Saturday, January 17, 2015

Best Films of 2014


1. "Selma" -- On Thursday morning, we awoke to the shocking news that "Selma" was nominated in only two categories and its director, Ava Duvernay, and its stars, David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, were locke out of nominations. The only other nomination it received was for its song, penned by Common and John Legend. The last time a film was nominated for Best Picture and was not nominated in a large top-five category, such as for acting, directing, or writing, that I have determined is 1944 when "The Ox-Bow Incident" was nominated solely for Best Picture. There seemed to be issues with distributing screeners, and there may be "racial fatigue" among Academy voters since they awarded "12 Years a Slave" last year; however, this does seem to represent a serious travesty, since no film this year has aligned so well with the political discourse of our moment. As protests have swept the country over events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, it seems appropriate for a major film to be made that addresses the hard-won fight to enfranchise African Americans in this country and demonstrates that work is still not complete. Some have criticized the film for historical inaccuracies, but, in fact, the film has done a rather refreshing job of portraying the competing factions of the civil rights movement. On the question of LBJ, I am rather convinced that in January of 1965, Johnson did not want to engage in another civil rights bill, when he had passed a large bill that previous summer. Regardless of these criticisms, "Selma" succeeds on a powerful script and impressive performances. This is a film that benefits from a communal viewing in a theater.

2. "A Most Violent Year"--In just a handful of years, J.C. Chandor has created three well-reviewed films, "Margin Call," "All is Lost," and now, "A Most Violent Year." None of these has succeeded quite at the hoped for level at the box office, but Chandor is now poised to become a major force in Hollywood. Chandor's strength lies in his commitment to create films that have crisp and clear stories with complicated characters who are somehow still sympathetic. In "A Most Violent Year," Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain run an oil-distribution business, and have run into a rather delicate financial situation. Refreshingly, this married couple has its passive-aggressive moments, but they are portrayed as a partnership and, lo and behold, they do not appear to be unfaithful. Unlike our current fetishization of dark characters making poor choices, Chandor's flick revolves around a sympathetic character who is trying to make the right decisions.

3. "Grand Budapest Hotel"--If people are convinced that Wes Anderson cannot make a commercially successful film, you can point those individuals to this film that took in almost $60 million at the domestic box office. Many pundits, including me, were convinced that by releasing this film in March, it would lose all hope of securing a single nomination. Fortunately, it remained on critics' top-ten lists and in the minds of audiences and garnered nine nominations, including Wes Anderson's first as Best Director. This light romp actually confronts serious issues of warfare, totalitarianism, and terror, while focusing on a set of eccentric characters. Yet again, Ralph Fiennes, who has made himself into one of the most dependable character actors of the last two decades, was overlooked yet again for an Oscar nomination. That may be as big a snub as failing to nominate Oyelowo.

4. "Whiplash"-- Damien Chazelle's directorial debut was a tight, rollicking film about a drummer in a music conservatory facing an enemy in the guise of a teacher. With a standout performance from Juno's dad (J.K. Simmons), "Whiplash" succeeds as a morality tale of how much of ourselves we lose by attempting to achieve perfection. The film is worth watching for the superb editing and camerawork in its series of filmed musical performances.

5. "Ida"--It is hard to recommend a bleak Polish Holocaust movie. The film follows a young nun, as she attempts to uncover what happened to her parents in the war (spoiler alert: it was the Holocaust; they died horrifically). Powerful performances coupled with the superb Oscar-nominated cinematography takes this bleak tale and transforms it into a transcendent film about how the past continues to haunt succeeding generations.

6. "Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance"-- Iñàrittu's film about a man who sounds a lot like Michael Keaton attempting to make a comeback, starring Michael Keaton, has become one of the most successful films from Hollywood about actors. The long takes, coupled with precise and complicated dialogue and choreographed camerawork, set a fast pace for a piece that grapples with notions of failure, artistry and the search for validation.

7. "Imitation Game" -- Benedict Cumberbatch has secured his place as the go-to actor for intense, mildly autistic white man. In fact, much of this year has seen films where mildly autistic white men are celebrated for their very lack of social graces. White privilege certainly is powerful. But back to "Imitation Game": although its final monologue from Keira Knightley is beautifully filmed and performed, it is an anachronistic moment that marks exactly how we want to view the past and the history of sexuality. Keira can tell Benedict, with tears in her eyes, that damn the normal people, it is those who aren't normal that change the world for the rest of us. It is a beautiful sentiment, but no one in 1957 would have uttered such a speech. The film is marked by some wonderful performances and beautiful production values, but "Imitation Game" would have most likely have made more impact a decade ago when our consciousness had not been raised by films like "Brokeback Mountain," "Milk," or "A Single Man."

