Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

Usually it's easy to designate an entire year as a good or bad one for cinema. You think about the totality of the films that came out, the impact they had on you and those around you, and make a subjective judgment about how they stack up to previous years.

But 2014 has been a puzzle to me.

On the one hand, I gave two films my highest score (four stars, five Yaps or an "A," depending on where it was published). That's unusual for me; I've had entire years go by -- even multiple changings of the calendar -- without awarding it once. So that would seem to indicate a very good year.

(I don't think I've ever given out three or more in a single year since I've been doing this professionally, 1995. But if I had been doing it in 1994, there would have been.)

On the other hand, once you get past my top four or five films, the list drops off dramatically for me. Essentially, I saw two great movies in 2014, a handful of very good ones, and then a bunch of stuff that was above-average but didn't blow me away. To my mind, that's indicative of a sub-par year.

When I'm making this list, I usually don't have any trouble coming up with a roster of films I think are Top 10 contenders. It generally is between 12 and 15 long, and then I undertake the painful task of deciding which will be cut and sent to the secondary list of "also rans" that I always publish.

Here, though, after I decided on my top five, I had difficulty going through the pool and deciding which were worthy of being "promoted" to the main list. If I were truly honest, I'd make a Top 5 list and stop there.

But tradition is tradition, and this is one I like to keep. So here is my Top 10 list, with a few thoughts about each. Then I'll have a roundup of 18 other films I deemed worthy of mention, in no particular order. (Normally I comment that they 'vied for a spot on the 10 best' something to that effect, but as I stated that wasn't really true this year.)

I'm not going to bother with a "worst of" list. As I've previously discussed, I usually don't see the truly awful flicks because the studios don't screen them for us, and I haven't the time to follow up on movies I know will be a chore to watch, just to report they are so.
  1.  "Whiplash" -- No surprise here, as I've been singing this film's praises for months. Writer/director Damien Chazelle's tale of ambition and antagonism posits a young jazz drummer against his tyrannical conductor, who is a monster but also pushes him farther than any other teacher could. The performance of the year by J.K. Simmons; Mile Teller has great things behind and ahead of him.
  2. "Life Itself" -- It's rare for documentaries to make my Top 10, but Steve James' tale of film critic Roger Ebert is a fully-fleshed portrait of a man whose gifts and faults were both prodigious. His final chapter dealing with medical challenges that robbed him of the ability to speak or eat -- two of Ebert's favorite things -- is haunting and illuminating in equal measures.
  3. "St. Vincent" -- On several occasions I have referred to "St. Vincent" as my favorite film of the year, which I still hold to be true even though it is listed as #3. I guess what I mean to say is that it was my most gratifying cinematic experience of the year, and I utterly cherished spending time with these characters. Bill Murray, who I think gets called a genius too much for his own good, truly is great as a self-loathing man with a heart of gold under many, many layers of black detritus. Melissa McCarthy made me smile again, ironically in a non-comedic role.
  4. "The Imitation Game" -- I predict this biopic of WWII codebreaker Alan Turing will win the Oscar for Best Picture. It simply has that classic Academy Award pedigree: historical subject, a commanding lead performance (by Benedict Cumberbatch), commentary on a past social ill with modern reverberations -- and it's British. A superbly crafted film with no weak links in the chain.
  5. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" -- Proof that summer movies can be big-budget spectacles with lots of action sequences and yet cerebral and emotionally resonant. A true watershed film in which the stars of the show are totally represented through CGI based on motion capture performances by Andy Serkis and a host of other actors. Too bad the flesh-and-blood humans were a tad dull.
  6. "Wild" -- People who go off to climb mountains for no reason or trek through deserts alone are celebrated as adventurers, but they've always struck me as nuts who must have yawning holes in their psyche in need of patching. So perhaps it's not surprising I was thrilled by this biopic of a dysfunctional woman (Reese Witherspoon, triumphant) who walked a thousand miles because she really didn't have anywhere else to go.
  7. "American Sniper" -- I really liked Clint Eastwood's portrait of America's deadliest soldier when I first saw it, and it's only grown in my estimation since then. Bradley Cooper, Hollywood's twinkly rascal of the day, gives a career-changing performance as a stoic man who had the mental and physical traits of a perfect killer, yet remained utterly human.
  8. "Grand Budapest Hotel" -- I've been cold on Wes Anderson for awhile, particularly the glum, familiar parade of characters all giving the same deadpan delivery. (I hold this to be true: If a character finds their own existence irretrievably boring, so will the audience.) So it was great to see such an inventive, gleeful romp anchored by Ralph Fiennes giving a bounteous, emotionally layered turn. Funny, charming, a twinge sad, it almost makes me forgive Anderson for "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." Almost.
  9. "My Old Lady" -- I am convinced I am the only person in America who saw this film, which is either a drama or a comedy darker than the blackest night, written and directed by Israel Horowitz from his own play. Otherwise people would be talking about the fact it's the finest performance of Kevin Kline's career, as a benighted man who comes to Paris to claim his dead father's apartment and finds it occupied by Maggie Smith.
  10. "Gone Girl" -- I had reservations about this adaptation of the popular book when I saw it, but over time most of those complaints have faded. Rosamund Pike is a mystery inside an enigma as the dissatisfied housewife who disappears and is presumed murdered. Ben Affleck continues to enjoy one of the most well-deserved second acts. One of the few films I can remember where it gets better the more we grow to dislike the main characters.

The Best of the Rest

"The Homesman" was two-thirds of a great Western and contained what I thought was the best female lead performance by Hilary Swank. But a muddled last act drained it of momentum. I was delighted to see Tim Burton engage in restraint with "Big Eyes," and it served him well. I liked "Guardians of the Galaxy" quite a bit, though not as much as others, and actually preferred "X-Men: Days of Future Past" of this year's crop of comic book movies.

"The Boxtrolls" and "How to Train Your Dragon 2" were the best of a very weak field of animated films. "Unbroken," like "12 Years a Slave," was undermined by a cartoonish villain. I didn't see enough foreign films this year, but "Two Days, One Night" and "Force Majeure" were the best of those I did. "Under the Skin" proved that dreamy, nontraditional narrative movies can move you. "Foxcatcher" has two great performances, and Channing Tatum.

Beyond a harrowing tale of sickness, "The Fault in Our Stars" shone because it depicted awkward teenage love like it really is, rather than the Hollywood facsimile we're so used to. "When the Game Stands Tall" eschews every trope of the sports drama and triumphs. "The Babadook" showed that there can still be originality and imagination in horror films. Woody Allen delighted in "Magic in the Moonlight," and Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded us why he'll be so missed with "A Most Wanted Man."

"Boyhood" is a great idea that resulted in merely a good movie. It still strikes as more of an exercise than the result of a pure creative impulse. It's showoff-y and self-indulgent; it's all tell and no show. It's like a painter who decides he will only work on a painting a few strokes at a time, devoting himself to other projects in the intervening months and years. It's an amazing undertaking, but it's doubtful the result will be counted among his most memorable works.

I've always felt the most sacred duty of a critic is to champion films nobody knows about or cares about. "Labor Day" is the ultimate cinematic orphan, pulled from a Christmas opening, dumped into theaters in January, disavowed by director Jason Reitman, and even openly mocked in some circles. (It doesn't even own a year, receiving the barest of theatrical runs to claim a technicality as a 2013 film; I claim it here because, well, no one else will.) I found its delicately balanced tone and sensitive performances a marvel. Ignore the lemmings and give this one a look on video.

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