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Charlie Schmidlin’s Top 10 Films of 2014

Charlie Schmidlin's Top 10 Films of 2014

This year we compiled an aggregated Playlist Best Films Of The Year which you can find here. However, regular contributors were also given the chance to submit personal lists. Here’s the rest of our substantial year-end coverage, among which you’ll find other personal top ten lists from our staff. 

Auteur-driven, assured and undeniable —2014 featured a huge swath of films that practically strong-armed their way onto my “Best Of” list upon first viewing. Through technical achievement, force of spirit or just old-fashioned performances, the films cited below held some of the best moviegoing experiences I can remember, and because of that, I’ve elected to bring some of those personal details along as context for the heavily-discussed films’ placement (alphabetical, not numerical).

Naturally, there’s still a ton of 2014 films that I’ll shamefully try and catch up with over the next month or so (mea culpa, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Foxcatcher,” and “Ida”). But here are the ones that made the strongest impression over the past 12 months; I’m sticking to those released theatrically in the U.S., with the exception of one or two. Enjoy.

The Babadook
A rare moment happened around 20 minutes into my screening of Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” one that’s only growing rarer in the horror genre. As the story of an exhausted mother (Essie Davis) and her troubled son (Noah Davis) ratcheted up tension as the Babadook creature enters their home, the audience simmered down, with snarky remarks receding into a creeped-out silence that held for the film’s remainder. I loved Kent’s dedication to character over jump scares, as well as her decision to end the film on a note that doesn’t cop out while letting the film’s themes come into clear focus.

“Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”
Between this and “Whiplash,” 2014 was a year of electric, lively conjoinings of form and narrative. With “Birdman,” Alejandro González Iñárritu pulls off a tightrope act of fantastic turns from actors that have rarely been better, and he now firmly has my interest for “The Revenant” and onwards. Also, let’s have a round of applause for Chris Haarhoff’s tightly choreographed Steadicam work alongside Emmanuel Lubezki, mapped out beat for beat and floating through the dizzying chaos of New York’s visiting Hollywood production.

This sneak attack of a drama from John Michael McDonagh is greatly disturbing from its opening line, but is peppered with enough black comedy and warm moments from Brendan Gleeson to distract you from the full scale of its darkness. Either way, McDonagh builds on the promise he showed in “The Guard” and delivers a moving and soulful film, specific in its time and place and immensely hypnotic in its love of language and a well-turned phrase. Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd and Aiden Gillen all do fantastic supporting work as well that shows them in a new light —well, perhaps not Gillen, who’s as slimy as he is during any instant on “Game of Thrones.”

The Double
One of the most ultra-textured films you’ll see this year —or perhaps ever— Richard Ayoade’s “The Double” makes every squeak, scratch, and whistle in his steampunk universe known to us and lets his excellent cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor) deliver some choice reactions to their claustrophobic surroundings. Eisenberg in particular turns in hilarious and caustic dual performances as doppelgangers and gets the chance, via Ayoade and Avi Korine’s tightly wound script, to offer some gems of advice from the slick, confident James to the more timid Simon (“No riding on a motorcycle with another man. Exceptions are drive-bys, shootings, bomb throwings, and purse snatchings”). A stylized, layered treat from Ayoade.

Inherent Vice
I was given a great bit of advice from Playlist editor-in-chief Rodrigo Perez going into Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest. It was the the same phrase uttered by Joaquin Phoenix’s detective Doc in the film: “thinking comes later.” Thomas Pynchon’s labyrinthine plot simply overwhelms on first viewing, while Anderson has a blast working in a moment of comedy (Martin Short’s cameo) or intense melancholy (Doc and Shasta in the rain) at every opportunity. A logical yet surprising follow-up to “The Master,” and one that I’ve loved in different ways on each of my three viewings (35mm, DCP, and 70mm).

“Of Horses and Men”
Finally released in the UK this year but not yet in the U.S., “Of Horses and Men” was a beguiling and completely surprising unknown quantity when I caught it at L.A. Film Fest (though Jessica Kiang saw and reviewed it at the start of 2014). Director Benedikt Erlingsson crafts a largely dialogue-free series of vignettes demonstrating the various dynamics between man and horse, and the results reach darkly comic, gruesome and sweet heights like I’ve rarely seen. For example, when have you seen a drunkard miss a departing Russian ship carrying vodka and then ride a horse out to sea to catch it?

An essential film that grew from (originally) a 30-minute preview at AFI Fest to a surprise screening that stunned me with its relevancy and unconventional approach to its subject. Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo and DP Bradford Young make for an inspired trio to tackle Martin Luther King’s involvement in the 1965 Selma-Montgomery marches, as the titular town rallies together and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) hesitates in the White House. Whatever preconceived notions you have going into a film on the subject or genre, there is something in DuVernay’s approach that will flip it and show you how it relates to the present moment.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Having moved to Los Angeles has meant a massive discovery of the city’s history and politics on my part, and Nick Broomfield’s documentary digs beneath a relatively recent local headline —the capture of the “Grim Sleeper” serial killer, Lonnie Franklin, Jr.— and charts the infuriating timeline of the case dating back to the mid-‘80s. Genuinely shocking in its revelations, Broomfield is wise enough to (mostly) stay out of the way to let various LA citizens, specifically his crucial guide Pam Brooks, show us both the nuances and obvious injustices occurring in the city, past and present.

Under The Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s utterly entrancing and all consuming third feature is the film I’ve watched most this year. Similar to how Scarlett Johansson’s alien being draws her victims into the void, it’s almost impossible to watch just a five-minute fragment of the film and not stay for the next hour and a half. Mica Levi’s score is certifiably next-level, as we’ve repeated nonstop, but it’s worth noting anew for those in the Los Angeles area, that she’s leading a live performance of the score early next month with a 25-piece orchestra. A rare pleasure and an amazing victory lap for Levi’s work and the personal all-time favorite in which it’s featured.

As it probably occurred with other former jazz-band players that saw “Whiplash,” I shuddered with sense memory recall as an arrangement of “Caravan” flooded the speakers, having gone through each measure in my own time on the (way, way lower stakes) stage. Still, hours of practice, the anxiety of nailing a solo or drifting offbeat —director Damien Chazelle nails these details, knows them from first-hand experience and merges them into a heightened, hellish standoff between Miles Teller and an incredible J.K. Simmons. No film in 2014 beat its climax—featuring John Wasson’s rendition of “Caravan”— in terms of tension and release, and I can’t wait to see what Chazelle has in store when he tackles the style of ‘30s MGM musicals next.

Honorable Mentions:
Frank,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” “Honeymoon,” “Joe,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Obvious Child,” “The Rover,” “They Came Together,” “Wild,” “Zero Motivation

2015 Films To See: David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” takes a killer horror concept and merges it with a John Carpenter aesthetic and a ‘80s soundtrack to rival “The Guest.” No, “Girlhood” is not an Asylum cash-grab of “Boyhood,” but rather a French coming-of-age drama by Céline Sciamma that just might be more affecting and illuminating than Linklater’s epic in half the running time. “The Mighty Boosh” director Paul King proved just the man to tackle an adaptation of “Paddington,” which thoroughly shocked just about everyone, including me, with its warmth and visual inventiveness. Finally, keep an eye out for “The Ever After,” actor/director Mark Webber’s reality-skewing follow-up to his 2012 drama “The End of Love,” when it’s released in February.

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