Well, it’s that time of year! With awards season kicking off and 2015 in its first days, I figure I showcase my picks for the best movies of 2014. 2014 was another great year for movies thanks to incredible variety. We had apes riding horses with guns, talking trees in space, a boy becoming a man before our eyes, and a man becoming a bird in his mind. Wives went crazy, sons saw monsters, and Jake Gyllenhaal saw the scary parts of Los Angeles (and liked it). So here’s to everything that got me hooked on a feeling of everything that was awesome at cinemas in 2014
With her sparkly smile and Southern-swagger making her one of Hollywood’s most charming ladies, it’s easy to forget that Reese Witherspoon is a dynamite actor. I use the word “actor” because she doesn’t just play female roles better than most actresses in Hollywood; she takes it in, chews it up, spits it out and struts away to her next movie. So in case you forgot about that, here’s a reminder.
Based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who walked 1,100 miles alone to rediscover herself after her mother’s death led her to drugs and infidelity, Witherspoon carries this movie like the heavy pack Cheryl carries from Mojave to Washington. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) shows Witherspoon building Cheryl’s soul up through her mother (a wonderful Laura Dern), then shatters it all through sex and drugs, adding up to the hiking along the country looking for her soul and the next step in her life. The common factor here is Witherspoon, raw and emotionally naked like never before.
9. “The Drop”
The death of James Gandolfini was a tragedy on many levels, one of them being that he was heading for a well-deserved movie career. Not only was he one of TV’s most iconic figures as Tony Soprano, but he put his heart and soul into supporting roles that screamed for more screen time. He should’ve had at least five big lead roles lined up for him and could’ve earned Oscars for at least two of them. Sadly, life can be cruel to great talents, but he left the world on a high note.
Co-starring with the excellent Tom Hardy, Gandolfini owns a bar that also serves as a cash depot for the Brooklyn mob. When the bar gets robbed, Galdonfini and Hardy struggle to appease the mob and trust each other. Hardy and Gandolfini are an awesome team, with Hardy being the sullen loner waiting for someone to make him snap and Gandolfini the old soul looking for respect. Both quiet but effective masters of acting with one still rising (Hardy) and one gone far too soon (Gandolfini).
8. “The Lego Movie”
One of the most exciting, colorful, creative, clever and hilarious animated movies I’ve seen in quite some time came out in February. February! A land known as movie purgatory (not movie hell, though…that’s January). I didn’t have super high hopes for this shockingly overdue cash-in for the Lego toy company, but sometimes going in low leads to walking out high.
Featuring the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman and Will Arnett (and a bunch of other side-splitting cameos), faceless builder Emmet (Pratt) stumbles across a mysterious item that could stop evil Lord Business (Ferrell) from destroying the creative universes of the Lego world. The jokes are super fast and whip smart (for kids and adults), the animation is brilliant and beautiful, the voice actors are game for the ridiculousness of it all. Writer/directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (who also helmed both installments of the rebooted “Jump Street” franchise) keep everything moving without a single sour note, especially for that killer twist near the end. Not to be corny, but when it comes to this movie, “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!”
Remember Homer Hickam, the bright-eyed, good-hearted rocketeer from “October Sky?” How about Donnie Darko, the quiet teen haunted by bad dreams? What about Jack Twist, the closeted cowboy in a tragic romance that he wouldn’t quit on in “Brokeback Mountain?” Well, they’re all dead, murdered by a sociopathic, manipulative, slithering cameraman named Lou Bloom. Then again, you might know all of these characters inhabited by one Jake Gyllenhaal, who erased all memory of these previous performances in one fell swoop.
Gyllenhaal devours all in his path as the well-spoken but thoroughly twisted Bloom in “Nightcrawler,” the directorial debut of writer Dan Gilroy (“Real Steel,” “The Bourne Legacy”). Gilroy shoots Los Angeles in an unflattering, faded light as he follows Bloom in his quest to achieve notoriety through the TV news business. Bloom, with the endorsement of a news producer (Rene Russo, the director’s wife) and the aid of a chilled-out assistant (Riz Ahmed), scours LA for stories of crime he thinks are disturbing enough to be filmed. Gyllenhaal is revelatory as Bloom tampers with crime scenes for a better shot, bluntly states his rules and demands to his peers and uses a crooked smile to slide into any situation beneficial to him only. “Nightcrawler” looks like a lost b-movie thriller from the 80s but feels extremely relevant in the time of viewer-driven content in news. It’s all driven home by Jake Gyllenhaal, who should be getting much more high-profile work after “Nightcrawler,” even though he may never chew through a movie with a character like Lou Bloom ever again.
