It’s Personal: My Favorite Films of 2014

David Olyeowo portrays Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's "Selma."

David Olyeowo portrays Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.”

Anyone that knows me knows that one of my favorite days of the year is here.  I’ve been watching the Academy Awards religiously since I was eight years old, rooting for my favorite films and performances to be rewarded with Oscar gold.  Every year I do my very best to see as many of the top movies as I can and this year was no different.  What’s always interesting to me, every year, is seeing the certain currents or themes that run through all of a year’s best films.  Even though the focus or plots of the very best films are vastly diverse – certain thematic patterns develop every year.  For example, at their core many of last year’s top films Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips were all about the struggle for survival. When I look at all of my favorite films from 2014 as a whole what stands out the most is no matter whether they were a “big” or a “small” film by Hollywood standards they seemed to be most interested in intimate and personal storytelling instead of epic grandiosity.  2014 was not a year for ensembles.  Even an ensemble-esque film like Birdman is about one man’s very personal struggle to re-create himself.  A story about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could make for an epic biopic, but Ava DuVernay’s Selma instead chose to zero in on a short stretch in King’s life.  Her film’s greatest focus was not necessarily on events and their meaning, but MLK’s inner struggle as the pressure of the situation around him mounted.    A war epic like American Sniper’s climax comes not on the battlefield, but on the homefront – as it’s protagonist finally faces the cumulative effects of  PTSD.  Arguably the biggest film of the year Interstellar, all about the survival of the entire human race, is at it’s core, about something so personal, intimate and seemingly “small” – the love between a father and daughter that is so strong it transcends time and the universe itself. Great drama’s closest friend is irony.  And in a year where Hollywood saw a sharp decline in overall box office sales thanks to bloated, loud, and empty blockbusters the films that ultimately may be remembered years from now are films took huge external conflict such as war, violent racism, and even humanity’s extinction itself and journeyed inward; deep into the struggle raging on in the mind, heart, and very soul of their central characters. These are my favorite films of 2014… WARNING:  May contain Spoilers.

10.)  The Imitation Game:                         On the surface The Imitation Game is about how real-life mathematician Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) code-breaking team is fighting a race against time to crack the Nazi’s unbreakable “ENIGMA” system before the Third Reich destroys the rest of Europe.  Super-charged, suspenseful, where the stakes are at their greatest, right?  Not really.  The war is mere backdrop to Turing’s personal struggles.  Much like many of the “heroes” on this list, Cumberbatch’s Turing seems to view himself as anything but – struggling with his decisions and all of his most important relationships.  In a film cluttered with smug, pithy, and polished co-stars, Cumberbatch’s performance is what endures – not for the celebration of Turing’s heroism…but for the honoring of his tragedy.

9.)  Gone Girl:                                                If not for a “now what do we do?” third act (although thanks to its stars, the ending is better in the film then it was in the novel), David Fincher’s pulpy thriller would be much higher on my list.  This film certainly isn’t Fincher’s best (Social Network or Se7en) but it’s also not his worst (Panic Room).  Eerie, disturbing and downright shocking in a way that only Fincher films can be (Neil Patrick Harris may still be bleeding) this film will always be remembered for Rosamund Pike’s scorned psychopathic performance.  What makes Pike’s performance so everlastingly creepy is that her Amy is genuinely oblivious to how screwed up she is.   In her twisted, perfection-obsessed mind she is actually amazing.  In that so-far-removed-from-reality self image, her actions are merited and even virtuous.  Amy is the very worst kind of monster mostly because she doesn’t realize she is one.  Pike owns this persona in each hissed word, measured movement, and cold stare.

Academy-Award nominee Rosamund Pike plays "Amazing" Amy Dunne in David Fincher's "Gone Girl."

