Of the approximately 230 feature films I saw last year, here are the 30 new films that stood out for me. Some of these choices are pretty obvious, others maybe not so much. These are films that entertained and sometimes challenged me, films that stayed true to the worlds they created, and generally made me feel better for having seen them. Or in some cases, just gave me a real kick.
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, director & writer). This Australian movie is scary as hell, though not in the obvious, cliched ways we usually see in run-of-the mill horror films. The Babadook is anchored, though in a very destabilizing way, by the extraordinary performances of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, as mother and son. This one takes you through the wringer.
Big Hero 6 (Don Hall & Chris Williams, co-directors). The energy and the look of this film reminded me of The Incredibles (2004). Very detailed and just great.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, director & co-writer). This whirlwind of a movie is something else. You either get on the ride and go with it, or get thrown off on a sharp turn. The conceit of having it edited in a way that suggests the entire film is one continuous take is quite thrilling, and adds to the feeling of non-stop momentum. The performances are great; this is acting with all the stops out. And for New York audiences it’s great that so much of it was shot in the Broadway theater district, which gives the film an authentic sense of place.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, director & writer). Shot over a 12 year period from May 2002 to October 2013, this film tells the story of Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) as we watch him age in real time from 6 to 18. There’s a documentary aspect to this that relates to Michael Apted’s great 7 Up series, which films the same set of people every 7 years (the most recent installment is 56 Up). When I was seeing Boyhood I started wondering if the story by itself would be strong enough to support all the attention the film has received if we didn’t know the extraordinary and unique way it was made. Because there didn’t seem to be anything much actually happening each time we checked in with Mason and his family. Then I realized that was sort of the point, that this is the way life plays out. There’s a point late in the film that was almost an epiphany for me, when Mason says with wonder, “It’s always right now!”
Chef (Jon Favreau, director & writer). Not always believable, but extremely entertaining and it made me feel really good. Plus it was something of a revelation to see Sofia Vergara play a fairly realistic character instead of a caricature. Also nice seeing Jon Favreau gear down to a smaller, more personal scale from the blockbusters (Iron Man, for example) he’s been making the last few years.
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, director & writer). See my previous post on this film.
Cold in July (Jim Mickle, director; Nick Damici, writer). This is a very smart neo-noir that reinvigorates and upsets genre expectations. Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson are terrific. Johnson, especially, nearly walks away with the picture after his flamboyant entrance, and takes it in a darkly comic, though no less deadly, direction. The director’s and writer’s previous film, the excellent Stake Land (2010), was a take-no-prisoners tale of trying to survive in an economically and environmentally wasted landscape overrun by very down and dirty vampires. These filmmakers’ approach to genre reinvention is similar to what Adam Wingard and Simon Barret have done with this year’s other pleasant surprise, The Guest (see below).
Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, director & writer). Jude Law, paunchy and dissolute, really gets his teeth into the role of the title character much the way Jon Voight does in Showtime’s Ray Donovan series as Ray’s monster of a father, Mickey. Law’s character is totally outrageous and extremely entertaining. With Emilia Clark, who plays Daenerys Targaryen — the “mother of dragons” — on HBO’s Game of Thrones, as Dom’s estranged daughter, and Richard E. Grant, who I’ll always remember from the equally out- there Withnail & I (1987), as Dom’s prickly sidekick.
Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, director & writer). See my previous post on this film.
Generation War (Philipp Kadelbach, director; Stefan Kolditz, writer). Shown in three episodes on German television in 2013, Generation War was released theatrically in the U.S. in two parts. With a combined running time of over 4 1/2 hours, it’s a long haul, but definitely worth it. The plotting frequently has the five main characters, who are scattered all over the Eastern Front during World War II, manage to meet up in the same places at the same times. This contrivance pushes coincidence a little too far, but the strength of the film for me is in the combat sequences. These scenes are harrowing and brutal, the strongest I’ve seen since Stephen Spielberg radically raised the bar with Saving Private Ryan (1998).
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, director & writer. Another of Wes Anderson’s incredibly detailed miniature worlds, filled with an assortment of eccentric characters portrayed by a great cast rushing from one absurd development to another. The increasingly frantic plot is secondary. Sometimes Anderson’s films get a bit too precious, but I really enjoyed this one. The performances are totally committed. The characters and events may be ridiculous, but the actors go at them with a deadpan seriousness.
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, director & co-writer). I loved this movie beyond all reason. Which is ironic, since the print ads and trailers I’d seen before it was released made the film seem goofy and silly. I had no intention of seeing it, since I take my science fiction more seriously than that. Then I read some things that piqued my interest, so I gave it a shot. Amazing, the movie more than succeeded on every level. It felt like the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing from start to finish. Having the lead character listen to 80s pop songs throughout was a stroke of genius; the nostalgia they trigger somehow helps us connect more directly to the space-opera setting, and took Guardians to another level. This film was a thoroughly entertaining experience, and I must have been smiling a lot. Though I think my wife got a little tired of me saying “I am Groot!” for a couple of weeks after.
The Guest (Adam Wingard, director; Simon Barrett, writer). Dan Stevens is a long way from Downton Abbey in this very satisfying, tightly made thriller. The director and writer had previously made You’re Next (2013), another film I had no intention of seeing, based on the print ads. I didn’t need another home invasion movie, but I did see it and was totally sold. These guys have a way of taking familiar genre scenarios and twisting them into new shapes. You’re Next is probably a slightly better film — certainly a better title, which involves you right away — but The Guest does not disappoint. Part of the punch is seeing Dan Stevens inhabit this kind of character.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowska, director & co-writer). A very minimalist film, shot in luminous black & white in the old 1.33:1 screen ratio. Very quiet and very understated, both a road movie and a kind of thriller. I’ve seen it three times, the last at a screening room with Thelma Schoonmaker, editor of all of Martin Scorsese’s films, in the row behind us. On the way out, she said she thought Ida was a “little forced.” I don’t agree with that opinion, but considering the source, it made me think.
