Living in the hinterlands of Arkansas rather than New York or Los Angeles, we don’t get to see many of the best films of one year until two months into the next, which is why a “Best of 2014” list can’t come out until today, the day of the Oscars, since it is only within the past few weeks that several films finally in wide release have been available for consumption by the vast majority of American viewers. But it seems appropriate now, after reviewing many of them, and before the orgy of Hollywood’s self-congratulatory binge known as the Academy Awards, that I put out my own list of the ten films that I consider the best of the lot for 2014. In rough order from tenth best to best of all, with interspersed commentary on who I believe will win the most coveted Oscars, here is that list:
10. The Theory of Everything
The story of the marriage of Stephen Hawking, world-renowned theoretical physicist, and his wife Jane Wilde, has received a good deal of attention for its lead actors, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne is almost certain to walk away with the Academy Award—his is the sort of role the Academy loves. Struck by Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 21, and given two years to live, Hawking marries Jane, fathers children, gains a worldwide reputation as a scientific genius, while at the same time physically degenerating until he can move only some of his fingers and is only able to speak in a mechanical-sounding voice through a computer. Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking’s long battle against disintegration is the most memorable thing about the movie. But Jones’s portrayal of a wife who, believing she was in for two years of heartache, must bear it for decades, and her own emotional price that she pays for her marriage, is a subtle and impressive context for Redmayne’s performance. Jones is unlikely to claim the Oscar however—that may be sewn up by Julianne Moore for her parallel performance of a declining genius in Still Alice. But Redmayne is likely to lose only if Birdman is dominating the awards and sweeps Michael Keaton to an Oscar on its coattails. As a film, The Theory of Everything has a few flaws common in biopics—it is episodic and at times moves through too much too quickly, but director James Marsh should be commended for making an honest movie that looks at the legitimate problems real people face in extreme situations like this marriage.
9. The Immigrant
A brilliant film completely overlooked by the Academy is James Gray’s The Immigrant. Gray’s film opened pretty much everywhere in the world in 2013, but did not get into even limited release in the United States until May 16 of last year, at which time it played to small audiences. The aura of hopelessness that hangs over the film made it a good bet it was never going to be a mega-hit, but distributor Harvey Weinstein, who feuded with Gray and demanded cuts in the movie, certainly did not help matters and did not really push the film as Oscar-worthy until its star, Marion Cotillard , had already received several awards for her performance. The film is beautifully shot, a period piece set in 1921 New York, and filmed in a retro style that emulates old Hollywood melodramas. The film chronicles the story of Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda, who land at Ellis Island in pursuit of the American Dream, only to see Magda quarantined on the island because of a lung disease, and Ewa is left to her own devices on the streets of New York, hoping to find some way to stay in America and to reunite with her sister. She falls in with a burlesque producer and pimp named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and has a chance to be rescued from the life by Bruno’s cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner). The performances are, as befits the film’s style, melodramatic, but the film is a scathing criticism of the American Dream and an historical look at a contemporary problem—the plight of immigrants. If you are one of the millions who did not see this movie, it is available on blu-ray and other sources now, so I urge you to see it.
