The Reel Happiness 10 Best of 2014: of Purpose, Love, and the Meaning of Life



As the clock ticks its final tocks on 2014, “Top 10” and “Best of” lists abound, offering something for everybody.

There are many solid sets of criteria for choosing one’s “best” list, but regular readers know that mine will no doubt revolve around those that pose the most tantalizing questions, elicit the most challenging answers, and apply directly to situations we encounter on our own journeys.

The actual contexts may be unusual (including wartime codebreaking, apes that speak English, and disheartened vampires), but the dazzling array of inquiries will leave you moved, breathless, incredulous, and in some cases, actually dazed (I’m lookin’ at you, Whiplash).

Let’s look at the most compelling, satisfying, and intriguing tales of 2014!

Birdman

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton star in Birdman

Fox Searchlight Pictures

What could be more perfect: a script about two guys played by two guys who could actually be (actually are?) the two guys. Edgy, unflinching, heartfelt, and hilarious, Birdman lays bare all that it means to be an actor, all that it takes to be an actor, and all that it takes from one to be an actor. Boasting direction and editing that showcase the finest that filmmaking has to offer, Birdman demands the pinnacle acting skill that proves its very point. What results is both a manifesto to the world as to what goes into the the work they bring us, and the love letter we would write to them in deepest gratitude for their willingness to do so.

Themes: Ambition, Authenticity, Competence, Creativity, Legacy, Man vs. Himself, Self-Confidence, Youth and Age || Go to the Post »


Calvary

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

Fox Searchlight Pictures

In a searing, career-best-to-date performance, Brendan Gleeson leads us down what may well be the last week of a man borne of two worlds yet committed to one. Of a man willing to receive the impudence and hostility of people for whom he serves as a lightning rod for the pain of their powerlessness, of a man willing to see past the acting out and respond to the wound rather than the woundedness. Of an ordinary man in an extraordinary position to make an actual difference, and in so doing grant healing respect to one, and just maybe, offer an amends to millions. The unmissable Calvary is a mystery, a character study, a gauntlet, a visceral knockout punch, and a remarkably beautiful piece of filmmaking.

Themes: Betrayal, Courage, Empathy, Evil, Faith, Forgiveness, Justice, Loss, Love and Attachment, Mercy, Nobility, Perspective, Purpose, Restoration, Social Concern and Change, Trauma, Vengeance, Willingness || Go to the Post »


Chef

Jon Favreau helms Chef

Open Road Films

What happens when ambition falls short of result – or actually torpedoes it? When visions of creativity clash with visions of a robust bottom line? When devotion to one’s craft drains devotion to one’s relationships? Throw a challenging food critic and a lack of social media savvy into the mix, and the outcome ain’t good. Thus finds himself chef Carl, sudden subject of a career implosion and badly in need of reinvention and restoration. Thanks to Jon Favreau’s dry wit, soulful style, and astute funny bone, Chef becomes the culinary descendant of Lost in America, complete with pathos, vision, reluctant optimism, the occasional intrepid bumbling, and a little help from one’s friends. Your feel-good movie of the year, sans any saccharine sentimentality. Just so, so charming.

Themes: Ambition, Competence, Creativity, Friendship, Happiness, Journeys and Quests, Leadership, Restoration, Teamwork, Vision || Go to the Post »


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis rules in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Twentieth Century Fox

Not your style? You may want to rethink that. If questions of loyalty, friendship, peace, and cooperation – and the backbone often necessary to living them – appeal to you, then give Dawn a go. If you enjoy an unflinching allegory to the world outside our door this very day, then give Dawn a go. And if you enjoy the work of the most under-recognized actor of our generation, then give Dawn a go. It lays before us the conundrum wherein everyone can come from a valid viewpoint yet bring death to all concerned, and unpacks why even eminent justification argues against hostile action. Exploring all with astonishing and  relentless tension, Dawn invites us to reflect upon our own philosophy, before someone starts something someone else won’t forgive…

Themes: Betrayal, Ethics, Fairness, Fear, Forgiveness, Friendship, Leadership, Perspective, Teamwork, Trauma, Vengeance || Go to the Post »


The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch dazzles in The Imitation Game

The Weinstein Company

My pick for best picture of 2014 – but prevailed over Whiplash only by the very tip of the downy little hairs on the horse’s velvety nose. It was the incalculable social impact on three profound fronts that made the difference. Buttressed by an achingly beautiful and Oscar-worthy score by the long overdue Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game showcases the considerable talent of Benedict Cumberbatch as the uncelebrated man whom we can credit for almost singlehandedly preserving life as we know it. Literally. A tragic figure on every level, Alan Turing went unrecognized – indeed unwelcomed – in life, a circumstance now appropriately recognized on all counts by everyone concerned (e.g., the Western world). Would that he somehow could see today’s world and its wondrous possibilities, and many thanks to the filmmakers for this beautiful bow of appreciation.

