Wednesday, December 31, 2014

BEST FILMS OF 2014: Intro and Honorable Mentions

 Last year, everyone kept talking about how it was a great year for film. And they were right. It was a year for films tackling serious issues (with varying degrees of success) and doing so with polish and professionalism. When I think about last year, I see a showcase of strong filmmaking. Standard filmmaking. Studied filmmaking. This isn’t a bad thing. After all, Casablanca, which is deservedly considered to be one of the best films of all time, succeeds in its perfect execution of well-known themes. But, quality aside, even the more innovative high-profile films of last year had a certain tendency to sit between the lines. Best Director winner Gravity may have featured never before seen technical innovations, but the story and characters were nothing new in the slightest. Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave was a triumph in its honesty and in its perspective, but not in terms of the filmmaking itself (Michael Fassbender’s Oscar-nominated performance as the chief antagonist especially was nothing new). I feel this even extends to Her, which many would consider one of the more innovative movies to come out last year. While the concept was indeed novel, the story itself and how it progressed was nothing all that unusual. And, despite some distinctly futuristic touches, the production design was, purposefully, not meant to completely throw us off guard. Again, none of this is a bad thing. Good filmmaking is good filmmaking, and I believe that 2013 can forever be held up as a banner year in terms of quality film, done the way they should be done.

Her was seen as unconventional last year, but storywise, actually followed a fairly familiar route.

2014 is also proving to be a great year for film. But, more than that, I think this is a year for innovative film. And that’s a beautiful thing. I am struck by how clearly this year has featured films that are not only good, but take real risks. This doesn’t make these films inherently better than the best films of 2013, but they’re ones that I personally will remember many years down the road. My favorite films from this year run circles around my favorites of last year. And, frankly, I just have a lot more to say about them. This year's films were more thought-provoking, more substantial, and more concretely encouraged discussion once you left the theater. My favorite best picture nominee of last year was Philomena--a wonderfully told story that certainly had plenty to analyze, but for the most part was very straightforward. The films of this year got my brain racing. They were not just great movies, they were marvelous achievements, and they inspired me.

Fans of this blog will surely have noticed that I haven't posted anything in a long time. My last post was in August. But that's all about to change. I realized early on that, this year, it would not do to just have a single post listing my favorite films of the year. No, each one is going to get its own post. In the coming week and a half, I will release a new post every day counting down my favorite films of the year. So, keep your eye on this blog for some passionate discussion about some great movies!

I don't know about you, but Will Ferrell is excited.

Those posts will start in the new year, but before I get into my countdown, I would like to name a few honorable mentions. Because there are lots of movies I would have loved to include but which I simply didn't have room for.

Let's start with some of the more artsy films-- there are two films from this year which have been making waves for their leading performances: Mr. Turner and Still Alice. Mr. Turner stars character actor Timothy Spall, who is probably best known for playing Wormtail in the Harry Potter films, but he has been around forever, playing supporting roles with aplomb. But, in Mr. Turner, he gets a starring role as the British painter J.M.W. Turner. It's a masterful performance, which puts Spall center stage, and which won him the Best Actor award at Cannes. Turner, as played by Spall, is an absolute enigma: he is portrayed not unlike a feral pig. He's crass, he's disgusting, he's rude, he's generally rough around the edges. And yet he creates beautiful masterpieces. Director and writer Mike Leigh finds lovely contrast by plopping Turner into the world of high society. Because of his talent, he is surrounded by those who are nothing like him. He always seems out of place, but no one ever acknowledges it. It's an odd film, admittedly, and I know some critics have dismissed it as being too aimless. Nothing much happens-- there isn't exactly a plot, and we don't see much actual change in Turner as the film goes on. But there are some absolute gems in this film (one scene where a group of people talk about gooseberries was one of the funniest scenes of the year) and it is absolutely gorgeous to watch (it is a serious contender for a cinematography nod-- some shots look like they were plucked from off of one of Turner's canvases). And, of course, there's Spall. The film has kind of come and gone, and while Spall was once seen as a dark horse contender for an Oscar nomination, the competitive field seems to have left him out of the running. Watch the film and you'll understand why that's such a shame.

Timothy Spall in the performance of his career.

Julianne Moore--the leading performer in Still Alice, however, is seen as a frontrunner to actually win the Oscar, and it's obvious why. She has been handed a challenging gift of a role as Alice Howland, a professor who is undergoing early-onset Alzheimer's. It's the sort of role that makes the Oscars salivate, but Moore truly does rise to the occasion, giving an assured performance that is profoundly touching. The attention being paid to the film seems to primarily be surrounding her performance, but I feel that the film as a whole is worthwhile. It's a very powerful look at how a condition such as this can affect a family, and the movie feels very real-- you get to know not only Alice, but her entire family, and feel for them as the Alzheimer's worsens. Alec Baldwin does nice work as Alice's husband, but the true standout is Kristen Stewart, who plays one of Alice's daughters. At one point, there was some early buzz that Stewart might get Oscar consideration and I would have loved for this to have been true. 1) she's very good in the film and 2) it would finally have shut up those whose entire conception of Stewart's talent is based on her performance in the Twilight films. I've got some news for you: EVERYONE is bad in the Twilight films, but other actors have had a chance to actually demonstrate their talent elsewhere. People don't seem to want to give Stewart that chance, but they would if they saw this film. Still Alice is a remarkably real portrayal of a family in crisis, and one of the more genuinely moving and restrained films of the year.

Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart's strong performances are the foundation that holds Still Alice together.

The high number of quality films has also meant that my choices this year are decidedly predictable-- very artsy and stuff. Which means that I was left with no room for some of the bigger blockbuster films of the year-- the more commercial stuff, which I thought was truly great. Superheroes had a strong showing this year, and while Marvel seems to have a disaster coming its way with its upcoming Ant Man trainwreck, both of its offerings this year continued to expand upon its impressive franchise. Captain America II: The Winter Soldier had just the right amount of substance to make the film have important commentary, while still being the enjoyable popcorn flick we hoped it would be. Guardians of the Galaxy was an absolute revelation, which brought the Marvel film world into decidedly weirder territory--it was without a doubt one of the most enjoyable films of the year, and full of heart and humor. And it had a talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel who somehow became one of the best characters of the year.

"I am...oh gosh, what's my line again? Sorry, guys." -Vin Diesel

But my favorite superhero film of the year was actually none of those two--it was the animated Big Hero 6, which, like Guardians, features a rag-tag team of superheroes. It will probably lose the Animated Feature Oscar to the more popular The Lego Movie, but I hope this film gets at least some recognition. It is filled with a lot of heart, a lot of action, and some really great storytelling. Big Hero 6 was a huge surprise to me-- I could not have imagined I'd love it as much as I did--but it ended up being far and away my favorite kid's film of the year.

A still from either Big Hero 6 or Foxcatcher, not sure which.
But the film I was most upset did not make my best of the year list was probably Jon Favreau's Chef. I simply loved this movie, which missed out on being named one of the best of the year for the same reason it was so good-- its simplicity. The film follows renowned chef Carl Casper, a once-exciting chef on the American food scene whose recent work has been seen as derivative and less than stellar. After a breakdown where he yells at a critic (and it predictably goes viral) Carl decides to return to his roots, and tours across the country making simple food with his son and his best friend (Emjay Anthony and John Leguizamo). This s where Chef shines. It's a very personal film for Favreau, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film as Casper. The film is rather clearly based on his own life-- he was once seen as an innovative and hip upstart filmmaker and a champion of the indie film world, but who has since gone decidedly more commercial, finding success with the first two Iron Man films. And many have attacked him as "selling out," (and, let's be honest, Cowboys & Aliens was really ripped to shreds by audiences and critics alike). The film is meant to be a simple-- with Favreau simply focusing on telling a small story well. Sure, it has flaws (only Favreau would have cast Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara as Jon Favreau's love interests) but it's just so charming that it's an absolutely winning film. And the best part is the food. The film obviously features many scenes where Carl prepares food, and these sequences are absolutely stunning, and truly lovingly done. We see Carl making food in his Michelin-starred restaurant, and it looks beautiful. Then we see him making a grilled cheese sandwich for his son, and it's just as beautiful. Food, like art, can bring people together. And with Chef, Favreau made one of the best films about food ever made-- it showcases the way food can bring us together. I'm a self-professed "foodie" so I will admit that this film played right into my interests, but it is undeniably worth seeing if only for the sheer enthusiasm with which is handles its subject matter, and themes of food, family, and fulfillment.

The hardworking food-truck team in Chef. This movie will make you crave a Cuban Sandwich like you won't believe.

The last film I want to mention here is The Imitation Game, the Alan Turing biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. Unlike the other films I've listed here, it is not one of my honorable mentions, but it is a very good film and I wanted to talk about it nonetheless. The film is a serious awards powerhouse, and I'm sure we will see it appear many times when Oscar nominations are announced. And it is a very good film. But, it strikes me as a film that would be more at home amongst last year's cinematic offerings. The Imitation Game is well made, well acted, well told, and generally well done. Turing is a fascinating historical figure and it's great that his story is being told, and being told in such a quality film (another awards contender-- the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything is decidedly not as strong of a film, despite a strong performance from Eddie Redmayne). But, as much as I liked The Imitation Game, when I left the theater, I didn't think about it again. My thoughts about the film ended as soon as the film did. And that's why, despite the fact that it seems like a film the Oscars would gravitate towards consistently, I'm pretty convinced that The Imitation Game will end up somewhat empty-handed in terms of actual awards. It is the safe choice, but other, more innovative films are starting to emerge as the real contenders. After all, the best picture winner usually is linked with the best director category, and director Morten Tyldum has not been getting any awards recognition at all.  

The technically proficient The Imitation Game failed to to innovate, and that's why it falls short.

The Imitation Game is a great movie. I can't say anything bad about it, to be honest, but at the same time, it is not even close to being one of my favorite films of the year. And I feel that it can demonstrate what makes the films I have selected stand out. Unlike The Imitation Game, the films I will be naming and discussing in the coming days stay with you. They are films that I still think about, they are films that I continue to reassess in my mind. They are films one can watch over and over again. They are films that benefit from being discussed, and films which two people can experience in vastly different ways. They are works of art. And I'm excited to talk about them with you.

And, no, Winter's Tale will not be appearing anywhere on my list.

Here are my picks for the best films of the year:
11: Selma
10: Foxcatcher
9: Whiplash 
8: Nightcrawler 
7: Gone Girl
6: The Babadook  
5: The Grand Budapest Hotel
4: Boyhood
3: Begin Again   
2: Snowpiercer
1: Birdman