Top Ten 2014

10. Godzilla

Gareth Edwards pulls everyone's favourite giant monster from the rubble of Roland Emmerich's disastrous 1998 blockbuster to create a smart, respectful, and rather beautiful big-budget Hollywood adaptation. Edwards' version is a meditation on the intersection between Godzilla's 50-year history and the audience's role of spectator in the midst of giant monster battles. Our relationship with Godzilla is a major focus here, as excitingly illustrated through action sequences and monster reveals that are shot from the human perspective, lending the spectacle a relatable eye-level touch. The structure of old Godzilla movies is faithfully adhered to with a lot of buildup to a wild showdown, except now the pieces have a new weight and complexity of imagery. Edwards strikes a confident balance between paying tribute to the original Toho pictures and bringing the legendary monster into a new light. While human characters occupy a lot of screen time, Godzilla remains the star of the show and the hero of the story. The camera treats him as a towering force of nature, an uncompromising source of awe, and a cinema icon not so much reinvented as reinstated.

9. Wild

Cheryl Strayed's personal story of hiking the thousand mile long Pacific Crest Trail as a sort of cleansing ritual in the wake of her mother's devastating death gets a first-class big screen treatment courtesy of screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Vallee, who approach the story as a tender mix of internal and external experience. Phenomenal photography captures the natural wonder on display in geography that ranges from a desert to a snowy forest while the exacting editing sends us ricocheting back and forth between Cheryl's melancholic past and her hopeful present. Flashbacks, often my nemesis, are used poetically here to communicate Cheryl's head space, allowing us to join in her individual journey without feeling like we're just being force-fed a bunch of exposition. Reese Witherspoon does the best work of her career and Laura Dern gives the flashbacks additional emotional heft as Cheryl's effervescent mother. Wild's power has a cumulative effect and by the time Cheryl's trek draws to a close, the sense that we've walked these miles with her is sweetly achieved, a testament to the binding abilities of cinema to connect two people on either side of the screen.

8. Birdman

The reveal that Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu actually has a sense of humour remains one of 2014's great cinematic delights. The filmmaker behind such seriously sombre efforts as Babel and Biutiful massively switches gears with this mesmerizing, time-bending dark comedy about a former superhero movie star (Michael Keaton) trying to regain his artistic relevance with a Broadway play that seems doomed when viewed from our backstage perspective. Keaton's character of course mirrors his own career, at least in terms of a former star famous for playing a winged crimefighter, and much fun is had by the writers as they align both the offscreen and onscreen personas. Keaton is tremendous in a way that he's always seemed capable of, but has rarely ever had the chance to show. The other cast members, many of them playing actors in the play-within-the-movie, are also excellent, especially Edward Norton as a highly respected actor known for being a pain to work with, which too is intended to reflect Norton's actual reputation. Iñárritu matches the awesome ensemble with ambitious visual trickery, teaming with genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to create the illusion that the movie is captured entirely in a single shot, even though the story curiously doesn't unfold in real time. Hilarity abounds, as well as awkwardness, oddness, and goofiness, all as the camera marches through the madness, mashing art and life together in one wackily unhinged imitation.

7. Whiplash

A young man’s quest for greatness behind a drum kit is put to the test when he faces off against a villainous jazz band instructor in this taut drama that’s as finely tuned as the instruments. Miles Teller makes for a likable, interesting protagonist who is easy to root for first because he seems nice and innocent and later because he shows such hardcore dedication to the honing of his craft. J.K. Simmons is on the other end of the drums, staring him down as the reptilian Fletcher, whose desire to weed out one truly great talent during his career drives him to push his pupils over the edge. Writer/director Damien Chazelle latches on to the passion of these two men and proceeds to dig to the crackling core of conflict that ties the pair together. An unpredictable and always interesting story is given dimension by the excellent main performances and Chazelle’s carefully focused examination of the themes of sacrifice and commitment. But it’s the final sequence in Whiplash that leaves such an electrifying impression as Chazelle lets loose and joins his protagonist in laying it all out on the floor where our jaws have collectively dropped.

6. Enemy

Doppelgängers, infidelity, and arachnophobia all poetically collide in Denis Villeneuve's haunting horror pic about what happens when a professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) spots his double (Gyllenhaal again, of course) in a bit role in a movie he randomly rented. Two lives start to intertwine at this point and Villeneuve wisely leaves the events open for various interpretations, some fantastical, others completely logical. It's the spider imagery that really stuck with me, though. Villeneuve makes the arachnids appear even more alien and terrifying than they already are, generating a sense of fear and terror that pushes the arcs of the two Gyllenhaals into nightmarish territory. Is this all an eerie indictment of creepy crawlies? A cautionary tale about the consequences of adultery? A tragic look inside the mind of a schizophrenic? Villeneuve's sharp approach encourages any and all of these readings, leaving which avenue of fear we explore up to us.

