My 15 Favorite Films of 2014

No doubt I’m far from the only person who skips the intros to these lists and heads directly for the meaty content, so I’ll keep my introduction short and just make three quick points.

First, living in the Tatooine of the movie universe, many films arrive here weeks or months after they hit NYC, D.C., and other American urban centers.  Therefore, some of the movies on my list already appeared on other critics’ 2013 tallies.

Second, my list conveniently divides into groups of five.  The top third are to my mind unequivocal masterpieces.  The final third are a bit flawed but still worthy of special mention.  Films six through ten fall somewhere in between (shocking, I know).

Lastly, I keep just as busy reading as I do watching and thinking about movies.  As such, I can’t resist concluding this list with three books published in 2014 that warrant a place on every freethinker’s bookshelf.

So without any further rambling, here’s my list!

15.  Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, in "Philomena"
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, in “Philomena”

Comedian Steve Coogan not only co-wrote but starred in this excellent reworking of journalist Martin Sixsmith’s nonfiction narrative.  Philomena tells of former Magdalene Laundry girl Philomena Lee, whose son was forcibly removed from her custody as an unwed (and thus “unfit”) mother in 1950’s Ireland.  Coogan and his costar Judi Dench give the best performances of their careers, as the mismatched duo of Sixsmith and Lee, on the quest to find Lee’s son fifty years later.

Stephen Frears uses an unobtrusive touch in directing, just as he did with The Queen, so style never interferes with Philomena’s compelling story.  Humor, sorrow, and contrasting worldviews are served up so entertainingly that we almost fail to notice the necessary history lesson we’re receiving, about Roman Catholicism’s dark intrusion on Irish society in the 20th Century.

14.  Glen Campbell:  I’ll Be Me

Glen Campbell on stage, in "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me"
Glen Campbell on stage, in “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”

As I noted in my review, director James Keach tries to cram too much into this documentary of music legend Glen Campbell’s farewell tour.  Keach achieves far more when he slows down and simply allows us to watch Campbell interact with his caring family or attempt to perform country standards like “Gentle on my Mind.”  At such times, we’re given perhaps the best film depiction of the cruel effects of Alzheimer’s Dementia upon its victims and their loved ones.  Only one film this year packed a greater emotional wallop for me (see #3 below).

13.  Interstellar

Matthew McConaughey, in "Interstellar"
Matthew McConaughey, in “Interstellar”

I’m baffled by the praise being lavished upon Snowpiercer and Edge of Tomorrow as thought-provoking sci-fi movies, and Interstellar’s relative neglect, on Best of 2014 lists.  To my mind, Christopher Nolan’s film leaves these others far behind, coughing and hacking in its rocket exhaust fumes.

Sure, Nolan tries to pack too many ideas into Interstellar’s 169 minutes.  Some sink (Matt Damon’s ramblings about evolution), but the majority soar.  As a meditation upon the enduring power of a parent’s love and the need for humanity to save itself from its own messes, Nolan’s film succeeds.  And as a science geek, I found his imaginings of other planets, wormholes, and black holes to be irresistible.

12.  Begin Again

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, in "Begin Again"
Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, in “Begin Again”

It may take a little while to get started, but director John Carney’s pairing of washed up music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) with just jilted, idealistic singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) ultimately charmed me utterly.  Both leads are terrific, as is every single supporting cast member in this uplifting film.

The film critics at the New York Times rightly remind us regularly that strong female lead characters are in chronically short supply at the multiplex.  Knightley’s resilient, winsome, independent Gretta is a welcome presence in such a time, reminding us more effectively than any Disney reboot that Prince Charming doesn’t need to save the day.

11.  Wild

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, in "Wild"
Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, in “Wild”

Speaking of strong female leads…I’ll concede to the naysayers that Reese Witherspoon looks cleaner and prettier than a grungy 1000+ mile hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail could ever conceivably appear.  But putting that objection aside, nothing remains but praise for this fine adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir.

