Top ten films of 2014

Well, here we are again. Where on earth did 2014 go? And how did I manage to completely ignore The Jam Report for pretty much the entire year? Life/uni/film-watching/alcohol gets in the way, I suppose. I’m sure I made this promise last year, but 2015 will be different! I will devote more time to my writing!

So how did 2014 stack up? For me, it was another phenomenal year in film. We had some fantastic box-office blockbusters that proved you could still create entertaining, intelligent, and thought-provoking art on a big budget. We had the usual indie darlings that packed a huge emotional punch and made us look at the world in new and interesting ways. And we had some wonderful surprises that came out of absolutely nowhere. All in all, t’was a pretty damn good year.

Now comes my annual top ten list, which, as always has been an incredibly agonising process. The #1 spot has changed numerous times over the last few weeks, and to be honest, I could turn around in a month’s time and change my mind again, but rules are rules, and I must decide on the final positions and stick to them.

As I always say, this is just my opinion. Film is a subjective art-form, and you could have experienced a completely different reaction to every single one of these films, and that’s entirely fine. In the world of opinion, there is no right or wrong. That being said, if you try and tell me Transformers: Age of Extinction should be on this list, I reserve the right to laugh in your damn face…

So without further ado, I present The Jam Report’s ten best films of 2014.

10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

After the huge surprise that was 2011’s utterly brilliant Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was concerned there was too much hype and expectation for the sequel to live up to. Happily, I was wrong. Like its predecessor, Dawn is the rare example of a big-budget summer blockbuster that actually has intelligence about it, and ultimately manages to make you feel something. This is a quality you just don’t see in the blockbuster genre very often.

At the centre of the film is another astonishing motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis, the undisputed king of that field. Serkis’ Caesar is just so incredibly expressive and full of heart and soul that the audience cannot help but feel so deeply for him and his family. His work is only a success due to the incredible CGI work that allows you to forget you’re watching a motion capture performance. This film will have you constantly believing you are watching actual real-live apes on the screen, despite your brain clearly knowing otherwise. It was a travesty that Rise didn’t win the Oscar for Visual Effects, and it’s likely Dawn won’t either, but good god, they both should own that trophy.

There is also stellar supporting work from the human side of the film in Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke, plus some sublime motion-capture work from Toby Kebbell as Caesar’s nemesis Koba, a character that delivers two utterly brilliant cinematic moments, both involving a machine gun. One will disturb you to your core, the other will have you cheering with absolute delight.

The film hits its stride with some phenomenal big flashy action sequences, particularly the incredible finale battle (gun-toting apes on horses, of all things), but it’s even better in its quieter and more intimate moments, overflowing with genuine emotion and heart. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the best sequel of 2014, just edging in front of the also-fantastic Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and is an absolute delight to watch.

9. Snowpiercer

I think it’s safe to say that Snowpiercer is easily the most original film of the year, and one of the biggest surprise packages too. Master director Bong Joon-ho creates an incredibly bizarre, and at times unsettling, vision of a post-apocalyptic future where the haves and have-nots are loaded onto a train, the titular Snowpiercer, as they attempt to sustain humanity, while hurtling along a never-ending railway to nowhere. Yes, it sounds rather ridiculous, and at times it is, but in the absolute best way possible.

Chris Evans breaks free of his Marvel shackles as the reluctant hero Curtis, who, after a series of tragic events, finds himself leading a rebellion against the train’s mysterious leader/dictator Wilford, and his many armed lackeys. As he makes his way to the front of the train, Curtis finds himself in a completely different environment within each carriage, each more bizarre than the previous. The production design is some of the year’s best, and Joon-ho displays his Korean style and flair in truly beautiful and startling ways.

While Evans’ performance is something to admire, the stand-out here is Tilda Swinton, as the androgynous batshit crazy Minister Mason. His/her (I’m still really not sure…) fascist regime is delivered by Swinton with stunning brutality, in what is one of the most powerful performances this year. Consider her a dark horse for an Oscar nom, but sadly, like last year’s Looper, this film may just be too left-of-centre for the Academy’s tastes.

Visually superb, with some of the best and most thrilling action sequences you’ll see all year, Snowpiercer is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and requires repeat-viewing almost instantaneously.

