I saw 26 Oscar-eligible movies in 2014. Part I of this ranking covered #26 through #11, but now here are the Top Ten and my awards choices!
1. All ten of these movies are extremely good and highly recommended. At least 4 are new personal favorites. How crazy is that?
2. Noteworthy movies I did not see: American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Under the Skin, Mr. Turner
The Really, Really, Really Good Movies
10. 22 Jump Street. How did Phil Lord and Chris Miller make not one, but two movies, in a single year, that turned trash ideas into comedy treasure? First they made that Lego commercial fun, and then they made a great sequel to a remake. 22 Jump Street has Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill solving crime Naked Gun-style, with help from Ice Cube and his beautiful daughter.
A lot of comedies these days don’t know how to use visuals or sound effects to get laughs. But 22 Jump Street has all sorts of inspired moments, like when Channing Tatum is too dumb to realize something until way too late–and while he’s figuring it out, an egg timer counts down and dings. By the way, how is Channing Tatum so funny? Somebody that muscular and stupid-looking shouldn’t be a gifted comedian, right? Life is unfair.
The end credits sequence is one of the funniest scenes from a movie this year, along with Keaton and Norton wrestling in Birdman, Eminem’s cameo in The Interview, and Josh Brolin eating a banana in Inherent Vice.
9. Interstellar. If you didn’t see this on IMAX, maybe don’t bother. The immersive visual spectacle is a huge element of this movie, as spaceships launch and crash, giant tidal waves bear down on you, and a dust bowl sweeps across the earth. The word “docking” will never mean the same thing to you after you see the thrilling docking sequence. And Interstellar brilliantly uses the laws of physics in outer space to prove that an explosion is even scarier when it’s silent.
The McConaissance continues full-blast, as the gifted comedian from Bernie and the frail, bitter survivor from Dallas Buyers Club turn into the proud father of Interstellar. For all the explosions, eerie landscapes, and shocking twists (and Interstellar is a movie, like The Homesman, where you really have no idea what will happen next), the best scene is still the one where McConaughey watches messages his children have beamed up to the spaceship.
Christopher Nolan is famous for making “puzzle movies” where all the pieces come together at the end, and I have to admit I did not like how they came together in this one. But I can forgive.
8. Two Days, One Night. This is one of the best, truest stories about depression and its effects that I have ever seen, read, or experienced. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, or seen a loved one suffer from it, this movie will speak to you.
Two Days, One Night is not grandiose, or ambitious, or Major. It’s as pure as a glass of water. It’s not so much a movie as a truth. A truth embodied by Marion Cotillard, in the single best acting performance I saw in 2014.
Cotillard is coming back from rehab for her depression and suicidal tendencies, but the factory where she works has found they can get by without her. She must visit her coworkers, one by one, and ask them to sacrifice a hefty bonus (about $1,200) in order to save her job. It’s like 12 Angry Men but with themes of feminism and mental illness. Doors are slammed, tears are shed, families are torn apart, hands are held, and deep, abiding love is expressed. By the way, the movie’s realism is second this year only to Boyhood: half of the people Cotillard visits aren’t home.
Two Days, One Night takes place in Belgium, and it’s in French, but don’t let that dissuade you. This is an incredible movie and it speaks a universal language.
7. Wild. So this list has two consecutive movies about women going on journeys to find themselves. But this time the journey is literal, not metaphorical, and it takes months, not a weekend. Reese Witherspoon tries to escape a slide of drug use and unemployed uselessness by walking the Pacific Crest Trail. The movie’s frank and funny about how crazy an idea this is: we see her woefully unprepared.
The movie is also frank about the experience of being a single woman in the wild. After all, the most dangerous animal on earth is man, and Witherspoon’s character is more endangered by men than by bears or mosquitos. Remarkable, since the director (Jean-Marc Vallée, who made Dallas Buyers Club) and writer (Nick Hornby, who made High Fidelity) are men.
Eventually, Reese does grow and learn from herself, but it’s totally believable. And there are flashbacks, too, but they’re remarkably directed. The movie’s terrific.
6. Selma. The best historical movie of 2014. Remarkable performances in a great script. They didn’t have permission to use any of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, so director Ava DuVernay wrote a couple new ones herself. Mostly, though, the movie keeps behind the scenes, including a powerful confrontation between MLK and Coretta, in which actor David Oyelowo takes so long to answer a question that the silence is unnerving.
Selma‘s not perfect–it whiffs on a couple tiny details, like an accidentally funny shot in a courthouse where two extras nod constantly through an entire fake conversation. Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ has a faint English accent. But don’t miss the forest for the trees. The emotions run high, and you can’t stop thinking how remarkable it is that Dr. King wasn’t killed sooner, how terrifying his life must have been, and how frayed Coretta’s nerves were. And the attack on Pettus Bridge is a battle scene that would do a war movie proud.
In a year where so many historical movies fell on their faces–looking at you, Imitation Game—Selma is a powerful statement.