Watching Wild, I was deeply moved by Strayed’s efforts to reform herself from the promiscuous drug abuser she’d become in the wake of her mother’s sudden death.  In skillfully weaving together events on Strayed’s hike with her painful memories, we find actress Witherspoon, director Jean-Marc Vallee, and screenwriter Nick Hornby all at the top of their game.

10.  Whiplash

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, in "Whiplash"
J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, in “Whiplash”

I don’t perceive any grand moral lessons in Whiplash.  But in a year that saw the tragic passing of Robin Williams, it seems somehow appropriate that one of 2014’s best films centers on a teacher who is the antithesis of The Dead Poets Society’s Mr. Keating.

Whiplash’s battle of wills between an abusive music teacher (J.K. Simmons) and a toxically driven student drummer (Miles Teller) was probably the year’s most pulse-quickening moviegoing experience for me.  Writer/director Damien Chazelle mingled sharp dialogue and rapid-fire editing in a manner that left me heaving a sigh of relief when the credits finally rolled.  But, perhaps masochistically, I can’t wait to watch this again.

9.  Force Majeure

The family that brushes together, in "Force Majeure."
The family that brushes together, in “Force Majeure”

As I stated in my recent review, this tense Swedish drama had me happily reaching for comparisons to great works both classic and recent.  The dueling recollections of a traumatic event brought to mind Kurosawa’s Rashomon.  The unflinching, nearly nonjudgmental portrait of a family in crisis recalled Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing domestic sagas.  The variable and occasionally jarring point-of-view shots?  Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad.  The surprising story turns, captivating visuals, and confident sense of place?  The most recent Foreign Language Oscar winner (see #1 below).

What more needs to be said?  Director and screenwriter Ruben Ostlund approaches perfection in his tale of a family’s efforts to recover after the husband/father flees and abandons the rest of them to an oncoming avalanche.

8.  Particle Fever

The communal joy of scientific discovery at CERN, in "Particle Fever"
The communal joy of scientific discovery at CERN, in “Particle Fever”

Hands down my favorite documentary of 2014, Particle Fever charmingly illustrates the quest to discover the Higgs-Boson Particle.  In melding the endeavors of the experimenters with nicely-visualized explanations of the theorizers, particle physics is rendered comprehensible.  More importantly, Particle Fever’s joy of discovery and wonder over the teensy building blocks of our universe are truly contagious.

7.  Love Is Strange

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, in "Love Is Strange"
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, in “Love Is Strange”

Ira Sachs’ domestic drama has only grown in my estimation since I saw it in September.  Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are both excellent as partners together for 39 years, yet only recently married, then suddenly forced to live separately due to unexpected financial troubles.

The debt to master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is evident (and freely acknowledged by Sachs) in this film’s visual style and narrative elisions.  Where most movie scores today aim for bombast or emotional manipulation, the delicate piano pieces by Chopin that accompany Love Is Strange offer a welcome contrast.  And please see for yourself, the final fifteen minutes of Love Is Strange attain cinematic perfection.

6.  The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

While a notch below his best film to date, 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, this year’s Wes Anderson confection still delights with its playful dialogue and attention to the minutest details of world creation.  Below its frenetic story of Ralph Fienne’s concierge and his efforts to escape a murderous Adrien Brody and an even more psychopathic Willem Dafoe, there lies a sober reflection on the endangered qualities of beauty and human decency.

5.  Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke, in "Boyhood"
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke, in “Boyhood”

Much praise has rightfully been showered upon director Richard Linklater for his daring choice to film Boyhood’s protagonists over 11 ½ years.  As such, we are privileged to see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up before our eyes.  I appreciated almost as much how their fictional parents (movingly played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) mature over this same time period.

Since I’m preparing to send my oldest child off to college soon, I’m an easy target for movies about the “empty nest.”  Even with this in mind, I expect I would still highly esteem Boyhood’s portrayal of Mason’s transitioning from age 6 to age 18.

