Many of the films that ended 2014 may have made it ‘the year that went out with a raspy whimper’ (I’ll cite Angelina Jolie’s tepid and staid WWII prison camp endurance tale, “Unbroken,” and the insufferable video game of a movie known as the “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies”), but then there was the now notorious Sony cyber-attack, allegedly perpetrated by North Korea in a move to save face and flex its muscles, that not only derailed the Kim Jong-un assassination comedy, “The Interview,” it brought up issues of freedom of speech and knuckling under to terrorism.
Making the tabloids salivate like Pavlovian hounds, there was thespectacular fallout in Tinseltown where the public gained access to cringeworthy emails and the spoiled inside working of the movie industry as producers’ debasing inner thoughts, like bashing Jolie as “talentless,” made front page news. This exposed the ugly glass ceiling, like how poorly Jennifer Lawrence was compensated for “American Hustle” compared to her male counterparts, that still pervades.
2014 was also the year of the “serial spin-out.” Thankfully, and mercifully, “The Hobbit” series closed— a franchise, that began as a novel idea, became an arduous and stilted endeavor. Meanwhile, “The Hunger Games” franchise with “Mockingjay– Part 1,” began to show signs of diminishing returns, losing its sharp litheness and bouncing around with all the grace of a blued-footed booby as the rebel uprising took root. The series concludes with “Part 2″ early in 2015.
On the upside, 2014 offered many unique indie selections. While there was a dearth of quality animation, documentaries, and foreign language films, those that graced the screen were provocative and well told narratives that affected as much as they enlightened. Dropping an unexpected haymaker during blockbuster season, a quirk-propelled comedy with action that takes place in outer-space, registered the best entry of all the Marvel (comics)-to-big-screen adaptations to date.
Here are my picks of 2014’s best films:
- Under the Skin: A sublime take on another worldly incarnation preying among us. This is Scarlett Johansson’s best performance of her young career and Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) channels Kubrick wit with freshness. It’s based on Michel Faber’s book, but plays out nothing like it and transcends in adaptation and concept.
- Boyhood: Twelve years in the making, every drop of blood, sweat, and tears of Richard Linklater’s arduous labor about a family in transition is deeply felt in this film.
- Birdman: Michael Keaton and Emma Stone are superb in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s spin on a former action hero trying to cut it on Broadway. The fact that Keaton played Batman is the icing on the cake.
- Wild: Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”) bring Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of redemption to the screen with focus and control. Reese Witherspoon gives it heart and soul and Laura Dern gives it passion and reason.
- Listen Up Stuart: A quirky take on academic/literary life that casts shadows of Philip Roth and “The World’s Most Interesting Man.” Definitely something in from left field which is part of its charm.
- Guardians of the Galaxy: It channels a touch of “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” making it the best Marvel series to hit the screen.
- Inherent Vice : “Chinatown” meets gonzo journalism with Joaquin Phoenix as Paul Thomas Anderson’s far-out 70’s PI who smokes dope as part of his investigative procedure.
- The Imitation Game : The trials and tribulations of Alan Turing and his computer crew who cracked the Nazi code and helped turned the tide in WWII. The ensemble cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley, who gives the era piece new light and soul.
- Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch tells the tale of ageless hipsters who happen to be vampires. It’s sardonic and witty with the ethereal Tilda Swinton, who might enjoy a cup of blood with ScarJo’s celestial from “Under the Skin.”
- Foxcatcher : An American tragedy that revolves around eccentric billionaire John du Pont and his obsession with wrestling. Steve Carell gives a breakout performance as du Pont and Channing Tatum turns in his best work as a wrestler under the chemical heir’s thumb.
Best Documentary: Citizenfour: You can’t make this up and due to circumstance and timing it all happens in real time before whistle blower Edward Snowden became headlines news. Provocative questions about privacy rights and what it means to be a patriot in the cyber age.
Runners Up; Life Itself and The Last Days in Vietnam
Best Animated Feature: The Tale of The Princess Kaguya: subtle but affecting Japanese fairytale about a young girl born to an elderly woodland couple and blossoms into a princess who puts a kingdom on notice, but there’s a catch.
