2014 was a big year for us, with some sixteen films (!) making our best-of-list. While the box office champ was the fourth Transformers movie (which, legit, almost made my list because of its uncut, street-pure Michael Bay madness that definitely helped shape the decade), followed by a Hobbit and a plucky Marvel movie involving some Guardians dancing and grooting to classic rock, our contributors looked to everything from an Oscar winner about a superhero of a very different kind to an unabashedly Quebecois classic. Along the way we saw an extremely compelling sci-fi action piece twist time, a genre star join an international legend and change the course of both of their careers, a fascinating indie about the undercurrents around notions of “diversity”, and a film that showcased last year’s Llewyn dancing to a dark and dastardly beat.
Others include the near-weaponized whimsy of a hotel-set, hi-jinx-filled farce, a surreal detective story that rips at L.A.’s mythologies, there’s a war thriller and a musical marriage story, a dread filled wandering menace and the stuff of childhood nightmares. There’s a vampiric mockdoc, the story of a woman finding herself while lost, an enthralling film that uses silences and gestures to elevate its horror, and a movie that takes on media fascinations and shines an ugly light. Quite the list, quite the year. (JG)
The hook of presenting Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as if it is all one shot still works for me, however, the film is really special because of Michael Keaton’s Riggan. The meta-commentary on Michael Keaton’s career mixed with the genuine sympathy I felt for his character actually trying again made for a great first watch and many re-watches since then. Riggan gets out of his comfort zone creatively and with his daughter and his vulnerability makes it almost impossible not to root for him. Even if you’re not an actor, it is easy to relate to his fear that his best might not be enough. Plus, as previously mentioned, it’s really cool how Alejandro Iñárritu finds different ways to make the film feel as though it’s all one shot. (DG)
Clouds of Sils Maria
So often metaphor means that films aren’t really about what they say they are about. In Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, the layers of the film are all about aging and being left behind in such a way that compounds the issue, rather than dilute it. Juliette Binoche plays an actress who is most well-known for a role she played at the beginning of her career decades ago. The play focuses on a young woman taking power from an older woman, and Binoche’s Maria is revisiting the piece once again, but in the other role. It might be difficult for any actor to stand bright in Binoche’s shadow, but Kristen Stewart bursts through with an incredible and immersive performance as Maria’s assistant.
Clouds of Sils Maria might deserve to be on this list for merely bringing Stewart out of her teenage years and recognizing her as one of the best contemporary actresses, but Assayas’s quiet reflection on aging and ego is worthy beyond that footnote. Spending time in Maria’s world as she searches for the clouds (both literal and metaphorical, like so many things in this film) is a beautiful and contemplative exercise in deeply connecting with a complicated character. (DC)
Dear White People
Dear White People has a title that does feel a bit confrontational, but what makes the film special is how it explores the different types of black people you could meet at university and in the world. I’ve had my fair share of watching movies about the different types of white people I could meet and it was refreshing to see a diverse portrayal of young black people dealing with issues that are uncomfortable and not easily solved.
Typically films characterize black people as a version of an “exceptional negro” who has accomplished the seemingly impossible or as a charity case from the wrong side of the tracks who will either transition to the “exceptional negro” or fall victim to their lifestyle. The strength of Dear White People lies in how it showcases the struggles of black people as individuals. Even within the different groupings, of which there are more than two, the film demonstrates that there are disagreements there too. This is because there is no one way to be black and that can make life hard as well as systemic racism perpetrated by the white people in the film. (DG)
Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow replicates the experience of jumping into a video game through the eyes of untested combatant Major William Cage (Tom Cruise). Like most video game rookies, Cage is so unfamiliar with his weaponry and panicked by the rushing hordes of alien attackers that he dies within minutes. But when he dies, he wakes up to start the nightmare all over again. The overlay between this film and gaming creates a few laugh-out-loud moments where Cage can only sigh as he dies in increasingly exasperating fashion. Why Cage and the rest of the United Defense Force fight the Mimics is unknown to the soldiers; the only thing that matters is “we’re losing” to them. That Cage has been selling a war he doesn’t understand is a pretty huge indictment to the jingoistic salesman routine he’d been playing before seeing actual combat. More big-budget actioners should be this inventive and entertaining. (CB)
There was never a debate whether Alex Garland’s feature directorial debut would be recognized as one of the best films of the 2010s. The science fiction film is a morality play centered around a fallible trio: notorious AI inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who intends to use his low level employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as a pawn to test the humanity of his latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander, in her breakout role).
Ex Machina doesn’t skirt around heavy moral questions. It dares to ask what makes one human? Is it possible for androids to feel? And, most importantly, who is more dangerous: the manipulative robot who will do whatever it takes to escape or the human men who sexualize her?
