Who would have thought that Seth Rogen, James Franco, Sony Pictures, the North Koreans, Barack Obama, and hacking would end up being the biggest film story of 2014? Having just shelled out to see The Interview on demand, it's a pity that something so silly has become the epicenter of such geopolitical conflict. Sony will be dealing with fallout from the cyber attack for a long time, but they did the right thing by capitulating and releasing The Interview. It would have been a horrible precedent if free, albeit stupid speech, was curtailed because of the supposed actions of a foreign government.
Now that the politicking is out of the way, let's get down to reviewing a damn good year at the movies. Usually the fall is filled with awards fodder, but 2014 was pretty even with excellent films released throughout. The major studios had a fantastic year with the blockbusters. Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy and Fox's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes surpassed every expectation I had for big-budget, special effects films. David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's epically twisted Gone Girl was a hit with audiences and critics. Star Rosamund Pike gets my nod for best female performance in a crowded field. Scarlett Johansson, Felicity Jones, and Julianne Moore were excellent in Under the Skin, The Theory of Everything, and Still Alice respectively, but Pike stole the year as a wife not to be trifled with.
Richard Linklater's exquisite opus to youth, Boyhood, is the deserving favorite for Best Picture. Shot over a twelve year period, Boyhood chronicles the highs and lows of growing up with a delicate, optimistic touch. The fall had several standout releases - The Imitation Game, The Homesman, A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler, and The Theory of Everything, but it was Ava DuVernay's Selma that took everyone by surprise. A magnificently crafted and acted film, Selma chronicles the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. British actor David Oyelowo is extraordinary in his nuanced, radiant portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oscar bettors would have put Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Michael Keaton in Birdman, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler as the frontrunners for Best Actor, but Oyelowo throws the category in turmoil.
This year I'm mixing it up by having honorable and dishonorable mentions. There were so many films I liked which didn't make the top ten, and others I truly despised, they had to be recognized. Instead of worst film, Christopher Nolan's disappointing Interstellar is my most overrated film of 2014. Paramount thought they struck gold and had a film on par with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but instead shifted their awards focus to Selma after an avalanche of positive early reviews showed their need to switch horses. Here are my Top 10 Films of 2014:
Writer/director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash is the best film of 2014. Like a coiled spring filled with tension, Whiplash is the spellbinding tale of an earnest jazz drumming student (Miles Teller) brutalized by the harsh tactics of an intimidating teacher (J.K. Simmons). Whiplash beats the viewer like a snare drum with its frenetic pacing and magnetic chemistry between the leads. Hollywood stalwart J.K. Simmons is an absolute lock to win the Oscar for Supporting Actor. His performance here is akin to R. Lee Ermey's sadistic drill sergeant in the classic Full Metal Jacket, absolutely mesmerizing.
Ava DuVernay will be the first black female director to be nominated and possibly win the Oscar. Her direction of Selma is masterful and the critical surprise of the year. Passed on by Lee Daniels, Duvernay delivers a searing, powerful film. Selma chronicles the passage of The Voting Rights Act in 1965. David Oyelowo, the first actor to portray Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a feature film sets the high standard that any future performance will be measured against. Selma's release comes at a time when issues of policing and equality are again forefront. Hopefully the film's message will heal divisions and enlighten all on this historic struggle.
Twelve years in the making, Richard Linklater's Boyhood is an inspired observation of youth. A fictional story that evolved while shooting, Linklater documents the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from six to eighteen years old. A simple story told without unnecessary drama, Mason's journey is heartfelt. Boyhood ends on such a beautiful note, it made my spirit soar for days after. Patricia Arquette is fantastic as Mason's mother, she will undoubtedly win Best Supporting Actress.
Disney and Marvel have their finest comic adaptation yet in the thoroughly entertaining Guardians of the Galaxy. The year's box office winner was a roaring adventure that I cannot wait to see continued. Director James Gunn deserves a mountain of credit for taking a virtually unknown comic and turning it into a smash hit that resonated with all audiences. Chris Pratt's turn as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord had me laughing out of my chair. From the awesome mix tape to the climactic dance off, Guardians of the Galaxy is that rare example of a perfect big-budget film.
Jake Gyllenhaal continues to astound in famed screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directorial debut. Nightcrawler refers to the freelance videographers that record and sell news footage. Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, a creepy sociopath lusting for the American dream and finding it on the bloody Los Angeles streets at night. Gilroy's writing skill transitions perfectly to film in this dark tale of success at all costs.
