[Note: revised and updated]
Now that almost every single film critic in the country has published their top ten list, we can sit back, relax and think about the upcoming year, a year which will bring forth more sequels than ever before and an industry that – supposedly – keeps shrinking in ideas and creative freedom. No worries. There are still great movies out there and there always will be. The rebels that keep fighting for their vision to be shown onscreen are plentiful. I decided this year that instead of naming 10 movies, which I’m sure many of you have heard of before, I’ll switch it up and make a list of the ten best moments/scenes of 2014. Moments when artists decided to break the rules, change the game and leave us gasping for air (or a bottle of oxygen). Here they are.
1. Whiplash “The Final Performance”
The editing, composition, and performance of the drum solo finale in “Whiplash” is as perfect as finales go. An artistic breakthrough happens along the way. Miles Teller’s Andrew breaks on through to the other side by giving an impressive, sweaty, blood soaked drum solo that had audiences applauding to no end once the screen went black when I first caught it at the Toronto Film Festival. The ending is meant to be a provocation of the highest order. Up until that point, writer-director Damien Chazelle had pummeled us into a corner with J.K Simmons’ mentally abusive music teacher. The finale is equal parts disturbing, rousing, confusing and emotionally liberating. It’s the moment when Chazelle’s movie becomes the masterpiece that it is.
2. Birdman “Times Square Lockout”
I could have chosen the final scene or Edward Norton getting a hard on in front of a live audience or really any scene from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s visionary film, but this is the scene everybody keeps talking about. The ballsiest moment for many reasons. Riggan, wearing only his tighty whities, accidentally gets locked out of Broadway’s St. James theater after accidentally catching his daughter making out with one of the stars of his play. Riggan goes for it, marching down Times Square naked. The camera starts with an over-the-shoulder shot, then moves laterally with Keaton, then moves in front of him, to show his reaction. People start to recognize him and dozens of cameras start flashing to take mementos of this crazy moment. The audience gasps in agony and sit at the edge of our seat cringing. Suffice it to say, Riggan makes it back to stage via the front entrance – gasps heard all around the audience – finishing his lines, completing a tour de force moment in a film filled with them.
3. Gone Girl “Coital Bloodbath”
It was this or the “cool girl” monologue, but how can you resist this shockingly bloody post coital night capper? Of course it’s the scene where Amy cuts Desi’s throat, mid-coitus, as he’s climaxing, with a box cutter she sneakily hid from him and the audience. That scene. That scene alone took two days to shoot, as Fincher meticulously constructed and de-constructed the mise-en-scene. The frame is soaked in blood and Rosamund Pike’s Amy revels in the gore all around her by beautifully acknowledging what she has just done. She’s in control, she knows what she’s doing, and she and Fincher make sure we don’t ever forget what just happened.
4. Force Majeure “The Controlled Avalanche”
The money shot in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure happens in the first few minutes of the film. It’s a four and a half minute shot that will leave you gasping for air and in disarray about what just happened. A Swedish family dines in an outdoor patio, we overhear people nervously gasping about an innocent looking avalanche coming their way. “It’s a controlled avalanche don’t worry”, says the father. Lo and behold it looks to be more than that as the avalanche comes towards the patio enveloping the screen with whiteness and having the father run for his life without thinking about his family’s fate. Fight or flight response? Or just plain cowardice? Of course our patriarch was right, the avalanche was indeed controlled, but his actions are now questioned and his role as family patriarch is jeopardized.
5. Under the Skin “The Disfigured Man”
Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is the most visionary movie of 2014. Scene after scene you are enveloped in its darkly deceptive web of sex and mystery. Just around the film’s halfway mark, the alien picks up a man with a facial deformity. You may assume you’re seeing an actor with a prosthetic, but in fact he’s played by amateur actor Adam Pearson, who has a condition called neurofibromatosis. Johansson’s Alien does not realize he is different, she keeps mentioning how he has beautiful hands and persists for him to touch her face. The film at the moment challenges our preconceptions about human nature, the way we see things, challenging to look at this man through the eyes of an alien who doesn’t know he is different. Yet, there’s a breaking point: our Alien is touched by this man and starts to feel things she hasn’t felt before, setting up the perplexing emotions that are about to come in this staggeringly masterful film.