The year’s most important “serious film,” Selma tells the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, a march that galvanized the country behind the Voting Rights Act and made the promise of the 15th amendment a reality for millions of African Americans. As a bio-pic, it does what Steven Spielberg did so effectively in Lincoln, showing the character of an individual through one crisis period, rather than attempting to trace the entire narrative arc of the person’s life. David Oyelowo, the classically trained British stage actor who plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film, gives a riveting performance as King, warts and all, successfully leading the march. While the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it was virtually shut out in other categories, nominated only for its original song, “Glory” by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, for which it will almost certainly win (sorry Lego). The lack of other nominations for a film that received a 98% positive rating from critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes.com, may stem from two causes: First, the script had some flaws, in particular a tendency for characters to become preachy at times, with swelling music warning the audience that “I AM SAYING SOMETHING IMPORTANT NOW.” Second, the film took some heat from Joseph Califano, former presidential adviser for domestic affairs, who criticized what he called a distorted and inaccurate portrayal of LBJ’s part in the Selma march and the passing of the Voting Rights Act. But despite these flaws, the film made a huge political statement, coming out close to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Act of 1965—reminding us how much that law cost in human life and suffering, and by implication underscoring the ease by which the courts have allowed the law to expire. This is despite the fact that many new schemes to prevent voters from exercising their rights have sprung up recently in many states, not only in the South. In many ways the 50-year-old story of Selma is the most contemporary political statement of the 2014 film season.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
In a year that featured huge fantasy/adventure blockbusters including The Hunger Games, Transformers, X-Men, The Hobbit, the Planet of the Apes, Captain America and Spiderman, by far the best, the most engaging and entertaining was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Having the virtue of not taking itself or its genre too seriously, this film was irreverent and consistently funny and at the same time brimming with action and impressive visuals. The film featured oddball characters that you actually cared about, including a pistol-packing raccoon named Rocket, voiced by Oscar-nominated (not for this film) Bradley Cooper, an ent-like creature called Groot, the deadly Gamora, last of her species, and the frightening and powerful Drax. As the Han Solo-like adventurer Peter Quill, Chris Pratt leads this merry band against a fanatical megalomaniac bent on control of the entire galaxy. The film is a hoot, and if you haven’t seen it you need to rent or stream it ASAP. Sadly, it is nominated for only two Oscars, for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling, and for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. It probably deserves both of these, and I would hope it gets the recognition those awards might bring it. Of course, as the second-highest grossing film of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy won’t suffer too much if it fails to win those Oscars.
6. Grand Budapest Hotel
The year’s best comedy hands down (and winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical to prove it), Wes Anderson’s latest quirky adventure was released rather early in the year but wasn’t forgotten by Academy voters, who nominated it for nine Oscars. It’s not likely to win any of the major ones, except perhaps one for Anderson for Best Original Screenplay, which it has a good shot at unless Birdman sweeps the awards (Birdman’s script is nearly as good, but Anderson’s is quirky, full of unexpected plot twists, and moving all at the same time). More likely at the Oscars are wins for Costuming and for Production Design, areas in which it has already been honored, and perhaps for Film Editing—unless Boyhood sweeps the awards. The story of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the legendary concierge, and his faithful lobby boy and sidekick Zero Mourrtafa (Mathieu Amalric) and their adventures chasing a family fortune and a valuable Renaissance painting may be the most absorbing romp of the year.
A small movie completely ignored by the Academy is John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, the devastating story of an Irish priest in Sligo facing murder by one of his parishioners who was sexually abused by his priest as a child. The parishioner knows that Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest, and plans to kill him because no one would pay attention to the murder of a bad priest. The film, which follows Father James through his week, shows him visiting his parish full of people who no longer see the Church as an institution with any moral authority, but continuing to faithfully perform his duties. “Do not despair,” the film’s headnote proclaims. “One of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: One of the thieves was not.” All of Father James’s parishioners fall into one of these categories, but Father James forgives all of them—like his role-model on the original Calvary—even forgiving the one who kills him, as he dies for the sins of others. McDonagh said he made the film deliberately in the wake of worldwide condemnation of clergy abuse, to be a story concerned with forgiveness and not condemnation. It is a small, quiet film that packs a huge wallop. Gleeson is fabulous in the lead role, and the film devastating but in the end, somehow uplifting. More people should have seen it in the theater. But I would strongly urge you to rent or stream his film.
4. Imitation Game
The biography of Alan Turing, Imitation Game is the story of a pioneer in computing and artificial intelligence, focusing on his work with British MI-6 during the Second World War, and his group’s cracking of the previously unbreakable German Enigma code. This was an accomplishment that saved what is estimated to be millions of lives and shortened the war by two years. The film is well written, and the one Oscar it seems destined to win is for Adapted Screenplay for Graham Moore. But what is most engaging about the film is the brilliant performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing—arrogant and socially inept, machine-like but harboring gut-wrenching emotions, and the equally impressive job turned in by Keira Knightley as Turing’s colleague and fellow genius Joan Clarke. Neither is likely to win the award in their category, but together they help make The Imitation Game one of the most powerful films of the year, and the issue of Turing’s sexuality makes this film another politically timely one.