8. "Mr. Turner" -- Mike Leigh's films can sometimes feel inaccessible and a random string of inside jokes and improvised performances. Other times, he creates a work of art that is astonishing and beautiful. "Vera Drake" told the heartbreaking story of a woman who faces prison after she attends to a botched abortion in mid-twentieth-century Britain, and "Mr. Turner" tells a simpler tale of the British Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner. Following the last 25 years of Turner's life, Leigh has constructed a film about art where Turner's vision and eye is at the forefront. With a standout performance from Timothy Spall, "Mr. Turner" allows its audience to experience the creation of an artist and his work.

9. "Boyhood"-- Linklater's work may be more interesting for the way it was filmed, rather than for its story. Although its directorial choices are clearly innovative, its story resembles the most staid family melodramas. By having his actors age over a dozen years, Linklater has provided the chance for Patricia Arquette to shine brighter than she has ever been allowed up to this time.

10. "Lego Movie"-- When I first heard that a movie was going to be made around legos, I was convinced this was the end of American civilization. How crass and cynical does it sound that a movie would be made about toys that are simply built? What would Marx say about this? He would be sickened. When I actually saw it, the film does a deft job of navigating around things Marx himself discussed, the fetishization of the commodity, and the concomitant loss of identity in an industrial society. In many ways, this is one of the more interesting Marxist films to gain such widespread viewings. And bosh to you if you claim there is no Marxism in this piece; I will ignore you and listen to "Everything is Awesome" one more time.

11. "Only Lovers Left Alive"--Jarmusch made a movie about vampires with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton? Why yes, he did. It is delightful and John Hurt plays a pitch-perfect Kit Marlowe.

12. "Gloria"-- Sebastian Lelio's bittersweet story about a middle-aged woman navigating the terrain of being single in Santiago, Chile, is simultaneously harrowing and beautiful with an intrepid performance from Paulina Garcia.

13. "Pride"-- A charming, if sentimental, story of a group of homosexuals driving up to Wales to help striking coal miners in 1984, "Pride" tells a little-known story about the power of alliances and coalitions. It may ignore a set of racial politics and tensions between these groups, the film succeeds as a heartwarming tale that did result in the adoption of a gay-rights platform within the Labour Party.

14. "Belle"-- Gugu Mbatha-Raw made a splash this year in both "Belle" and "Beyond the Lights." Her subtle performance in what I have termed the sweet version of "12 Years" shaded a complex historical figure of whom very little is known. By recreating the trial of the infamous Zong ship, Belle  portrayed a moment of prime historical import while framing it with a romantic and sentimental love story.

15, 16, 17. "Cake,""Wild," "Still Alice"-- I place these together as the handful of films that decided it would be a good idea to focus on a female character. Have you noticed that all but Selma of the best actor nominations focus on a straight white man who has some personality quirks? All of them. And Selma still has a man at the forefront of his film. Two actresses often dismissed as light and frivolous, J. Anniston and Reese, surprised critics with a pair of finely crafted dramatic performances. Julianne Moore seems to have locked down her first Oscar, after four other nominations, in a film about a linguistics professor losing control over her mind as she slips into Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, the film is hurt by the terrible casting of Kristen Stewart as a pouty teenaged daughter who wants to be a serious actress. Watching Kristen Stewart try to deliver the final monologue from Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" was truly disturbing. Couldn't we have hired Emma Watson instead?

18. "Theory of Everything" -- Eddie Redmayne is in the Oscar bait performance of the year: crippled, brilliant real-life character. I usually loathe Redmayne, ever since "My Week with Marilyn" irked me with its self-indulgent quackery, but what makes this movie shine is Felicity Jones' beautiful performance as Hawking's wife who finds that she cannot find happiness in a marriage where she is solely the caregiver. John Nash's wife actually divorced him, too, but Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman could not bear the thought of having Jennifer Connelly walk out on Russell Crowe. Fortunately, this film takes on a deeper shade of meaning by showing Jones' character struggling against the role she is supposed to accept graciously.

19. "Nightcrawler"-- I have said this time and again: losing or gaining a lot of weight does not constitute a great performance. I suppose Jake Gyllenhaal assumed he would not be taken seriously if he were too pretty. The movie does succeed as a tightly wound tale of intrigue within the world of journalism running to catch up with the morally ambiguous success of TMZ. I also enjoyed that two of the neighborhoods of LA that I know best were portrayed as crime-ridden hellholes, including a shootout at the Chinatown Express at 3rd and Western.

20. "Into the Woods" -- Someone should inform Rob Marshall that making a musical cinematic does not mean that every single song has to be shot in extreme close-up. The film loses a bit of steam in the second act, but Emily Blunt is surprisingly good as the Baker's Wife.

21. "Gone Girl" -- Fincher's revenge tale, penned by novelist Gillian Flynn, engages in some truly bizarre gender politics, but Rosamund Pike was finally able to secure herself a part that has made her into the star that she deserves to be.

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