Monday, January 5, 2015

Mark Ahn's Top 10 of 2014

by Mark Ahn
Time for another Top 10 list!

I think what sticks out to me most about this past year in movies is the gap between the big Hollywood productions and the smaller independent releases. I don’t think I’d ever want my favorite 10 to be all smaller productions, not because I have anything against indie movies, but because it means that a lot of people won’t get to see them. Most of my friends outside of the F This Movie! circle are not as fanatical about hunting down movies, so they are deprived of seeing something good or unique or weird because they’re only going by what’s in wide release. Hopefully, on-demand and streaming services will make up for that, but I am hoping that the divide between big studio/small studio doesn’t make watching good movies more difficult.

10) Edge of Tomorrow
A lot of the movies I really enjoyed this year involved time as a thematic element. This movie could have gone haywire in so many ways: becoming too much of a video game, the visual effects being too clunky, Tom Cruise being too himself, and the time travel mechanism ending up too farfetched or convenient. But it mostly avoided all of those traps, allowing space for the movie’s main question: if you were given an almost unlimited amount of time to make something right, would you keep at it? Which is a far more intriguing question that just how it is handled in the movie, which earns this a spot in my favorite 10.
9) Jodorowsky’s Dune
I normally don’t gravitate toward documentaries because I prefer a little more escapism in my movie watching, but I gave this one a try because it was centered on Frank Herbert’s Dune, which would probably make my favorite 10 books list if I made one of those. Rather than trying to bring attention to a current problem, the movie lingers in the intriguing hypothetical “what-ifs?” What if Alejandro Jodorowsky could have made his movie? The movie also wisely allows Jodorowsky to be the star of the show, his story unfolding with his cackling, twinkling enthusiasm. It’s easy to see how he convinced his all-star cast of “spiritual warriors” to commit to his cause, and even though he never got to make his movie, I’m happy that it lives on this way. Also, I’ll easily pay several thousand dollars for a copy of the book with all of the storyboards. Also, my birthday’s in October, guys.

8) Under the Skin
A really interesting movie in that it was smaller in scope, but didn’t have the tighter focus that one would expect out of that smaller scope. Part of that is the delicious ambiguity from not having everything explained. Where does the main character come from? How dangerous is she? Who’s next? Along with some abstract visuals and an eerie score and pointed lack of dialogue, Jonathan Glazer has concocted (I’m trying to avoid “Kubrickian”) something that is an engaging but unsettling commentary on humanity.
7) Guardians of the Galaxy
No disrespect to the comic lovers out there, but I think I’d rather not see the Guardians live in the same universe as the Avengers, only because I like the characters in this movie so much that I’d rather just focus on them, rather than splitting time with a lot of other characters. I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did, and I loved riding in the cockpit with these characters, watching and listening to them bust each other’s chops and try to solve problems. Some large, important names have been thrown around in thinking of a comparison for a funny, action-packed adventure movie (ahem, Star Wars) but I don’t want that to get in the way of what James Gunn and Marvel have done in creating something super entertaining out of a mostly unknown property in a year where there were a lot of good blockbusters.

6) Whiplash
I can’t tell if what I like about this movie was the actual movie itself, or what it made me think of. Don’t get me wrong, Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons are great, the music is great, and the story is as tight as the jazz on display. But I also love how the movie pushes you to think about the cost of art, the cost of greatness, and whether any of us have an accurate measuring stick for detecting that kind of greatness.
5) Only Lovers Left Alive
Another movie that deals with time, but this one asks what would you do if you had as much of it as you wanted? Sure, you might consume and create great beauty in the world, but at the end of centuries, Jim Jarmusch thinks you’d probably end up melancholic and heartsick. Deliberate, stately, even formal in feel, with the best soundtrack of the year.

4) Nightcrawler
The character Jake Gyllenhaal creates in Lou Bloom seems to inhabit the same universe as the girls from Spring Breakers, or a guy that just got done listening to one of Jordan Belfort’s seminars. Lou’s enormous, unblinking eyes and his calculated diction are all aspects of a predatory animal on the prowl, except this one, interestingly enough, hungers for success: the 21st century version of fresh meat.
3) Snowpiercer
This movie is also about time, in the sense that the passengers are revolting not just against the caste system of the train, but being trapped on it forever. Like a lot of good futuristic science fiction, it has a little bit of everything: action, social commentary, humor, horror. A footnote about this film will always be about the Weinsteins’ bungling of the distribution, but I’d rather focus on how 2014 was a really good year for science fiction, capped by Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.

