Was this a weak year for movies? In comparison to recent years, I would go with most definitely. Yet here I am stuffing ties into my year-end list to make room for everything, so maybe that’s dumb to say.
It’s a year, at least, identified by a pretty wide open Oscar race, so it seems. But then, of course, there is Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making gem that nobody can stop talking about (including myself). Critics have been calling 2014 the year of “Boyhood.” I couldn’t agree more. Hear me out:
I saw the film back in July at an early screening, was moved to tears in a way no film-going experience has done to me before, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. Am I afraid of a second viewing because it may not live up to that first wonderful time? Yes. But I like living in this feeling that every other movie last year falls to the wayside in comparison. There’s “Boyhood” — and then there’s everything else.
Now that you can definitely guess what takes the #1 spot, let’s dive in to the other nine.
If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” is a brilliant debut feature, the best horror film in decades. The story is deceptively simple. A son brings his mother a children’s book to read before bed, titled “Mister Babadook.” The book’s simple black-and-white drawings and sing-song phrases turn increasingly ominous and sinister with every turn of the page. The eponymous creature then burrows itself into reality and refuses to let go. It’s a bold new iteration of the boogeyman that will surely be haunting your sleep weeks after seeing the film.
Beyond this storybook spook, however, is something much more sinister and enthralling lurking beneath the surface, which gives the film its powerful poignancy. It’s a maternal nightmare, a strained relationship between mother and son, played by Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, respectfully, in brave breakout roles that, in a perfect world, would be seeing some awards recognition. As the Babadook infiltrates their house, questions of sanity and the reach of psychological torment, whether self-inflicted or not, all come into play. When faced with great tragedy, it’s frightening to think what it does to people and, worse yet, what it makes you capable of.
“The Theory of Everything” is a soaring, romantic film. At its center is the everlasting bond between Stephen and Jane Hawking, which makes the film both a triumphant biopic and, more importantly, a swoon-worthy love story. It’s a counterpoint to “The Imitation Game,” the other British Oscar contender this season, the one lacking a certain human touch. Well, from director James Marsh (who helmed the wonderful documentary “Man On Wire”) and the words of Jane Hawking herself, adapted by Anthony McCarten from her memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” this is a film that without a doubt knows what it means to connect to the soul.
Most of us are familiar with the Hawking we’ve seen slouching to one side in a wheelchair and speaking with an electronic voice. Eddie Redmayne, who burst onto the scene with the under-appreciated “My Week with Marilyn” and stunned in “Les Miserables,” embodies that Hawking with an uncanny resemblance. But he does more than that. Gradually over the film, we watch as Redmayne transitions himself into that iconic image through Hawking’s debilitating disease. With subtle gestures and changes in speech and body movement, he traces the life of Hawking from the charming and awkward 21-year-old student at Cambridge to a man with the physical deterioration of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The actor, even rendered speechless, shows us inside Hawking’s alive and buzzing mind through pure expressions, and it’s a marvel, sure to win him an Oscar.
Never has the term “fucked up” been more applicable as it is here to describe Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” a deeply unsettling, dark and disturbing elegy of wealth, class and the myth of American exceptionalism. It’s the true story of eccentric billionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell), the heir of a massive family dynasty, who took 1984 Olympic wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) under his wing to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But that’s not even the start of what unfolds. Even in such a controlled, specific environment, the film builds out into something greater than itself, a universally profound tragedy, resonating far outside the fields of Du Pont’s Foxcatcher farm. It’s similar in the way you can’t quite grasp what is so magnetically engaging about Miller’s “Moneyball” but just that it is; likewise, “Foxcatcher” grabs hold of you with eerie intensity that is mesmerizing. It’s among the best films of the year.
