The 87th Academy Awards are tomorrow, which means it’s time for me to evaluate the best films of 2014. As a major cinephile, I make a point to watch nearly every significant movie that comes out each year. Five years ago I decided to make a list of my personal year-end top films, and have continued it ever since. You can view the older lists here: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.
It was definitely a quality year for movies, and especially for lead male performances. Nothing is set in stone as far as which movie will take home Best Picture in tomorrow’s ceremony, but there were quite a few films that are worthy of the prize.
To date, of my five previous lists, none of my top selections has ended up winning Best Picture. Could this be the year? Only one way to find out. As usual, none of my film descriptions and analysis will contain any spoilers.
What most people know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was his ability to inspire and empower through words. He was a masterful speaker and a great leader who advanced the African-American civil rights movements. But Selma showed us King’s abilities not behind a podium, but in his behind the scenes advocacy, working with various officials of all skin color to facilitate legislation to grant equal rights to African Americans. It may come off as tedious as times, and though there has been some debate of the historical accuracy regarding some aspects of Selma, there is no doubt it is an important film about American history that shows us a side of King we don’t see in historical footage. It’s helmed by an incredible performance by David Oyelewo, who, without a doubt, was the biggest snub among this year’s Academy Award nominations.
This World War II epic details a five-man American tank crew during the end of the war, as the Allies pushed further into German territory. Rather than giving a history lesson, the movie illustrates the devastation and horrors caused by the war using action-packed battle scenes as well as poignant, quieter moments in between the fighting. The mix of action and drama complement each other really well. The war scenes don’t hold anything back as far as showing us violence and gore. The film is well-acted by its ensemble cast that includes Brad Pitt, Shia LeBeouf and Logan Lerman, and builds up to an extremely dramatic and heart stopping final battle scene that will leave you aghast once the credits start to roll.
10. The LEGO Movie
A lot of people probably expected a corny, rather unintelligent film when they heard a movie was being made about Legos. What they got was exactly the opposite. The film is smart, laugh-out-loud funny, incredibly imaginative and has very stylish animation. It also shows us that voice acting really is an art, and Chris Pratt deserves a lot of credit voicing the film’s protagonist, a generic builder Lego who is tasked with saving the entire Lego universe. But the real accolades lie in the film’s writers and animators. It’s important to note that the LEGO Movie, while certainly appropriate for kids, is not really a kid’s movie. There’s a lot of adult humor in it that will greatly appeal to viewers of all ages. It’s a great effort all around, and a head scratching snub from the Best Animated Picture nominees.
9. American Sniper
Any movies involving the Iraq War can obviously rouse many different emotions in people, but there’s no doubting the heroism of Chris Kyle, a Marine sniper who has registered more kills than any other servicemen in American history. The Clint Eastwood film details his life leading up to his enlistment, his four tours in Iraq, and the emotional impact the war had on both his psyche and his family. His wife Taya is played nicely by the gorgeous Sienna Miller, but the film’s all-star performance belongs to Bradley Cooper, who earned his third straight Academy Award nomination. It’s a very emotionally power film about a war the American people are still coming to grips with.
8. The Theory of Everything
A film about Stephen Hawking’s studies and relationship with his wife Jane starts before he was ridden with a neurological disease we’ve come to know as ALS. It begins with him as a student at Cambridge University, where he met Jane, and delves into his later life as he continued his studies in physics while slowly deteriorating from his disease. Eddie Redmayne’s performance is simply breathtaking, and will make you believe he truly has ALS rather than just pretending to be a man who has it. He may be the favorite tomorrow to win Best Actor in a Leading Role, and if he does, it’s well deserved. Felicity Jones also is spectacular as his wife. The movie does focus strongly on the romance element, and sometimes strays from the physics and Hawking’s studies, which might bother some. But the result is still a beautiful film.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson may finally be getting the recognition he deserves after a long career of making interesting, artistic films that people love. Unlike most of the Academy Award nominated films, this one was released early in 2014, and really had strong sustaining power and a huge fan base that kept it relevant throughout the remainder of the year. As usual for Anderson’s films, it has a large ensemble cast, led by a brilliant Ralph Fiennes, and is as quirky and artsy as one could hope. It’s just a highly endearing film. The story is also engaging, detailing the life of a concierge in a fictional foreign hotel in the early 20th century. I think it’s the dark horse in this year’s Best Picture field, and though it probably won’t win, it wouldn’t shock me if it did.
