This previous year in cinema didn't seem like it would turn out to be very promising. The 2014 release slate started off fairly sluggishly and the summer offerings pretty much failed to generate much excitement. By the time September rolled around, there was a vast improvement as we received a steady stream of interesting films with true depth and quality through the holiday season. No surprise that the majority of films found on my round-up of favorites appeared in theaters over the last five months. As always, my list is not in any order of preference nor limited to any particular quantity:
One of the most unique and magical cinematic experiences I have ever encountered. "Boyhood" follows six year old, Mason Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) as he literately ages over the course of the story, evolving from a precocious child to a complicated teen on the verge of becoming a young man. Writer/director, Richard Linklater shot this project over a week for the last twelve years in his hometown of Houston. There were so many ways this could have gone wrong but the film successfully captures the simple and ordinary events in this boy's life that will ultimately help shape and define him as he moves in to adulthood. "Boyhood" also features amazing performances from Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) as Mason's older sister, Patricia Arquette as Olivia, their divorced mother struggling to make a better life for her children while wanting to improve her own and Ethan Hawke as Mason, Sr. their loving father who really wants to spend more time with his kids yet has far too many distractions. This film feels truly authentic, very much like a documentary. I don't think it's any kind of an overstatement to proclaim that "Boyhood" is a absolute masterpiece. I was surprised how deeply moved I was by the film, in ways I never expected.
"GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY"
I have to admit when I first saw the trailer for "Guardians of The Galaxy", I wasn't overly enthusiastic. However, after seeing the actual film, I absolutely loved it. Based on an obscure Marvel comic book, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was kidnapped from Earth as boy and raised by space pirates. Now, a scavenger himself, Quill steals an powerful orb which sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a sexy green assassin and two bounty hunters, Rocket, a foul-mouthed, talking raccoon with his tree-like humanoid partner, Groot hot on his trail. After they all end up in prison together, this motley crew reluctantly decide to work as a team (with the addition of WWE wrestler, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer) to escape and discover the true secret of this orb. What actually made this super-hero flick so much fun is that it followed none of the rules we've come to expect from these movies.
What made the mystery-thriller,"Gone Girl" so good is that it went well beyond all expectations. Gillian Flynn managed to craft a compelling screenplay based on her novel despite the fact that millions of readers were quite familiar with the story. David Fincher, a director well-versed in the making of dark thrillers, surprises with moments of romance, light humor and pure camp in between the twisted drama and bloodshed. Finally, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike headline a very unexpected cast that includes Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Missi Pyle, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry who all astonish with richly textured performances.
"Whiplash", an electrifying drama from writer/director, Damien Chazelle, looks at the turbulent relationship between a young, aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his intensely abusive instructor ( J.K. Simmons) who strongly believes you must be pushed in order to be great. We witness the brutally long hours of rehearsals and the other extreme sacrifices that are made while striving to be the very best yet sometimes that's still not enough. "Whiplash" thrills with a throbbing, dangerous beat while the vibrant work of Teller and Simmons helps to elevate this feature even further.
Steve James was in the middle of shooting the documentary, "Life Itself" on the Pulitzer-Prize winning film critic, Roger Ebert when the legendary subject passed away suddenly after his lengthy battle with cancer. With the encouragement of Ebert's widow, James (whose 1994 doc, "Hoop Dreams" was championed by Ebert) completed the project and thank goodness he did. This fascinating film looks back at the beginning of Ebert's career (including his time as the writer of the B-movie, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls") while interviewing him over his final months. It also examines his loving but highly competitive relationship with fellow critic, the late Gene Siskel during their run together on the hit television show, "At The Movies" and talks to several filmmakers who admired his tough but fair reviews including Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese. "Life Itself" covers what we already knew about Roger Ebert; his deep love affair with cinema but we also learn he had an even bigger passion and that was with the woman he's credited for saving his life, his devoted wife, Chaz Ebert.
