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Gordon Houser’s top 10 films of 2014

1.19. 2015 Posted By: Gordon Houser

Noticeably absent from my list are documentaries. Many good ones are still being made, but they seem to be less available. And not being near a major city limits what’s available in time for this list. Nevertheless, here are 10 good films (among many more):

boyhood1. Boyhood. Beyond its uniqueness for having been filmed over 12 years and telling the story of a boy’s life from age 6 to 18, this film confronts viewers with the poignant passage of time and how quickly our lives go by. This leads to questions about our mortality and what meaning our lives hold. It has its flaws, but it is an epic tale that feels intimate.

2. Ida. This brief, black-and-white Polish film is a masterpiece. An orphaned young woman about to take vows as a nun learns from her aunt that her Jewish parents were killed in World War II. The two embark on a journey to learn what happened and who was responsible. This beautiful film, both contemplative and shocking, treats faith and nonfaith with great respect.

3. Whiplash. This riveting film about a young jazz drummer and his emotionally abusive teacher asks, How much should one sacrifice for one’s art? But it goes beyond the creative arts. Is it good to push ourselves (or be pushed) beyond our perceived limitations in order to reach our full potential? J.K. Simmons’ performance as the teacher is outstanding.

4. Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). This intense film is about a washed-up actor who 20 years earlier played a superhero called Birdman and now wants to be recognized as a serious artist. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s satire skewers blockbusters and theater while presenting serious questions about our search for significance and recognition. The cast here is excellent.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is another zany yet moving film by Wes Anderson, who has established a unique visual and narrative style among filmmakers. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, it tells a fantastical story of a concierge who teams up with one of his employees to prove his innocence after he is framed for murder. Ralph Fiennes’ performance stands out as he deftly combines humor and pathos.

6. Calvary. This well-acted film about a priest begins with a shocking scene in a confessional. The middle is somewhat cursory, touching on various topics related to religion, but the stunning ending redeems the film, which is aptly titled.

7. Under the Skin. This science fiction thriller about an extraterrestrial (Scarlett Johansson), disguised as a human female, who drives around Scotland and tries to lure unsuspecting men into her van. This is not your standard thriller but an artistic, brilliant, stunning exploration of being marginal. This creature who preys on men to take their skin becomes, in the end, a sympathetic character. Not for everyone, this film stayed with me a long time.

8. Selma. This film tells the story of the voting rights marches in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in which Martin Luther King Jr. had a key role. While many have noted its historical inaccuracies, it’s a powerful drama about the efforts of courageous people to fight injustice nonviolently. David Oyelowo’s performance as King is gripping.

9. The Imitation Game. Another historical film, this one is about Alan Turing, a British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist who led a team of cryptanalysts in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code during World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch is especially good in capturing Turning’s tics and submerged emotions. The film is suspenseful and heartbreaking and opens up an era where men were put in prison for being gay.

10. The Immigrant. Set in New York in 1921, this film is a portrayal of spiritual and psychological struggle. Marion Cotillard heads an excellent cast as Ewa, who falls prey to Bruno, a pimp who forces her to become a prostitute in order to make enough money to gain her sister’s freedom from quarantine on Ellis Island. It is a powerful film about forgiveness.

This post originally ran on Present Tense, Gordon Houser’s blog. Houser is associate editor for The Mennonite.

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