2) The Raid 2
I’ve got some questions for Gareth Evans. I don’t understand how he can pack more action into a scene than most movies do in their entire running times. I am puzzled by how he can keep finding new and different ways to move and place his camera. I am a little confused as to how he takes some familiar ideas and consistently re-presents them into something new, that even his interpretations of old things still feel fresh. I am bewildered by his decision to not make a PG-13 movie with all of the action happening outside of the frame. It makes about as much sense as a Welshman who’s immigrated to Indonesia. I’ll probably never get my questions answered, but I am happy that he’s shoving aside the normal expectations and making intense, no nonsense action movies.
1) Boyhood
I think we all expect that movies can reflect life in a truthful way; we rarely see a movie that IS life. Richard Linklater’s achievement of taking 12 years to make his movie is noteworthy enough, especially in non-documentary form, but what boggles my mind is that he could never go back. In the cutting room when he’s putting this together, he can’t have Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke go back and re-shoot something, and I love that the irreversibility of life was built into the film’s DNA. As in real life, the filmmakers and actors had faith that whatever they were doing was worthwhile and would pay off in the future. It’s why I think many people found this movie to be so strongly appealing, because we saw reflections of our own lives in the film, which are so partially so precious because we know we can never go back in time to experience them again. However, the movie lets us cheat time, and get some of those back. Thanks for the memories.


  1. Nice list Mark. I definitely feel that same divide you do with regards to bigger and smaller films. I'm a film major at San Jose State, and even among those folks I find that a lot of really good movies are going completely under the radar, because people simply don't have the time to be vigilant enough about finding these types of movies, and it simply shuoldn't be that hard to see all these great movies.

    1. Tim -
      It's just too much hard work to keep up with wide theatrical releases, limited theatrical releases, and then everything on VOD. Then you have different things available on different VOD platforms. I don't want to have such an individualized experience with movies that they aren't a common cultural artifact anymore; talking movies with other people is a lot of the fun of it, and I wonder if the divide is going to make that a lot harder.

    2. Unless you are happy with having Transformers being your cultural touchstone, that certainly looks like were we are at the moment. I mean, The Guest was my favorite movie this year, and I have been able to talk to no one about it. I figure it's the faulty idea from studio people that these awesome movies wouldn't be able to make money, which seems totally off base. Historically, good movies usually manage to make money if for no other reason than word of mouth. But as long as Transformers is in the top 5 at the box office every time they release it, I guess that's what we are going to get.

    3. I've talked about it elsewhere, but part of what makes Transformers, to use your example, do well commercially is the international box office. Stuff like The Guest or Whiplash or Under the Skin just isn't going to play well in China or Russia, whereas something big with visual effects is going to reap the cash. I totally hear you on losing out on the space to talk about these smaller movies; I guess that would be where places like FTM can really work.

      Also, best of luck studying film! I never had the chance, so good for you.

  2. Excellent list. I remember when I saw JODOROWSKY'S DUNE for the first time I thought in my head "Mark would love this movie."

    1. Thanks dude! I feel like Jodorowsky is the kind of guy who is still standing at the end of a long night of craziness and is still begging for more, calling everybody a wuss as they go home to sleep. I mean that for right now, at the age of 85.

    2. I was watching a documentary that covered 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY and when I saw Douglas Trumbull I immediately thought in my head "you are a are not a spiritual warrior".

    3. I will say that I wouldn't want HR Giger as a spiritual warrior, because that means my spirit is a little crazy and scary. I think I would want someone more like... Michael Jordan. He is more of the kind of crazy and scary that is familiar to me.

    4. If I had a biopic of my life I would want HR Giger to be the narrator.

  3. Great list (we're sympatico on quite a few) and great point in your opener - I was very lucky to catch The Raid 2 in the one theatre during the one week it played here, but Snowpiercer, The Guest and Boyhood, for example, never hit a screen in my city - The Guest in particular I would have loved to see in a theatre. :(

  4. Hey Sol, Happy New Year!

    If it wasn't for Patrick, I would not have known about The Guest. Thank goodness for F This Movie.

    Some other ones that I completely missed, and other people have mentioned in their top 10s:

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
    Why Don't You Go Play in Hell?
    God Help the Girl
    Say Goodbye to Language
    Listen Up Philip
    Force Majeure