I’ve seen some great films this year. Though there are still more I need to catch (Whiplash, Selma, Inherent Vice, and Birdman to name a few), I thought it would be fun to put together a list highlighting my favorites so far. I hope this will be a guide of sorts for those of you looking to expand your filmography. My top ten list includes blockbusters, independent and foreign films, dramas, a horror picture, a black and white feature, and even one movie with Tom Cruise.
Because one of my passions is examining how art and Christianity coincide, I’ve included within each description a number of themes I feel interact with that particular film’s story. This will, hopefully, help you look at these movies through a more critical, spiritually-minded lens.
Make sure to tell me your favorites in the comment section below.
10. The Babadook
I’m not a horror fan, but The Babadook is just too good to pass up. The movie’s premise might not seem all too creative—“A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her”—but don’t let the setup fool you. Subtract the supernatural/horror elements from the story, and The Babadook still makes for a fairly fantastic film. It also serves as an interesting analogy for grief and loss.
Snowpiercer is a weird movie. My friend Kevin McLenithan compares the film to a “crazy-quilt pattern.” I think this is a near perfect description. Snowpiercer glides from action to comedy, from common to bizarre, almost seamlessly. The story reflects this range of motion. After earth becomes a frozen tundra, survivors are left making a yearly circle around the globe by way of a perpetual-motion train. Poor people ride in the back; rich people in the front. Snowpiercer pokes at our presuppositions regarding social hierarchy and poverty, but doesn’t allow itself to get too heavy handed. This one is bizarrely fun. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix.
8. Edge of Tomorrow (AKA Live. Die. Repeat.)
Edge of Tomorrow is a big-budget, high-action, science fiction film that isn’t a sequel, reboot, or remake. And it’s made extremely well. The story follows a reluctant army commander (Tom Cruise) who’s forced into the front lines of an extraterrestrial war. Through sheer coincidence—that I won’t spoil here—he’s given the ability to “respawn” after each death, reliving the same day again and again. Tom Cruise is great here. Emily Blunt is even better. Edge of Tomorrow impressed me with its humor, sharp editing, and originality. Did I already say it’s very, very funny? It also touches on important issues like courage and apathy, which I appreciate.
Foxcatcher is not a “pick me up” type of film. It’s dark and plodding, but, ultimately, powerful. Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a famous wrestler who’s also the brother of a famous wrestler (Mark Ruffalo). Mark thinks he gets the deal of a lifetime when multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) offers to sponsor his quest for 1988 Olympic gold. The results aren’t pretty—even more so since the film is based on a true story.
I’m drawn to Foxcatcher because as a narrative, it’s saturated with consumption—consumption both individually and corporately as a nation. In nearly every scene, the characters weigh their options. What must they do to achieve success? Who or what could solidify their place in history? Overall, Foxcatcher may critique the dark side of America, but it’s also a pretty great American film too.
Side note: I want Mark Ruffalo to be my older brother.
Fury is probably the last film I expected to be on this list. Well, besides Dumb and Dumber Too (spoiler: it isn’t here).
Brad Pitt plays Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a battle-worn sergeant who commands a Sherman tank and her crew during the closing months of World War II. As a film, Fury is less about battle per se and more about how battle consumes its participants. It raises questions about violence, the morality of war, and the part faith plays in the entire ordeal. The performances are solid (Shia LaBeouf is a bright spot), the battle sequences are superbly choreographed, and the story is crafted in a way that reinforces the thematic weight of the film.
Here’s my review of Fury for Christ and Pop Culture.
Ida is a black and white Polish film, which means most people won’t see it. I hope you give it a try anyway. Ida is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Here’s a blurb I wrote for the movie at 1 More Film Blog (where it received second place in our 2014 Arts & Faith Ecumenical Jury Awards).
In his most recent film, director Pawel Pawlikowski grapples with belief, loss, and religious ambiguity in 1960s Communist Poland. The story’s protagonist, a novitiate nun named Anna, is suddenly faced with a crisis of faith when she learns of her family’s dark history. Submersion in the past eventually pushes Anna to question not only her personal identity, but also her commitment to God. Shot in rich monochrome, Ida uses disproportional angles and off-center framing to convey the feeling that life isn’t always as symmetrical as one would like. With powerful performances and a patient, lingering presence, Ida paints a beautiful portrait of faith by showing us that faith isn’t always so beautiful.
