The Best 14 of 2014
While last year was short on epics and long on sequels and continuing franchises, there were plenty of above-average films released aimed at the mass market. With a little bit of research the average movie fan was assured of having a good time at the local cinema. Final box office tallies aren’t available yet, 2014 looks like another successful year for the film industry even if the threat of direct-to-home streaming looms large. No one can accurately predict what the future holds, but as long as the industry continues to improve the quality of the theatrical presentation (more IMAX theaters, please!), provides consistent artistry and variety of films (mutually dependent terms) at a comparatively reasonable price, people will still go out to see a film and buy expensive concessions. (If you think movie tickets are expensive, have you attended a professional sporting event, Broadway show, or a major rock concert recently?)
It is a tired old adage that film studios don’t make quality films anymore. The releases of 2014 prove that, even if there wasn’t one particular industry-changing release – notwithstanding the North Korean terrorist threats—which apparently was the year’s biggest non-event. Here are the 14 best releases from the past year, your humble critic’s 14th such list since this column began in 2000. The industry applauds the provocative and the edgy, but this list looks for excellence in whatever form it manifests itself.
In no particular order:
The Imitation Game: An engaging war movie, a vibrant period piece, a spy thriller, a riveting personal portrait, and an illustrative historical drama all in one.
Guardians of the Galaxy: The best superhero film since “The Avengers” was practically a parody of the genre – but oh so fun and funny.
The Lego Movie: Clever and even a little subversive but this might have been the year’s biggest surprise—an outwardly commercial film that satisfies every demographic.
Selma: Achingly topical theme with an incredible performance by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and a galvanizing script that avoids political grandstanding.
Interstellar: It’s an ambitious sci-fi epic to be sure, hence its flaws, but its thought-provoking adventure in the cosmos is grounded in a great father-daughter story.
Whiplash: Is the price of excellence worth the humiliation and brutality a teacher exacts on his student? This electrifying and intense film doesn’t so much ask as scream this question.
Live. Die. Repeat. Edge of Tomorrow: The year’s best action blockbuster is also the most fun with a perfectly imperfect Tom Cruise character as the unlikely hero.
Into the Woods: Retains the best of Sondheim’s great music, casts terrific singers and frames it nicely in a foreboding forest of murky motifs and melody.
Birdman: Not for the masses but the performances (especially Michael Keaton) and the film’s tracking shot concept make for caustic, compelling, undeniably memorable filmmaking about a once great movie star’s search for relevance.
Snowpiercer: Here’s one rousing crazy train in an iced over dystopian future and a wildly bizarre and violent attempt of some of the passengers to take control.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies: It has been a long, sometimes exhausting road but that shouldn’t diminish what Peter Jackson accomplishes in this exciting, emotional, beautifully choreographed fitting conclusion.
The Maze Runner: Sure it is a trendy YA film, but it doesn’t pander to the genre instead creating a taut thriller that rewards both fans of the book and newbies – a difficult standard.
Nightcrawler: Jake Gyllenhaal is creepy good as an amoral crime footage photog- -for-hire in this year’s most topically relevant film. Unsettling and absorbing.
The Wind Rises: Legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyasaki’s last film may be his first adult-centric story but it is also his most quietly affecting and richly rewarding.
Biggest Comebacks: Michael Keaton, Reece Witherspoon (See “The Good Lie” before you see “Wild”), Godzilla and the Bible (though the latter deserves better films).
The Overrated: “Grand Budapest Hotel” (Visual splendor, maximum tedium), “Boyhood” (Stunning technique, unremarkable story), “Wild” (Strangely shallow and unadventurous).
The Underrated: “If I Stay” (Earns its tears), “Mom’s Night Out” (goofy politically incorrect fun), “Begin Again” (avoids cliché, Keira surprises), “Walking with the Enemy” (A twist on the Holocaust theme), “The November Man” (Nothing new, just perfectly solid), “And So It Goes,” (Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas worth the time).
Feel Good Movies of the Year: “The Good Lie,” “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” “Muppets Most Wanted.”
A Good Year for Animation (Even without a Pixar film): “The Lego Movie,” “The Wind Rises,” “The Book of Life,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and “Big Hero 6.”
Find and See These Documentaries: “Life After Manson,” “Poverty, Inc.” “Life Itself,” “My Father’s Highway.”
Heavily Hyped Movies You Can’t See: “Selma” (19 theaters nationwide), “American Sniper” (4 theaters nationwide). Sure they will expand, but we hate the Oscar consideration- only release tactics.