Michael Keaton makes a very welcome comeback with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (click on title to read review). The actor delivers a masterful turn as an unraveling, former movie-star in search of a comeback and seems to have found it with a Broadway show he's put together. However, nothing is working as planned with temperamental actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts), a very concerned business partner (Zach Galifianakis), his fresh out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) determined to close the show and his screen alter-ego, the super-hero, Birdman complicating his goal. Alejandro González Iñárritu ("21 Grams", "Babel") is a true visionary who is able to weave timeless themes into this wonderfully strange film that makes it equally accessible and daring.
In "Force Majeure", what started as an idyllic family vacation turns in to a psychological nightmare. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) , a workaholic businessman decides to go on a week-long skiing trip with his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children. During lunch, a controlled avalanche comes uncomfortably close which causes Tomas to flee but without his wife or kids. This doesn't sit well with the Mrs. especially since he denies even doing it. This delightfully dark Swedish comedy from writer/director, Ruben Östlund won a Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and landed on the short list of the Best Foreign-Language Film selections in consideration for this year's Academy Awards.
"THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING"
"The Theory of Everything" is the inspirational fact-based account of the early life of theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking that features a star-making performance by Eddie Redmayne. While a promising student at Cambridge, Hawking meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and they fall in love. During this time, he's diagnosed with ALS and only given a couple of years to live. Jane decides to marry Stephen but completely unprepared for how challenging their life together would become. However, as Hawking's motor skills deteriorate, this doesn't slow down his brilliant mind. This is a remarkable love story and moving portrait of an incredible spirit that cannot be broken.
"DEAR WHITE PEOPLE", "TOP FIVE"
In 2013, we saw several high-profile, historical dramas involving African-Americans that won critical praise and big box-office. This year, we had a couple of strong films that focuses on African-Americans in very funny, contemporary comedies.
Dear White People" (click on title to read review) is the terrific first feature from Justin Simien that bravely takes a comic look at a highly uncomfortable subject; race relations. Tensions were already high at this ivy league campus but once word gets out that white students are throwing an "African-American" themed party, the situation turns explosive.
Top Five" and I think it's his funniest movie ever. The comedian has taken a page from Woody Allen and appears in this semi-autobiographical story about a popular comedy star that no longer wants to make funny films while being hounded by an attractive reporter (Rosario Dawson) who wants an interview to find out why. Rock has surrounded himself here with some of the best comedians in the biz and they all support him by delivering wildly hysterical performances.
"ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE", "A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT"
I would say that there doesn't seem to be any reason to bring to the screen another movie about overexposed vampires. However, what I failed to realize is that, in the right hands, a new film (or two) about those blood-suckers could actually be quite entertaining.
Jim Jarmusch was already off to a perfect start by casting Tom Hiddleston and the magnificent, Tilda Swinton as an undead couple in his moody work, "Only Lovers Left Alive". (click on title to read review). Together for centuries but currently living apart, Adam (Hiddleston) has become weary and suicidal. Eve (Swinton), sensing his distress, leaves Morocco for the Motor City to be with her lover. Much like those popular films involving teen vampires, the focus here is less on blood and more on romance but "Only Lovers Left Alive" is far more alive and captivating. These mature vamps are effortlessly cool, enjoying the simple pleasures of listening to music and cruising down deserted streets at night.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night", this black & white debut feature from Ana Lily Amirpour, is a surreal romance that has more on it's mind than vampires in love. Gender politics and bloody violence are also to be found in this story set in a decaying Iranian town where a girl (Sheila Vand) arrives to feed on the corrupt citizens while falling for a handsome local (Arash Marandi). This is a stylish visual delight and triumphant showcase from a bold new filmmaker.
Honorable Mention: "Beyond The Lights", "The Drop", "Finding Vivian Maier", "Ida", "The Imitation Game", "Into The Woods", "Land Ho!", "Love Is Strange", "Nightcrawler", "Nymphomaniac; Volume I & II", "Snowpiercer"