Generation Film’s Top 20 Films of 2014

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20. The Double– Part steampunk fiction, part Kafkaesque nightmare, and part foreboding warning of what’s to come, Richard Ayoude’s The Double embodies the paranoia of homogenization, a fear that should be more prevalent in a social media age where voices can be copied and personas can be mimicked. Based on the novel by Dostoevsky and cinematically influenced from the Coen Brothers’ noirish sensibilities, Terry Gilliam’s nightmarish surrealism, and David Lynch’s haunting atmosphere, The Double invokes a lost sense of absurdist dystopian realities and a genuine fear of complacency. And yet it’s all presented through dry wit and cleverly constructed dark humor that compliments the tour de force central performance of Jesse Eisenberg as rivaling doppelgangers. Richard Ayoude’s second feature following the quirky relationship tale in Submarine showcases a unique cinematic voice that’s willing to engage your brain with visual allegory, subtle dialogue, and inventive characterization that exists in the surreal presentation for those willing to discover it.

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19. Locke– Steven Knight’s Locke, a film centered on one man’s car ride towards personal redemption as the life he knows crumbles around him, could have easily been set on the theatrical stage since it features one character and never deviates from its single set location. However, everything about the film is thoroughly cinematic as the lush cinematography Haris Zambarloukos combined with the efficient editing of Justine Wright create a thrilling, claustrophobic intimacy watching a man come to terms with his mistakes and reaching out to those he wronged for clarity, forgiveness, and personal redemption. It’s a structural experiment that unfolds with compelling mastery as it reflects on the psychological impact of alcoholic fathers as invoked by Tom Hardy’s emotionally captivating and endurance worthy performance. Never leaving the confines of the car a rich and gripping story of character is told through character nuance, subtle revelation, and technical precision making Knight’s examination of character into one of the most visually enthralling and memorable cinematic experiences of the year.

A-Most-Violent-Year-movie (1)18. A Most Violent Year– Developing auteur J.C. Chandor’s reflection on the survivability and inevitability of capitalism as the system most fitting for flawed human nature comes in the form of the introspective A Most Violent Year, a stylish and atmospheric ode to the Sidney Lumet generation of cinema. Coming off the laudatory financial crisis film Margin Call and the allegorical survival film All is Lost, Chandor turns his attention towards the entrepreneurial spirit ingrained in the American Dream and exposes its deceptive motivations and its fascinating, practically essential, justifications. Following the business empire aspirations of immigrant Abel, A Most Violent Year shows that opportunity comes to those who make it and even those aspiring to remain legitimate in their business can forever be tempted by the trinity of unions, gangsters, and politicians. Gorgeously shot by Bradford Young Chandor’s film invokes the darkened aspects of achievement while he also respectfully highlights its parallels to the selfish flaws of human nature itself. A Most Violent Year is one of those throwback films that is unquestionably stylish and contemplates larger concepts that most films are too timid to approach.

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17. Only Lovers Left Alive– One of the consistent adjectives used for director Jim Jarmusch’s work is “cool,” an aspect that undoubtedly defines his evocative, moody, and exceptionally witty take on the Vampire genre: Only Lovers Left Alive. Though the film focuses on the multiple century love between vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) it’s really a film about the love of art, the uncompromising nature of expression, and the elegance of being. Horror to Jarmusch isn’t being hunted, preyed upon, or even succumbing to death because his horror is in the mundane; to exist with immortality and be disconnected with everything around you. Only Lovers Left Alive is self-referential in its profundity, but its most pleasing aspect is through the graceful visual experience that captures a truly intriguing relationship between two vampires destined to be with each other for eternity as they struggle with change as each passing generation, with all of their unique trends, philosophies, and experiences, brings a new set of challenges. Through Jarmusch’s exceptional use of visual ambiance, graceful presentation, and deceptively cool moods Only Lovers Left Alive becomes a truly memorable experience that makes you think and laugh just as much as it makes you feel.

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16. Mr. Turner– the creative methods of rehearsing with actors over numerous months to create their characters and writing the script while shooting is part of the unconventional mastery that defines a Mike Leigh feature. His latest film is a biopic study on the painter J.M.W. Turner, a man who possessed an astounding ability to capture the beauty of image while being a repugnant fellow that didn’t blend at all well with the assumed class of his era. Mr. Turner becomes an astounding film in both performance and visual mastery as Timothy Spall’s embodiment of the renowned painter becomes a brilliant portrayal of convincing gestures, snorts, and vernacular that elevates the entire project into something more than reflection. It instead becomes a suiting contemplation on the lasting impact of art, or rather how trends emerge and threaten certain forms of expression that were once considered popular during their time. Masterfully directed by Mike Leigh and exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Dick Pope, Mr. Turner is a time capsule of age, time, and spirit that transcends into something we can consider today in which art is glorified now and which art is drastically underappreciated.