5. Under the Skin

The concept makes it sound like an arthouse version of Species, with Scarlett Johansson as an alluring alien who preys on men using her sexuality, and maybe that's really the simplest way to describe Jonathan Glazer's melancholic look at the human condition as seen through a darkly detached eye. Full of unsettling, unforgettable imagery, Glazer's Skin isn't interested in answers, but rather in turning human behaviour into something otherworldly. Johansson's alien grows curious about our emotions and habits and starts to see things from the other side. It's all rather bleak, but also strangely beautiful, an atmospheric examination of mysterious behaviour poetically pulled into the hypnotic abyss.

4. Mommy

Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan squeezes his incredible lead actors Anne Dorval and Antoine Pilon into a claustrophobic square-shaped aspect ratio for this story of a volatile relationship between a struggling mother and her emotionally unstable son. The cramped visual style is a quintessentially Dolan move, a grand gimmick given weight and meaning by how effectively it complements the story and characters. As usual, Dolan is prone to musical outbursts that explode with verve and heart and here he directs with a free-flowing sense of glorious abandon. Scoring scenes to songs by 90s bands Counting Crows and Oasis makes for a rather nostalgic experience at times, but Dolan always ensures that his musical choices are equally eclectic and elating. Mommy is an emotionally exhausting work anchored by brilliant performances (Dorval is in a league all her own) and set in dramatically unpredictable motion by one of the most exciting young filmmakers currently working today. With faith in his audience and a very mature understanding of relationships, Dolan continues to make clear that he is both wise and talented beyond his years.

3. Stranger by the Lake

This almost impossibly precise and perfectly shot French thriller about a man named Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) who begins a relationship with a killer at a lake used by gay men for casual hookups feels like the resurrection of Hitchcock, only with more graphic male nudity. The entire movie takes place at the lake, never venturing any further away than the parking lot, and director Alain Guiraudie commits entirely to a detailed look at the experiences of the men who frequent this spot. This pulls us into the situation and highlights the amount of trust these men must engage in, essentially meeting strangers and disappearing off into the woods together. It's all a slow burn buildup to us witnessing Franck's new lover drown a man, which hurls Franck into a tug-of-war between his sexual desire and his survival instinct. Guiraudie turns the screws of tension so expertly that I'm hard pressed to think of any fitting filmmaker comparison other than Hitch. The third act is absolutely masterful, turning the location that we've spent the entire movie inhabiting against us and leaving us in the throes of suspense with no solution in sight.

2. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan has long since established himself as an ambitious director of blockbuster action movies, but genuine emotion and heart have generally been a bit of a stumbling block for him. He made headway with Inception, but there the meaty visual scheme trumped the hero's dramatic backstory, and then he tried a little too hard with his trilogy-capping The Dark Knight Rises, which works as a wildly sprawling comic book epic, but is certainly hokey in its handling of the heavily flowing sentimentality. Well, now Nolan's gone and done it, making up for the lack of honest emotion in his previous pictures with Interstellar, his overwhelming odyssey across time and space. An epic exploration tale of humankind fighting with its last breath to survive and an intimate look at a father's love for the daughter he must leave behind, this is massive sci-fi filmmaking with a heart so big it nearly bursts. Rare is the blockbuster that has stirred me so deeply, so memorably, so personally. Oh yes, the tears did flow. Featuring incredible ship's perspective shots of space and a mix of silence and booming sound, Interstellar offers an experience that's as magnificent as it is moving.

1. Goodbye to Language 3D

Filmmaking legend Jean-Luc Godard spends 70 minutes toying with 3D and a wide range of different cameras in what feels like a crazed inversion of cinema, a striking celebration of newness, and an awesomely adventurous eschewing of all rules and conventions. Godard’s latest is as much an assault on the current stereoscopic 3D craze as it is an ode to its many wondrous possibilities. There are things done here that I’ve simply never seen before, including a moment where one shot of a scene is sent to our left eye and another shot of the same scene is sent to our right eye, allowing us to interact with the scene by doing the editing between shots with our own eyes. It’s one of the most exciting, incredible, and altogether freeing experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. Godard is as bratty and brazen as ever here, using the 3D technology often in violent, uncomfortable ways, but such is his charm. His youthful energy and sense of exploration makes Goodbye to Language feel at times like the discovery of a new frontier, 3D cinema as an experiment cooked up in a lab where genius and madness bubble over.

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