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.
10. Gone Girl (tie) Into the Woods
When I first saw David Fincher’s high-end pulp piece, I had written it off as in-the-moment entertainment, a cheap thrill, nothing more. Yet here we are months later, and I’m still thinking about this mesmerizing and tantalizing, so expertly crafted erotic thriller. Any notions of gender politics and the institution of marriage the film version of Gillian Flynn’s novel tries to deconstruct, it’s all worth eschewing. Take it for what it is: a great filmmaker escalating trash to art.
And then there was the other possibly disappointing and long-gesticulating adaptation, that of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” from “Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall. It is, minus a tiny third act stumble, purely enchanting and splendid. With a surprising amount of humor, a whole lot of heart and resonating with themes of family and not having to journey this world alone, it’s the best screen musical we’ve had in years. The music soars on the skill of the entire cast, most notably Meryl Streep’s witch and Emily Blunt as the baker’s wife, who deserves an Oscar nomination if there’s any justice this awards season, especially considering Anne Hathaway not only got nominated but won for “Les Miserables.”
This brooding, slow-burn from director Bennett Miller carries a quiet genius by putting faith in the viewers to draw their own conclusions from the drama that unfolds, surrounding eccentric billionaire John DuPont. Similar in the way you can’t quite grasp what is so captivating about the director’s “Moneyball,” the film grabs hold with an eerie intensity. And beyond pristine and effective filmmaking, the trio of actors (Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum) give career-best performances making this disturbing character study worth enduring.
8. Force Majeure
Called the Swedish “Gone Girl” for perfect reason, here’s a film that actually does manage to take a sledgehammer to the institution of marriage. Behind the steely blue veneer of the French alps, there’s a boiling lava of biting wit and a sneering discontent toward established gender roles. Brutal and smart (not to mention visually and aurally striking), this pitch black comedy gives marital bliss a run for its money, as the film holds up a microscope to masculinity and what it really means to be a family’s protector.
7. The Lego Movie
I had to slap the stupid grin off my face at the end of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s wildly imaginative and zany animated romp, which intelligently brings the massive toy franchise to vibrant life. While it unfortunately has already been morphed into an expansive cash-grab, this initial big screen splash from the minds who brought us “21 Jump Street” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” reminds us how flat-out fun it can be to go to the movies.
6. The Theory of Everything (tie) Selma
Forget “The Imitation Game.” This is the British Oscar contender people need to be talking about. It’s a lavish romance and a beautiful biopic from director James Marsh (behind the wonderful documentary “Man On Wire”) with two award-worthy performances at its center from Eddie Redmayne, who embodies genius Stephen Hawking with eloquent grace, and Felicity Jones, as the wife who gave up everything for a man she knew would change the world for the better.
The other astonishing real-life portrayal this year comes from David Oweyolo whose embodiment of Martin Luther King, Jr. is so complete, it’s as if the actor embedded himself inside the man’s soul. He’s that good. As for the film, it’s impeccably crafted from top to bottom with a sophisticated screenplay from Paul Webb and masterful direction from Ava DuVernay who deserves to make history with an Oscar nomination. It’s a historical drama that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the civil rights movement while still ending on a triumphantly uplifting note. It delivers the truth that we’re still not out of the dark yet, reminding us all King did for this country, and then, all that’s still left to do.
5. Under the Skin
Scarlett Johannsson plays a creature not of this earth, cloaked in the skin of a beautiful woman, in Jonathan Glazer’s haunting and intoxicating sci-fi dreamy nightmare. Fueled by a brain-searing score from Mica Levi, the film transforms into a meditation on sexuality, gender norms, the fine line between lust and danger and, finally, the nature of humanity, what it means to be non-alien, of this world and of our skin. It is experimental filmmaking at its very finest.
4. Obvious Child
Feminism. It’s been a word of contention, with female celebrities even being afraid to identify themselves as such. To those unsure of what feminism actually is or really means, look no further than Gillian Robespierre’s wildly smart romantic comedy, starring the truly gifted and always funny Jenny Slate. This is the story of a woman getting an abortion because she knows it’s what she has to do. The trajectory of the storyline is discovering whether or not she’ll even involve the guy, not deciding whether she will go through with the procedure. Under the facade of effortlessness and unassuming bravery, the film wears feminism on its sleeve without ever standing on a soapbox.
3. The Babadook
Thanks to Jennifer Kent’s brilliant debut feature — a tough and meaty metaphor about a single mother’s lasting guilt and the best horror film in decades — I’m still afraid to look under my bed. Remember. You can’t get rid of the Babadook.
J.K. Simmons tears up the screen as a ruthless jazz music teacher in Damien Chazelle’s electrifying debut feature. It’s a thrill watching him and 27-year-old Miles Teller completely locked in and performing at the top of their game. It’s one of the most intense portrayals of an artist giving himself up to his craft ever committed to screen, and it builds into a thundering crescendo of a finale that’ll leave you picking your jaw up off the floor. A true knockout.
Richard Linklater’s 12-year coming-of-age odyssey has been topping nearly every critic’s year-end best list, so while I feel wholly unoriginal, I promise it’s for good reason. This film is, without exaggeration, the best I’ve seen in years. It moved me so profoundly in ways I haven’t been affected by a film in recent memory. Whether it was nostalgia of my own childhood long past, the relationship with my sister or the similar reaction my mother had to my leaving for college, it’s hard to say — and therein lies the magic of this one-of-a-kind film. No matter what pivotal (or fleeting) moment you related to most, there was something in this wonderfully crafted and acted film (which is also surprisingly immune to any sort of deep analysis) that connects with viewers on a very, very human level.