2015 Academy-Award nominee Rosamund Pike plays “Amazing” Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl.”

8.  American Sniper:                                    Clint Eastwood’s war biopic certainly isn’t an anti-war war movie (and believe it or not, this IS okay sometimes) but I didn’t feel it was pro-war either.  What is unmistakable is that American Sniper is clearly pro-Chris Kyle.  Unfortunately, the film’s major pitfall is that it’s not really pro-anything else.  Most of the Iraqi characters are one-dimensional, I challenge you to remember the name or even a meaningful plot contribution of any of Kyle’s fellow soldiers, and Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife has no real identity or depth of her own.  Yet somehow, none of this mattered to me.  Because for the 2+ hours I sat in the theater watching American Sniper I was riveted.  The credit for this goes 100% to Bradley Cooper.  His Chris Kyle seems to be a man always out of place, always between tours of duty.  He’s awkward as a husband, as a father, and unsettled when labeled a “hero.”  For Kyle, the only time it all seems to fall into place is when he’s staring into his scope, holding his breath, about to make another seemingly impossible kill.  In every other aspect of his life, he struggles to find peace – a man waging an inner war with himself and his bloody acts, one that he’s not as good at hiding from other people as he’d like to think.  It’s Cooper’s most complete, subtle, and best performance yet, and in the hands of Eastwood (nobody’s films do a better job of getting into your bones) Chris Kyle’s painted as lonely, somber, and flawed – not a superhero.  It’s an honest portrayal that honors not only Kyle’s sacrifice but the immeasurable sacrifice of all of our veterans.

7.  Birdman:                                                    I really struggled with this one.  I want Birdman higher on my list, in fact a big part of me wants to put at #1.  It’s brilliant visually (albeit sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard), all of the performances are very good (especially Michael Keaton and Ed Norton) and this film had me all-in until the vague, weird, hanging chad of a final JIB shot.  It didn’t completely ruin the movie for me, but it did annoy me in that I said out loud, “oh c’mon why’d you have to go and do that?” Besides that last shot, what will always stick with me from Birdman is Michael Keaton’s performance.  The parallels between Keaton and his Birdman alter-ego Riggan Thomson are immediately obvious, and unsettling.  Riggan’s a former Hollywood mega-star desperately trying to revive and re-define his stale acting career by putting everything on-the-line (money, his ego, blood, tears, sweat, his life) by writing, directing, and starring in his own version of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Riggan’s willing to put it all on the line for this show, a last chance to prove his critics wrong.  But during the rehearsals leading up to the big performance we see that the critic he’s really trying to shut-up is himself…or more accurately his nagging, abrasive, raven-esque, subconscious.  Riggan does put everything he is into this show, and Keaton puts all that he is into Riggan.  It’s a raw, frayed, spontaneous performance where Keaton seems to always have Riggan teetering on the edge of nervous shutdown.  Unfortunately Eddie Redmayne will probably take home the Oscar tonight (which will cause me to spit and spew a variety of curse words at my TV) but Keaton’s the one that really should be honored for his incredible work.

Oscar nominee Michael Keaton plays has-been superstar Riggan Thomson, stalked by his subconscious in "Birdman."

Oscar nominee Michael Keaton plays has-been superstar Riggan Thomson, stalked by his subconscious in “Birdman.”

6.  Boyhood:                                                    Before this year, writer / director Richard Linklater was known by many people as “the guy that makes those movies about the sun,” and to many others he’s known as, “who?”  That’s because even though Boyhood only grossed $25 million at the domestic box office it’s easily Linklater’s biggest blockbuster.  Unfortunately the film, and Linklater’s direction is getting the most attention for it’s time-stretching feat.  A few scenes for Boyhood were shot each year over the course of 12 years, all with the same actors.  The aging process is actually natural, OMG!  While this approach is ballsy, what impresses me most is that it’s not gimmicky.  Linklater doesn’t rely on this background to make his film work, scenes fall seamlessly into each other despite a divide of 1-2 years between being filmed.   His story just flows very naturally, with the stages, turning points, and themes of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) washing over him, and if we allow it, us.  Nothing is forced, it’s free-flowing, sweet, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – just the way Mason would want it.  Sitting in the desert, watching the sunset on his first day of college Mason finally figures out that there’s nothing to figure out about life, no rules except what we ascribe value to, and wide open to interpretation.  That life truly is what we make of it, and we should be as present as possible and open to the whole experience.  While half of me thinks “I’d like to see how 30-year-old Mason fairs in the sequel Manhood when reality kicks-in,” for now I’d rather just enjoy the ride with him, stare off into the distance, and absorb the moment’s wonder.  Boyhood is so anti every Best Picture winner I can remember that it’s exactly why I think it winning, would be a breath of fresh air for Oscar.  A momentary respite from test audiences, analytics, protected investments, and overseas box office numbers.  Boyhood is personal storytelling at its best, leaving you feeling good about life without making you feel like it forced you to get there.  More movies like Boyhood would be alright with me.

