These are my Top 10 films of 2014. There were so many diverse movies I enjoyed this past year, I actually complied a Top 16 list, rather than just 10. You can catch my previous comments on #11-16 here.
10) BIRDMAN: Probably the oddest film of the year, and just may win an Academy Award for Best Picture as Hollywood loves movies about itself. Michael Keaton resurrects his career on screen, and in real life, as he plays a former big screen superhero, who is attempting a comeback via the Broadway stage. Keaton is flanked by talent including Edward Norton,Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts. Here’s another oddity, for the first time in his career, Zack Galifianakis may be playing the least crazy character in the movie. “Birdman” has very long scenes that strongly resemble reality in an unusual and surreal style. If it wins Best Picture, we will no doubt see more films like this.
9) NIGHTCRAWLER: Jake Gyllenhaal takes on a whole new look for this very dark film directed by Dan Gilroy. He is a skinny, scary looking, sunken cheeked petty thief creeping around the streets of Los Angeles at night.When hocking stolen goods,he ends up getting a used camcorder and police scanner as payment, and begins a new career in uncharted territory, filming accidents and crime scenes. Rene Russo is an all night news director at a low rated station. She is eager for anything that can bump up the ratings, and she will pay for it. This dangerous liaison proves to be successful, or should I say beneficial to both parties. Money, a new hot car, and an assistant (Riz Ahmed) are added to the mix. Jake’s character sinks even further into depravity by actually creating stories for the news. I can’t tell you anymore, or it will spoil it. “Nightcrawler” will become a cult classic. It is Jake’s finest, and most disturbing role, with the streets of Los Angeles as his co-star. CBS 2 news anchor Pat Harvey is featured in a cameo doing what she does best, the news.
8) GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: Directed by James Gunn, who also re-wrote the screenplay,this is the one big money superhero film I actually liked. Marvel Comics really hooked me with it’s eclectic cast of aliens and animals roaming thru space. Even better, the main character,(Peter Quill), listens to 60’s -70’s music on cassette for inspiration and a connection to his late mother. Chris Pratt left the “Parks And Recreation” department, and beat out Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the role. He describes it as “a combination of Han Solo and Marty Mc Fly”. Bradley Cooper voices “Rocket”,a genetically engineered raccoon character. Zoe Saldana (Gamora)is a reformed blue skinned criminal who turns to good. Zoe was also blue in “Avatar”. Vin Diesel plays a tree (Groot), and Dave Bautista is “Drax the Destroyer”. Silly and contrived as it is, it was very entertaining, especially hearing Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell, 5 Stairsteps Jackson 5,David Bowie and Redbone. The soundtrack was so successful, it was actually released on cassette as well as cd.
7) SELMA: This is a film that should have been made decades ago. David Oyelowo portrays Dr. Martin luther King Jr, and rightfully should have gotten an Oscar nomination. In development for years, “Selma” recounts all events leading to the “Voting Rights Act of 1965”. The 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama was actually attempted two previous times with smaller crowds before a court order finally allowed the third crowd of some 25,000 marchers to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Can you believe there has never been a major motion picture release with Dr. Martin Luther King as the focal point until now ? Unfortunately, MLK’s real speeches were not used in “Selma”, as the MLK estate licensed them in 2009 to DreamWorks and Warner Bros studios for a future MLK biopic to be produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. Oprah Winfrey’s appearance as Annie Lee Cooper being brought down by a police baton was powerful cinema, but nothing can match the scene of four little girls who were about to be burned to death while attending church in Birmingham, Alabama. This flashback scene was handled very respectfully, while getting the point across about the violent bigotry of that era. The 54 mile march ground is now part of the National Park Service. The John Legend and Common song “Glory” from the soundtrack, is a standout performance!
6) GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: All I can say is, zany, funny, and creative. Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”, “Rushmore”) always provides unusual entertainment when writing and directing. It was almost like watching a Marx Brothers movie. Ralph Fiennes is sensational as a concierge being framed for murder. His sidekick, a bellhop called “Zero”, played by Tony Revolori actually steals the show. Bill Murray seems to always snag a role in a Wes Anderson film, that makes it all the better. By far the funniest film of 2014.
5) WHIPLASH: I avoided seeing this one for a long time as I was told it was about a music teacher abusing his students. That’s exactly what it was. JK Simmons has waited a lifetime to play this role, and I predict he will win “Best Supporting Actor”, for his tyrannical and psychological abuse of 19 year old Jazz drummer Andrew Nieman. Miles Teller is in every scene of the film, and you really wonder why he tolerates the abuse. He holds his own against his foe, yet desperately tries to please him. “Whiplash” is based on a true story by writer/director Damien Chazelle, on his own experiences in a high school band. The closing concert is a memorable one, as Simmons conducts his own band playing Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. Great music. Great film !
4) AMERICAN SNIPER: The most controversial film of the year. I don’t generally like films about war. Director Clint Eastwood made “American Sniper” on a relatively slim budget (60 million) for what became a blockbuster taking in over 200 million in the first 3 weeks of wide release. Critics call it a pro war movie. Clint calls it an anti-war movie. The truth is somewhere in between. I think it is a character study of a man very damaged by war, the late Chris Kyle. Screenwriter Jason Hall did an excellent job of portraying Kyle, as his research was based on both Kyle, and his widow. We get both sides of the story that 4 tours of duty can do to a family. Bradley Cooper is sensational as Kyle, Sienna Miller is extremely compelling as his wife Taya. My more detailed recent blog on “American Sniper” can be found here.
3) THE IMITATION GAME: This is the previously unknown story of the man who broke the Nazi code in World war 2, Alan Turing. He also may have been the Bill Gates of his era, as he had his own computer,” Christopher”, a name based on unrequited and forbidden love of a childhood friend.Benedict Cumberbatch heads an excellent ensemble cast that includes Keira Knightley. I knew nothing about this before I saw it, so I will tell you no more.
2) THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING: Somewhat overlooked for his recent role in “My Week with Marilyn” (Monroe), British actor Eddie Redmayne absolutely deserves the “Best Actor” Oscar for his portrayal of the very complex life of Stephen Hawking. Based on the memoir of Jane Wilde Hawking (his first wife), we follow the promising young life of one of the greatest minds of the past 50 years. Shortly after meeting his future wife Jane, the bright young physicist is diagnosed with ALS, and given less than a year to live. Huge challenges and setbacks are overcome to achieve an unusual yet quality life for this unique man, who is still very much alive today. James Marsh directs the all encompassing rapid events of Hawkings early life,while Felicity Jones perfectly illustrates the highs and lows of Jane’s life as Mrs. Stephen Hawking.
1) BOYHOOD: 12 years in the making, this film follows the life of a young boy from 1st grade thru his first day of college. The film was shot for only a few weeks each year for 12 consecutive years. IFC television channel funded this unique project for Director Richard Linklater, who also made one of my favorite films from 2009, “Me And Orson Welles”. We not only follow what happens to Mason (the boy), but his sister Samantha, and divorced parents Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette. The parents grow up too during the film. Dad drives the same GTO car, and is either not working or doing low paying band gigs, for the first half of the film. The two best scenes in “Boyhood” are when Hawke discloses to his son that he has sold his GTO. Unbeknownst to Dad, the kid wanted it, and is very upset that the car is gone. The other scene which may win Patricia Arquette an Oscar, is when her now 18 year old son is leaving for college, she realizes her daily job as a mom is finally over, and she (mistakenly) thinks she has nothing to look forward to. Critics say “Boyhood” is a gimmick picture with no plot. They don’t get it. The film is about everyday people, and their kids, making mistakes, but trying to do the right things to be happy.