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are stunning in Director J.C. Chandor's slow burn, period crime drama. Set in 1981 New York City, the Morales family finds their growing oil delivery business under attack from gangsters and the government. Chandor deftly captures the ruthlessness of the time by painting an apt portrait of a city under siege by crime. Chandor's directorial style is so subtle and layered, I daresay he's becoming one of Hollywood's best filmmakers. He made my list last year as well with the brilliant All Is Lost.
David Fincher scored his biggest box office success yet in adapting Gillian Flynn's bestseller. Rosamund Pike launches her star into the stratosphere as the psychotic wife, Amy Dunne. I don't think we've seen a performance like this since Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Julianne Moore looks unbeatable for the Oscar in Still Alice, but Pike is so devilish and good here; I hope the academy remembers her come February.
Art imitates life for Michael Keaton in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. Satirizing his earlier success as Batman, Iñárritu's script was written specifically for Keaton. He plays a washed up actor attempting to stage a Broadway play and leave the character that made him famous, Birdman, behind. The film is viewed in one, long continuous take that snakes through a labyrinthine theatre. Genius is an understatement here regarding the cinematography and editing. Birdman also has a spectacular ensemble cast, particularly Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis.
Tommy Lee Jones is both stark and visceral in his second outing as a director. The Homesman is a bleak western set in the barren landscapes of frontier Nebraska. The always magnificent Hilary Swank stars as a depressed spinster tasked with taking three insane women to Iowa. She saves a claim jumper (Jones) from the noose and enlists him for the arduous journey. A tragic film with many surprises, The Homesman shows how merciless life was for troubled women in the old west.
Andy Serkis needs to be recognized as the greatest motion capture actor of the day. His second performance as Caesar, the leader of the apes, is truly incredible. Set ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, humanity has been decimated by the Simian virus. Caesar has established a vibrant community of apes north of San Francisco, but the human threat returns because of a derelict damn near their stronghold. The first half hour of this film, wholly dedicated to showing the ape civilization, is exceptionally directed by Matt Reeves. I was not a fan of the original; but the sequel is a testament to story, and the seamless blending of motion capture performances into high drama.
Let me begin by clearly stating that Interstellar is not a bad film. It's a mediocre film. Christopher Nolan was aiming for the lofty science fiction heights of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but instead makes a film on par with Robert Zemeckis's Contact. Both films star Matthew McConaughey, his Texas drawl, and a sappy father daughter subplot. Interstellar takes place in a not too distant future, where a blight has decimated crops, everyone grows corn, wears plaid, and drives pick-up trucks. NASA discovers a wormhole near Saturn that leads to other worlds, where humanity can survive to grow more corn. McConaughey, in several minutes of the three hour runtime, leaves his family behind, and leads a mission into the wormhole. Decades pass on earth as the intrepid team planet hops and fights a laughable, maniacal Matt Damon.
I so wanted to love this film. I completely bought into the secretive marketing campaign. Gushed when I read the New York Times article on Christopher Nolan's personal campaign to inspect every theater showing the 70MM print, was moist with anticipation as I sat my fat derriere down for the IMAX screening. Three hours later, my bum was numb, and I was colossally deflated by the absurdity of the final act. The plot resolve for the 'ghost' delivering secret messages by manipulating gravity through the space time continuum was beyond ludicrous. The love conquers all theme was like nacho cheese wiz covering corn chips. Beyond that, the fact that no other races, sans the token black astronaut, or countries were represented in this save humanity scenario was a joke. Right now NASA needs the Russians to fly to the space station, but in the future, they're bankrupt and out of the hero game, along with the Chinese and Europeans? Interstellar has its fan base, who croon that people who didn't like the film didn't understand it. Nope, it's clearly understood, just mediocre and ridiculous. Interstellar is a nonsensical melodrama that should never be uttered in the same breath as 2001.
Best Screenplay: David Webb, Selma
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
Best Editing: Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione, Birdman
Best Score: Alex Ebert, A Most Violent Year
Best Soundtrack: Guardians of the Galaxy
Best FX: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Best Foreign Film: Snowpiercer
Best Documentary: Citizenfour
Best Animated Film: How to Train Your Dragon 2