Alum Contribution: Kirchgessner Names 2014’s Top Ten Films

Films from nearly every genre appear on this inclusive, thoughtful list. Kirchgessner not only gives a top-ten, but details his reasons behind each choice.

Another year for movies has come and gone, and on the whole, 2014 was another really strong one. As with any given year, there was quite a bit of [garbage], but if you were making an assessment based on the quality of the good movies, it’s hard to not walk into 2015 greatly impressed overall. While there weren’t as many films this year that I could easily call instant classics, most of the ones I liked were still quite good, and the ones I loved were amazing. As usual, I struggled to decide upon and rank the films included in my list this year (minus the top spots), but I finally narrowed it down to the best of the best. The rule of thumb, as usual, is that these are the films that I believe BEST succeeded in what they strove to do, rather than my personal favorites, though the two are pretty much one and the same this year. First, some honorable mentions that I loved but didn’t quite make the top ten…

Honorable Mentions (In No Particular Order)

Gone Girl
A Most Violent Year

And now, without further ado, here are my top ten films of 2014…

10. Selma– When I first heard about Selma earlier this year, I was a tad skeptical; a prestige project about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his struggle sounded too good to be true, and I was worried it would end up too much like a typical biopic. But it was the best in the genre all year, bolstered by strong film making and a message with actual social relevance. As expected, this is an emotional and intelligent depiction of the march from Selma to Montgomery, but what stuck with me was how sobering an experience it was. The larger issue isn’t completely resolved by the end, as King and his followers have only completed a single step of a larger journey, and it couldn’t be more relevant to where we are now. This is an important viewing without being blatant about it, and even the supposed “historical inaccuracies” weren’t enough to detract from it. 

9. The LEGO Movie– Comedy writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have quickly made a name for themselves for making genuinely great comedies out of potentially disastrous ideas, and The LEGO Movie is their crowning achievement to date. This was simply a joyous viewing from beginning to end, packed to the brim with jokes, subtle details, quirky characters, and surprising heart. What’s particularly fresh about this is how tongue-in-cheek it is; many overused and predictable storylines are parodied in full force here while also being intelligently deconstructed. And while this is truly one of the best comedies to come out in years, there is also a shocking amount of dramatic depth to the story, much of which is surprisingly revealed in the last third, and I was shocked that it moved me. A film like this has no right to be this strong, but I’m thrilled that it is. 

8. Guardians of the Galaxy– And here is the other ultra-successful staring vehicle for Chris Pratt this year, Guardians of the Galaxy. Surely this is one of the most flat-out entertaining blockbusters to have been released in years; almost as soon as it began, a huge grin grew on my face, and it stayed there pretty consistently throughout the running time. Like all the best Marvel films, this features the flashy special effects, witty one-liners, and enjoyable character interactions we’ve come to expect, but the retro sci-fi setting and manic energy manage to make this one feel fresh and unique. Not to mention, like The LEGO Movie, it has an true optimism to it that is nothing if not infectious, and I felt like a kid again in the theater. Films this enjoyable are hard to make well, let alone amazingly well, but this one truly works, and I’d argue it even tops The Avengers

7. Life Itself– As an avid fan and reader of famed film critic Roger Ebert, I was greatly anticipating this documentary about his experiences, and I certainly did not walk away disappointed. Equal parts heartfelt tribute to the voice of a generation of moviegoers and chronicle of the valuable gift of life, I came out deeply touched and enlightened by the spirit of one of my cinematic heroes. And yet it doesn’t shy away from what were his less desirable qualities; his struggles with ego and former drinking problems are focused upon in detail, but never in a judgmental way. You realize he was a human being, like the rest of us, with his perks and vices. Not to mention, this was a very personal viewing experience for me; I looked up to the man for years and got choked up by the detailing of his final days. It’s the year’s most touching documentary without question. 

6. Nightcrawler– Nightcrawler is a film that I went into not completely knowing what to expect, and I left the theater unnerved and yet exhilarated. This is an audacious, darkly comical, and almost relentlessly disturbing directorial debut, one that is not afraid to take risks and go beyond the boundaries of what typical audiences will feel comfortable watching. At one moment, it’s a chilling and frighteningly accurate portrayal of sociopathy, one of the most believable I’ve seen in years, thanks to a mesmerizing performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who is always good but great here. At another moment, it’s incisive and savage in its indictment of contemporary journalism, as well as the possibility that the system could actually benefit someone like Lou Bloom. The film left me completely unsettled, but never unfairly so, and it ultimately proved an immensely rewarding viewing. 