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15. Gone Girl– David Fincher has become an auteur of style and his most exceptional work comes in the form of mystery as his unnerving and detached sensibilities unveil slowly the seductive layers and vague themes in his work with calculating efficiency. His latest modern noir is the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s diabolically fun novel Gone Girl and the outcome is a surprising turn of personality in the usually cold filmmaker as this tale of sociopathic agency and media as satire becomes an inventive twist on the usual mystery structure and elements. It’s practically anti-Hitchcock in twisting the blonde into a nightmarish antagonist and making the man into a dull victim of deliberate peril while also utilizing Hitchcock’s known elements of surprise. Fincher’s Gone Girl takes the low brow entertainment trends for victimized storytelling and sensationalized news in order to create a deceptively scathing indictment of that very unsettling devolution into media frenzy. It’s a film made through sinister intentions in order to trap its audience in a Machiavellian plan that manipulates our perceptions and twists our assumptions into a tool that translates into a higher form of cultural criticism.

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14. Snowpiercer– Science-fiction as a genre isn’t meant to pander to thrilling sentiments or familiar expectations of entertainment—an aspect that has slowly been devolving the genre throughout the past decade—but instead it’s supposed to utilize a fictitious experience to say something larger in concept and in heart. Director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer definitely embodies that needed essence to be something grander and its mixture of outlandish circumstances, overt messaging, subtle characterization, and thrilling visuals creates a convincing post-apocalyptic world where class warfare isn’t about entitlement, but rather it’s about survival. And yet, Bong Joon-ho’s tale is anything but black & white in its moral considerations and ever changing narrative dynamics making it a conceptual exercise of lost humanity and thin ethics as the fight for the front of the train becomes a fight to preserve the minuscule morality that is disappearing from the callous confines of the train. Crushingly bleak yet sarcastically humorous, Snowpiercer invokes a lost sense of sci-fi thoughtfulness that puts us into a convincing alternate reality that makes us feel that world’s consequences for modern contemplation.

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13. Nightcrawler– Dan Gilroy’s black comedic indictment of the modern free-for-all media landscape goes far beyond a bleak sociopathic surface to unveil something underneath, that manufacturing insecurity has become a mass media drug with pushers ready to oblige with the latest in local violent imagery. Nightcrawler has deep satiric roots and its exaggerated presentation, including the horrendously sleazy performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as sociopath Louis Bloom, is something to be admired despite it being purposefully off-putting. There’s a slithering intention within Nightcrawler both in Bloom’s ambitions and Gilroy’s presentations as the film becomes increasingly unbelievable as it enters the realm of socially conscious allegory. Creepily entertaining and perceptively excoriating, Gilroy’s satire becomes the demonic child of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Sidney Lumet’s Network with plenty of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver thrown in for good measure making it an unnerving thriller with plenty of insight to spare. As the exaggerated style of Nightcrawler demonstrates it’s that sensationalism sells and Bloom’s adage that Fear is “False Evidence Appearing Real” makes it seem that the falsity becomes far more real the more we allow it to be that way.

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12. Force MajeureRuben Östlund’s Force Majeure is undoubtedly one of the funniest yet most unsettling dramas about the behaviors that exacerbate marital discord and familial dysfunction as it focuses on the perception changes that occur when someone doesn’t do what’s expected of them in the face of danger. It’s an intriguing drama that satirically pokes fun at the assumed role of masculinity in practically every culture and in doing so becomes an emotionally powerful reflection on the limitations of traditional gender roles in marriage. Never entering a realm of the melodramatic, Östlund allows his film to balance witty humor and fragile dramatics that never loses focus on its ability to make the audience squirm in discomfort as to the intimate fracturing of a relationship unfolds in front of them. Force Majeure is the cinematic embodiment of showcasing the absurdity of first world problems, traditional gender roles, and familial accord set in the framework of a “what would you do” thriller that makes it as equally thought provoking as it is devilishly entertaining.

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11. Leviathan– Very few films this year have been as deeply affecting and deceptively sophisticated as Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, an understated epic of sorts that blends the suffering angle from the Bible’s The Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes’ statecraft book of the same name. Zvyagintsev’s intimate portrait of man struggling against his government and losing everything has a profound and resilient effect that eventually reverberates within you as its stirring emotions and felt pain depict a real vision of what it means to be part of humanity. Leviathan as a Russian piece of cinema is more literal than anything Andrei Tarkovsky did but slightly more poetic than anything tackled by Sergei Eisenstein leaving us a brilliantly executed film that reflects on a nation’s political, religious, and familial values and exposes their moral fractures and dishonest promises. Simply put, Zvyagintsev’s humanist drama makes you ponder the various moral institutions of your known society and whether or not you take them for granted, which most people undoubtedly do.