6. “Guardians of the Galaxy”
As much as critics are supposed to pick high-brow, sophisticated expressions of visual art over comic book movies, you’d have to be made of stone not to smile and enjoy this wild space odyssey. It’s also a relief that Marvel (or the money-hungry hippo known as Disney) is willing to try new things besides setups and filler for the next “Avengers” movie. But mostly, this was just the right amount of silly nerdy fun.
Writer/director James Gunn (“Slither,” “Super”) presents the formation of intergalatic misfits: cocky human scrub Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), grey-skinned rage machine Drax (Dave Bautista), ill-tempered raccoon bounty hunter Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his trusty wooden sidekick of few words Groot (Vin Diesel). This group must stop Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) from using an Infinity Stone to wipe out humanity. Is it a groundbreaking plot? No. Does the villain matter to the rest of the film? Hell no. Does it have something tying into future Marvel movies? Of course. But don’t let that turn you off to the most enjoyable comic book movie since “The Avengers,” or maybe even the first “Iron Man.” Chris Pratt turns Peter Quill into this generation’s Han Solo, Dave Bautista shows heart underneath his grimace, Bradley Cooper gets to have as much fun as he did in “The Hangover,” and Vin Diesel revives his “Iron Giant”-shtick to make three words sound incredibly endearing. The gold medal here goes to James Gunn, whose sharp dialogue (co-written with Nicole Perlman) and freewheeling directing makes “Guardians” feel fresher than any mainstream action movie in 2014. Visual appeal of space travel have never mixed with obscure pop songs of the past so well. It’s Marvel’s movie version of “Firefly” without a single Whedon-ism in it.
It’s criminal that this wasn’t a big summer hit and that it took a freaking year for this to hit American shores, because it’s so cleverly disguised as a sci-fi/action blockbuster when it’s really an action movie with a good taste for art. But Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong knows action doesn’t need to be the focus of a whole movie. Fight scenes and shootouts are the mere background to this brilliant, snowballing story about crawling up the class ladder or the illusion that it all is. It’s smarter and more interesting than any other movie with guns and fists, but still kicks so much ass.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, “Snowpiercer” takes place in the distant future where Earth is frozen and humanity hangs by a thread on a giant train where the class system rules. In the dirt-poor back end, Curtis (a stellar Chris Evans) leads a rebellion to get to the front of the train. A simple canvas, but Bong paints a hell of a portrait on it. Bong reveals more and more of the bleak future and living hell Curtis and the others (John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and Kang-ho Song) are blinded to, with each new level of the train more shocking than the last. The acting is top notch, from Tilda Swinton’s buck-toothed bitch advisor Mason to Evans, who turns in a career best as the damaged leader. The pacing is perfect, the script is tight, and the action scenes are tense (thankfully no shaking camera). Bong manages to weave so many elements into “Snowpiercer” and still create a picture normal moviegoers can follow. “Snowpiercer” is above the average blockbuster, but Bong doesn’t make it so obvious. In a summer fill of robot dinosaurs and ninja turtles, this is the underdog action movie of the year.
4. “Dear White People”
Have you ever heard a white guy these days talk black, dress like a rapper, or even use the n-word? It doesn’t matter if he’s referring to a buddy or singing a verse in a rap song, does it make them look or sound any cooler? Black culture has been the envy of white people for a long time, but it’s become more obvious and more offensive in the 21st century. Thankfully, someone is taking it all and shoving back in everyone’s faces in the funniest (and most accurate) way possible. His name is Justin Simien, writer and director of “Dear White People.”
Four black students at an Ivy League college are the focus: There’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay journalism student who is either harassed for his homosexuality or marveled at for his afro. There’s Sam (Tessa Thompson), a fiery art student who hosts a radio show sharing the movie title pointing out the subtle offenses white people are responsible for and hopes to kickstart a black power movement at the school. There’s Coco (Teyonah Parris), a diva-in-training looking to get on reality TV but isn’t exciting enough. And then there’s Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the overachieving son of the Dean of Students trying to break out of his dad’s shadow. All four characters and the students around them collide when a white student, Kurt (Kyle Gallner), throws a party inviting those to dress up in blackface. Simian’s film is actually more about labels and stereotypes than racism. Sam prefers Ingmar Bergman, but her friends assumes she praises Spike Lee. She stands up for black people, but doesn’t want to be a leader. Troy wants to write comedy and smokes weed in private, but dates a white girl in public and tells others he wants to be a lawyer. The main issue comes clear in one scene with Lionel, as he stares out into campus thinking about how he could make friends at school. He could either join the flamboyant gay clique or go full gangsta with other black kids. There’s no middle ground for Lionel to be comfortable in with his own identity. “Dear White People” states the claim that, despite having a more diverse generation than ever before, there is still only one or the other, black or white. Simien, in his first movie, pulls no punches (because they’re all too funny to take away) in one of the most timely comedies (or just movies in general) to ever come out.