6. Gone Girl
After reading Gone Girl a couple of years ago, I had no idea how it would translate to film. Without spoiling anything, the story contains a couple of different narratives that while were easy to put forth in words, seemed like a difficult task in live action. But Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book as the well the film’s screenplay, did it brilliantly. David Fincher took it from there, turning it into an absolutely thrilling and intoxicating film that does not have a single dull moment. The acting is top notch, between Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris and even Tyler Perry. But the real star is Rosamund Pike, who excels in this breakthrough role, showing us she’s as talented as she is gorgeous. For the few people who still haven’t seen it, the story is about a kidnapping that appears standard on the surface, but then takes a million different twists and turns, turning into an extremely perverse and gripping tale that likely left most of its audience members breathless.
5. The Imitation Game
If there was ever a piece of history that needed to be told, it’s this. The Imitation Game is about a brilliant mathematician and cryptographer named Alan Turning, who helped crack Germany’s enigma code, greatly helping the Allies win World War II while pioneering the development of computer science. But since it was a top secret mission, Turing’s efforts were not really known until many years later. Another secret is that he was a homosexual, and participating in homosexual acts were a crime in the United Kingdom at the time. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a sensational, emotionally wrenching performance as Turing, and the role should help him become a household name, if he wasn’t already. Keira Knightley is enjoyable as a fellow cryptographer on Turing’s team, earning her an Academy Award nomination. The movie is a story about overcoming great odds, and the resiliency of the human spirit, set in World War II. It’s well told, and in another year, the Imitation Game and Cumberbatch might have been heavily rewarded, but they may miss out this year due to heavy competition.
I don’t think anybody really expected just how much they were going to love Whiplash. It’s an intense film about a young drummer at an elite music university who comes under the tutelage of an extremely strict and demanding professor. The drummer, an excellent Miles Teller, wants to be the best, and his teacher, played by JK Simmons, wants to bring the best out of him, but tries to do it in extremely unconventional ways. The movie will fly by, and you’ll find yourself absolutely captivated by its story. And never before has there been a more surefire Academy Award nominee than JK Simmons, who steals the show, and should easily win tomorrow even though he’s in a pretty strong field of candidates. We’ve all had that one tough teacher in life, but they’re nothing compared to the villain that Simmons brings to life in Whiplash.
What I love most about Christopher Nolan is his inclination to always push the envelope. There’s a point in Interstellar, with about an hour remaining, where you think you know exactly where it’s going. And then, it goes the complete opposite direction to places you never saw coming. It takes place in the future where Earth is becoming uninhabitable due to a failing ecosystem. A father, played by Matthew McConaughey, must leave his children behind to embark on a mission to discover an alternative planet for humans. The film is long, and at times may get a bit complicated with the science rhetoric, but its story is one that will make science fiction geeks celebrate. And count me among them. If you love traditional sci-fi elements like time travel, space voyages, robots and alternate dimensions, then you will love Interstellar. And even if you don’t like those things, you can still appreciate the innovation and complexity Nolan brings to the table.
There’s no other way to describe Birdman other than calling it a cinematic achievement. The basis for the story is quite simple: a washed-up actor tries to revive his career by producing and starring in a Broadway play, and must deal with the varying personalities of actors and his family members on set. But it’s the way Birdman is filmed that will make it a film that’s analyzed in film schools for years to come. Each scene is an extremely long take, and director Alejandro Innaritu made it so the entire movie looks like one continuous take, with no cuts. The result was astonishing. The ensemble cast headed by Academy Award-nominated Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone are phenomenal. Keaton is easily the biggest challenger to Redmayne for Best Lead Actor, and he very well could win. I really think it could go either way. But Birdman is my prediction to take home the Best Picture award, and it would be well deserved.
If Birdman is a cinematic achievement, than Boyhood is an achievement in humanity. While the film has been universally praised by critics and audiences, there are some who label it as “boring.” The film, as most people know by now, was shot over the course of 12 years, and depicts the growth of a 5-year-old boy and his family, up until when he goes off to college. We literally watch his boyhood take place before our eyes. What some people are failing to realize, though, is that Boyhood breaks away from basic film logic in that there is no overarching conflict or mystery that propels the story. The movie is rooted in reality, not in melodrama, or action, or special effects, and I think that’s why so many people related so strongly with it and are calling it one of the best movies they’ve ever seen. It speaks to life’s simplicity, the time that exists between significant moments. Patricia Arquette, who plays the boy’s mother, will likely win Best Supporting Actress tomorrow, a nice recognition for her long career. Ethan Hawke was also recognized with a well-deserved nomination. Boyhood could very well win Best Picture, but even if it doesn’t, it succeeded in its goal of affecting its viewers on an emotional level, while beautifully capturing the mundanity of life and the essence of childhood.
On the outside looking in:
Snowpiercer: This science fiction probably should have gotten more love. It takes place in a futuristic, dystopian society where the remainder of humanity lives in a train. The train’s compartments are divided by the social class of its patrons, starting with the poor people in the back, the wealthy leaders in the front. The poor people, led by actor Chris Evans, decide to do something about it and stage a violent uprising. It’s exciting, artistic, and a surprisingly solid metaphor for current societel class hierarchies.
