The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Favorite Films Of 2014: Joel Wicklund's Picks

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 29, 2014 8:00PM

'Calvary' (© 2014 - Fox Searchlight)

Calling a top 10 list the "best of the year" has always been presumptuous. Even critics who see hundreds of movies a year and attend major festivals only take in a fraction of the global cinema output. That was true even back when a theatrical release was essential to find an audience and significantly more foreign films played in the states. Today, with countless films released as video-on-demand, and foreign film distribution increasingly marginal, anyone claiming a full grasp of movie culture is lying.

I like Rob Christopher's more honest labeling of his list, and in that vein, my choices are simply favorites. I can never resist the foolishness of rankings, so yeah, I'll play that game, but comparing drastically different films is indeed trivial. My number one pick was basically a case of "eeney-meeney-miney-mo" among my top three, with a penchant for underdogs probably deciding which got to be "it."

Festival screenings and different end-of-the-year release dates on the coasts for awards consideration also make this process a bit of a folly, so titles showing up on other top 10 lists (Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice and David Cronenberg's Map to the Stars are two I'm really looking forward to) may pop up here next year. In the meantime, let the listing begin.

1) Calvary John Michael McDonagh's directorial debut, The Guard, was a terrific black comedy that marked him as a talent to watch. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of his second film—also sold as a black comedy, but actually a profound and deeply affecting drama peppered with gallows humor. Brendan Gleeson is a towering presence as an innocent Irish priest targeted for death for sexual abuse committed by others of the cloth, and McDonagh gave him a dazzler of a script to work with. Calvary is both a biblical allegory and a razor-sharp commentary on contemporary society. It will make you seriously consider sin, virtue and faith; not as religious tenets, but as day-to-day matters of just getting by.

'Boyhood' (© 2014 - IFC Films)
2) Boyhood Richard Linklater's unique take on the coming-of-age film has been so widely praised that I fear "acclaim fatigue" has set it in. I hope that's not the case, because it's a rare film that is this deeply in touch with the small moments that shape our lives. And though there are scenes of crisis and conflict, it's those small moments that define the movie, and in some ways define Linklater's career. Forget about the time-spanning novelty of Boyhood (filmed with the same actors over 12 years), it's the film's deeply humanistic approach, largely unconcerned with narrative conventions, that makes it special. Linklater's essential modesty as an artist is such that he somehow snuck up on us in revealing himself as one of the best American filmmakers of the last 25 years.

3) The Immigrant Another release bungled by The Weinstein Company (see Snowpiercer below), James Gray's The Immigrant is a near-masterpiece, beautifully composed for the camera, rich in '20s period detail, and boasting a magnificent performance from Marion Cotillard. There are moments in this film that feel truly timeless and the dual imagery of the closing shot is as artful as filmmaking gets. Detractors have called this emotionally cold, but I was moved to tears by a couple of scenes, including simply by sensing the elation of the Ellis Island audience during Jeremy Renner's magic act.

4) Whiplash This isn't really a movie about a bullying jazz instructor and his perfectionist student. Not really. In today's litigious society, J.K. Simmons' demon of a bandleader wouldn't last a week on the job. But as a physical representation of the insecurities driving Miles Teller's character, Simmons' role is pretty brilliant. And don't overlook Teller (The Spectacular Now), who perfectly embodies the self-punishing, emotional instability at the heart of writer-director Damien Chazelle's white-knuckle tense, dynamically edited portrait of a gnawing hunger for greatness.

'Her' (© 2013 - Warner Bros.)
5) Her It was a late 2013 release, but I can't leave Spike Jonze's lovely masterwork of longing and loneliness off my list. I think the film has less to do with technological isolation or artificial intelligence than its plot and critical reaction suggest. For me, Samantha (the intuitive computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is just an ultra-modern symbol for that new relationship people tend to frame with all their wish-fulfillment fantasies. Though Joaquin Phoenix's shy character is undeniably empathetic, Her is actually pretty critical of his sweetly sad way of being disappointed by the complications of his romantic partners (real and machine). Gentle, funny and imaginative, the movie reveals how people often create their own heartbreak.

6) Le Week-End It was advertised as an entry in the growing trend of feel-good senior citizen movies (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The 100-Foot Journey, etc.), but this beautifully acted tale of a long-married British couple on weekend getaway in Paris isn't afraid to bring out the bitter in bittersweet. Jim Broadbent steps out of his frequent supporting player status for an unforgettable leading turn as the insecure husband more in love with his wife (Lindsay Duncan, also excellent) than she is with him. Broadbent's subtleties are a master class in screen acting and Hanif Kureishi's screenplay provides him with wonderful, sometimes brutally honest dialogue.

7) Concrete Night * — This Finnish drama has yet to secure an American release. I'm hoping that changes so more people can see this evocative blend of stark realism and imaginative dreamscapes, with simply stunning black-and-white cinematography. A story of troubled family dynamics, closeted homosexuality and crime, it recalls Coppola's Rumble Fish and Tetro, but it's better than both. The young lead, Johannes Brotherus, is a real discovery.

'Snowpiercer' (© 2013 - RADiUS/TWC)

8) Snowpiercer The gifted Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) combines epic, escapist action with wild, Terry Gilliam-inspired designs in a politically potent sci-fi fable about the growing divide between haves and have-nots. Shot mainly in English, with Chris "Captain America" Evans in the lead, this was made with international appeal in mind but its potential as a multiplex game-changer was thwarted by another timid move from The Weinstein Company. Thankfully, it's finding its audience anyway and seems destined for cult classic status. Maybe Tilda Swinton will score the Oscar nomination she deserves for her hilarious performance as a Thatcher-esque villain and bring Snowpiercer more mainstream attention.

9) Night Moves Kelly Reichardt has a singular touch with quiet—and quietly troubling—stories of human struggle. In Night Moves, she looks at how well intentioned political activism can turn into an act of terrorism, but ideology isn't really her focus. Instead, this is a study of the anger and alienation of the protagonist (Jesse Eisenberg's limited range of tightly-clenched intensity and nervous tics is put to good use here). Reichardt's deliberate pacing builds up surprising levels of suspense without ever losing the film's low-key, deeply personal feel.

10) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Who would have thought that a sequel to a prequel (2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes being that to the original 1968 classic) would turn out to be a smart, thoughtful drama about the challenges of peacekeeping? Yes, there are man-versus-ape battles, as well as ape-versus-ape battles, but Dawn takes its time building to the action scenes and establishes vivid characters and a real understanding of the distrust between both sides. It may seem trivial to talk about a Hollywood franchise film mirroring the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the parallels are there. The combination of motion-capture performances and CGI effects in creating deeply human ape characters is as effective as it was in Rise.

Runners-up: 7 Boxes, Camera*, Clouds of Sils Maria*, The Drop, The Editor*, Gente de Bien*, Human Capital*, In Fear, The Great Beauty, The Imitation Game, Life Itself, The Lunchbox, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Skeleton Twins.

Honorable mentions: The Babadook, Begin Again, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cold in July, Gone Girl, Jersey Boys, Joe, Last Passenger, The LEGO Movie, Locke, A Most Wanted Man, Nightcrawler, The Signal, Tim’s Vermeer, The Well* The Word*, Zurich*.

Puzzlements (I know there is some greatness here, but I was left a bit cold): Birdman, The Rover, Under the Skin.

Most overrated: Force Majeure, Foxcatcher, Godzilla, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida, Interstellar, The Raid 2.

Guilty pleasures: Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, Dhoom 3, In the Blood.

Least favorite films: Read here.

* Chicago International Film Festival screening; has not opened commercially in Chicago.