So, what did you think of the Oscar ceremony? I’m always amazed at how little the show does with the actual movies they are supposed to be honoring. (E. Haig has more to say on that subject in his review.) As for the awards themselves, I find myself almost never satisfied.
This year, I suppose I can’t complain a whole lot about the award for best picture. “Birdman” was my second best film of the year, but it was not a close second to my top choice. But most of the other films on my top ten list (see below) either didn’t win anything or weren’t even nominated. Of course, my choices are based on entirely subjective factors that only start with what I perceive to be artistic excellence. Other factors I consider are the noteworthiness of the film, the emotional reaction it elicits in me, the extent to which it stays with me weeks and months after I’ve seen it, and the whether I feel it will stand the test of time.
And as movie years go, I have to say 2014 wasn’t a great one. Only a few films qualify as truly great in my mind and many that were projected to be extraordinary came up short, in some instances far short.
Among those I would put in that far-short category were Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.” The latter was a valid attempt to tell the dramatic story from Laura Hillenbrand’s book, but it was too heavy on the prison camp torture scenes. And the former was just a mess, with an incongruous plot (even for a science fiction film).
Other films that I found less than compelling were Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” and “Whiplash.” For those, I came away with either a shrug (“Budapest”), puzzled (“Vice”) or just plain angry (“Whiplash”). I was also disappointed with (despite admiring in part) “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game.” Both are quality productions, but neither resonated with me.
I saw six films that were very good, but not quite good enough to make my top ten. They were “Two Days, One Night,” with Marion Cotillard as the laid-off worker fighting to keep her job; Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz; “Still Alice,” which was elevated by Julianne Moore’s revelatory performance; “Selma,” which succeeded in capturing the history of the Civil Rights movement, if not all of its passion; “Locke,” with Tom Hardy alone in a car for 90 minutes; and “The Railway Man,” with Colin Firth more effectively portraying the horrors of a World War II Japanese prison camp than were shown in “Unbroken.”
With all that I’ve said to this point, my top ten films should be understood to be an entirely subjective list. I don’t claim to be a professional critic, and I certainly have no training as a film maker or experience in the film industry. As with all other forms of artistic expression, one person’s joy might be another’s displeasure. Some will see films on this list they didn’t find all that impressive; some might even wonder if they saw the same movie. And even I might think less of them if I saw them again. The films don’t change, but our perception of them might, due to any number of factors, not least perhaps being our emotional mood that day.
With that heavy dose of caveats, here’s my list, starting with number ten and working down to number one:
- “Into the Woods” – This Disney production worked on many levels in elevating many fairy tales into a meaningful musical for adults. Meryl Streep again showed she can handle just about any role, and she was supported by a solid cast.
- “American Sniper” – The Chris Kyle biography was heavy on hagiography, but Clint Eastwood’s direction provided much to contemplate beyond the heroic portrayal. It’s the Iraq War version of Audie Murphy’s “To Hell and Back.”
- “Wild” – Reese Witherspoon made hiking interesting, and the backstory of why her character needed to hike the 1,100 mile Pacific Coast Trail was effectively conveyed in Nick Hornby’s screenplay from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir.
- “Citizenfour” – Laura Poitras’s documentary of the Edward Snowden revelations is the scariest exposé of the fearsome power of a secret government since “All the President’s Men,” and that it is told as the events were developing makes it all the more stirring.
- “Gone Girl” – As dark a film (effectively directed by David Fincher) as could be made from an equally dark novel, with a resolution that is unsettling, especially because it is so believable. Ben Affleck more than holds his own against a masterful performance by Rosamund Pike.
- “Foxcatcher” – Another dark story, this one true, highlighted by an amazing performance by Steve Carell, excellent supporting performances by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, and great direction by Bennett Miller in bringing the tragic tale to life.
- “Love is Strange” – John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are so wonderful as the married couple in this film that the beautiful story their lives revolve around is icing on the cake. This film deserves far more praise and recognition than it received in its all too short release.
- “Mr. Turner” – Mike Leigh knows how to make real movies about real people, and in this complete portrait of the eccentric nineteenth century British painter, J.M.W. Turner, he has created another masterpiece, one of rare beauty and humanity.
- “Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” – Alejandro Inarritu’s film is so unique in its depiction of live theater and yet touches such universal truths about human needs, dreams and delusions that it is compelling viewing at the same time that it is wonderfully entertaining.
- “Boyhood” – Twelve years in the making, all with the same core actors, and telling a very personal story of a family and the son who grows into a young man, and it all works wonderfully. This film is a great credit to the vision of Richard Linklater. It stands above all the others for me.