Top Ten of 2014

Before we gaze into the crystal ball of films-recently-past and honor the best of 2014, I want to admit that one of the best times I had at the movies all year was watching It’s a Wonderful Life on television the other night. It had been at least 20 years since I last saw it, and I spent the entire three hours (including commercials) blubbering away, completely immersed in the plight of George Bailey, as I was once again reminded just how precious and important and, well, deeply moving our simple lives—and the films about them—can be.

To say they don’t make ‘em like that anymore is a worn cliché, but it’s true—and that is just how it should be. The art of film, like life itself, is a constant-flux proposition, an always-evolving, wither-if-not-watered kinda deal. The classic films of the golden age were in the business of defining genres—they created the grand structures of cinematic narrative. The auteurs of today understand this language implicitly, and see genre as yet another element to be stretched, manipulated, mashed, and often left behind completely in their quest to create unique and timely art. The best films of this past year really moved the dial forward, most by fundamentally redefining their approach to genre.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, my number one film of 2014, took the coming-of-age genre to its perhaps ultimate—but nearly impossible to manifest—conclusion: showing the actual aging process, for real, over years and years, of a cast of characters in a fictional story. Linklater’s achievement, and that of his stellar cast (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and newcomer Ellar Coltrane), is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. The fact that the film itself is so sublime, intuitive, honest, and truthful transformed the already successful genre experiment into high art of the first order.boyhood_xxlg

Likewise, Birdman, Under the Skin, Whiplash, Nightcrawler, and Foxcatcher all bent their core genres to the point where they were nearly unrecognizable forms. Birdman is a collision of black comedy and stark magical realism sucked into the existential abyss; the end result a film that is as indescribable as it is exhilarating. Under the Skin brought a terrifying realism to its science fiction underpinnings, creating an otherworldly dimension that hasn’t felt this new, or inexplicable, since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Whiplash whipped the “teacher/student,” “cat & mouse,” and “music as metaphor” sub-genres into a frenzied wail of percussive pain, while Nightcrawler infused the media satire with true crime thriller tensions, exploring ethical dilemmas we are still discovering in the digital age. And, perhaps the slyest of the bunch, Foxcatcher (being true to its title) presented a frightening gothic horror story that looked nothing of the sort; with a monster we’ve never seen before—the massive inequality of wealth and privilege in modern day America—that drives men to insanity and murder.

This year also gave us a healthy dose of blue-chip historical drama: Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything (which just barely missed my list) told impeccable and heartrending stories of massively influential figures whose bravery and brains truly changed the world for the better.

There were many stellar documentaries in 2014, and three are on my list: The Battered Bastards of Baseball, I’ll Be Me, and Life Itself explore the transcendent qualities of baseball, music, and film, respectively, against a backdrop of struggle, tragedy, and, ultimately, the life-affirming personal philosophies of their subjects.

And then there is Wild Tales, which you just have to see for yourself. Prepare for a very bumpy ride!

In short, there will always be ever-emergent celluloid waves to surf, and 2014 was a maverick. Let’s hang ten:

1) Boyhood

2) Birdman

3) The Imitation Game

4) Under the Skin

5) Selma

6) The Battered Bastards of Baseball

7) Whiplash

8) Nightcrawler

9) Wild Tales

10) Foxcatcher

Honorable Mention: Tie between “I’ll Be Me” and “Life Itself.”

And, as we look forward to the cinematic adventures of 2015, I want to begin with a recommendation that is pretty close to home for all of us in the Bay Area, and for me in particular. My long-time Flick Nation colleague Dennis Willis is co-writer and editor (excellent work, my man!) of Changing Boundaries: The History of San Jose, an expansive documentary that tells the stories of the working people, political leaders, and dreamers who built the city of San Jose. The film is narrated by well known actor/storyteller Peter Coyote and features interviews with key historical figures, revealing the dramatic—and often absurd—journey from San Jose’s humble, and often rowdy, beginnings to its current status as the multi-cultural heart of Silicon Valley.

Changing Boundaries premieres at the California Theater in San Jose on January 22nd. This film is a must for all Northern Californians—I hope to see you at the premier!

When the Game Stands Tall

Everybody loves a winner! It’s hard not to root for the good guys and what better good guys than an all-boys Catholic high school. Bob Ladouceur taught at De La Salle High School. He also coached football. But more than that, he raised up men. With a 151—yes 151 game winning streak—the Spartans seemed unstoppable. Inspired by a true story, When the Game Stands Tall is the remarkable journey of a legendary coach who took De Le Salle High School from obscurity to stardom, shattering all records for any American sport.large_5h2LVrLT1Carw0xyxUDEQz4ojUq

This home-grown story played out on a local football field for 12 straight seasons. When the streak is broken because tragedy strikes the team, Coach Lad must teach his players, and the entire town, that it’s not about how far you fall, but how you get back up.

James Caviezel plays Bob Ladouceur with incredible insight into the man (maybe he ended up with a little divine guidance after hanging on a cross in Passion of the Christ). Caviezel is a truly amazing actor, whether he’s playing Jesus (I can’t imagine trying out for that role) or the lead in the hit TV show, Person of Interest. I personally think they couldn’t have found a better Coach Lad. The real Bob Ladouceur and his Assistant Coach, Terry Eidson, even did cameos as what else, coaches, in the movie.

College coaching jobs were dangled in front of the coach but for more than twelve years his commitment was to teaching kids how to find their own self-worth. When asked by a reporter how long the streak can last his comment was, “Winning games is doable; teaching kids to win in life is the goal. Winning games was never the goal.”

He focused on “the Perfect Effort” and reliability. His belief? Every great team needs leaders to cut the path and followers who will make it wider.

The pressure of failure is oppressive, but that’s where true leadership shines. Every Spartan team member for 12 years had to, or got to, live with the “not on my watch” mentality and then, in one earth shattering moment the streak was gone, but more tragically, so was the life an endeared teammate.

I truly enjoyed this movie. It was well acted but more importantly it was chocked full of life lessons for young and old. This is definitely a must see for football fans and families. As always I welcome your comments at chastings@rockcliff.com.