3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
There are very few directors I’d go out of my way to see when they put out a new movie, because those few directors often put in such exceptional effort to their work. In short, I believe perfectionists make the best movies. Wes Anderson is a prime example of a perfectionist, making sure everything from color, setting, costume, framing and even the smallest movements of characters is pristine to his liking. It may seem like overkill to some, but it’s hard to knock his track record (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”). This past March, he added one more gem to his resume and it may be his funniest yet.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” follows hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) as they tend to the needs of the elderly and rich in the 1930s. When one of the old rich women Gustave wined and dined (Tilda Swinton) dies suddenly, she leaves a treasured family painting to him and not her crude son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Dmitri accuses Gustave of murdering his mother, sending Gustave to jail. Hijinks and hilarity ensue, led by Ralph Fiennes in what may be the best comedic performance of the year only because it comes from Fiennes. Known primarily for true thespian roles and that bald guy without a nose from the “Harry Potter” series (what was his name again?), Fiennes is sharp as a tack (the excellent screenplay helps) and excels at the perfectly pitched physical comedy.
Other Anderson favorites, like Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are exceptional. It’s perfectly paced between screwball-silliness and actual heartfelt scenarios, like the sweet romance between Zero and baker Agatha (the lovely Saoirse Ronan). But as always, Anderson sets up every aspect of “Grand Budapest” like instruments in a symphony. With the wave of his hand, every instrument hits its notes beautifully.
2. “Gone Girl”
I have recently passed by people leaving screenings of “Gone Girl” in a state of shock. Some people loved it, some people hated it, and others were just too baffled to have a clear response. So what was this fascinating picture that was stunning audiences around the country? Quite simply, the most horrifying and appalling thing in the entire world…………..MARRIAGE!!!!!
The popular 2012 page-turner “Gone Girl” was given a spectacular movie adaptation this year thanks to director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn (the author of the book and of the film’s screenplay). Nick Dunne begins to face suspicion and public scrutiny when his wife Amy goes missing on the day of their anniversary. Cops are called in, secret revealed and flashlights illuminate the dark corners of Nick and Amy’s matrimony. Since Nick is depicted in the media as a creepy jerk with lady problems, who better to play him than Ben Affleck? No matter, because Affleck kindly reminds the world that he’s an ace actor. Fincher reigns in some thoroughly entertaining supporting players, some known (creepy Neil Patrick Harris and sly Tyler Perry) and others unknown (whip-smart Kim Dickens and droll Carrie Coon). But the acting prize (for the movie and for the year in the actress category) goes to Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. The deeper into her head we go and the more she reveals about her twisted (but shockingly accurate) portrayal of modern married life, you’d swear she could turn into a dragon. She bites the heads of anyone and everyone in her line of sight, including her husband. Pike is the cherry on top of this dark, dirty anti-love story orchestrated by the master of modern dread. Fincher has made better movies (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club”) with more horrifying subject matter (“Zodiac,” “Seven”), but never has something this dark been so much fun to watch, especially when it’s based on something my mom used to read in my living room.
Whether it’s life imitating art or not, Michael Keaton has deserved a comeback for a long time. The former Caped Crusader has been a lost gem in Hollywood, meaning a great actor who was once huge, but somehow got lost in the shuffle. But he’s been patience, slowly waiting for that one role that was so fit for him yet also a challenge unlike anything he’d done before. As far as “Birdman” goes, he hit the jackpot because (pardon my french) HO-LY SHIT this movie is hands-down spectacular!
From writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu comes the story of Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a former on-screen superhero now just trying to keep his head above water. While starring/writing/directing a play on Broadway, he’s dealing with a monumentally pretentious theatre actor (Edward Norton), a post-rehab and highly agitated daughter (Emma Stone) as his assistant, his stressed out agent (Zach Galifianakis) and his annoyed girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). On top of all that, Riggan hears the scratchy voice of his caped (or winged, in this case) past nagging at him as other actors are making millions playing superheroes after he jumped the gun. Critics think he’s washed up, he’s inner circle thinks he’s losing himself and Riggan is questioning whether he wants the respect of his peers or the cheap adoration of fanboys.
As mentioned, Keaton is outstanding in the lead role. It’s heartbreaking to see him accept that he might be in over his head, especially with all of the nut jobs he surrounds himself with. Keaton’s character is trying so hard to pull himself away from the superstar he used to be, and maybe still wants to be. His soul is at war with his ego, and he’s not sure which one he’d be happier with. It’s also a cautionary tale for guys like Robert Downey Jr., Henry Cavill, Chris Evans and (soon) Ben Affleck to never buy into the myth of the cape and mask onscreen. Not all of it is “woe is Riggan,” as he starts to go off the deep end in the third act. He snivels and chomps at everyone and anyone in front of him, whether they be his cast, desperate fans, or a theatre critic who wants to castrate Riggan in the papers just because he’s a Hollywood guy. It’s a manic performance that Keaton pulls off in spades, and he’s not alone. Emma Stone, free from Sony’s sinking “Amazing Spider-Man” franchise, has never been better as Riggan’s bitchy daughter. She’s strung out and looking for another vice to fill the hole in her heart that Riggan left years ago. Edward Norton comes out swinging as the Broadway douchebag out to stomp over Riggan. With his reputation as a method actor, Norton seems like a prime choice to play a man who only seems to be truly living when he’s acting on stage. He’s starts off as a total dick, but when his concern is for the reputation of Broadway instead of himself, it almost a redeemable quality. Well, that and him throwing fisticuffs with Riggan in his tighty-whities. There’s also Zach Galifianakis, who excels as Riggan’s agent, his own Jiminy Cricket, trying desperately to keep Riggan in check.
“Birdman” is acting heaven, but it’s fantastic on a technical level as well. The whole film uses tracking shots to follow Riggan as he darts around backstage. It creates the ultimate “fly on the wall” experience, or an awesome behind the scenes special. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots everything in a pale, fluorescent light that highlights all the wrinkles and stress on the actors. Despite a few time lapses, the whole movie looks like one long take that keeps all eyes on the screen. Sure there is an explosion or two, special effects are kept to a minimum. Even Antonio Sanchez’s score, consisting of spastic jazz drumming, makes every scene hit harder.
“Birdman” is many things at once: funny, heartfelt, satirical, timely, topical and entertaining. Whereas most movies in the cinema today need to tend to fanboys or product sponsors, the best movies tend to no one but the imagination of the filmmaker. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu may be known for darker movies (“21 Grams,” “Babel”), but this may be his most accessible (and funniest) movie to date. But it stands out in 2014 just for doing one thing; letting actors act. No serving the needs of the audience, no cheap product placement, no cliches and no clean finish. This is raw talent at its finest, both in front and behind the camera. Movies today are overloaded with special effects and overcompensating elements when all that’s needed is great talent coming together. EVERYTHING about “Birdman” is engrossing, wildly entertaining, and enjoyable unlike any other movie I saw this year.
Edge of Tomorrow – A fresh, funny and more original sci-fi/action blockbuster from Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), Tom Cruise and a badass Emily Blunt
The Babadook – First time writer/director Jennifer Kent presents a terrifying story of the monsters that scared us when we were kids and how mad they make us when we’re adults.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Marvel turns Captain America from superhero to super spy with this cool and entertaining conspiracy thriller, featuring the debut of the The Falcon (the always superb Anthony Mackie).
How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Dreamworks’ animated sequel shows a bigger heart, grander development of characters and a grander scale of gorgeous animation.
Big Hero 6 – Big, bright and bursting with energy as this Marvel origins story disguised as a Disney animated film provides satisfying relief from a year of “Frozen” hell.
X-Men: Days of Future Past – Bryan Singer returns to helm the film franchise he brought to life and makes both old and new X-Men casts (especially Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver) gel together almost flawlessly.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – “Cloverfield” director Matt Reeves keeps the Apes franchise alive and well in this thrilling and emotionally moving sequel, featuring another stellar motion-capture performance by the great Andy Serkis.
Whiplash: The commitment and dedication to jazz has never looked so terrifying, especially if your teacher is J.K. Simmons