This list was revised on February 3rd, 2015 to accommodate two new inclusions to the year’s best: “Whiplash” and “American Sniper.” I felt the list was imperfect when I posted in mid-December, and it got to the point where I was dying to pay credit to a few titles where credit was due. Down below I offer a more detailed explanation to the changes.
My Original Paragraph Lead: Does my taste in film get more esoteric each year or what? But at least I didn’t love the most pretentious movie of the year (see #1 worst). Many faves this year were thrillers, or dramas that played like thrillers. Some of the plots were improbable, but not impossible. I feel it is worth making that distinction since so much great art is arrogantly shrugged off for being unrealistic. If art played it safe, it would be boring. None of my choices are boring. I truly love these films, although I’ll admit there was a superior volume of films a year ago.
BEST OF 2014
1. Boyhood – Wonderful. Writer-director Richard Linklater shot the film over a spread of 12 years shooting in continuity with his actors. We meet Texas kid Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at 6-years old, growing up in a broken home, with his mother (Patricia Arquette) making a number of bad life choices before making a couple good ones, and natural father (Ethan Hawke) slowly returning to his life for every other weekend visits. This is about the boy’s growth development, in essence. So audiences looking for “plot” need not bother, for this is story over plot, about a boy transcending the toxicity he encounters and maturing beyond his high school peers and envious adults. I almost don’t want to use the word toxicity, since this is a film with a beautiful essence about a child growing up intelligent and strong.
As much as I love the 1989 comedy “Parenthood” with its rich pathos, “Boyhood” has searing insights on parenting: Shielding your child from a drunk relative; worrying about your child on a sleepover with no mature supervision; concerning if your child will get over the disheveled phase; how to elevate above teasing at school; teaching not get trapped forever by a first girlfriend, there’s more out there; that education exists outside of schools and in real life; feigning certainty at all times.
Yes, “Boyhood” is two hours and forty-minutes long. It’s also so obviously the best picture of the year. The last scene is the sweetest thing in years. In case you’re not up to speed, writer-director Linklater is also respected for “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “Waking Life,” “School of Rock” and “Bernie.” He has outdone himself this time.
2. Nymphomaniac (Denmark) – I’m probably one of the few people on Earth who thinks a 4-hour Danish film about a woman with an insatiable sex drive is great. What can I say? I like psychology. Most people would find it too upsetting within twenty minutes. From the director of “Breaking the Waves” and “Melancholia,” Lars von Trier’s hypersexual saga has pornographic content, but it is not senseless pornography. Joe is aged by decades (Stacy Martin, young; Charlotte Gainsbourg, woman), and she grows so accustomed in her habits to the point that she attracts sex and recklessness into her nature. Men who pass by sense she is defined by it. The entire film she is counseled by a celibate named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), her polar opposite, and her life is recounted in flashback. “Nymphomaniac” is far ahead of its time for its’ intermix of graphic sex and intellectual content, and by the bravado of its montages – with astute voiceover – that gets us into an understanding of her impulses and her constant desire to find her next big high. Von Trier’s piece is divided into separate “Vol. 1” and “Vol. 2” titles, but it’s really one individual masterpiece.
3. Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal gives the best acting performance of the decade. That’s a tall statement that I make without haste. But see the film and ask why wouldn’t it be? Look at other great anti-social performances in cinema that weren’t Oscar-nominated or appreciated in their time: Woody Harrelson in “Rampart,” Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Eric Roberts in “Star 80,” Robert DeNiro in “The King of Comedy.” Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an amateur photographer who violates boundaries of the injured and the dead, goes in with gusto to the big TV news stations and uses his intractable logic as why they should buy his freelance news footage. His monologues are spellbinding. Bloom is a sociopath, but doesn’t set out to be complicit to murder but does whatever it takes to succeed with his slimy video production news business. But he will be complicit if it means selling a prospective high rating clip for more profit. Rene Russo is stupendous as the news producer who loves jacking up the terror in news stories, and Riz Ahmed is heartrending as Lou’s pathetic assistant. The lurid nighttime activity of an infested city is captured as eerily as the 1976 landmark classic “Taxi Driver,” and deserves the same classic reputation. Dan Gilroy (screenwriter of the “Bourne” movies) made a stunning directorial debut.