Runners Up: Rocks in My Pockets and The Lego Movie
Best Foreign Language Film: Leviathan: The story of Job gets transposed to a small north coastal Russian town where the mayor is more Mafioso than magnanimous. Haunting, cruel and biblical in the turns and contemplations it takes. Tarkovsky would be proud.
Runners Up: Ida and Two Days, One Night
Well, so “The Interview” happened, and as a result (of the big guys stepping out) 300 or so indie and small-chain theaters will now make all the bling off that notorious Sony thing – a dirty bomb since the day it was greenlit by the studio. Yeah sure, there was the hack and the threat, but “The Interview,” which had gonzo aspirations of “Borat” and “Team America: World Police,” didn’t break new ground so much as it breaking wind amid some very strong political swirls.
For those not up to speed, the now-infamous hack of Sony – allegedly by North Korea because it did not want a film depicting the assassination of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un to make the rounds – put the studio on edge, beyond the Tinseltown fallout of condescending, cringeworthy emails revealed to the public in which studio execs let loose their inner thoughts on pop icons such as Adam Sandler and Angelina Jolie (“talentless”). What to do? The film was a turkey, and the liability for movie hall violence would be astronomical. That and maybe a moral dose of “let’s not get anyone killed over our movie,” so Sony let big theater chains AMC and Regal back out if they wished. For that liability reason and (hopefully) public safety reason, they did. Continue reading
In the Bible, Job suffers endlessly. God lets Satan take his children, his wealth and physically afflict him with no end in sight. It’s a test of faith, and a parable (or that rationalizing opium of the masses that Marx was so down on) as to why God allows such inequitable ills to wreak havoc on the faithful good. A similar ordeal faces the unfortunate Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) in director Andrey Zvyagintsev’sLeviathan. Kolya becomes the target of the corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov, brilliantly conjuring up shades of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday and current Russian President Vladimir Putin) in a northwestern Russian province, near the Finnish border. The unscrupulous magistrate desires Kolya’s land because of its strategic locale, situated between the sea and a broad waterway—and he’s more than willing to bend his official rule to legally wrest the holding. Continue reading
‘Unbroken’ and ‘The Gambler’: Directors, cast don’t quite sell two true-to-life tales
Few probably gave much heed to the actual words of Sony execs in emails unearthed by the now notorious cyberattack launched (purportedly) by North Korea. Just the spectacle of smug Tinseltown backbiting itself was enough, as big-ticket stars such as Adam Sandler were debased along with Angelina Jolie, who was tagged as “talentless.”
The Jolie slam gave me pause. She’s always conducted herself in ways that have invited ridicule (her blood vial marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, the incestuous podium posing with her brother and the weird, estranged relationship with dad, actor Jon Voight). But how could the woman who won an Academy Award (for “Girl Interrupted”) and made an impressive directorial debut with “Blood and Honey” – a provocative, Bosnian-Serbian updating of “Romeo and Juliet” – be “talentless”? Continue reading
“Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s wildly best-selling tale of redemption and re-rooting revolving around her 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail and descent into personal hell that preceded it, has been woven into a gauzy, cinematic veil of enchantment. This is mostly because of what the filmmakers choose not to do – in other hands the result could have been a generic chick flick or, worse, a Hallmark weepy with an A-lister on the bill – and how the narrative is pieced tartly together in an ingenious nonlinear fashion by writer Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”) and editor John Mac McMurphy (a pseudonym assumed by the director Jean-Marc Vallée, pulling double duty). Of course Reese Witherspoon as Strayed also deserves a lion share of the credit.
Vallée’s not the only person on “Wild” wearing two hats: Witherspoon bought the film rights to Strayed’s memoir and earns a producer’s cred as well. She’s dutiful as Strayed (not the writer’s given name, but the apt name she takes after her personal demons derail her first marriage) setting out on the arduous walkabout to find herself, purge and repent. When we meet her she’s angry at the mountain and nature, having just lost her hiking boots atop a summit, and we flash back to the start of the trek to see Strayed even more naive in the ways of navigating the wild. Continue reading