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What We Talk About When We Talk About Great Movies: The 10 Best Films of 2014 - Part I

I've spoken my peace about the worst movies I saw last year, and now it's time to honor the very best that 2014 had to offer in this two-part special. These are the 10 movies I loved, the group that had something to say, and also made it entertaining to watch in some respects. What do pop stars, children, apes and activists have to say about us? A lot, as it turns out.

10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Of all the sequels, reboots and superhero fare that came out in the summer, Matt Reeve's take on the second outing to the Apes series stuck with me the most. Visually, this might just be Weta Digitial's best outing yet, as they continue to push the boundaries on motion capture performances, with the talented Andy Serkis leading the charge once again as Caesar. On an emotional level, Dawn succeeds by not letting the visual wonders tell the story, but by serving to enhance character, story and themes. It's been 10 years since the events of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and humanity is driven to the brink of extinction due to the release of Simian Flu, and a power turbine in the territory of Caesar's home is all that stands between being stick in the stone age, and rebuilding the life that was nearly wiped out. Also standing in the way of the humans is an irate and vengeful ape by the name of Koba (a terrific Toby Kebbell) who wants nothing but to make his former captors feel his pain. What follows is a bittersweet tragedy between Caesar and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) on how these two want nothing more than peace between the two species, and how their worse angels keep that from happening.

9. Beyond the Lights - I was very skeptical in seeing, what I thought would be, a generic and bland romantic drama about an up-an-coming Brit pop star and an ambitious police officer. What I got was the best romantic film this year, along with an honest and ugly look at how the music industry packages and objectifies female artists to sell records, and that timeless tale of how fame isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn't fall for the tropes and instead crafts a moving and truly satisfying film about a you artists trying to find her own voice in an industry that's trying to market her as something that she isn't. There are great turns by Nate Parker and Mimi Driver, but this movie belongs to Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni. Watching her do rendition of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" is heartbreaking and it captures the birth of a major star. If you didn't know who Mbatha-Raw was before watching this film (also: shame on you for not seeing Belle), you will after.

8. Wild - I didn't much care for Jean-Marc Valle's previous effort Dallas Buyers Club because I thought it was Philadelphia without a likable leading character despite transforming from a bigoted, white-trash hillbilly, to a champion of gay men getting proper treatment in the days of the AIDS epidemic in the 80's. In this true account of Cheryl Strayed's journey in hiking the Pacific Northwest trail, I loved this flawed, damaged character in spite of all the things she's done, including heroin abuse and cheating on her husband (Thomas Sadoski of HBO's The Newsroom) constantly. She's flawed, but that doesn't take away from the fact she's just a lost soul trying to find her way out of the wilderness, and it's because of Reese Witherspoon's fearless performance that we are rooting for her every step of the way.

7. Nightcrawler - Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some very good to great roles in his career, from Homer Hickam Jr. in October Sky to Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain. He's never been this good, and this unrecognizable as Louis Bloom in this pitch-black satire of our obsession with murder and tragedy porn on the 6:00 evening news. He plays a creepy up-and-coming "nightcrawler" - a freelance cameraman who drives around looking for juicy stories for local news affiliates, and shows that he's not beneath altering crime scenes or screwing over the competition to get what he wants. And if you hear echos of Travis Bickle in how he rationalizes what he does, then that's basically the point: he's a modern-day sociopath who thinks himself a hero, doing a noble service in giving us what we want. First-time writer-director Tony Gilroy gets under your skin while delivering sharp and tense thrills as Louis goes further and further into the dark underbelly of Los Angles at night.

6. Whiplash - In a word - wow! I've never been this impressed by the skill and confidence of a first-time writer-director has in telling a story than Damien Chazelle. This battle of wills between aspiring drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and his abusive teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is part deconstructing the inspirational drama by asking us just how far we're willing to to achieve greatness, part Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket in musical form. At the end of the day, it's simply an electrifying, intense, compelling and extremely satisfying film. Teller is simply astonishing as Andrew, as we see him bleed (literally) for his craft. And Simmons crafts an antagonist that I'm certain will go down alongside Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa and Heath Ledger's Joker as one of the best in decades. The last 10 minutes are perhaps the best tandem of acting, music, sound, and film editing I've seen in years, and a thrilling finish that feels like....well, whiplash.


  1. I haven't seen Beyond the Lights, but of those other 4, I'd put them in that order too. As much as I liked Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I haven't had the urge yet to re-watch it. But I'd re-watch Wild if it was available now. I loved Nightcrawler and Whiplash.


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