5. Inherent Vice– Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most ambitious and exceptional filmmakers working nowadays, and while Inherent Vice might not be his best film ever, it is nonetheless a wonderfully entertaining and absorbing ride. There is a uniquely hazy and oblique quality to the movie, partially due to the nearly incomprehensible plot that has already left many perplexed. And while I understand that, I’d argue this actually benefits the story; the characters are just as confused as the audience, and Anderson wisely puts us in their shoes to simply let the experience wash over us. This is a wildly funny film, but there is also a deeply bittersweet nature to it as well, which provides a lot of thematic depth and insightful commentary of the cultural shift at the end of the 1960s. It’s confounding, yes, but it’s yet another work of art from one of modern cinema’s true masters. 

4. Whiplash– Arguably the year’s most daring and thrilling directorial debut, Whiplash left me on the edge of my seat throughout, and by the time it ended, my heart was racing. The film making here has a kinetic energy to it that feels fully formed, and it left me shocked that the movie was not actually made by a more experienced director. What’s unique about it, however, is how it breathes life into a potentially predictable story line. A young child prodigy goes to school to pursue his passion in music, but he soon finds his mental stability tested due to his sadistic instructor (A truly frightening JK Simmons), who claims he wants to push the best out of his students. At one moment, the film is visceral and suspenseful, not unlike a thriller, and in quieter moments, the script raises fascinating questions about obsession and perfectionism. Best of all, it never spoon-feeds you any clear answers, and the ambiguity is welcomed. This is a wonderful work. 

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel– Acclaimed indie director Wes Anderson has been on a hot streak with his last few films (particularly Moonrise Kingdom), but with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he hits a new career peak. As is to be expected from Anderson, this is a quirky and lightweight experience, almost childlike in its nature, but here, he finds dramatic depth like never before. This is unquestionably his darkest film to date, as there is a shockingly high body count and the looming threat of war, and yet it never becomes nihilistic. Like all his best works, there is a sincere humanism, one that acknowledges man’s potential cruelty but emphasizes the need to be good to others. Equal parts lighthearted caper, fairy tale, and war story, the film deftly handles its material and ambitious structure with ease and bittersweetness, and in any other year, it would have been a guarantee for my number one spot on this kind of list.
2. Birdman– Certainly the most audacious and ambitious of the year, Birdman is simply a hilarious, poignant, biting, and invigorating work, one that aims high and rarely misses its mark. Much attention has already been given to the craft behind the film making, specifically the cinematography and editing designed to look like one continuous shot. It’s an experiment that could have gone horribly wrong, but it’s pulled off miraculously well, true too for the film itself. With so many ideas and targets that the script viciously satirizes, and with constant shifts from wacky comedy to dark drama, the entire thing feels manic and chaotic, and yet under Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s direction, it remains controlled and efficient. There are many other aspects I could gush at length about (Michael Keaton is nothing if not Oscar-worthy in this), but the best thing I can say it that it’s an infectious piece of work. In my humble opinion, it’s a near masterpiece.

1. Boyhood
– While I saw many great films over the course of the year, and a few amazing ones, ultimately nothing topped Richard Linklater’s quietly poignant work of art, Boyhood. Like Birdman, much publicity has been focused on the concept of the movie, filmed bit by bit over the course of 12 years, and while many things could have gone wrong in that regard, virtually nothing does. This is the type of film that’s all too rare; it’s at one moment epic in its ambitious and yet small and humble in its scale. There’s no real narrative here- it’s simply life unfolding, and yet it’s always completely engaging and, like very few films in its genre, it has a real honesty to it. At the moment, it seems inexplicable that one won’t find at least something they can relate to emotionally; for me, its depiction of growing up struck a personal chord many times throughout. The fact that this film was made, and so effortlessly well, is something of a miracle, and in my book, this is more than just the best of the year- it’s one of the decade’s best thus far.