When Mark Schultz gets invited to John Du Pont’s estate and sits before the man, who speaks in a low whisper wreaking of self-importance, he feels opportunity for a new life swell inside of him. It’s the life he has always wanted, outside the shadow of his older brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). Both Olympic gold medalists, somehow Dave always ended up staying in the spotlight. Using this as leverage, Du Pont promises to give Mark the spotlight, but in return, he expects him to give it his absolute all. This chilling initial exchange kicks off the film’s tone of layered meaning within the few words spoken, that of sinister and dangerous implications. These words are chosen wisely, as the script from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye has very minimal dialogue, a bold move for a film that clocks in at 134 minutes. But it works brilliantly, opting for inference from the audience, allowing viewers to draw from silent glances and conversations seen, not heard, from afar. It makes for a complex trifecta of a character study, between two brothers and the man who ruined one life and took the life of another.
“Mockingjay – Part 1” is a very different film than the previous two “Hunger Games.” The games are no more, and there is revolution in the air. The third installment takes its foot off the action gas pedal and slows things down, digging deeper into the franchise’s politics. It makes sense, letting us become even more invested in the humanity of the uprising against the Capitol. It takes care of its characters, raising the stakes emotionally and making a case as to why we should care about the fate of Panem. What a tough task adapting “Mockingjay,” the book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy that was largely reviled by fans. And yet, a script from franchise newcomers Danny Strong (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) and Peter Craig (“The Town”) delivers, in no small part thanks to the actors involved — but more on that in a minute. Of course Hollywood has demanded the final chapter be split into two parts (everyone else is doing it!), but luckily, within the confines of necessary cash-grab tactics, director Francis Lawrence and his team make it work to great dramatic effect.
This installment shares a lot in common with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” in its much darker tone and sense of gathering storm clouds as we follow our characters to their fate. Instead of extravagant set pieces and breathless action sequences, we get brooding tension and slow-burning suspense.
In 1941, brilliant mathematician Alan Turing was hired by the British military to break a seemingly indecipherable Nazi code system called Enigma. Turing essentially forces himself into the position — he’s a blunt, unpleasant man who must land somewhere on the autism spectrum — and even though it’s a painful interview, he absolutely must be hired for the job because, as it turned out, he was the only man who could do it. Thanks to Turing’s machine, the world’s first computer, World War II was shortened by two years, saving millions of lives. It’s a fascinating true story that was kept secret for 50 years after the fact, and it makes for an inherently entertaining historical thriller. Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game,” however, also wants to be a lavish biopic and Oscar bait. The former it isn’t, but the latter it certainly is, albeit it in a manipulative Weinstein Co. fashion.
Played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a role that will land him an Oscar nomination, Turing is certainly an odd duck, a stone-faced man constantly wrapped up in his own thoughts and unable to grasp normal human interactions. He’s the awkward, socially-inept genius à la “The Social Network” and “A Beautiful Mind.” As much as we’ve seen this part played out before, Cumberbatch makes Turing his own creature, someone who commands our attention. The performance is largely understated, which makes the several emotional outpourings all the more potent. It’s an astonishing performance but one that gets slightly undermined by the screenplay from Andrew Hodges and Graham Moore, which doesn’t fully allow Turing to explore his inner demons.
Is “Interstellar” Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus? No. But, there is something to say about Nolan’s ambition here, creating a breathtaking, puzzling and sometimes astonishing headstrong piece of cinema that delivers on big ideals about time, space and what it means to be alive. The prolific writer/director who successfully helmed the “Batman” trilogy — which includes his best work, “The Dark Knight” — also brought us into his mind and imagination with the brainy, brawny blockbuster “Inception.” That was laying the groundwork for audiences because this is Nolan’s passion project. The two share a lot in common; just swap out dreams for galaxies and catapult the action into outer space. But there’s something else here, too. It’s a very emotional film, the first time Nolan has delivered sentimentalism on screen. This is an epic space opera with a deeply personal and intimate center, that of love, family and human connection. It’s an odyssey whose theme is “follow your heart.” Sappy? You bet. But, is it also enthralling, endearing and summoning a new side of Nolan as a filmmaker? Absolutely.