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10. Under the Skin– It could be argued that a best of list should be solely the films that elated you with passive enjoyment like most blockbusters intend to do, but really the best of should be the films that become unforgettable for better or worse. Probably the most unforgettable experiences from this past year is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a powerfully chilling and profoundly horrifying film experience that feels distinctly inhuman. It’s a laser focused abstract film reflection on the corruptible aspects of human nature as our vanity, fear, and selfishness devolve a pristine, ambivalent, and unmotivated alien (Scarlett Johansson) into something far less. Loosely adapted from the novel of the same name from Michael Faber Glazer’s hypnotic film does exactly what the title suggests as its detached point of view, vaguely tackled themes, and eerie atmosphere lingers beneath your skin in a thoroughly invigorating if also unpleasant way. Most people who experience Under the Skin may not exactly enjoy it, but it certainly pushes your comfort levels to a challenging dimension where striking imagery, amniotic score, and pure artistry make you feel something beyond yourself.

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9. Inherent Vice– Paul Thomas Anderson might simply be the only filmmaker today making genuine cinema, a throwback essence of character driven experiences that are captured with a keen visual sensibility that enraptures you in its cinematic aesthetic. His seventh feature Inherent Vice—the first full and accurate adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel—follows his filmic awareness as he utilizes the divisiveness of the 70s as a disconnected state of mind where the lost period transition between counter culture love and the impending arrival of Nixon-era enforcement is translated on screen through a poetic and outrageously comedic interpretation. As a post-noir mystery it’s purposefully unsolvable, as a love story it’s frustratingly vague, and as a traditional cinematic experience it’s unquestionably unique. Through his collaborative efforts with Robert Elswit’s gorgeous and evocative 35-mm cinematography, Johnny Greenwood’s enthralling and quintessentially classic score, and an A-list ensemble that turn minor parts into major remembrances Paul Thomas Anderson simply has entered the realm of an auteur who creates experiences that transcend time and become something far more intangible.

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8. The Babadook– Horror as a genre has sort of lost its artistic expression and thoroughly engaging potential to be something more than cheap music stings and expected surprises, and that’s what probably makes Jennifer Kent’s The Bababook so perfectly nightmarish and thrillingly unique. Kent’s immersion into real horror through the lens of motherhood is one that is treated with intelligence as it gets under your skin and penetrates your psyche through the use of chilling technique and a heartfelt moving story at its core. The Babadook utilizes the fear of isolation and the confinement of space to heighten its thrills, but more importantly it’s utilized to heighten the central performance of Essie Davis as the film shocks with the primal emotion of motherly love. Perhaps horror doesn’t scare too many people anymore because it never feels as though it could be experienced in its true form, and that’s what makes Kent’s The Bababook so haunting in that it feels in all of its chilling form very real. Kent’s film is a haunting masterpiece of psychological horror that in its use of familiarity breeds humanity into an otherwise disconnected genre.

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7. Ida– In returning to his native Poland filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski has created one of the most intimate and deeply personal films of the year with Ida, a beautiful gem of cinema that follows a novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska)—after learning that she’s Jewish—seeking out her parent’s grave in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Shot in pristinely used somber black & white imagery the film paradoxically invokes resounding warmth and a sustaining power that is unlike any intimate drama that has graced the screen this year creating a mixture of bleak mood with the impact of genuine heart. It layers its personalized character drama with substantial concepts ranging from personal identity, the adaptability of faith, and the naturalism of human sexuality into a beautifully composed portrait of self-discovery. Ida is one of those foreign gems that doesn’t feel foreign because it’s a stunning achievement of relatable narrative, beautiful imagery, and resonant themes that stays with you far beyond its experience is off the screen. Through its understated and unsentimental exploration into personal enlightenment Pawlikowski’s film becomes a spellbinding and powerfully compelling story that transcends time.

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6. Selma– Hollywood’s tackling of the Civil Rights movement has always translated into an avid eagerness for self-promotion, that is until Ava DuVernay’s Selma came along to give the movement its rightful emotive reasoning and arduously felt politics of the time. Narrowing the focus of the movement into one of its more pivotal moments of political urgency DuVernay’s film is intelligently crafted, emphatically resilient, and powerfully inspirational in its authenticity. Selma embodies the idealistic soul and the battered bodies of a humanist triumph and shows it through textured cinematography (the impeccable Bradford Young) and renowned performances from an ensemble of brilliant actors who create a collective atmosphere much like the actual movement possessed. Though there is a character study of Martin Luther King Jr. on the forefront of DuVernay’s film it’s in showcasing his self-doubts, his personal weaknesses, and his triumphant resilience in service of Civil Rights and the movement rather than the movement being of service to him. “I have a dream” might be associated with one individual, but it was a sentiment that a powerful movement and changing attitude felt which Selma captures with a graceful spirit.

