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John Fink’s Top 10 Films of 2014

Written by on December 31, 2014 

5. Selma (Ava DuVernay)

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If 2014 is considered the “year of outrage,” the 2015 wide-release date for Selma arrives far too late. A visceral frontline examination of Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights marches in Selma, met with extreme violence (including murder) as Alabama’s good ol’ boys fight to maintain status quo prior to President Johnson’s intervention and the passage of the Voter Rights Act. Undoubtedly this film will provoke conversations within a current context (one early moment seems eerily similar to Eric Garner’s final moments), and Ava DuVernay’s direction ads a sense of raw immediacy to Paul Webb’s script. It also presents King (David Oyelowo), George Wallace (Tim Roth), and Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as complex, flawed men, each with their own motivations and ideals of justice.

4. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

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A beautiful and haunting meditation on life, religion, duty, and honor set in central Anatolia — Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a man of great creative energy who reluctantly manages his family’s assets with sister Necla (Demet Akbag), while playing a quasi-father figure to his young wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen). Filled with beautiful performances, Winter Sleep, running over three hours, takes its time, unfolding slowly and often in long takes. It’s not uncommon for a conversation to unfold at the pace it would in real life, not in movie-time. Liberated from artificial drama, the film essentially draws us in to a dysfunctional, flawed household as Aydin balances his duties, responsibilities, and ambitions as he enters his later years, as, like Nihal, he still has not found himself. Captivating from frame one, Winter Sleep is worth the commitment required to experience it.

3. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)

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A biopic doesn’t quite describe Mike Leigh’s brilliant Mr. Turner , fronted by a career-best performance from Timothy Spall as legendary British painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh’s first digitally shot film (from longtime collaborator Dick Pope), the haunting opening scene perfectly captures a landscape painting of a mid-career Turner. Leigh, known for his improvisational style, allows the viewer to enter this space as a fly on the wall, witnessing the quirks of Turner as embodied by Spall; the performance is fascinating recalling his work in Leigh’s Life Is Sweet. Establishing and breaking rhythms, like J.M.W. Turner, the film refuses to compromise. Engrossing and immersive, it’s both beautiful and occasionally challenging.

2. The Congress (Ari Folman)

"The Congress"

A rather brilliant and exciting commentary on celebrity, youth culture, and movie-making, The Congress is also an essay on identity and persona wrapped in a sci-fi adventure. Robin Wright plays herself, an aging actress who agrees to give up her craft to sell her brand to a big studio, who scans her into a database. Some years later, when she’s invited to a futuristic congress, the film shifts modes from live action to hand-drawn animation. One of the year’s most ambitious films, The Congress is a visual and intellectual feat: entertaining and engrossing throughout, while also densely packed, it delivers on the ambition it presents in the first act, and then some.

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

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A revolutionary, ambitious masterpiece that frequently resists an episodic structure. A single film that, despite the 12-year duration of production, unfolds simply as life does: there are no transitions, the only clues as to what year we have being Linklater’s subtle soundtrack choices. Haunting in its details, Boyhood is very simply the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) living moment to moment, often moving through Texas with his mother (Patrica Arquette) who hasn’t quite figured things out and his occasionally bratty sister (Lorelei Linklater). Ethan Hawke beautifully plays the wayward father, himself in flux as he matures from musician to actuary. Often Mason does not understand the context of each moment, which is partly why I believe the film’s impact grows more profound upon subsequent viewings. A masterpiece in any year, Boyhood represents, above all, the very best in American independent filmmaking: strong storytelling often presenting conflict or danger as Mason experiments with drugs, drinking, sex, and, ultimately, heartbreak. Leaving him on the same ambiguous note it found him some 12 years and 165 minutes prior, Boyhood is a sublime, exhilarating, and emotional cinematic experience, and a new classic.

See our year-end features and more of the best of 2014.

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