The Best Movie Moments of 2014

The following may contain spoilers for the films mentioned within.

1. Kaguya runs away from the palace in The Tale of The Princess Kaguya.

We live in an age where the hand-drawn animated film is an endangered species. This is a shame because there’s a delicate beauty to hand-drawn animation that cannot be replicated by a computer. Computers are useful in aiding hand-drawn films (all Studio Ghibli films since Princess Mononoke have incorporated some level of computer manipulation, if only for transitions), but they should never replace them. I cannot think of a better testament to the power of the hand-drawn image than a scene late in the second act of The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, where Kaguya overhears some prospective suitors discussing her like livestock and she decides to flee her palace and return to the woods where she grew up. It’s the scene of the year.

The scene starts with Kaguya sitting alone in a private room, listening to the revelry happening out of doors where a group of middle-aged suitors drink and discuss her alleged beauty. By this point the Princess has already been stripped of her natural beauty. Her teeth are painted black. Her eyebrows are mere brushstrokes. She’s miserable, but she’s a dutiful daughter and her parents wish her to marry so she sits patiently, waiting for them to call on her. But the men outside get rowdier and soon enough they become agitated in their drunkenness and demand to see the beauty of Kaguya for themselves. But when they come to her room to assault her, Kaguya is gone. She’s fled the palace and her parents and the expectations they’ve placed on her. She yearns for the earlier existence she had in the rural mountainside, where she was free to explore and laugh and play and sing with her friends.

The scene cuts to Kaguya racing down the hillside and as she runs faster, fleeing the ostentatious world of the city, the animation style breaks down and simplifies. The colours start seeping from the frame. The white edges of the frame grow wider and less defined. The character animation reduces to simple, harsh brushstrokes. She races onward and the animation becomes nothing more than simple black lines showing her energy and fear. Kaguya is fleeing the ornate and re-embracing the simple. The animation does this as well. I cannot think of a more perfect wedding of content and theme, or a better testament to hand-drawn animation’s emotional power. It’s a beautiful moment of a young woman’s desperation and the most striking image of the year.

2. Cooper watches 23 years of video messages in Interstellar.

There are many moments of overwhelming spectacle in Interstellar—the voyage through the wormhole, the mile-high waves crashing down on Miller’s planet, the tesseract Cooper finds within the black hole—but nothing held quite the same power for me as Cooper sitting down after returning to the spacecraft and watching 23 years of backlogged messages from his son. It’s an emotional high point in a film of overwhelming power.

After Romily informs Cooper and Brand that 23 years have passed since they went down to Miller’s planet—only an hour in their subjective experience of time—Cooper sits down and plays the video messages he has missed from his son. He watches through the subsequent videos, witnessing his son’s life play out before him in video diaries. He sees his teenage son, who grumbles about failed classes and excitedly describes a high school crush as “the one,” grow into a proud father, who showcases his newborn son, and then into a mourning father who relates that his grandfather died and he buried him next to the grave of his dead child. The closer, where Murph appears in the messages for the first time since Cooper left to announce that she is now the same age as her father, clinches the power of this sequence. Nolan holds on McConaughey’s face as the emotions overwhelm him. He was gone for what seemed like a moment, and in that time, he missed an entire lifetime of memories and experiences. He cannot handle it and tears overwhelm him.

Life races by and ends before it seemed to begin. The story of one person’s entire life is just a footnote in another person’s. In its exploration of relativity and the human experience, Interstellar, and this scene in particular, capture these harsh, universal truths.

3. The story of creation in Noah.

Noah didn’t make it to my list of the Top 10 Films of 2014. I find it fascinating, if deeply conflicted. But there is one scene in it where Darren Aronofsky proves himself a cinematic magician. After Noah and his family have entered the Ark and the rains having begun flooding the Earth, he and his family huddle together, listening to the cries of the dying outside. In order to draw their mind away from the horrors outside, Noah tells his family the story of creation, a familiar story to them, and to us. But we’ve never seen it quite like this.

Filmed like a time-lapse sequence, this scene follows an organism as it grows and evolves through the stages of life on earth, inhabiting the ocean as a single cell, then growing into a fish, then growing legs and moving onto the land and eventually becoming a primate and growing into a form familiar to us as our ancestors. While this is happening, Noah recites the familiar words from Genesis 1, and the images match the words, although not in a way we may have ever thought of before.

The theory of evolution and the story of creation are not incompatible concepts (it’s the shared lie of both modern evangelicalism and popular scientism that they necessarily contradict each other). Noah shows how they can coexist in a sequence of remarkable power. We see our origins and we see the root of our sin, with the images of a golden Adam and Eve succumbing to the serpent and eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. What follows is death and betrayal as we see Cain strike down Abel. In one memorable image, Aronofsky shows Cain striking down Abel, subbing in frames of people from all cultures and time periods wielding all manner of weapons, blending the images together to get home the point that temptation, sin, and violence are the universally repeated story of humankind.

In this sequence, Aronofsky defamiliarizes one of our oldest stories, and in so doing, gets at the heart of the creation story’s universal power. Genesis is about all of humanity throughout all of history, and its power is both personal and cosmic, as Aronofsky rightly demonstrates.