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5. Boyhood– Beneath the novelty and potential manipulative gimmickry that is the concept of filming the same child actor over the course of his aging twelve years there’s something truly special about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Logistically complex, technically daunting, and conceptually elusive, Boyhood is a bold experiment that successfully translates into an admiration of technique while also never losing touch with the emotionality at its literal coming-of-age narrative core. Linklater is fascinated by time, character, and place as evidenced with his Before trilogy, his first feature Slacker, and his various depictions of particular periods and their distinguished attitudes but has never integrated all of these fascinations into one cohesive whole as he has done with Boyhood. Time is at the forefront here though as the perception of time becomes poetically manipulated creating an evocative rumination on the Universal experience of seeing life pass you by faster than you ever expected it to. This could very well be Linklater’s masterpiece because it’s a subtle piece of cinema that tackles large concepts without losing touch emotionally with its characters making it an astounding cinematic achievement.

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4. Mommy– Canadian prodigy Xavier Dolan might be the most uncompromising and unapologetic cinematic voices to grace the screen in our modern age of lacking artistry, which is even more surprising when you consider the fact that he’s only twenty-three years old. His fifth feature film in five years is Mommy, a semi-futuristic depiction of a society where the responsibility of parents can be traded to the overseeing power of the state in what becomes a heart wrenching yet exceptionally beautiful film about the dynamics of the mother and son relationship. Shot in 1:1 ratio that provides an artistically thrilling intimacy to the events on screen, Mommy showcases the directorial strengths of Dolan as he maneuvers through a complex relationship between a rambunctious and unpredictable Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and his loyal to a fault mother Diane (Anne Dorval). Mommy shines with melodramatic life and an exhilarating artistic spirit that is equally as reckless and wild as its subject Steve, but it’s because of this flawed and genuine depiction that makes it so lovingly memorable and infectiously fresh.

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3. The Grand Budapest Hotel– Wes Anderson’s latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel might be one of his finest cinematic achievements to date not only in perfecting his known auteur style—in what could be deemed almost self-referentially satirical at this point—but also as a sweeping admiration for the beauty of storytelling itself. After all, The Grand Budapest Hotel is loosely based on the life and writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in what could be deemed a representational depiction of carrying on experiences through generational storytelling. Beautifully constructed in production design by Adam Stockhausen and impeccably shot through Anderson’s symmetrical, often times French New Wave framing via cinematographer Robert Yeoman, The Grand Budapest Hotel is strikingly visual, humorously ingenious, and nostalgically crafted making it one of Anderson’s finest films to date. Though its ending is rather somber in its realistic sadness there’s an unquestionable aura of life’s celebrations within its narrative confines giving us one of the most delightfully entertaining experiences of the year.

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2. Whiplash- Jazz is a musical genre defined by improvisational tactics, unexpected rhythmic shifts, accomplishments of technical feats, and finds adrenaline soaked emotion at the highest peaks of a piece, which could all be descriptions for Damien Chazelle’s Jazz focused drama Whiplash. Newcomer Chazelle has impeccably crafted a visceral and kinetic study on the toxic mentor-protégé relationship between Professor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and impressionable jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) that is more conducted than directed as the up and coming filmmaker finds nuances, details, and defining moments in his film that make it exceptional in all considerations. Though the structure of Whiplash might be familiar Chazelle’s use of unrelenting tension translates what could be deemed a narrative jazz standard into a unique creative vision creating a dark metaphor for the extremes of artistic ambition. It’s the blend of cinematic technical precision, eloquent reflection, and a dash of real felt pain that makes Whiplash one of the defining films of the year and is a loud, confident stamp of an emerging filmmaking talent.

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1. Birdman, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance– Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitiously daunting and exceptionally executed Meta-fable Birdman will go down as one of the finest film achievements ever presented in the medium for reasons beyond its unprecedented seamless presentation. Sure it’s a self-aggrandizing gimmick of technical fortitude and a bombastic display of sensationalized dramatics, but that’s all serviceable to a unified conceptual whole that carefully dissects the mysticism on the cult of celebrity, exposes the faults of ambition, and showcases the roots of personal and familial decay. In a way it’s a complimentary piece to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz or Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ where the subject loses his sanity for the sake of the creative process, and that notion is exemplified through a blend of metaphysical realism and nightmarish surrealism. Birdman, appropriately defined through its secondary title The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is a masterwork of modern cinema that utilizes its tools for artistic purposes and narrative interpretation allowing it to embody the quote on Riggen’s dressing room mirror, “a thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” Birdman isn’t a gimmick or a passing by trend because it simply is, and that’s all that we should expect from artistic expression.

Honorable Mentions: The Immigrant, Edge of Tomorrow, Calvary, Frank, Nymphomaniac, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Him & Her), Blue Ruin, Two Days One Night, The Rover

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