4. Whiplash — Actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons push their love for performance to the max. Simmons is getting all the awards season love, but wouldn’t it be nice if they both were? There hasn’t been a music drama with such an electric pulse to it in quite a few years, and simply there’s no other jazz movie that’s this ebullient. Even if you hate jazz, you will find this film fascinating (and you’ll probably learn to like jazz a little bit). The core subject is very relevant, with Teller as a music prodigy who is given permission to join an advanced performance class, is jacked up with lots of esteem only to be berated daily by Simmons as the mad dog school instructor who hears flaws in the notes that no one else can hear. I want to really say this: This film is an example of perfect economy of storytelling. No needless scenes, no unnecessary fat on scenes, and always very alive in the moment.
5. Gone Girl – One of the best genre films of recent years, a thriller that is somehow more thrilling weeks after you see it because you’re still putting the psychological puzzle pieces together. Was one ofs the flashbacks a fabrication in its retelling because it came from a skewed point of view? Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike look like a bad mismatched cast couple at first, but that’s the point. When she goes missing, and his affectless demeanor and absent-minded gaiety is caught on camera, it makes for terrible public perception. He becomes the most hated man in America. “Girl” as a plot isn’t probable but it’s not impossible. You’re hooked by the number of doozy twists that come with the best home run blockbusters, but director David Fincher’s enigmatic little nuances elevate it to high art. The final image, for instance, isn’t very “real” but it’s the kind of quick-flash moment that makes it into your nightmares.
6. Life Itself – The Roger Ebert documentary that reveals why he was the greatest of all film critics, and one of the greatest writers of anything, period. We get the fullness of his life, as any devoted fan could hope, and the footage of him at the end afflicted with his disease which only elicited the most impassioned writing of his life. The world without Ebert is a difficult one. We now have a hopeless critic culture that metaphorically gives the hideously pretentious “Birdman” thumbs way up while great trash like “Need for Speed” is given thumbs way down. Many of today’s critics are descendants of Ebert, but they still don’t get it. If you want to wholly understand movies then get in touch with vintage Ebert now. This doc also uncovers the layers of Ebert’s longtime television co-host Gene Siskel.
7. Foxcatcher – You’re being set-up for an inspiration sports fable, you think, one that’s unaffected and matter-of-fact. You keep waiting for the emotions to warm, and between billionaire John DuPont (Steve Carell) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) as the 1984 Olympic wrestler that he agrees to coach for the 1988 Olympics, the warmth is briefly there. I have no idea of whom director Bennett Miller’s connections are, but he somehow got to shoot the film on somebody’s seemingly $100 million estate. Mark is eating dollar hamburgers before he’s plucked by DuPont, is empowered by an impromptu friendship and by the luxurious surroundings, and then spirits are crushed. Carell, Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s paunchy married brother and competitor wrestler who unwisely gets too much in-between the other two, all do the finest dramatic work of their careers in what is likely the greatest American tragedy of the cinema since 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
8. American Sniper — No politics except Chris Kyle’s politics, he would be the Navy SEAL who succeeded more lethal kills in U.S. Military History. “I am willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took,” he says of his 160 kills. Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, with a hefty bale of Texas personality, a plenty dosage of charm and personality. The bravado of Clint Eastwood’s direction is helping us realize how dangerous inner city Iraq is. I believe that it’s possible Kyle made a few more mistakes than the film lets on, but I’m more than persuaded that he saved countless soldiers lives from his own side. “Sniper” is a portrait of a man, so all that pro-war stuff and how this film serves as propaganda can be thrown out the window for all I’m concerned. I perceived his valor and found I learned something about patriotism. There are PTSD issues discussed, and it’s done well, but if you really want a film on that subject see the 2006 documentary “The Ground Truth.” But overall, yes, this is an intelligent and always interesting film that is essential to Eastwood’s film canon.
9. Begin Again – Has no cultural “importance” whatsoever, but this music comedy-drama (with good music!) is one of those feel-great movies you just want to beg everybody you know to go see. This is coming from somebody who hates films about the music industry because they’re usually filled with egotistical biz people. Star turns feature Mark Ruffalo as a washed-up exec and Keira Knightley as a self-doubting songwriter who together come up with an original idea to record an album without using a recording studio. Adam Levine, in his first acting role, is the conflict or antagonist or whatever you want to call it, but he’s really good in the part as the ex-boyfriend who becomes a star. John Carney of “Once” is the writer-director, and the love story here is to get two jaded souls to rekindle their love for music.