Themes: Authenticity, Boundaries, Competence, Creativity, Empathy, Endurance, Humility, Identity, Justice, Legacy, Loneliness, Man vs. Man, Perseverance, Prejudice, Prudence, Purpose, Social Concern and Change, Suffering, Teamwork, Time || Go to the Post »


I Origins

Michael Pitt stars in I, Origins

Fox Searchlight Pictures

I passed 3,000 titles this year, and writer/director Mike Cahill’s Another Earth ranks easily in my top fifty. I Origins joins it there. Cahill has an inimitable knack for giving us the cosmos in a blade of grass … for taking on the enormity of humankind’s most profound questions within a personal story of such acuity as to make the heart ache … for engaging sacred inquiries within scientific, mind-expanding conversations – and for doing it all such that it’s immediately applicable and deeply beneficial to our mundane lives as soon as credits roll. I Origins will reach your mind, your heart, and your spirit, and forever quashes any inane argument that spirituality cannot be found either in science or in a mainstream, multiplex theater.

Themes: Awe, Curiosity, Death and Dying, Journeys and Quests, Loss, Love and Attachment,  Perspective, Social Concern and Change, Spirituality || Go to the Post »


Locke

Tom Hardy stars in Locke

A24

What’s to say about a film that’s pretty much perfect? Except, “See it.” In a bravura performance, Tom Hardy rivets our attention for a real time 90-minute drive during which the stakes go up and his world comes down. Locke is equal parts drama, suspense, and character study, and revolves around situations that any Everyman could encounter. There are no crafty psychopaths, no superpowers, no aliens, no dazzling special effects. Only a decent man under an extreme amount of pressure. An exquisitely handled piece of cinema, writer/director Steven Knight brings us an ordinary man of extraordinary mettle, and a film that can only, and perhaps uniquely, be called a “poignant thriller.”

Themes: Awe, Courage, Ethics, Identity, Legacy, Loss, Man vs. Man, Maturity, Nobility, Perspective, Self-Respect || Go to the Post »


Only Lovers Left Alive

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston star in Only Lovers Left Alive

Sony Pictures Classics

Meet the coolest film of 2014, hands down. Only Lovers Left Alive brings us the tale of a long (long!) happily married bicontinental couple, who reunite when one comes down with a bad case of the blues. Wedded bliss succumbs to in-law conflict, however, when the other’s incorrigible sister arrives uninvited. It’s such ordinary content, but its context makes all the difference. By removing all pressure of the workaday world and its ever-ticking clock, writer/director Jim Jarmusch explores life, identity, meaning, and ennui in wholly original and pure form, pondering in clear relief those questions common across culture and generation and universal to humankind (-kind being used literally). The performances are utterly scrumptious, and it’s Exhibit A as to why there needs to be an Oscar for casting.

Themes: Happiness, Hope, Optimism, Perspective, Time, Wisdom, Youth and Age, Zest || Go to the Post »


Snowpiercer

Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton star in Snowpiercer

RADiUS-TWC

Snowpiercer brings us a thrilling sci-fi action flick on which one could easily teach a course or three. And oh look, there’s Tilda Swinton again. This time the polar opposite of cool, she spouts the propaganda of the privileged in a ghoulish representation of the glittering system she represents, a kind of living Dorian Gray’s painting. An allegory of our planet perpetually circling the sun, Snowpiercer explores concepts of equity, social justice, Darwinism, and evil cloaking itself either as helpless capitulation to some ineffable, naturally-imposed order or as an unfortunate yet necessary enforcer for the greater good (whichever argument serves the moment to calm those who would rebel). Weave all this into dazzling action and superlative design and effects, and Snowpiercer finds itself destined for sci-fi classic status.

Themes: Courage, Evil, Fairness, Generosity, Man vs. Man, Social Concern and Change, Teamwork || Go to the Post »


Whiplash

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons star in Whiplash

Sony Pictures Classics

And now we come to my great love of 2014. In this scorching character study from writer/director Damien Chazelle, we find out how far it is rational (even ethical) to push someone (including oneself) in order to birth the talent of a generation and the legacy of a life. Do you feel you have greatness – true empirical greatness – inside of you? Our young Neyman hopes so, and seeks answer from noted instructor Fletcher. Thus begins one of the most riveting relationships in cinematic history, as Fletcher begins his relentless assault on everything standing in the way of Andrew’s greatness, up to and including Andrew himself. Miles Teller fulfills the promise of Rabbit Hole, and J.K. Simmons shames every casting director who ever underestimated him. You won’t believe what hit you, guaranteed.

Themes: Ambition, Awe, Boundaries, Competence, Courage, Endurance, Ethics, Fear, Initiation (Innocence vs. Experience), Journeys and Quests, Leadership, Legacy, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Man, Perseverance, Perspective, Purpose, Resilience, Self-Confidence, Self-Control, Self-Respect, Vision, Willingness || Go to the Post »

 

So there you have it! The most tantalizing films of 2014, Reel Happiness-style. Now on to The 10 Most Thoughtful Films of 2015! »

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