The New Personal Favorite Movies
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Man, what a fun movie this is. I have had mixed feelings about the precocious oddball director Wes Anderson: didn’t like Fantastic Mr. Fox, almost liked Moonrise Kingdom, mostly enjoyed Royal Tenenbaums. The Grand Budapest Hotel is so much better than those that it might be the start of a new career phase.
Why? For one thing, it’s not as cutesy. Moonrise Kingdom had a sentimental moment where everybody jumps, together, in slow motion from a CGI fireball; there’s no equivalent here. This time, the elaborately choreographed actors, vivid costumes, and obsessive sets become the setting for an exquisite tragicomedy. It’s like biting into a sweet, fluffy croissant where the filling has a surprise bitter tang.
Favorite moments? I have so many. But the prizewinner has to be Ralph Fiennes, who should have been nominated for an Oscar and who possibly should have won, being accused by mustache-twirling villain Adrien Brody of deviant sexuality. Fiennes smiles, shrugs, and answers, “I go to bed with all my friends.” Is that one of the best movie lines ever, or is it just me?
4. Inherent Vice. Inherent Vice shouldn’t exist. It should never have been made. The plot is ridiculous, the jokes are ridiculous, the characters are ridiculous. There’s a scene where a teenage girl named Japonica Fenway kisses a rogue druggie orthodontist named Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, who’s played by Martin Short. How crazy is that sentence? I mean, a Hollywood studio paid for this! And major stars agreed to be in it! That’s nuts!
Part of why I enjoyed Inherent Vice so much was awe at the sheer ballsiness of the movie. It keeps doing crazy thing after crazy thing. “He’s a Jew,” a lady says, “but he wishes he was a Nazi.” Then Joaquin Phoenix gets stoned and stumbles into an Asian sex parlor where the employees get distracted pleasuring each other. There’s a new-age rehab institute with a front gate modeled on Auschwitz, a muscle-bound henchman named Puck Beaverton, Owen Wilson playing the saxophone, and Josh Brolin as a flat-topped policeman with a very peculiar banana fixation. They even remade the Last Supper painting with hippies eating pizza!
The movie’s insane. It’s bonkers. You may hate it, because the plot makes no sense and has no clear conclusion. (Biggest disappointment: Michael K. Williams appears once and then never again.) You may love it, though, because it’s so committed to extremes of everything. Extremely poetic, lyrical voiceovers that border on free-verse gibberish. Extremely silly homage to the film noir, like a cross between The Long Goodbye and Airplane!. It has the most compelling sex scene of the year, the most touching love story flashback of the year (take that, Stephen Hawking movie!), and the funniest dirty joke of the year. In a world where it feels like every type of movie has been made a million times already, Inherent Vice does stuff nobody’s ever done before. It took balls to make this movie.
Now if you thought that was a surprising entry in my list, wait ’til you see what I have written down next:
3. Dear White People. Yeah, okay. I’m the only person in the world who has Dear White People in his top three. Nobody I know, in person or online, loved this movie. Except me.
Here’s a conversation I had with my friend Rory:
Me: Dear White People is a movie that examines the perspectives young African-Americans take on how to deal with race relations and racial issues in America.
Rory: So it’s like three hours long.
Me: It’s only 90 minutes.
Rory: That’s surprising.
Me: And it’s a comedy.
How crazy is that? I know satire is not a popular movie genre, but if you like great, sharply intelligent comedies that dig hard into our society, check out Dear White People. You’ll meet an initially pretty confusing array of college students and teachers, but they become easy to follow soon enough. A militant radio DJ who starts the segment “Dear White People” with quips like “The number of black friends required to not seem racist has now been raised to two.” An All-American student leader under pressure from his father, the dean. A college newspaper “humorist” who uses his license to mock as cover for racist stereotypes. A reality-show executive with a keen, cynical eye for talent. And, most compelling of all, a gay art student with unkempt Afro who is the school’s top social reject.
The talking points, jokes, cutting remarks, and surprises come so quickly in Justin Simien’s script that you can’t lose focus for a minute. The movie is jam-packed with ideas in conflict.
I just want to take one extra paragraph to praise Tessa Thompson, the actress who plays the DJ. (She also had a small part in Selma.) Not only is she charming and beautiful enough to reach superstardom (or would be, in a Hollywood without racism), but she’s been handed one of the hardest roles of the year, and succeeds brilliantly. Her character is a sort of “militant with a soft side” cliche, but her sense of balance is flawless. She’s sharp but not abrasive, funny but not flippant, emotive but not sentimental, and in all respects excellent. Even if you don’t love the movie like I do, you ought to agree that Dear White People should have scored nominations for its lead actress and its original screenplay.
2. Boyhood. Boyhood‘s biggest problem is its title, which makes it sound child-/male-centric. It’s not. It should have been named Parents & Children. It’s at least as much about being a mom, or daughter, as it is about being a son.
I’m curious about my reaction. Did I love the movie, both times I watched it, in part because it’s filmed in places I’ve been to? Did I love it partly because I remember many of the experiences the kids have in the movie?
