The 10 Best Films of 2014

Birdman red Again this year, the 3 things that make a film great—a fresh story, indelible characters and clever story telling—have come together beautifully in several movies. Beyond those on my “Best Of” list are a few that simply made me feel good (which signifies a different kind of greatness). The Best of 2014:

  1. Birdman. Creativity unleashed. A fantastic story with a memorable lead character who elicits a variety of responses from his incredibly strong cast as well as from audience members. And what an ending! Excellent use of the film medium.
  2. Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s idea of telling the story of a young man growing up, using the same actor from start to finish, was risky. So many things could have gone wrong, but, based on what is on the screen, they mostly went right. Ellar Coltrane was a perfect choice for the lead role.
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson’s masterpiece is zany, madcap, silly fun. Anderson’s attention to little details and inspired performances from a large cast of stars make this his best yet.
  4. Whiplash. The concept doesn’t sound that exciting: a music instructor who’s an abusive bully meets up with a cocky young drummer. But the story, the music and the over-the-top character that J.K. Simmons inhabits combine for a movie that sizzles.
  5. The Lego Movie. Filled with fun and surprises. This film doesn’t just use Lego pieces as characters, it captures the way kids use Legos. The live action postscript was a beautiful touch.
  6. Snowpiercer. Praise begins with love for the French guys who did the graphic novel. And to the publisher who chose to sell the book in Korea, where the director/co-writer discovered it. Strong multinational cast. Dystopian class warfare at its best.
  7. Gone Girl. Everything works here. Acting, directing, scriptwriting. The most meaningful soundtrack of the year. Gone Girl satisfies on so many levels. Thanks to (most) everybody who resisted spoiling.
  8. The Theory of Everything. A British genius tries to channel his immense brilliance into something useful, while dealing with a challenge that could torpedo his efforts. For Stephen Hawking, it’s ALS. Multiple Oscar noms on the way for this one.
  9. The Imitation Game. A British genius tries to channel his immense brilliance into something useful, while dealing with a challenge that could torpedo his efforts. For Alan Turing, it’s closeted homosexuality—a crime in the UK in the 40s. Cumberbatch shows again why he’s the “go to” guy for so many movie makers.
  10. Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal is, as they say, a revelation as a free-lance videographer who crawls throughout the underbelly of L.A. for sleazy TV news footage. His story is well-crafted and his performance is maybe his finest ever.

My “feel good” list for 2014:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy. Characters, soundtrack, story, effects—wow!
  2. Chef. Beautiful food, wonderful music. And it gets social media right. Thank you, Jon Favreau!
  3. Big Hero 6. Appealed to my inner 12-year-old boy. I loved lovable robot Baymax and the film’s cool blending of U.S. and Japanese culture.
  4. St. Vincent. Bill Murray is loathsome, pathetic, hilarious, generous and sweet all in one movie. Good supporting cast, especially the kid.
  5. Get On Up. The James Brown biopic may have been too raw to be a big hit but it made me feel good. (I knew that it would.)
  6. Life Itself. The talented Mr. Ebert had a wonderful life.
  7. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. I met Glen Campbell and am a longtime fan. His good humor in dealing with Alzheimer’s plus the love shown by all his family was what made me feel good.
  8. Edge Of Tomorrow. The structure of this movie, similar to Groundhog Day, could’ve come off as dumb. Happily, it’s clever and fun.
  9. Draft Day. As an NFL fan, I enjoyed the football parts of the movie. The flyover shots of the stadiums were beautiful.
  10. Into The Woods. Sondheim songs and a mighty cast. A pure delight.

Gone Girl

 

Gone Girl is one of the year’s best films. Unexpectedly strong performances from the leads Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are the centerpiece of the latest from consistently adept storyteller, director David Fincher.

Gillian Flynn adapted her own massively successful novel into a screenplay that reveals plot points gradually while giving shape and form to the complex personalities of Nick Dunne (Affleck) and his wife Amy (Pike).

Nick and Amy live in the river town of North Carthage, Missouri. (The film was shot on location in Cape Girardeau.) They moved from New York to Nick’s hometown to be with his mother as she faced breast cancer. Nick co-owns a bar in the town with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon).

On their anniversary, Amy disappears. Police find clues—including signs of a struggle–in the couples’ home, but no body. Because the home is a crime scene, Nick moves in with Margo. As often happens when a wife disappears, speculation about the husband’s guilt spreads. In Gone Girl, it ignites discussion on a Nancy Grace type TV show.

As the investigation proceeds, detective Boney (Kim Dickens) plays by the book to build a case but her sidekick officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) is eager to arrest Nick. When public opinion turns against him, Nick brings in attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) to advise him. Meanwhile, as the search continues, Amy’s old boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) moves from the background to the foreground.

Among the supporting cast, Coon and Perry are strongest. Dickens delivers her dialogue in a truly authentic Southern accent. Harris is low key and coolly straightforward, almost distractingly so.

Apart from being a police procedural that causes a viewer to wonder about the outcome, Gone Girl paints a telling picture of a troubled marriage. Both husband and wife are shown to have character flaws. Their courtship and the early days of their marriage are shown via flashback. Amy’s diary entries, which she reads in voiceover, provide the audience with her takes on married life.

The soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is genius. Early on, the sounds are ethereal, dreamily romantic. But as things get serious, the music turns darker.

Clearly, Fincher has not only assembled talented individuals on and off camera, but also has obtained supreme efforts from all involved. The result is an excellent movie which, despite its nearly 2-and-a-half hour run time, never drags. See it and be careful what you say afterward. No spoilers.