Unknown Ellar Coltrane grows up before our eyes in Best Picture frontrunner "Boyhood," directed by Richard Linklater.

Unknown Ellar Coltrane grows up before our eyes in Best Picture frontrunner “Boyhood,” directed by Richard Linklater.

5.  Interstellar:                                            Ok, so if you’re still reading at this point (seriously, don’t you have stuff to do today?) this is the moment in the post where you’re about to say to yourself, “wait, but hasn’t he been preaching that smaller films are better?  What a hypocrite.”  What can I say, I’m a paradox – especially when Christopher Nolan is involved.  I will defend him vehemently mostly because I believe that Nolan’s best work is still to come.  Interstellar is high stakes at it’s highest.  Thanks to years of industrialization and man made pollution we are killing future Earth, suffocating ourselves and destroying our ability to produce agriculturally.  Enter Midwesterner Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who will leave his children behind (specifically his daughter Murph) to travel through wormholes all across the galaxy in search of a better planet to re-start humanity.  The issue is that all this space travel is also time travel.  Mere minutes spent on a new planet are decades on a dying Earth.  Now Nolan films are notorious for not playing to the masses, he expects passion and endurance from his audience.  If you’re up to the challenge he will reward you with exhilaration.  And Interstellar has no shortage of exhilaration.  Unlike so many of 2014’s biggest films, the CGI in Interstellar feels reel, touchable, experiential – not like the fusion of live action and Playstation.  And, Nolan always manages to get gritty, emotional performances from his stars – especially the greatest current American actor Matthew McConaughey (yeah I said it, deal with it).  Much like Nolan’s last non-Batman film Inception, this genre-blending epic is polarizing.  You either like it a lot, or you’re confused and angry.  The reason I’m on the former side is because this film is just so damn imaginative and ambitious.  But, much in the way I felt about Inception, at its core is a simple, basic, and heartfelt mission.  This film isn’t about saving the Earth, it’s about a father risking everything to save his children.  Despite the many plot aspects of Interstellar that had me scratching my head, it’s this deep love, one that remains strong despite time and great physical distance, that stayed with me for weeks after seeing the film.  Nolan’s sense of wonder and grandeur always resonate with me and this film is a big-time reminder that there’s so much we don’t know about ourselves, our universe, and the love that binds us all to each other.  I loved Interstellar because it allowed me to imagine an alternate universe where all those souls we cherish are always with us, because nothing in all of existence is stronger than love.

Jessica Chastain stars in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

Jessica Chastain stars in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”

4.  Selma:                                                      Director Ava DuVernay’s gripping, inspirational drama focuses on a major chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement.  The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama is center stage in Selma and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is leading the struggle.  The ultimate goal is to put overwhelming pressure on President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to create a bill that will give all Americans the right to vote.  This right, according to Dr. King will give African Americans (and Americans of all races) the ability to alter the course of their destiny in America.  It’s a basic, human right according to our Constitution – yet Johnson has other things on his agenda and the powers that be in Alabama are doing everything in their power to deter African Americans from pursuing this goal, including bullying, beating, and even murdering them.  Selma is one of those films that are vital for all of us to see, not just as a history lesson, but as a reminder of all the good and unfortunately evil that we as a species are capable of.  This film has received its fair share of criticism for inaccurate representations of historical figures such as LBJ and Governor George Wallace.  Whatever.  The bottom line when it comes to Selma is that David Oyelowo is incredible.  If you close your eyes when he’s giving bold, passionate speeches you can swear you’re actuallly listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it’s in the real marrow of this story that Oyelowo does his best acting work.  It’s not easy to play larger-than-life historical figures – a lot of the time the mythology takes over and the very film itself seems to be in awe of its hero, completely forgetting that they were actually a real person just like any of us.  DuVernay and Oyelowo never forget this.  We see MLK as mortal – struggling to overcome not just his mounting and powerful adversaries, but also fighting to overcome his own emotional exhaustion and the self doubt that every great leader faces.  The most powerful moments in Selma are not big scene pieces (not DuVernay’s strength) – they are the moments when Dr. King is faced with the consequences of his mission – not on him – but his wife, his children, and the hundreds of Alabama protestors he’s leading.  We dream of all of our heroes to be like Dr. King because they value every little sacrifice made by everyone around them for the greater good.  Watching Oyelowo persevere through each resistance, to dig deep within himself to find the strength to push President Johnson when “being nice” just doesn’t work, is remarkable.  The biggest snubs of the 2014 Academy Awards are DuVernay for Best Director and most especially David Oyelowo for Best Actor.  His performance is better than anyone that’s actually nominated this year and the breakthrough of a versatile acting talent (he was also very good in smaller roles in Interstellar and A Most Violent Year).  Whatever you decide to make next Mr. Oyelowo, I’m there.  Point me in the direction of the box office, I’ll buy my ticket now.

