Film Feature: Carrie’s Top 10 Films of 2014

by Carrie Kahn on January 1, 2015

Spinning Platters film critics present their top 10 films of 2014

Spinning Platters film critics Carrie Kahn and Chad Liffmann each share their ten favorite films of 2014. Here is Carrie’s list, presented in alphabetical order. And you can see Chad’s list here.

1.) Boyhood

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane are outstanding as a mother and son who grow and change together.

Filmed intermittently over 12 years, Richard Linklater’s film chronicling a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages six to 18 in real time is both a technical marvel and a cinematic masterpiece. There has been nothing like it before on screen, and there will no doubt be nothing like it again. Utterly unique in scope and vision, the film lets us watch a life develop in front of our very eyes, with all of its attendant hopes, dreams, achievements, and disappointments. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play Mason’s parents, changing and growing right alongside him and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater). An absolutely dazzling achievement that will leave you breathless and awed, Linklater’s picture is sure to be the one to beat for Best Picture come Oscar time. (You can also read Gordon’s full-length review here).

2.) The Grand Budapest Hotel

Lobby Boy Zero (Tony Revolori) with his mentor, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).

Arguably the least precious of Wes Anderson’s films, this fable-like story set in a fictional eastern European country on the brink of war blends Anderson’s trademark deadpan dialog, rich color palette, and wry, zany characters to great effect. A madcap adventure story told in a style reminiscent of a bygone era, the film features standout comic performances from Ralph Fiennes as a hotel concierge of exceeding refinement, newcomer Tony Revolori as an inexperienced but keenly bright Lobby Boy, and Adrien Brody as a dastardly villain straight out of a gothic novel. With its themes of loss, love, and enduring humanity, Anderson’s film is more slyly sophisticated than its lovely, candy-coated wrapping initially suggests. (You can also read my full-length review here).

3.) Ivory Tower

A graduation ceremony at Arizona State University, as shown in Ivory Tower. Are those degrees still worth it?

Is a college education still worth the money? That’s the question posed in writer/director Andrew Rossi’s thought-provoking documentary about the rising costs of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in this country. Featuring interviews with an array of students, professors, scholars, university administrators, and parents, the film examines all sides of the issue with a look at traditional and alternative post-high school educational opportunities. A student protest at New York City’s Cooper Union is featured, as is a San Francisco-based start up with a more tech-heavy curriculum. Like all good documentaries, Rossi’s film raises more questions than it answers, allowing for spirited debate and discussion after viewing. Anyone with even a passing interest in the state of education in the United States today will want to see this timely and absorbing film.

4.) Life Itself

Film critic Roger Ebert in his favorite place – the cinema.

When Roger Ebert died in 2013, the film world lost one of its best critics and most ardent supporters. Lucky for us, Hoop Dreams director Steve James has given us this wonderful documentary, based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name. The film works on many levels – as a story of a Midwestern boy’s rise to success in the days of Chicago good-old-boy journalism, as a picture of a strong and loving marriage, and, perhaps most compellingly, as a portrait of a man facing disease and death with grace and dignity. A must see for film lovers, as well as anyone who appreciates a well-crafted biography. (You can also read my full-length review here).

5.) Nightcrawler

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) plying his trade.

If you thought William Hurt’s Tom Grunick faking a tear while taping a news story in Broadcast News was bad, wait until you see what Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom does here. A brilliant satire of our obsession with the 24-hour news cycle, Dan Gilroy’s gripping film is also a riveting character study, with Gyllenhaal giving his best performance in years as the sociopathic, business-speak spouting freelance videographer Lou. Rene Russo also gets a meaty role as the local news director who helps to fuel Bloom’s deranged sense of success. Network meets Taxi Driver in this edge-of-your seat thriller that blends black humor and sharp social commentary.

6.) Obvious Child

Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann, left), tries to help her friend Donna (Jenny Slate, in box) pull her life together.

Comedies seem to receive little recognition at awards season, which is a shame, since comedy can be just as difficult for writers, directors, and actors to pull off; successful ones are often taken for granted. Case in point is writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s remarkable debut feature, which follows Donna (the engaging, likable comedian Jenny Slate), a young, struggling stand up comic, as she confronts various personal and professional problems, including an unplanned pregnancy. Robespierre takes a delicate topic and treats it realistically and respectfully, while at the same time infusing the film with warmth, intelligence, humor, and top-notch performances (the very funny Richard Kind and Gaby Hoffmann have supporting roles). With this film, Robespierre proves herself a filmmaker to watch.

7.) Pride

The group LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) rally for their cause.

Director Matthew Warchus takes a little known piece of British labor history and turns it into one of the most emotionally resonant films of the year. Based on the true story of a group of London gay activists who rally to support the National Union of Mineworkers strike of the early 80s in the face of fierce hostility and homophobia, the film is a powerful study of the true meaning of solidarity. And if another scene exists in film more moving than the one here in which the activists and the miners sing “Bread and Roses” together, I have yet to see it.

8.) Selma

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.

This wrenching but stunningly forceful film reminds us both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in terms of race relations in this country. Director Ava duVernay’s picture about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama is not to be missed (it will open here in the Bay Area on Jan. 9th). David Oyelowo masterfully creates a complex portrait of King as both a tactically brilliant social justice activist, and a fallible husband and father. A brief scene in which a reporter breaks down in tears while calling in the story of the marchers being met with brutal, unprovoked violence is thematically emblematic of the whole movie, and will leave you weeping as well.

9.) The Skeleton Twins

Twins Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) reconnect.

If Obvious Child is the year’s best comedy, The Skeleton Twins is the year’s best dramedy. Featuring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as Milo and Maggie, estranged twins who reunite after Milo’s suicide attempt, writer/director Craig Johnson’s film allows his stars to showcase their dramatic sides while still flexing their comedic muscles. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad, the film is poignant and truthful, and a stellar example of how laughter and tears, just as in life, can co-exist and make for a captivating narrative. Hader and Wiig have terrific chemistry, and their bond is so believable that you may find yourself envious of their sibling connection. And their lip-sync rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” easily wins the prize for the hands-down, most hilarious moment on screen this year.  (You can also read Chad’s interview with Craig Johnson, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig here).

10.) Wild

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) takes a break from the trail.

Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her beloved mother’s death becomes one of the year’s most haunting, evocative pictures in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s capable hands. Reese Witherspoon, as Cheryl, and Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother (in flashbacks) both turn in Oscar-worthy performances in a film that also boasts exquisitely beautiful cinematography. An achingly honest meditation on grief and loss, Vallée’s film deftly captures the more anguished elements of the human experience with raw authenticity.

Honorable mentions: Birdman (see my review here), Frank (see my review here), and The Theory of Everything

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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