Edge of Tomorrow: This movie is just plain fun. It’s another science fiction where humans are battling aliens for control of Earth, and one man, played by Tom Cruise, finds himself in a position where he’s gained the ability to relive a day all over again even after he dies in battle. He works with another soldier, played by Emily Blunt, to use this phenomenon to their advantage and defeat the aliens. There may be plot holes all over the place, but it’s such a fun, exciting movie that we can forgive that.
Foxcatcher: A sports drama about an Olympic wrestler who lives and trains at the estate of a wealthy but mentally unstable millionaire, a relationship that leads to tragic events. But the acting is tremendous, led by Channing Tatum and Academy Award nominated Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo. I just think there is a natural, real life feel to the movie that makes it engaging.
A Most Violent Year: A man tries to run his heating oil company in New York City in 1981, statistically the most violent year in the city’s history. The city is decrepit, dirty and his trucks keep being hi-jacked, which could ruin his entire business. This film is also carried by superb acting from its leads, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, and shows that a movie can be tense and dramatic without needing contrived action sequences.
St. Vincent: Everyone loves Bill Murray, and everyone also loves a story about a bitter old man who turns into a sympathetic heroic figure. They get that in St. Vincent. Murray’s character becomes the caretaker of a child whose single mom must work during the day. He teaches him life lessons in unconventional ways, and the result is a sentimental, touching and enjoyable film.
Other solid features from 2014 you should see:
Nightcrawler: People were upset Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award, but even though I thought it was one of his better performances, I didn’t see it as Academy Award-worthy. Still, it’s an extremely enjoyable and fast paced, intense film, about a guy who begins a career as a night crawler, or some one who rushes to film crime scenes to sell the footage to news networks. In time, the boundaries between observer and the crimes he’s filming begin to come together.
Wild: A great performance by Academy Award nominated Reese Witherspoon carries this movie, about a woman who walks the entire Pacific Coast in the U.S. to escape life’s troubles. It’s a very freeing movie for any one who also wants to experience their own cathartic, life-changing endeavor.
Mr. Turner: In another year, Timothy Spall would have received an Academy Award nomination for playing artist J.M.W Turner in this wonderful biopic, which is a colorfully rich period piece. But the competition was too much, and Spall never stood a chance. it shouldn’t stop you from seeing the movie.
Inherent Vice: it doesn’t compare with Paul Thomas Anderson’s other work, but I thought it was an enjoyable film noir with an interesting enough story to maintain interest. It involves a private detective (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing lead after lead to solve a mystery in drug-ridden 1970s Los Angeles. It does get a bit convoluted at times, but contains a lot of fun moments.
Cake: Jennifer Aniston gives the dramatic performance of a lifetime none of us knew she was capable of, and was an unfortunate snub from this year’s Academy Awards nominees. She plays a woman who is in chronic pain who is still coming to terms with her tragic past.
The Book of Life: After the LEGO Movie, this is the next best animated picture of the year. It has stunning animation, great music, and an extremely creative story that is just very pleasurable all around.
A Most Wanted Man: The sadness involved with this film is that it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last, but it’s an appropriate one to cement his legacy with, because he’s brilliant in it. He plays a German intelligence agent who investigates a Chechen Muslim amid the international war on terror. It’s a clever, engaging political thriller, and also contains a surprisingly good performance by Rachel McAdams.
Camp X-Ray: Ladies and gentlemen, Kristen Stewart is actually a good actress. She just needed the right role. Her natural invulnerability that pissed people off in Twilight made her perfect to play a Guantanamo Bay prison guard, who befriends an alleged terrorist being held there, making for an extremely inconvenient situation.
Big Hero 6: I was expecting it to be a bit better and a little more emotionally poignant, but it does the job, albeit on a much more simpler level. It’s about a boy who befriends an inflatable robot invented by his brother, and they start a high tech super hero team to take on a bad guy. It’s no Frozen, but it’ll do.
Still Alice: Another foregone conclusion in tomorrow’s Academy Awards is that Julianne Moore will win Best Actress in a Leading Role for playing a woman who has early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s brilliant in the film. It’s a fairly simple movie plotwise, but emotionally moving and coveys a very real life story.
The Homesman: This western is about a woman and outlaw who escort three deranged women across the country. The scenery is vivid and austere, making it an authentic period piece. The acting by Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank is — as was expected — top notch.
Into the Woods: People will see this because it has Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt in it, but I didn’t like it at all. I found the music, scenery and story to be shockingly unimaginative, and it was really disappointing to me because it had so much potential. But as it’s a movie that is a musical retelling of classic fairy tales, it’ll still appeal to many.
…and now you are fully prepped. Enjoy the Academy Awards.