4. Two Days, One Night
Two Days, One Night is another foreign film that I absolutely loved. Marion Cotillard (in her best performance) plays Sandra, a young woman on the verge of losing her job. She has one weekend to convince her colleagues to forgo a 1,000 euro bonus so she remain employed. Every aspect of Two Days, One Night—the direction (from the Dardenne brothers), cinematography, and Cotillard—helps to drop us into the shoes of the main character. Cotillard is in every shot. We follow her from place to place. The camera is always moving, shifting, turning. There is no soundtrack. The dialogue is mundane, but dutifully authentic. Two Days, One Night is a master class in empathy.
Nightcrawler is the second biggest surprise of the year for me (behind Fury). I almost chose not to see it.
The story is about a man named Louis Bloom. Like anyone in America, Louis has big plans. He eventually puts those plans to good (?) use by becoming a freelance crime journalist. When everyone else is asleep, Louis haunts the streets of L.A., shooting video footage for money.
Nightcrawler is dark, disturbingly funny, and home to one of the most intense third acts of any film this year. Jake Gyllenhaal is shockingly good (see my Lead Actor category at the bottom). Nightcrawler also provides an interesting look at our current definition of the American Dream. What are we willing to do/sacrifice to get to the top? We might not like Louis Bloom, but if we’re honest, we’ll realize there’s a little Louis Bloom inside all of us.
I thought about Calvary for weeks after I watched it. Calvary is about an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) who faithfully serves his parishioners who, for lack of a better term, are pagans. And this is putting it nicely. One of his townspeople even wants him dead. Still, Father James ministers to them anyway. In the end, Calvary illustrates, more than any other film this year, that following Jesus means carrying a cross much like our savior. It means caring less about our life than the lives of others. Even the dirtiest of lots. As priests in God’s kingdom, we can and should relate to Father James’ character. We should share his same commitment of sacrifice and forgiveness, even when evil threatens to unravel the corners of our heart.
Read my review for Christ and Pop Culture here.
I’ll admit, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a sexy pick this year. But it’s a sexy pick for a reason. Filmed piece by piece over twelve years, the story follows a Texas boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from childhood through adolescence. Boyhood isn’t a documentary, though it’s as nonfiction as fiction can get. In about three hours, the characters age over a decade—hair and weight coming and going. Boyhood’s plot is loose and fluid. There are no huge twists or big reveals. Nothing outlandish or outside the lines. I loved Boyhood because the film wisely understands it’s the tiny moments that form and shape us into who we are. Boyhood made me want to be a better husband and father. As a Christian, it reminded me to sincerely, as Paul says, “do all to the glory of God.” Boyhood moved me more than any film this year.
You can check out my thoughts on Boyhood here.
Documentary of the Year: Beginning with the End
I decided to honor my favorite documentary in a separate category. I had the privilege of receiving a screener for Beginning with the End earlier this month and I was very impressed. The film—clocking in at just over an hour—follows a teacher who offers a hospice elective at his local high school. Teenagers who enter the program spend time caring for individuals on the verge of death. I love Beginning with the End for two reasons: 1) We say that everyone is important, but how often do we teach our children to care for those who are elderly and/or sick? 2) Death is a natural part of life, this film provokes much needed conversations about the subject.
Here are films 11-20. You can catch an even longer list on my Letterboxd account: 11. Gone Girl, 12. The Grand Budapest Hotel, 13. Interstellar, 14. The Lego Movie, 15. The Immigrant, 16. Begin Again, 17. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 18. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 19. Frank, 20. The Overnighters.
Most Disappointing Films of the Year: Left Behind (it failed to meet even my lowest of expectations), Unbroken, The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
For fun, here are my individual favorites of the year:
Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Lead Actor: Jack Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Lead Actress: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Supporting Actor: Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Soundtrack: Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman, Grand Budapest Hotel
A quick disclaimer: Some of the above films contain language, sexuality, and violence. Before watching any given movie, it’s important to know what you are viewing. Different people have different lines, and that’s okay. IMDB has a great section under each film for checking out its content.
What’s your favorite film of the year? Let me know below.