8. Gone Girl

It’s hard to talk about the masterpiece that is David Fincher’s Gone Girl without spoiling the whole damn thing, and I find spoilers in reviews absolutely abhorrent. Everyone should enjoy the twists and turns of Gillian Flynn’s sublime screenplay without any prior warning, because they pack the biggest punches you will see on screen this year. From Amy’s stunning “cool girl” monologue to THAT unsettling sex scene, Gone Girl is perhaps the most exhilarating thrill-ride of 2014.

Fincher’s unmistakable directorial style is perfectly suited for this smart and engrossing tale that perfectly and sharply comments on marriage, the media, fame (or infamy, to be more accurate), and contemporary America. Beneath the surface of the psychological tale of a missing wife and her accused husband, Gone Girl is essentially Fincher and Flynn’s cynical view on the age we live in, namely society’s disturbing obsession with the violence and horror that can often take place right next door.

There is a lot one could say about Ben Affleck’s superb, and highly underrated, performance which is easily the best thing he’s done in years, but the true star of the show here is Rosamund Pike, in one of the best performances you will see on screen this year. The different shades she brings to her portrayal of Amy are just so utterly impressive. At any one moment throughout the film, Amy is vulnerable, aggressive, furious, manipulating, submissive, scheming, adorable, and ultimately completely terrifying.

Somehow Pike pulls off every emotional state with the incredible precision and accuracy that only comes from an actor truly in control of their craft. To detail Amy’s character transformation and further would give too much away, but once you’ve witnessed her jaw-dropping “cool girl” monologue, you’ll see how impressive a performance this is. It’s a star-making performance of the highest calibre.

Slick, sophisticated, intelligent, and surprisingly amusing at times, Gone Girl is another Fincher masterpiece, and should be showered with Oscars this February. It’s not going to happen, given Fincher rightly refuses to whore himself out through the usual campaigning, but it damn well should. Above anything else, Gone Girl reminds us that sometimes the people we know the least about are those closest to us…and maybe it’s better to keep it that way.

7. Nightcrawler

From American Beauty to Scarface to The Wolf of Wall Street, the chase for the illusive “American dream” can often make for the most compelling, and disturbing, cinema. Such is also the case with the brilliant Nightcrawler.

In his impressive directorial debut, Dan Gilroy delivers a heart-pounding and increasingly unsettling story of a man willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in the news business, and ultimately in life.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s career-defining performance as Lou is the best performance you will see all year. Lou is a man with no morals, no limits, and perhaps no grasp of sanity, and Gyllenhaal plays him with expert precision. Somehow we’re not repulsed by this deranged man. Somehow we’re strangely on his side. Lou’s confrontation with his own reflection is possibly the most jarring scene you’ll see this year, and should be enough to secure Gyllenhaal an Oscar nod.

The film also includes an impressive supporting turn from Rene Russo, as the ruthless TV news producer, dangerously close to losing her career. In her desperation, she unwittingly encourages Lou’s obsession with being the first on the scene of the latest headline-grabbing crime, and getting the stories no one else can. She sets him on path that leads to an incredible finale sequence that will genuinely have you holding your breath.

One of the real surprises is the breakout performance by Riz Ahmed as Rick, Lou’s camera assistant and sceptical accomplice. His need for any form of employment leads him to Lou, and while he is initially hesitant of the lack of ethics associated with his new-found job, his desperate desire for Lou’s approval leads him to shelve his reservations and blindly follow Lou’s dangerous directions. Ahmed beautifully plays the only voice of reason in a film otherwise devoid of anyone in touch with reality. Rick is really the character we cheer for, even though we sense that things may not turn out too well for him.

Nightcrawler is ultimately so truly unsettling because of how close it hits home. We now live in a world of citizen journalism where every man on the street has a camera, ready to record events that may not have been seen by the public in the past. And it seems that, as long as news bulletin includes the cliche “this footage may disturb some viewers” warning, they will now broadcast any footage they receive.

The film also provides biting commentary about the desperation for television ratings, and what ethical lines journalists will cross in the battle to win over viewers. How far is too far…or do the limits even exist anymore?

6. Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”

That single quote perfectly summarises the type of film Whiplash is – a tale that asks the question; how far is too far in the pursuit of artistic greatness?

In this electrifying story of a music student and his suffering at the hands of an obsessive jazz band maestro, we bear witness to the brutality that some must seemingly endure for their art, and are forced to examine how acceptable that really is.