6. Inherent Vice “Femme Fatale”
Here is a weirdly sexy long take that is one of many riotously dreamy moments in Paul Thomas Anderson’s messy, but at times mesmerizing, Inherent Vice. Up until then, Anderson has confused us and dared us to leap with him in a world filled with hallucinogenic madness. Shasta, who was supposedly missing, decides to stop by our beloved Doc’s apartment with the cool breezy chilled out attitude of a summer bunny femme fatale. She seduces Doc in every which way possible as she recounts tales of her past. They do finally get it on, but not before we are brought into her deceitful web of foreplay. When the coitus is done, she sensually whispers, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.” I could have chosen Martin Short’s bravura sequence as a coked up paranoid attorney or James Brolin’s final statement, but this is the moment when Inherent Vice gives you the best high.
7. Boyhood “I Just Thought There Would Be More”
“I just thought there would be more.” That is a quote from a scene that will mostly likely be responsible for Patricia Arquette’s Best Supporting Actress statuette this February. These words are uttered near the end of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, as her teenage son is about to leave for college. It’s the kind of moment that wrenchingly breaks your heart yet never over-sentimentalizes its reach. Throughout the three hour movie, Arquette’s single mother has had to raise her two children practically on her own all in the while going through two difficult marriages and trying to get a degree. The end result is that she is now a successful working woman and is about to send her youngest off to college. It’s that moment in life when a parent has to let go. She feels underwhelmed by the moment but, having just seen 12 years zoom by in 3 hours, we feel like end result is the beauty of life.
8. Nightcrawler “The Home Invasion”
“Nightcrawler” has many incredible set pieces, but none more impressive than a mid-story LA hills home invasion that Lou Bloom and his assistant stumble upon. When Jake Gyllenhaal’s Bloom gets a camera in his hand, every law is thrown out of the window and nothing will stop him from capturing the most vicious crimes. The scene is morally questionable, but filled with undeniable tension, and aided by the brilliant work of Robert Elswit’s cinematography. This invasion of a crime scene before the police even shows up is the start of a nasty series of events that sets forth uncontrollable tensions that will undoubtedly lead to tragedy. I almost chose that incredible Chinese restaurant/car chase scene that ends the movie with a thrilling bang, but that scene wouldn’t have even happened without this creepy, deviously immoral moment.
9. Two Days, One Night “Timur”
Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing in her role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers her co-workers were pressured to choose a significant pay bonus rather than having her keep the job she so badly needs. In this mesmerizing film by the Dardennes brothers, Cotillard’s Sandra approaches each and every co-worker, asking them to change their vote. After failing to convince the last few co-workers – and on the verge of another mental breakdown – Sandra approaches Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) in a soccer field. The smile on his face when he sees Sandra says everything about what is about to happen. He admits regret for voting against her for the bonus and that he’s been thinking about it ever since. He looks back at a time when he was new to the company and Sandra helped him overcome tough circumstances. Timur breaks down and bursts into tears, bringing a glimmer of hope to a story that seemed solely based in darkness. At that very moment we believe in the goodness of people.
10. Snowpiercer “Axe-Wielding Mayhem”
I could have chosen any of the car hopping, adrenaline pumping, blood running sequences from Bong Joon- ho’s “Snowpiercer” but the one that stuck with me the most was this nightmare Axe-wielding bloodbath that occurs mid-way through the film. You expect unpredictability and downright original storytelling whenever you watch a new Bong Joon-ho film, what you don’t expect is a jaw-dropping workshop on how to shoot the perfect action sequence- a sequence so tightly constructed and so visionary that it pretty much puts all of Hollywood’s action movies to shame. Axes, fish, complete darkness, complete light, a blood soaked floor and that’s only the half of it. The film’s first 90 minutes is the most brilliantly looney science fiction I’ve seen since Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”.