4. The finale of The Immigrant.

The final shot of The Immigrant is bold and striking, allowing us to see the divergent paths of its two central characters in a single frame. On the left side of the frame, outside a window, we see Ewa and her sister in a boat, escaping Ellis Island and finally leaving to freedom and the possibility of happiness in life, after suffering so much hardship. On the right side of the frame, in a mirror to the right of the window, we see Bruno return to the Ellis Island detention facility, where he will likely be caught by the police and subjected to brutality and possibly death. Salvation and damnation are both in this single frame. We comprehend the futures of these characters without seeing one second more of their story.

Right before this evocative final image, Bruno has finally taken Ewa to Ellis Island and bought the freedom of her sister who was quarantined there for tuberculosis. As Ewa thanks him for his help, he unleashes his malice on her. He doesn’t want her forgiveness or her kindness. Ewa has suffered because of him, as he has forced her into prostitution and used her as a means of exploiting others. He is damned in his own eyes and he refuses any hope of redemption, even as his very confession and action of saving Ewa’s sister prove the existence of a moral compass within him.

Earlier in the film Ewa confesses to a priest that she will go to hell if it means surviving and saving her sister: she is willing to accept damnation in order to redeem another. This moment is that scene’s counterpart, another example of the film’s characters taking the sins of the world upon themselves, denying redemption in order to survive, thinking themselves unworthy of the grace given them. But their actions make them Christ-figures of sorts, accepting sin in order to save those around them. It’s a powerful ending to a film obsessed with grace and suffering. It’s also a beautiful climax of the character’s emotional journeys.

5. John fends off assassins in his home in John Wick.

There’s nothing like a good action scene, but sadly they’re hard to come by in American cinema these days. Luckily, John Wick exists, which seeks to rectify the lack of imagination and beauty in the modern action scene. Early in the film, Russian thugs steal John Wick’s car and kill his dog. John Wick swears revenge, and the Russian mobster whose men invoked John Wick’s wrath does damage control by sending a group of assassins to his home to kill him. Things don’t go so well for the assassins.

Just as John Wick finishes digging up a bag of gold and guns from his basement, and putting on a fine black suit in his bedroom, assassins enter his home. He proceeds down the stairs and into the kitchen and living room, taking on the assassins. The camera stays back, roving with John, observing his balletic movement as he dodges the assassins’ bullets, disarms them, and dispatches them one by one. Here is an action sequence full of beauty and finely-tuned choreography. It relies on the ingenuity of the stunt performers to convey energy and impact. The camera complements the action instead of supplanting it, reinforcing the onscreen movement instead of disrupting it. The editing allows every action to flow together instead of chopping them to pieces and reassembling them in indifferent ways. In spite of the violence, this scene is a thing of beauty.

There are many great action scenes to follow in John Wick, but this first one reignited my trust in American action filmmakers. It made me believe that the American action scene may not be dead after all.

Another Five:

It may be surprising to find this lowbrow comedy sequel listed on any Best of 2014 list, but there was no funnier moment I watched this year than when Lloyd eats a banana and tosses the peel on a corpse in Dumb and Dumber To. These types of comedies thrive off perfect timing and surprising stupidity. Lloyd Christmas casually eats a banana while visiting a funeral home and proceeds to toss the peel inside a coffin, landing it on the face of an elderly corpse, in a gag of perfect timing and appallingly stupidity. It’s a throwaway joke, as Lloyd and the scene’s focus are on something else (he’s not even aware of what he’s doing), but it’s exactly the kind of humour that lowbrow comedies exist for. Another moment I loved in 2014 was when Miyazaki considers Anno for the voice of Jiro in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. At first Hayao Miyazaki is incredulous at the idea of getting the Evangelion director Hideaki Anno to voice the protagonist of The Wind Rises. But soon enough, he’s sitting back on the couch, mulling the idea over in his mind, and it’s starting to sound intriguing. Eventually, he thinks it’s a great idea and thinks they should go ahead with contacting Anno. This is how filmmaking works. What’s thought of as a bad idea can stick in your craw and become an interesting idea, and it can even blossom into a great idea. Being allowed behind the scenes at such a thought process is what makes this documentary so valuable.

I also loved the final car chase through Los Angeles in Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler is not an action film, but this final scene where Lou Bloom chases some murderers through the streets of Los Angeles, recording the chase and manipulating the events so as to get the most thrilling footage possible, is a great action scene. I also enjoyed the oddball looniness of when the train crosses the Yekaterina Bridge in Snowpiercer. The revolutionaries have just been fighting with a car full of masked axemen, but when the train starts to move over the bridge—marking a new year—everyone stops to honour the holiday. It’s a miniature ceasefire in this microcosmic revolutionary war. It’s also the kind of odd, unexpected moment that you’d never find in a more conventional blockbuster. Speaking of thrilling scenes, there are few scenes as exciting and sustained as Andrew’s final drum solo in Whiplash. There’s not much to say about the scene beyond the fact that it’s perverse and exhilarating and complicates the film’s themes to make it that much more interesting. It catapults you into the closing credits.