Critical rankings of the best of 2014 in film, stage, television and books
At the movies in 2014, it was about time.
No, literally. Time was all over.
Whether you’re talking the 12 years it took to film Boyhood, showing a child from adolescence into manhood, or the space-time disconnect that racks a family (and a planet) into the mindscrew Interstellar, or the faux-real-time fluidity of Birdman that moved up across time (but not space) to even the ticking-clock plot points in movies from The Gambler to Into the Woods to the ability of time to reset in the dreadful Edge of Tomorrow, films in 2014 were preoccupied with how we watched the watch. Or the wall calendar. Or even the stars.
It’s a fitting metaphor, as movie lovers spend a great deal of time watching movies — some time wasters in a good way, and some vampirically sucking time away from our real lives.
Here is my list of the films that were most worth your time in 2014 (as well as some that weren’t), as well as the performances that, time and again, impressed me.
10. Whiplash. A good teacher should push his students, but how far is too far? J.K. Simmons delivers the year’s most intense performance (he’s skating toward an Oscar nomination, and probably a win) as an abusive music impresario whose techniques destroy more than they inspire. Jazz has never seemed so cinematic.
9. Under the Skin. I didn’t know they made such purely cinematic movies anymore, and certainly not ones as disturbing and sexually outré as this one, in which Scarlet Johansson roams the Scottish countryside hitting on men and luring them to their gruesome deaths. It’s like some heteromale fantasy (The Bang Bus!) turned into a sci-fi experiment in horror.
8. Pride. In 1984, gays in England sided with miners in their year-long strike against the Thatcher regime, and the unlikely arrangement between roughnecks and flamboyance forms the core of this touching (though certainly idealized) tale of unity and survival.
7. Love Is Strange. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, partners of 40 years, finally get legally hitched, but an unintended consequence — Molina is fired from his job with a church school, and the two can’t survive on Lithgow’s pension — causes a rift that separates and makes them re-evaluate the value of marriage equality. Heartfelt, dignified and movingly respectful of the complexity of love, Ira Sachs’ comedy-drama was perhaps 2014’s truest movie.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel. The first Texan to direct a film on this list is Wes Anderson, who reached the pinnacle of his abilities (the precision of his erudite yet whimsical style has never been more in evidence) with this time-hopping comedy about the travails of a lascivious hotelier (Ralph Fiennes) in pre-war Europe.
5. The Imitation Game. Possibly the best written drama of 2014 is this combination math class and history lesson, about the efforts of quirky (and closeted) Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to invent the first modern computer and win World War II for the Allies in the process. Using typical British restraint, it moves and infuriates you at the same time, while unraveling a fascinating mystery.
4. Citizenfour. Who would’ve expected the most captivating political thriller of the decade would be a documentary set almost entirely inside a Hong Kong hotel room? Lesbian filmmaker Laura Poitras’ documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden, and how gay journalist Glenn Greenwald unearthed a massive spying program invading the privacy of Americans, could be the most frightening thing you’ve ever seen.
3. Boyhood. Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater’s prosaically ambitious project — filming a movie over the course of a dozen years, as the lead character literally ages through adolescence and into manhood — could have felt gimmicky or even esoteric, but over nearly three hours, he and his cast (Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) embody real lives changing and aging and becoming fully-formed people. Without melodrama, he encapsulates the life process brilliantly.
2. Selma. Martin Luther King was just a few years shy of an assassin’s bullet when he and other freedom marchers took to the streets of Alabama in 1965 to protest civil rights for African-Americans. A moving document, made perhaps all the more powerful by the current racial unrest in the U.S., director Ava DuVernay wisely avoids the use of much musical underscore (especially in the first half), allowing the images to seep in unobstructed and have their power on you.
1. Birdman. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s masterful piece of legerdemain, which has the appearance of one continuous shot but which, in fact, is an elegantly filmed and edited rumination on modernity — blogger journalism, celebrity culture, theater, filmmaking, sexuality and aging — and is a brilliant satire as well as a poignant investigation into the psyche of a once-popular action star (Michael Keaton, in a role that should win him an Oscar) dealing with the need to produce something meaningful: Art, in its most basic form. Edward Norton gives a great turn as an arrogant actor, but it’s the filmmaking itself that enraptures you.
Nos. 11–20: Inherent Vice; Into the Woods; American Sniper; Still Alice; The Hundred-Foot Journey; Stranger by the Lake; Gone Girl; Big Hero 6; St. Vincent; Chef.
Memorable performances: Julianne Moore, Still Alice; Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone (and really the entire cast), Birdman; J.K. Simmons, Whiplash; Bradley Cooper, American Sniper; Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler; Albert Molina and John Lithgow, Love Is Strange; Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher (still on the fence about Steve Carell); Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood; Ralph Fiennes (and the ensemble), The Grand Budapest Hotel; Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game; Meryl Streep, Chris Pine and Daniel Huttlestone, Into the Woods; Tom Hardy, Locke; David Oyelowo, Selma; Bill Murray, St. Vincent; Miyavi, Unbroken; Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins; Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice; Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night.
The worst: My Bottom 10
10. The Lego Movie (ugly animation and annoying plot). 9. Jersey Boys (fumbling attempt at a musical by Clint Eastwood). 8., 7. and 6. Hercules, The Legend of Hercules and Pompeii (men in loin cloths were never so boring). 5. Lucy (sci-fi so bad even Sharknado seems good). 4. Transformers: Age of Extinction (it’s a Transformers movie — of course it’s dreadful … and who puts Mark Wahlberg in an action pic and leaves his shirt on?). 3. Wetlands (art film excrement … literally). 2. Edge of Tomorrow (video game aesthetics finally become the plot of feature films with disastrous effects). 1. Horns (such a terrible movie, it’s destined to be a cult classic).
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 26, 2014.