In a star-making performance as Andrew, Miles Teller delivers a knock-out turn as the victim of what some would call bullying, but others would dare to call education. His unrelenting desire to somehow impress the brutal Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in a stunning Oscar-worthy performance) leads him to literally bleed for his art, and pushes the boundaries on just how much one man can suffer through, in the name of art.

Simmons’ performance evokes memories of R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, and while at first, he appears to be an emotionless villain, we begin to understand there is actually a method to his madness. At times, we find ourselves amazingly sympathising with him. This is a man who simply believes that his maniacal approach to his students is what is required to achieve true musical success. Is that so hard to understand? That’s up to you to decide.

The film moves at a pace as feverish as the music Fletcher’s jazz band is pumping out, and it’s a phenomenally enjoyable ride throughout. Watching these two men battle is a true delight, but whose side you take is entirely your choice.

5. Her

It takes a special film to be released in early January and still be remembered come year’s end. Her is one of those films. One of the most unique love stories there has ever been. One of the most truly heart-warming tales you will ever experience in a cinema. A little piece of magic that will stay with you long after the end-credits roll.

In Spike Jonze’s latest original masterpiece, we get lost in the slightly futuristic story of the lonely Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, in fine form), a man so desperate to connect with someone that he falls in love with the voice, Samantha (Scarlett Johanson), behind his operating system (think Siri with a brain). That voice is the spectacular work of Johansson, who manages to create a complex character with no physical body or attributes. There’s something so incredibly seductive and endearing about her voice that it’s easy to see why Theodore is so taken with her. You will be too.

Phoenix is incredibly lovable as Theodore, and his vulnerability and softness is something we don’t see from the actor very often but really should. He’s utterly captivating to watch. It’s a heavy weight to carry a film in such a singular way as this, but he succeeds thanks to his remarkable connection to a performance that wasn’t physically in his presence.

With some charming supporting work from Amy Adams, as Theodore’s only human friend, and Chris Pratt, as his sympathetic boss, Her is a movie unlike any other in 2014. The love story will ultimately break your heart, but in the process, it will teach you that love is often a power that cannot be explained, and ultimately a connection is all that matters.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

2014 – the year that Wes Anderson finally won me over. Now before you start howling at me about how he is a modern-day auteur director, and his films are all artistic masterpieces, let me just say that I completely agree with you…it’s just, his films have never really been my thing. I can appreciate them. I can marvel at them. And I can understand why people love them. They’ve just never really got to me. That all changed with the utterly charming The Grand Budapest Hotel, the most visually stunning film I’ve seen this year.

While there are several phenomenal performances to call out (namely Ralph Fiennes, who won’t be, but should be up for an Oscar), the real star of this glorious piece of cinema is the hotel itself. Anderson is famous for the visual flair he brings to all his films, but he has outdone himself here, thanks to some suburb production design work from Adam Stockhausen. The hotel, with it’s many beautiful rooms and settings, absolutely sparkles on-screen, and adds so much rich colour and delight to an already colourful and delightful story.

That story takes us on a rollercoaster journey that involves a murder mystery, a gorgeous love story, a comic caper, a prison heist, and numerous other deliciously wonderful plot-points that in the hands of any other director would quickly fall into farce. Sure, there are still some fairly farcical elements to this tale, but you’re so encapsulated by Anderson’s direction and his delightfully bizarre cast of characters, that you’re just too damn entertained to care.

Ultimately this film is just a gloriously fun old time, something severely lacking in those films destined for awards greatness. Funny, charming, ridiculous, colourful, sweet, delicious, perfection. The Grand Budapest Hotel is simply satisfying for both your eyes and your heart, and it’s a film you’ll want to check-in with time and time again.

3. The Guardians of the Galaxy

Well, well, well. Who would have thought a space film involving a talking raccoon and a living tree with a three-word vocabulary would end up being one of the greatest films of the year? I know I had high hopes for Marvel’s latest adventure after the release of the incredible first trailer, but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the entertainment delight that is Guardians of the Galaxy. Many considered this Marvel’s first big risk, and amazingly it may have ended up being their finest achievement to date. Yes, better than Iron Man. Yes, better than Captain America. And yes, maybe even better than The Avengers.

Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy is popcorn entertainment of the highest order, reminding us of classic popcorn entertainment of the past, like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark…before those franchises took a turn for the worst, of course. Central to this throw-back to the former glory days of popcorn cinema is Chris Pratt’s incredibly endearing and lovable Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, a character who is equal parts Hans Solo and Indiana Jones, with a dash of Tony Stark’s arrogance and Clark Kent’s charm. Pratt is suddenly Hollywood’s most sought-after leading man, and it’s mostly due to his incredibly charismatic performance here. Let’s be honest, he’s also fairly easy on the eyes, after a startling image transformation that will make you believe that hiding under the surface of every slightly chubby actor is a matinee idol, just waiting to be freed. Pratt is hilarious, charming and just so damn loveable as Star-Lord, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him when he’s on screen.

Surrounding Pratt is a brilliant supporting cast of characters that combine to make the best ensemble work of the year, whether the SAG Awards thought so or not. Zoe Saldana is the deliciously sultry and bitingly feisty Gamora, Dave Bautista is the hilariously blunt and confusingly literal Drax, Bradley Cooper does utterly sensational voice-over work as the wise-cracking lab experiment Rocket Raccoon, and then there’s the real star of the show, Groot; a walking talking tree who can only utter three words, yet somehow those words are brilliantly and uniquely delivered each time by Vin Diesel. Who knew a tree would become the year’s most beloved cultural icon and ultimately end up a pop-culture phenomenon? The film also completely delivers on the villains front (something surprisingly lacking in many superhero films these days…ahem, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), with terrific turns from Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, and a delicious cameo from Josh Brolin that will leave you begging for more.

Marvel’s latest triumph ultimately succeeds because of one simple fact – it’s just damn good fun. I’m all for dark, moody, brooding superheroes, but it was just so refreshing to finally have a comic-book film with a strong basis in humour. James Gunn’s screenplay is one of the best of the year (lack of award nominations be damned), and it’s filled with genuine laugh-out-loud moments and hilarious lines of dialogue. Yes, our superheroes are all somewhat troubled, and all carry backstories loaded with baggage and pain, but it’s not pain that defines who they are. Their issues are what drives them forward, rather than what weights them down, and that’s a quality all superheroes should aspire to.

Director James Gunn has delivered one of the most enjoyable and entertaining comic-book heroes of all-time. Gunn seemingly knew exactly what the genre needed, and gave it a huge injection of colour, humour, joy and life. It’s a film for audiences crying out for originality and uniqueness in a franchise culture terribly stuck in its ways of continuing the same tired plot points, over and over again. Intelligence and wit are two qualities I will always admire in a film, and finally we have Marvel film overflowing with both. Guardians of the Galaxy is a triumph, and takes it place amongst the greatest superhero films of all-time.

2. The Skeleton Twins

Before I share my thoughts on this film, I must openly admit my love of Saturday Night Live, and my devotion to the genius talents of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Maybe I was always destined to adore this film, but I can step back enough to realise this is a brilliant piece of cinema, devotion to its stars or not. In The Skeleton Twins, Wiig and Hader’s comic talents are almost entirely shelved to create one of the most surprising films of 2014, and a film that came achingly close to stealing my top spot this year.

Wiig and Hader play twins Maggie and Milo, a pair of siblings so incredibly messed up and so ridiculously in-sync with each other that they both cheat death on the same day; an event that forces them to reconnect, in an attempt to discover just where their lives went wrong. What makes this pair so incredibly realistic and relatable is the fact that they both know exactly what a mess they are, but how completely at ease they are with the knowledge that they don’t know how to be anything else. Nobody’s perfect, and these two prove that’s not always such a bad thing.

It’s no surprise that Wiig and Hader are a complete joy to watch. In any given situation, and often in the same scene, Maggie and Milo can both completely adore each other or absolutely despise each other. The bond they share is something that could build them up, but it could just as easily tear them both down. The balancing act of this dichotomy is what makes this film so intriguing to watch. Is there a happy ending for the twins? Is a happy ending even possible for two people with such disastrous lives? The script will keep you guessing, and that’s what makes such a delight to view.

