't be half as resonant if, on some level, we didn't identify with that couple, didn't recognize our romantic travails in theirs. But this is culmination of everything he does so well, wherein an entire childhood (and the lives of those closest to that young man) contains just about every thought we've had about family, friendship, marriage, and post-9/11 life. The trick to Boyhood's greatness is that Linklater skips all the Big Moments—first kiss, losing your virginity—to concentrate on all the seemingly throwaway incidents that really make up an existence. Like that talk you had with your dad about that one movie. Or that one haircut that was so embarrassing. Or maybe that guy who came up to your family at the restaurant just because he wanted to thank your mom for something she said years ago. This is a whole film filled with ephemera that doesn't need to explain itself, because we know it all by heart. It's not a movie that overpowers you with its brilliance—it just rolls along, never once bothering to notice how quietly profound it is. That's for us to savor.
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