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel – The first shots of a gondola transport to the opulently colorful hotel of the title are magically beautiful, and the people in it are charming too, in what is to date my favorite Wes Anderson film. Ralph Fiennes is splendid as the finicky concierge who battles for the right of one piece of art from his deceased lover’s collection (Tilda Swinton as 84-year old Madame D.), with the help of Tony Revolori he snatches the painting following the will and testament reading. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe are the nasty surviving sons of the estate that want all of their mother’s heirlooms for themselves, they’re from Anderson’s box of caricatures. But Anderson gives them, and everybody else in the large ensemble cast, at least something amusing to do. Visual enchantment nearly all the way.
Honorable Mentions: Selma; Interstellar; The Imitation Game; Edge of Tomorrow; 22 Jump Street; Joe; Fury; Lucy; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Young & Beautiful (France).
Note: In leiu of first-time fatherhood and travels to see family, I originally rushed this article out. “22 Jump Street” and “Interstellar” were originally on my ten best list. I saw those titles a second time (and felt a little less about them) and then saw a boat full of other titles, specifically “Whiplash” and “American Sniper” which came on as late inclusions to the list.
Best Actress: Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Nymphomaniac” (see pic, left). Runner-up: Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl.”
Best Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler” (see pic, right). Runner-up: Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher.”
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood.” Runner-up: Tilda Swinton in “Snowpiercer.”
Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” Runner-up: Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher.”
Best Ensemble Cast: “Boyhood.”
Best Performance to Redeem a Formulaic Script: Bill Murray in “St. Vincent.” Because of him, yes, I recommend the movie.
Best Documentary: “Life Itself.” Runner-up: “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”
Best Cinematography: “Nightcrawler.” Runner-up: “Gone Girl.”
Best Artistic Use of Black & White: “The Giver.” I know I’m supposed to say “Ida” (Poland), but really, no thank you to that film.
Best Art Direction: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Best Music Score: “Interstellar” by Hans Zimmer
Best Song: “Begin Again”
Best Sound Design: “Edge of Tomorrow.”
Best Special Effects: “Interstellar.”
Best Children’s Film: “The Legos Movie.”
Best B-Movie: “Need for Speed.”
Biggest Disappointment: “The Monuments Men.”
Most Overrated: “Under the Skin.”
Worst Actress: Sarah Gadon in “Enemy.” Runner-Up: Julianne Moore in “Non-Stop.”
Worst Actor: Russell Crowe in “Winter’s Tale.” Runner-Up: Johnny Depp in “Transcendence.”
Worst Films of the Year:
1. Birdman – I forgive Michael Keaton but no one else. This insidiously overpraised film is made by a-holes for a-holes – made for the kind of people who hangout in hipster bars every weekend of their life and speak in shallow metaphors (“It’s cool, man, because it’s so different!”). That it’s all filmed in “one single take” is bogus showboating. This film is begging for cuts since it has no POV in dialogue scenes as well as there being endless lumps of ranting to endure, not to mention, the relentless egomania of a cast including Edward Norton who is unbearably obnoxious. And the magic of the film? Aesthetically ugly.
2. Winter’s Tale – Nice, well-intentioned people made this wrong-side-of-the-clouds love story, I just know it. I wish it didn’t have to suck so bad. This is, in many ways, worse than “Birdman” but that movie gets the booby prize for having more negative cultural impact than this one, i.e., the cineastes who love that one are phonies. So what about the year’s second worst? Colin Farrell is antiseptically dull as a nineteenth century New York thief, Jessica Brown Findlay as the love interest is instantly forgettable. But if you want to see some of the worst acting ever check out Russell Crowe with a mishmash accent as a demonic baddie.
3. The Amazing Spiderman 2 – A colossal bore with paint by numbers blockbuster “elements” that’s so stupidly put-together we basically get the same moping scene of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy evaluating their relationship over and over. Spiderman fights two villains this time, quite arbitrarily. The soundtrack stinks, too, it was hate to my ears.
4. Walk of Shame – That Elizabeth Banks! She’s a news anchor, whom over the course of a night is mistaken for a stripper, a hooker, a crack whore, a thief, and a slut-masseuse all because she wore a low-cut yellow dress. It should be ranked higher in worseness than “Amazing Spiderman 2,” but in truth, that smorgasbord is far more boring than this one.
5. Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return – This animated embarrassment really goes wrong when Dororthy (Lea Michelle, voice) gets arrested in Candy County for eating unauthorized candy. Ten minutes later, she is in the courts waiting for a judge to lay on his death penalty ruling for her crime. Eventually Dorothy and the gang scamper into Oz to fight the villain Jester (Martin Short, voice). It’s all very harmless, actually, and good enough for 4-year olds. Not good enough for my 4-year old, but for others.