Better late than never, here are my top 20 films for 2014. I was trying to wait for a few films to get to Dallas and this team called the Cowboys kept me busier and even traveling to Green Bay longer than anticipated. For what it’s worth (very little), I watched none of the Golden Globes and have no idea how the Oscar nominations went Thursday. But I’m not trying to predict what movies will capture awards and which ones won’t. If that were the case, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ranked “Bernie” ahead of “Lincoln” two years ago.
I rank films for my own amusement. I go to lots of movies, but I’m no film critic. When I took film classes in college, I may have enjoyed Italian Cinema (mainly “Bicycle Thief”) but when I was introduced to “Wild Strawberries” in another class and expected to marvel at its greatness, I just said, “What the hell was that?”
Anyway, it’s kind of ridiculous to take film rankings too seriously when I see some in empty theatres and some when it’s jam-packed and I’m on the front row (“Wild”). These are radically different experiences. So I try to rank movies based on 3 things, and that’s really it. 1. How long did I continue to talk or think about it when it was over? 2. How much was I interested in seeing it again? 3. How badly did I want to tell my kids, my friends, whoever that they had to see it?
With that in mind, I can tell you that I could take 2 thru 7 on this list and pull them out of a hat and be OK with it. But as far as the best movie of 2014, I will quote Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) from The Exorcist: “There is only one.”
Never seen another film directed by Alejandro Inarritu. Not sure I’d like them if I did. But “Birdman” is brilliant from the first shot, and by the first shot I mean (what appears to be, although it’s not quite true) the one and only shot in the entire film, and if you’re not mesmerized by what’s going on with the camera and the storyline about a former Batman-type actor here, if you don’t think this is as good as Michael Keaton gets (and that’s fantastic), if you aren’t laughing with or at Edward Norton when you see what’s happening or realizing what a talented actress Emma Stone is, even as she manages to appear in about five movies a year, then I just can’t help you. I didn’t think anything else would touch this in 2014 and nothing ever did.
It’s a gimmick, yes, to make a film over a 12-year period, but it’s a hell of a gimmick not like trying to get people to sit still for a black-and-white silent film and calling it genius. More and more it seems Richard Linklater is one of the great directors that no one puts on any list of great directors. There was nothing about this movie that disappointed me. And when Ethan Hawke attempted to explain to his son that the Beatles actually made great music after breaking up, it was icing on the cake.
The movie that confirmed that yes, in fact, our best actors ARE spending most of their time in insurance commercials. I can see Nick Saban screaming “Not my tempo” at his quarterback after watching this movie. Given the story and the fact I absolutely hated “The Spectacular Now” and I was holding that against the young Miles Teller, I did not expect to even like this movie. But I loved it, it’s powerful and is the rare film that actually ends ABSOLUTELY THE WAY IT SHOULD END.
4. AMERICAN SNIPER
Each year it seems we deal with more and more people in movies who like to talk, who think they are sitting on their couch, who do not know how to shut up. In “American Sniper,” which I saw in a large sold-out Northpark theatre since it wasn’t showing anywhere else, you could feel the audience holding its breath for about two hours. Not the biggest Bradley Cooper fan in the world but he’s perfect for this. For a movie that perhaps has 5-6,000 bullets in its soundtrack, director Clint Eastwood avoids being graphic when he doesn’t need to be. I saw this twice (not because I wanted to see it a second time more than other movies but just through circumstances), and when the ending approached on second viewing, I was gulping, wishing it could go another direction. But it couldn’t. And, sad as it is, Eastwood handled it perfectly.
5. THE IMITATION GAME
Make a movie about World War II and I’m in. Make it about code-breaking and I’m in line the first day. Saw “Enigma” and read the Richard Harris book a few years back, and both were fine, although this is a more honest re-telling of Alan Turing, who should be remembered as the man most responsible for saving the world from the Nazis but never has been and still won’t be. Some scenes not as great as I’d like them to be but the versatile and awkwardly named Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent throughout.
6. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Of all the dramatic and overly serious actors who make surprising turns to comedy, who was more surprising than Ralph Fiennes in this film? I’m not always a huge Wes Anderson fan (yes, I’m the ONE who didn’t think “Royal Tenenbaums” was genius), but this was about as perfect as “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Reese Witherspoon walks 1,000 miles or so. Somehow it’s worth every step.
8. THEORY OF EVERYTHING
There was no more touching moment in cinema this year than a crippled but brilliant wheelchair-bound man (that would be Stephen Hawking) bumping his chair softly into his wife in a last gasp of affection. Eddie Redmayne worked hard at this role and it paid off.
This was a movie that got better in my mind the further I got from having seen it. But mostly it’s just Jake Gyllenhaal paying wonderful tribute to Travis Bickle while not exactly imitating him in an LA that is as dark and rotten as New York appeared through “Taxi Driver” windshield.
Unfortunately fell into the “Crowd doesn’t know what to make of this so they are laughing at Steve Carell” category early. As the movie went along, I never thought his performance was as powerful as both wrestlers and particular Mark Ruffalo. A film that intentionally makes the audience uneasy throughout — nothing wrong with that.
11. THE DROP
Sadly the last we will see of James Gandolfini, but Tom Hardy’s performance drives this occasionally difficult-to-follow who is stealing from whom film set in a miserable Brooklyn bar.
12. THE ONE I LOVE
Is it more than a long “Twilight Zone” episode at heart? Maybe not but who cares? Gives me one more opportunity to mention how much I love Elisabeth Moss (Peggy in Mad Men) and remind you that “Top of the Lake” is the best six-episode TV series you never saw.
Certainly expected this to be much higher on the list when I first saw the previews. The truth is that as strong as my UT man-crush is on McConaughey, I tend to fell Christopher Nolan gets worse as a director the further away he gets from “Memento.” I give the film credit for trying to be much more honest in its depiction of space travel than “Gravity.” At least as honest as one can be while zipping around the edges of black holes. Doesn’t mean it’s not a long, tedious ride that somehow finds McConaughey and Matt Damon staging a fight that looks one step removed from “Lost in Space” on the authenticity meter.
14. A MOST WANTED MAN
The tragic career of Philip Seymour Hoffman goes out not with a bang, but a solid, memorable performance in a truly dismal Hamburg, Germany. Neatly avoids being a run-of-the-mill spy tale at the end.
15. GONE GIRL
Ben Affleck has done better. Director David Fincher has done a hell of a lot better. Whatever great truth this was supposed to unveil about how the media drives a story, it says it poorly but in (at times) highly entertaining fashion.
16. FORCE MAJEURE
How long are we defined by our worst moments? What if they didn’t cost us anything? What if they could have cost us everything? Also has some nice skiing photography. Part funny, very disturbing.
What did I say earlier about World War II movies? I see them and I tend to like them. I’m not big on plays turned into movies that needed to stay plays, but the story of what might have happened to Paris if not for a Nazi general making a late conversion to morality is worth seeing.
The Martin Luther King speeches by actor David Oyelowo provide the only real impact although the MLK-LBJ fights are amusing if wildly inaccurate. King had more enemies than any man deserved, why did they choose to turn LBJ into one of his biggest? Too much of the film simply drags along. An important part of civil rights history doesn’t get its due here.
19. THE TRIP TO ITALY
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trading imitations falls near the bottom of the “social significance” scale compared to blacks being systematically denied their voting rights in the film ranked just above. Not as funny as “The Trip” but still worth the ride.
20 (tie). ROSEWATER
Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show” for several months in order to travel to the middle east and film this tale, and it’s not as if he failed. Maybe we have simply seen too many people wrongly imprisoned, and I hate to think I have become that jaded. It definitely succeeds in becoming claustrophobic.
20. SKELETON TWINS
I will go ahead and mention SPOILER ALERT here although I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. There are some wonderful moments shared between former SNLers Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. So…..whose idea was the escapist happy ending?
SAW AND DIDN’T HATE: Chef, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Leggo Movie, This Is Where I Leave You.
SAW: Horrible Bosses II, The Gambler, The Rover, Sex Tape.
See you next year.