The eternally underrated Luke Wilson is also magnificent as Maggie’s overly-optimistic husband Lance. Lance is one of those incredibly positive people that always has a smile on his face, and always looks on the bright side of life…so, basically the polar opposite to Maggie and Milo. Maggie desperately tries to pretend that her marriage to Lance is a happy one, and that she too can be one of those shiny happy people, but Milo’s reappearance begins to show just how much of a facade her life really is. At times, it’s painful to watch, but such if life, and this film places a magnifying glass on the worst parts of human emotion that only the truly brave are strong enough to admit to. We’re all messed up, but how many people will own that fact for the better?

The Skeleton Twins should have been this year’s Little Miss Sunshine or Juno in the awards season. It’s an absolute gem of a film that deserved similar recognition, and I’ll never understand why it didn’t receive it. The script is incredibly smart and dry, with just enough humour that comic geniuses like Wiig and Hader take full advantage of. The scene in which Milo attempts to cheer Maggie up with a lip-synch rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is one of the most glorious sequences seen on film this year.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll potentially ponder your own life choices, and you’ll be completely and utterly delighted by the little film that almost could.

1. Boyhood

The most unique cinematic experience of the year. One of the greatest achievements in the history of film. The Jam Report’s best film for 2014. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Richard Linklater’s twelve-years-in-the-making masterpiece Boyhood. A film that, by its very production description alone, should really not even exist because it seems so impossible to actually pull off.

Take a bunch of actors, including two children making their acting debut, then systematically film them over the course of twelve years to show the evolution of a family, as seen through the eyes of a boy who literally becomes a man in front of our eyes. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? And yet, one of the reasons Boyhood succeeds so well is because it captures the journey of life as no other narrative film ever has before.

The concept is such a magnificent triumph largely due to the enormous amount of “what ifs” that it overcame which could have easily killed the production along the way. What if one of the main stars died? What if Linklater died? What if someone refused to continue or just flat-out disappeared? What if the production company went bankrupt or pulled funding? What if someone lost the footage? And perhaps most terrifying – what if the final production just wasn’t very good at all, and the entire cast and crew had just wasted over a decade of their lives? Honestly, how did Richard Linklater get any sleep at all over the last twelve years?! Fortunately, none of these issues occur, and we are left with a final product that is a flawless piece of cinema.

This isn’t a usual production process where if any such problems occurred, you could just schedule a couple of re-shoots. This was truly one-chance filmmaking, and that would normally scare anyone away from even thinking of attempting such a production, let alone managing to deliver such a triumphant film at the end of it. Linklater’s achievement as director is really unlike any before him, and his vision and dedication is something that is the mark of a true director at one with his craft.

To sit and watch a child literally grow up in front of your eyes over the course of two hours is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before on screen. Linklater doesn’t allow you prior warning that we’ve just jumped forward in time throughout the film. There’s no cliché “two years later” title-card on the screen. We just suddenly see Mason and the supporting cast have clearly aged, as has the world around them, and we’re pleasantly forced to adjust to the new time setting. Boyhood is essentially a time-capsule of the last twelve years. You witness the events of the last decade as they actually occurred. This isn’t the work of a production designer researching a time gone by. This *is* the time gone by.

While the focus of the film may be the boy himself, brilliantly played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane, the star of the show is Patricia Arquette, in one of the best performances of the year. How many women in Hollywood would be willing to allow them self to be shown physically aging on-screen? We normally see the exact reverse, with every fading starlet desperately trying to look younger and younger with each film. It’s such a brave and bold move by Arquette that is matched by her moving and powerful performance, as a mother desperately trying to make the best life she can for her two children, while at the same time making some incredibly bad choices along the way. The scene where she contemplates what her life is to become once her son heads off to college is one of the most moving moments you’ll see all year. The Oscar will be hers, and deservedly so.

Boyhood is a relatively simple film, but anyone using that as some sort of criticism is missing the point entirely. Sure, nothing overly sensational or dramatic happens to this family, but hey, that’s life, and therein lies the utter charm of this brilliant piece of cinema, and ultimately what makes it an unassuming masterpiece, and the best film of the year.

It would be remiss of me not to give honourable mentions to the films that were strongly in contention for my final ten, but sadly missed the cut – August: Osage County, The Babadook, Bad Neighbours, Big Hero 6, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, The Fault in Our Stars, Interstellar, The LEGO Movie, 22 Jump Street, Under the Skin, What We Do in the Shadows, The Wolf of Wall Street and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

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