Garland cut his teeth writing screenplays and it shows. His understanding of rising tension and intricate character work is evident throughout Ex Machina, which benefits from great set design, Oscar-winning visual effects and rich performances from all three leads. If nothing else, Ex Machina gifted us Oscar Isaac dancing to Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night” and for that alone, we should all be very, very thankful. (JL)
Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s 2014 whimsical adventure would make any best of the decade list just for its pretty pink pastel palette. Every frame of the film is artfully and beautifully constructed as we see the complex story-within-a-story unfold with a cast of eccentric madcap characters. With a filmography full of great roles, Ralph Fiennes delivers a career-best performance as M. Gustave. Underneath the cinematic confectionary, Anderson pushed himself to new heights to truly deliver a humane and graceful tale of love, loss, redemption and the inevitable march of time. Plus, you can’t argue that “Boy With Apple” isn’t a masterpiece worthy of any fight to the death. (RW)
If ever there were a filmmaker better equipped to tackle a famously “unfilmable” piece of work like author Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, it would be Paul Thomas Anderson. Following their intense collaboration on The Master, PTA reteamed with Joaquin Phoenix on this far more laid back 1970s set stoner noir. Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a burnt out hippie who also happens to be the worst private eye in Gordita Beach, California. There’s a mystery afoot though, so Doc is on the case, sort of. His ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) is missing, a greedy land developer up to no good (Eric Roberts), and a brutish police detective (Josh Brolin) just won’t stop hassling the gumshoe. This is all set against the very hazy backdrop of post-Manson Murders Los Angeles, which makes it a must-see for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood fans who somehow missed it the first go round. Double bill, anyone?
If you’re in the seemingly small minority who prefer the Boogie Nights or Punch-Drunk Love era Anderson to The Master or Phantom Thread, Inherent Vice is a trip back in that direction, but it’s wholly its own thing. The film is essentially Chinatown on acid, The Long Goodbye by way of The Naked Gun with a heaping of the darkly comic energy that PTA films are famous for. Those other, more beloved Anderson movies are on this list (spoilers!), but I am hard pressed to think of a movie I loved more (or rewatched more) this past decade than Inherent Vice. Beware the Golden Fang. (WP)
In the nearly hundred years since Rudy Giuliani lookalike Max Schreck skulked around the screen as Nosferatu, we’ve seen every type of movie monster imaginable. Vampires, ghosts, wolfmen, aliens, zombies, robots, mummies, and even white liberals who would have “Voted for Obama a third time.” By 2010, it took a twisted mind to shock audiences with something they haven’t seen before. Enter David Robert Mitchell with his nerve-wracking 2014 horror flick, It Follows.
It Follows creates a movie monster custom-tailored to strike fear into the hearts of the Tinder generation. The film sees a supernatural creature stalk a cursed line of sexual partners. The being takes on different forms and can strike at any moment, which is a recipe for non-stop dread. Once you add in the movie’s blood-curdling visuals, “something is not quite right here” production design, and Disasterpeace’s unnerving score, It Follows has the makings of an instant classic. (VS)
Xavier Dolan brought ample attention to the so-called Quebec New Wave when he “killed” his onscreen mother a decade ago, but he brought her fully to life in Mommy. Whereas Dolan’s early films showed genuine visual audacity, largely rooted in homage and cinephilia, he truly hit his stride with Mommy.
Dolan’s fifth film is his loudest, biggest, most flamboyant, and best film to date. From the social media friendly 1:1 aspect ratio of the vibrant cinematography by André Turpin to the swelling soundtrack that pulses at an ungodly-high decibel to Antoine Olivier-Pilon’s brash performance as a child so wild he seems like Bart Simpson incarnate, everything about Mommy brought a defiantly fresh perspective to the screen. At the heart of the film was Anne Dorval’s full-throttle powerhouse of a performance as Die, the titular mommy. The emotions of Mommy are overwhelmingly powerful as Die reluctantly resigned herself to the fact that her son simply didn’t know how to let her love him. Sometimes the greatest act of love is letting go. (PM)
There’s a moment in Nightcrawler when everything could have slipped away, and the film shifted instead from an excoriating look at our obsessions with true crime and the degeneration of fact in favour of narrative, and instead become some silly morality play where there are bad actors that make things wrong for the otherwise capable majority. The fact that we watch, rather than act, as moments of barbarism, hubris and downright selfishness takes place is far more effective than turning the central character into an othered-animal, and that’s what truly gives the film its bite. A scream into the darkness about all facets that speak not only to our shifting landscape of truth-telling but the very mechanisms whereby so-called “fake news” could be twisted and re-targeted, Dan Gilroy’s exceptional, at time appealing visions is one of the defining films of our time. (JG)