The Imitation Game (Morton Tyldum, director; Graham Moore, writer). The otherworldly Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and closeted gay man who helped to break the unbreakable German Enigma code during World War II, creating a prototype computer in the process. Morton Tyldum previously directed Headhunters, one of my favorite films from 2011.
Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, director; James Lapine, writer). Before seeing it, I knew this had been a Broadway musical that combined several traditional fairy tales into one storyline, but not much more than that. We saw it on New Year’s Day at the Ziegfeld Theater, one of only two remaining single-screen theaters in Manhattan (the other is The Paris), and loved it. The musical numbers by Stephen Sondheim are quite thrilling. The entire cast is great, with Meryl Streep amazing as usual. Maybe even a little more so.
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, director; Derek Kolstad, writer). See my previous post on this film.
The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, co-directors & co-writers). Everything in this movie is made out of Legos, even the water. The whole thing is a hoot. I especially liked Lego Batman. It took days after to get the song “Everything Is Awesome” out of my head. Talk about hooks, this was diabolical.
Locke (Steven Knight, director & writer). Some kind of great movie. If I had to pick only three or four films for the year, this would be one of them. This film takes place entirely inside a car with a single character on one stressful phone call after another, attempting to put out out fires while he drives through the night to London, determined to get there in time for a birth. It’s a bold experiment for a feature film, and it completely works. Tom Hardy is great in this — he’s also very good in The Drop (2014), starring with James Gandolfini in Gandolfini’s final film.
Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs, director & co-writer). John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are great as two gay men who lose their New York apartment and have to live apart for the first time in 39 years until they can afford a new place. In the meantime, they stay with relatives and friends, which is an adjustment for everyone. This is an unsentimental film that respects its characters and conveys strong emotions.
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, director & writer). Oscar Isaac looks more and more like a leading man these days. After strong performances in Drive (2011) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), he steps up to a new level in a film that has echos of The Godfather Part 2, with a character that suggests Michael Corleone at times. Despite the title, this is not a particularly violent film, but set in the New York City of 1981, there’s an abundance of violence and tension in the air. Jessica Chastain is excellent as Isaac’s wife, probably the scariest character in the film. This is only the third feature written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Margin Call (2011) and All Is Lost (2013) are terrific; A Most Violent year continues the concerns and themes of those films.
A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, director; Andrew Bovell, writer). See my previous post on this film.
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, director & writer). Mike Leigh’s films are rather unique in that they are created from the ground up by Leigh and his cast over a long period of time with lengthy rehearsal periods before shooting begins. His films are put together in a truly organic way. You feel that life is being represented from the inside out. This is true for his period films as well as those with contemporary settings. Mr. Turner, which is about the life of British painter J.M.W. Turner, is no exception. Timothy Spall feels totally authentic in the title role, and the look of the film is extremely beautiful.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, director & writer). I have liked vampire movies since I was a kid, but most of them are pretty disappointing. Hammer Films’ Horror of Dracula (1957), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), and Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993) are strong exceptions. That’s why I was happy to see Jim Jarmusch’s take on the subject, which sets up its own rules and stays true to them. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are vampires as hipsters, with homes in Detroit and Tangier. One of their vampire friends is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who talks of having written Shakespeare’s plays. And they listen to the coolest music.
Salvo (Fabio Gassadonia & Antonio Piazza, co-directors & co-writers). An minimalist gangster film that weirdly reminded me of Camus’ The Stranger in terms of tone and spareness. There’s also a melancholy and sadness to the main character, Salvo, a hit man ordered by his boss to kill the sister of an enemy who tried and failed to assassinate the boss — no loose ends. It has one of the most powerful endings I’ve seen in a long time.
Selma (Ava DuVernay, director). David Oyelowo gives a monumental performance as Martin Luther King Jr, making him more of a real person and less of an icon. A large cast of committed actors in both large and small roles brings to life the 1964 march on Selma, Alabama, a key event in the Civil Rights movement. There is, however, ongoing controversy, both pro and con, over the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Whatever the truth of that, this is an important film, and very timely, given recent events.
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, director; Anthony McCarten, writer). Eddie Redmayne has been getting a lot of attention for his performance as Stephen Hawking, and rightly so. Felicity Jones more than holds her own as his wife, Jane. Designed to be uplifting, and it is.
Time Out of Mind (Oren Moverman, director & writer). We saw this at the New York Film Festival last fall. Richard Gere plays a homeless man on the streets of NYC, which is unlike anything he’s ever done before. He said in a Q&A after the screening that this was the film he was most proud of being a part of. Time Out of Mind is a truly powerful film that may alter the way you regard the homeless. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a distributor yet, which is a shame. I also liked Oren Moverman’s 2009 film, The Messenger, with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster members of a Casualty Notification Team tasked with informing families, wives and husbands that someone wasn’t coming home from the war. That film was really powerful, but this one feels way beyond that.
Tracks (John Curran, director; Marion Nelson, writer). See my previous post on this film.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, co-directors & co-writers). For over 20 years the Dardenne brothers have been making films with deeply humanistic concerns. This is the first time they have worked with a major star, Marian Cotillard, and she more than delivers. Two Days, One Night is a quietly detailed study that plays like a life and death thriller, which it is.
All of the films in this post are available for streaming or rental from Netflix, Amazon, You Tube, and other venues, with the exception of the following titles: Big Hero 6 (available 2/24/15), The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, John Wick (available 2/3/15), A Most Violent Year, Mr. Turner, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Time Out of Mind, Track, and Two Days, One Night.
See you at the movies. – Ted Hicks