4.  1000 Times Good Night

Juliette Binoche, in "1000 Times Good Night"
Juliette Binoche, in “1000 Times Good Night”

Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s film has grown ever bigger in my mind, too.  Despite a major misstep in the closing moments, all is forgiven, thanks to the incredible 110 minutes that preceded it.

Rebecca (art-house favorite Juliette Binoche) is a war photographer whose dangerous work is traumatizing her husband and daughters.  She thus feels pressed to choose between vocation and family.  Bolstered by potent visual symbolism and footage shot in Kenya and Afghanistan, 1000 Times Good Night continues to haunt me with its meditations upon our world’s horrors and the trickle down effects that our passions have upon our families.

3.  The Broken Circle Breakdown

broken circle
Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens, in “The Broken Circle Breakdown”

In a year that brought us the demonization of non-Christians in God’s Not Dead and Calvary, it was refreshing to see a film that handled the differences between an atheist husband and Christian wife with a light, even playful, touch that privileged neither point of view.

Even better, this Belgian film is flat-out terrific in every way:  rich characterizations, smart dialogue, an engrossing story, and meaningful musical accompaniment of the bluegrass variety.  But be forewarned, The Broken Circle Breakdown’s tale of a marriage threatened by the grave illness of a child takes no emotional prisoners.

2.  Her

Joaquin Phoenix, in "Her"
Joaquin Phoenix, in “Her”

Spike Jonze’s movie of a near future in which a man (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his almost infinitely intelligent operating system (voiced splendidly by Scarlett Johannson) became profounder with each repeated viewing.  Despite Her’s odd conceit, few films capture the varied stages of romance so authentically.  It’s an added bonus that Her beautifully, convincingly depicts the wonders of embodiment.

1.   The Great Beauty

Toni Servillo as Jep, in "The Great Beauty"
Toni Servillo as Jep, in “The Great Beauty”

The Academy nailed it, when they awarded the most recent Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to this literally wonderful Italian movie.  For a story about a despondent wastrel who just turned 65, The Great Beauty is a surprisingly exhilarating ride.  Using the ancient and contemporary artistic wonders of Rome to great effect, director Paolo Sorrentino’s visual and musical choices unceasingly astonish.

Sorrentino smartly juxtaposes his protagonist’s vacuous life against the comparable emptiness of a Roman cardinal, whom it is hinted will be the next Pope.  If both secular and church-infused lives are equally devoid of substance, is there any hope to be found?  By looking closely at the life of one of Jep’s contemporaries, ironically named Romano, careful viewers will note that Sorrentino offers hints of a third, more fulfilling way.

Bonus Round:  3 Essential Freethinker Books of 2014

Fiction:  The Children Act, by Ian McEwan – In just over 200 pages, McEwan offers an intimate psychological portrait of Fiona Maye.  A London judge with a failing marriage, Maye is called upon to rule whether a 17 year old Jehovah’s Witness should be permitted to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion.  By way of this taut story, McEwan provocatively questions whether the religious indoctrination of children amounts to abuse.

Non-fiction:  The Age of Atheists:  How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, by Peter Watson – How often do we atheists get asked, “If you don’t believe in God, where do you get your morals or values?”  Well, in the space of 550 pages, Watson offers a splendid survey of how great artists and philosophers have addressed this query, from the 19th Century to the present day.  I normally find philosophical writing to be a nearly incomprehensible slog, but I flew through Watson’s book.

Somewhere in between:  Werner Herzog:  A Guide for the Perplexed, Conversations with Paul Cronin – Herzog is perhaps my favorite living director, so discovering this book was a delight.  Over a series of conversations with Cronin, Herzog speaks candidly of his origins, humbly about his cinematic triumphs and duds, and whimsically of his spirituality (“If he does exist, I’m content to think of God as being as foolish, confused, contradictory, and disorientated as man.  As for the Devil, I believe in stupidity, which is as bad as it gets.”).  The result is a treasure trove suitable for sampling in bits and snippets.

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