I think there are at least 5 reasons I loved Boyhood so much. (1) The movie is wise about the stages of childhood and adulthood. The whimsies of youth, the bloated self-worth of adolescence, and the joy/stress yin/yang of parenting are all equally sharply drawn. (2) The movie loves its characters deeply, but doesn’t get sentimental. Well, aside from the scene in the Mexican restaurant near the end, but that made me really happy, so whatever. I noticed some critic claiming that writer/director Richard Linklater clearly agrees with all of teenage Mason’s “profound” thoughts, but to me it’s obvious he finds them amusing. (3) The storytelling is so unobtrusive. There are no cards saying “One Year Later,” or “Then She Divorced Him”. The movie trusts that you’re smart enough to understand. (4) The extraordinary performances by Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Ellar Coltrane. They’re not really flashy, and aside from Arquette they don’t have enough crying/shouting to appeal to Oscar voters, but they’re great nonetheless. It’s kind of a miracle that Ellar Coltrane, cast at age 6, wound up being such a good actor. It’s a miracle Arquette was, too: on a rewatch this weekend, I noticed her earlier scenes are much, much weaker than the later ones. (5) There’s just something deeply satisfying about seeing something that reflects an episode in your life–throwing pillows at an annoying sibling, leaving home to go to college. Almost everything about parenting and childhood has been inaccurately shown in movies and subjected to corny stereotypes and rewrites. Here’s a movie that’s honest, and epic, and great.
And now it’s time to reveal my #1 pick…
1. A Million Ways to Die in the West. Hah! Just kidding!
1. Whiplash. Recently somebody posted a Muppets edit of Whiplash. It was 51 seconds long, with shots from the movie spliced into a video of the Muppet drummer Animal playing around on a drum kit. And even that still managed to raise my heart rate, throw a chill down my spine, and make me feel a little queasy.
Know why? Because Whiplash is a thriller so perfect, it’ll be years before I get up the courage to watch it again. This is Hitchcock-level stuff. 1980s De Palma-level stuff. I saw somebody call it “Full Metal Jacket in a jazz band.” Which is crazy, because who knew jazz bands full of white people were even interesting?!
There are a dozen reasons this is so amazing. Start with J.K. Simmons as the jazz teacher who terrifies and tyrannizes his students, and then calmly reflects on why he chooses that teaching style with chilling rationality. He’s working with a script by Damien Chazelle, who just barely turned 30. I’m burning with jealousy. This is, simply put, one of the best screenplays I have ever seen. Not a second is wasted, and, like some of the other movies on this list, you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.
That’s especially true of the final scenes, which incorporate about a billion shocking-but-inevitable character choices (not twists) en route to the most heart-pounding, awe-inspiring, mind-blowing climax of any movie all year. How on earth could white people playing jazz be more exciting than Interstellar or any superhero movie? They can be when the writing is flawless, the directing is relentless, the camera work is dazzling, and the editing is so thrilling that for once you actually notice how great a movie’s editing is.
I walked out of the theatre with enough adrenaline to jump in a boxing ring. I couldn’t think of anything else but this movie for 24 hours. It’s an instant classic. I’m sure as hell not ready to see it again.
Best Original Score: Interstellar features the best work of Hans Zimmer’s life.
Best Soundtrack of Songs That Already Existed: A tossup between the dueling awesomeness of the mixtape from Guardians of the Galaxy and the ’70s wonderland of Inherent Vice.
Cinematography: Nothing can top Robert Elswit’s work in Nightcrawler, capturing the eerie beauty of nighttime Los Angeles.
Best Screenplay: This one’s a no-doubter. Whiplash has one of the most perfectly-written screenplays I’ve ever seen. Not a second of the movie is wasted. The only other competitors are Grand Budapest Hotel, Dear White People, and Selma.
Best Director: Richard Linklater. Duh.
Best Supporting Actress: Katherine Waterston is remarkable in Inherent Vice, and a future star. Emma Stone may yet reach even greater heights, to judge from her performance in Birdman. I was almost to the end of Selma before realizing I was watching Oprah Winfrey. But this belongs to Patricia Arquette. Double-duh.
Best Supporting Actor: A deep category including Riz Ahmed as the duped sidekick in Nightcrawler and Tyler Perry (!) exuding professionalism as the lawyer in Gone Girl. But the top two are Edward Norton, hamming it up as a hilarious jackass in Birdman, and J.K. Simmons, whose villain in Whiplash will be talked about for years.
Best Actress: Another deep category. Tessa Thompson had a very difficult job in Dear White People; Reese Witherspoon was wonderful in Wild; Marion Cotillard was good but maybe too pitiful in The Immigrant. But the real champions are two women coping with mental disorders: Julianne Moore with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, and (my favorite) Marion Cotillard with depression in Two Days, One Night.
Best Actor: It’s sort of a matter of taste whether you prefer Jake Gyllenhaal’s creepy sociopath in Nightcrawler, Ralph Fiennes’ charming comic role in Grand Budapest Hotel, or my own favorite, Michael Keaton raging against the dying of the light in Birdman.
Best Picture: I don’t know if there’s an “objective” choice here, but screw objectivity. Whiplash.