3. The Lego Movie
By far the best and the most creative animated film of 2014, and one that also made almost everybody else’s list of top 10 films of the year, one of the top reviewed films of the year, and one of the top grossing movies of 2014, I’m still completely flabbergasted that The Lego Movie was not even nominated for an Oscar as best animated film (that will probably go to How to Train Your Dragon 2), when in fact it should have been one of the movies nominated for best film of the year. Seriously, everything about this movie was awesome. It had beautiful animation, a great cast of voices, and brilliant satire softened by its gently ironic tone and hilarious jokes (I’ll never look at Batman the same way again). Rumor has it that Academy voters who had not seen the movie thought of it as just a movie length “toy advertisement” and so defeated its nomination. Get a clue, Academy. At least watch the movies so you have a legitimate reason to disregard them. The only award the film is nominated for is original song, for the infectious “Everything is Awesome.” It’s possible, but not likely, that voters will take out their frustration at the film’s snub by giving the Oscar to its song, but that’s a pretty long shot.
If there is one certainty in his year’s Academy Awards, it is Richard Linklater’s Oscar for Best Director for his twelve-year project Boyhood. Filmed with the same actors over a period from 2002 through 2013, the film follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade through his college orientation. The fact that Linklater was able to complete such a project, that he was able to keep a cast together to film them off and on for twelve years, and that he could edit such material into a movie with a narrative arc is a feat unrivaled in the history of feature films. Ethan Hawke as Mason’s sometimes absent father, and Patricia Arquette as his often ineffectual mother, are impressive in their roles and have been nominated for Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Arquette is actually favored to win, though she does have competition from the always formidable Meryl Streep from Into the Woods and from my own favorite in this category, Laura Dern from Wild. But I suspect Arquette will win. If she does not, it is a clear indication that Boyhood will lose the Best Picture Oscar, probably to Birdman. Hawke is less likely to win: The favorite in his category is veteran character actor J.K. Simmons for his unforgettable performance in Whiplash. And never count out the sentimental vote for the always brilliant Robert Duvall in The Judge. If Hawke wins this category, look for a Boyhood sweep, and expect Boyhood to win Best Picture as well. In my own opinion, though admirable for its hyperrealism and for its sensitive portrayal of an archetypal coming-of-age story, Boyhood is overlong and somewhat rambling in terms of plot. It is a remarkable technical achievement judged intellectually, but for me, it is not a film that generates a lot of affection. I don’t think it is 2014’s best film.
My pick for the number one movie of 2014, and the film I believe should and will win the Oscar for Best Picture, is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the quirky, brilliantly post-modern, self-referential and magical-realist psychological drama about Riggan Thomson, former blockbuster movie star as “Birdman,” attempting to make a comeback and re-launch his career as a serious actor despite the voices in his head that try to convince him he will never succeed. The film raises huge questions about its own art form: What are the purposes of art? Should art please the crowd or be aimed at the elite? The film, of course, does both, impressing the critics while entertaining the masses with hilarious scenes like the one of Riggan running through Times Square in his underwear, having locked himself out of the theater in the middle of a performance. It has moving dramatic conflicts between Riggan and his daughter (Emma Stone) and his co-star (Edward Norton). And it has brilliant cinematography—Emmanuel Lubezki shot a film that has the appearance of consisting of a single long, continuous take, emulating Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Lubezki should certainly win the Oscar for cinematography. And the screenplay could give Grand Budapest Hotel a run for the Oscar. Norton and Stone give performances that elevate the film, though it is unlikely they will go home with the Oscars, nor are Keaton or Iñárritu likely to do so. But Birdman is a tour de force, technically brilliant, well-acted, entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s the best movie of 2014.
Honorable mention: Still Alice, Two Days One Night, Wild, A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Foxcatcher