Let’s begin with comparisons to “Gravity,” because it’s unavoidable with that film still so fresh in mind. While Alfonso Cuaron went for effective simplicity, Nolan’s work here unfolds and expands like an intricate piece of origami. He utilizes the expanse of the universe as a canvas to reflect back meaning down on Earth. Both films, however, share a longing to return home again. The only difference here is going home may not be a possibility. The film supposedly takes place in the near future, but nothing seems necessarily all that futuristic. Instead, this could be considered an alternative present day or even an alternate past in which Earth has already turned against us. It’s a bleak outlook as we follow Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-pilot who lives on a farm with his elderly father (John Lithgow) and his two children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy). It’s a permanent Dust Bowl, inhabited by people wrought with guilt and grasping desperately for the past to right their wrongs. With storms of dirt that have begun to infiltrate people’s lungs, Earth is nearing the pivotal moment of being no longer inhabitable.
Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” will certainly make your skin crawl, but not in the way it should and desperately wants to. In its desire to skewer local news outlets with their “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality and, beyond that, job culture and the cult of the American dream, the film chooses to instead revel in voyeuristic pleasures and not actually rise to the occasion of its own higher implications and promise. The main problem arises in a failure to establish its tone, as it bobs and weaves madly between dark comedy, satire and self-seriousness and finger-wagging importance. When we laugh, what exactly are we supposed to be laughing at, if at all?
The debut film written and directed by the other Gilroy, brother of Tony Gilroy behind “Michael Clayton,” starts off at a slow-burn and then builds with ferocity as it sinks deeper and deeper into its lead’s dark depravity. Our lead is Louis Bloom, played by a slimmed-down and bug-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal donning gross, slicked-back hair. The actor absolutely nails the performance of this sociopath who will do just about anything to claw his way to the top of this seedy, bizarre job market he inadvertently has gotten himself into. Once we see him in action, however, prowling the streets of Los Angeles at night (an impressive, detail-specific film representation of the city), manipulating his protegee and naive cohort, Rick (Riz Ahmed), there’s nothing more to learn about him. He breaches into amoral territory as he goes about his business, and that’s all there is to know.
In all of its bravura, free-wheeling creativity energy and soaring ambition, there’s something inherently sloppy about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” or, if we’re getting technical, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” the full title, which arrives from a phrase late in the film and how it all ties together, don’t ask me. The sprawling, zany and dizzying pitch-black showbiz satire is a blast of pure technical filmmaking prowess with a visual expertise only matched by over-the-top performances — it’s also what makes it so relentlessly exhausting. When the two-hour-long running time comes to a close and the curtain falls, you breathe out, relieved. The frenzy has ended.
There’s no talking about “Birdman” without first addressing the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, most recently known for the glorious long takes he created in last year’s “Gravity.” But those don’t hold a candle to what he accomplishes here, making the film appear as one, long continuous take as we wind in and out of the labyrinthine halls of the St. James Theatre. It plays like a house of mirrors, where performance becomes reality and vice versa, a meta-universe much like the one found in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” another (better) film about a man trying to redeem himself, give himself relevance again and make something of his waning life.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'” This is the philosophy of Terence Fletcher, a drill sergeant jazz music teacher played by J.K. Simmons in a full-bore knockout performance that will land him an Oscar nomination and, if there’s any justice in this world, a win. Throwing every cuss word you can think of and slaying with strings of (sometimes hysterical) expletives toward his jazz students, the man is a certified monster. And even still, he’s humanized. In a society that settles for mediocrity, Fletcher strives to push people past their boundaries because, in his mind, how else did legends like Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker become who they are? Someone had to throw a cymbal at someone’s head.
In Damien Chazelle’s electrifying and visceral second feature, “Whiplash,” Fletcher sways between cool charm and vindictive rage at the snap of a finger. Your blood will run cold when you hear him utter the phrase, “Not quite my tempo.” And yet the terrifying psychological torment is something freshman jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller, continuing to prove himself beyond his “Spectacular Now” breakout) willingly puts himself through after Fletcher selects him to join his cult of perfection at the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory of Music. The flickers of approval are worth the crushing demands and constant put-downs and berating. The film contemplates that line between pushing students to be the very best they can be and extending them beyond the safety of their own limits, and then, what lengths students will go to see approval in the eyes of their mentor — and all in the realm of creative pursuits.