The spirits of Alfred Hitchcock and Marlene Dietrich come alive in the mesmerizing Phoenix. This post WWII thriller stars Nina Hoss as a Holocaust survivor who must adapt to the ruins of Berlin like she did in the camps. The ever-enigmatic German actress gives a powerhouse performance as Nelly, the fiercely seductive survivor of Christian Petzold’s post-war drama. Hoss reunites with her Barbara director in this mysterious and ambiguous neo-noir, and the role is tailor made for her beguiling screen presence. Dietrich couldn’t have played it better. The film is a master class in setting and atmosphere as Petzold harnesses the war torn city as a kind of film noir purgatory. As Nelly trots through the shadows with a widow’s veil and a naïve resolution to reclaim her pre-war self, Phoenix builds to a closing shot in which the mastery of Hoss’s performance, and Petzold’s realization of post-war hell, culminate in one mic drop of a finale. (PM)
The most terrifying thing about Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is not its titular children’s book villain, but the extent to which parenthood can test one’s limit. As a parent, I deeply identify with its protagonist Amelia (Essie Davis) wants nothing more than for her beloved seven-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) to give her a moment of peace. Compound this with the fact that Amelia has yet to address the emotional trauma of her husband’s tragic death on the day Samuel was born, and you have the set-up for one terrific horror film. A slow-burn tale featuring a monster who has become a pop culture icon on par with Freddy Krueger, The Babadook is a brilliant psychological thriller that sticks with you once you let it in. (CS)
The Last Five Years
Before we got Marriage Story in 2019, there was this little-seen movie musical based in part on Jason Robert Brown’s own disintegrated relationship. On stage you have the counterpoint of perspectives, but told on the big screen, and using the very techniques of cinema that make such an intermeshed story occupying two opposite timelines, makes this production truly sing. The casting is sublime, with Kendrick never better as a woman of immense charm, talent, and a voice sweet enough to wow in Ohio but not quite as pitch perfect to end up on the boards of Broadway. Jeremy Jordan’s goofy enthusiasm gives way to betrayal and wanderlust. Yet this isn’t a film to take sides, per se, but like all great art one sees themselves in all facets, made sorrowed by the lost of love, but recognizing throughout the complexities, challenges and considerations of any long term relationship. It’s a dance of emotion with a top-notch accompaniment, a film in desperate need of rediscovery by those with open hearts and open ears. (JG)
The Tribe is not easy to love; it makes you work for it. Shot almost entirely in wide shot, the film’s only dialogue is in untranslated Ukrainian sign language. Rather than coming off as inaccessible or emotionally removed, this distance between the world of the film and the audience is just like trying to understand someone who only speaks in whispers- it draws you closer.
The film follows a teenager as he arrives at his new school, a boarding high school for the deaf. These kids are not strangers to the darker elements of a struggling Ukraine. Their sex work and drug use soon envelope this boy and take over his life. Seeing the bleakness of their lives, regardless of hearing status, makes it all feel like they are just going through the motions of trying to better themselves through education. What is the point? Add to this an unflinching camera which follows the students through physical trauma and mental trauma and The Tribe leads to one of the most haunting cinematic climaxes in the past decade. Do not enter into this world lightly, but do enter. (DC)
What We Do In The Shadows
Only the amazing triple-threat actor-writer-director Taika Waititi could pull off a comedy about vampires. Made in a mockumentary style, the film follows Viago, Deacon, and Vladislav as they struggle to adapt to the modern era while sharing a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. The mundanities of living with flatmates – dividing chores, paying rent – provide as much fodder for laughs as do the “realities” of being vampires: finding and luring victims, avoiding vampire hunters, fighting with werewolves, and in the film’s most hilarious sequence, the challenges of choosing outfits to go clubbing when one doesn’t have a reflection.
While not shying away from the more horrific aspects of vampirism (these are no sparkly magical creatures; they do kill people), Waititi makes his characters relatable and likable. You want them, oddly, to succeed and thrive and eventually find happiness. This is Waititi’s unique form of genius: he makes the most extraordinary characters seem like blokes you’d meet down at the pub and have beers with. (JB)
Sure, the story for Wild might not be that exciting: Cheryl Strayed goes for a walk. But witness that magic that is Jean-Marc Vallée’s cinema and Strayed’s willingness to lay herself bare that make Wild such a cathartically transformative experience. It inspires a grown man to ugly cry with each viewing. Every film is a product of the context in which one receives it, so it think it helps that I saw Wild at a moment in which I would have loved to follow in Strayed’s footsteps by hurling my metaphorical hiking boot over the side of a mountain and yelling ‘FUCK!’ at the top of my lungs. But at the heart of the film is an impassioned essay on the journeys we take each time we decide to impart a story.
Wild radiates with a spirit and burst of life that feels like the sun hitting your face on a warm fall day. The kaleidoscopic editing, which Vallée brought to the mainstream with Wild and his work on Big Little Lies, engages both the heart and the mind by playing on memory and creating associations between people, places, and the music that defines us. As Cheryl overcomes her grief and finds herself on the Pacific Crest Trail fueled by the haunting music of Simon and Garfunkel, Vallée’s vision makes the story both intimately specific and universal. It invites viewers to glue the fragments of Cheryl’s grief with the shards of their own memory bank. Wild is my pick for the single best film this decade and a trip I expect to revisit more than any film these from past few years. (PM)