3.  Whiplash:                                                   This film guarantees that I will shudder and break into a cold sweat anytime I pass a drum set for the rest of my life.  Never has jazz music been so visceral, so anxiety-inducing, so damn violent.  Enter the Bobby Knight of music on steroids – conductor Terence Fletcher (this Oscar should’ve just been given to JK Simmons weeks ago – no contest here), spitting, snarling, slapping, spouting the raunchiest, most degrading insults ever to be uttered on film at his music students (never mind the metal chair he flings at someone’s head).  Simmons’ Fletcher is so intimidating he’d cause Full Metal Jacket’s Drill Sergeant Hartman to second-guess his life choices.  An unparalleled editing achievement, Whiplash is all about a very headstrong protege (Miles Teller as Andrew) and relentless mentor butting heads.  Both of them want Andrew to be the greatest drummer he can be, maybe that’s ever walked the Earth, and neither one of them will stop at anything to make this happen.  Try to watch Whiplash and keep your heart from racing, I dare ya. No matter how fast it was beating, Terence Fletcher would scream at you – “FASTER!”

Best Supporting Actor frontrunner J.K. Simmons does a lot of screaming at jazz drumming student Miles Teller in "Whiplash."

Best Supporting Actor frontrunner J.K. Simmons does a lot of screaming at jazz drumming student Miles Teller in “Whiplash.”

2.  Wild:                                                            Tonight the most sure thing is that Julianne Moore will be awarded the Oscar for Best Actress.  And while she was excellent in Still Alice I still like Reese Witherspoon more.  It could be because she’s one of my favorite actresses (if I catch Walk the Line on TV to this day, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to watch), but I think I really feel this way because Wild is a much better film – a film that really snuck up on me.  I didn’t know a lot about it going in, but the idea of Reese in a real serious drama directed by up-and-coming director Jean-Marc Vallee (who also helmed last year’s Dallas Buyers Club) got me into the theater on opening weekend.  For those of you that don’t know anything about this film, it’s based on the memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” by Cheryl Strayed.  After a series of tragic catastrophes in her personal life, Cheryl decided to embark on a more than 1,100 mile journey from California to Canada in the mid-1990s.  All alone in the wilderness, Cheryl learns not just how to survive on her own, but works to make inner peace with herself.  Without even realizing it, she lasts longer on the PCT than a lot of accomplished hikers (all men), and interacts with a series of people that each teach her something about herself.  Threaded throughout are flashbacks that reveal why Cheryl went on this mission in the first place, many of them featuring her relationship with her free spirited and endlessly optimistic mother (I’m not a huge Laura Dern fan, but she’s never been this good).  Now I’m a sucker for stories about a character’s journey into the unknown, even more-so when it’s about them learning transformative lessons about themselves.  I’m also a sucker for movies that feel like everyone that was a part of the production, really cared about what they were creating.  Wild is all emotion, and if you’ve ever faced any adversity of any kind in your life (most of us have) then Cheryl’s struggle and transformation into a more confident person will be worth the watch.  Somehow this film (which other than a poorly realized CGI fox as Cheryl’s “power animal”) is flawless in my opinion, fueled by a touching script by Nick Hornby, relentless yet restrained direction by Vallee, and a deeply personal performance by Reese Witherspoon.   She doesn’t get enough credit for being a strong actress – but Wild is all on her, and she’s more than up to the challenge.  In 2014, Wild and Gone Girl were both produced by Witherspoon.  Clearly she knows how to develop powerful stories and put excellent artists together to bring them to the screen.  She probably won’t be holding a statue tonight, but I have a feeling she’ll be back up on that stage real soon – the next time maybe as a Producer accepting an Oscar for Best Picture.

Academy-Award winner Reese Witherspoon starred in and produced 2014's "Wild," based on the bestselling memoir.

Academy-Award winner Reese Witherspoon starred in and produced 2014’s “Wild,” based on the bestselling memoir.

1.  Life Itself:                                                  Life Itself is a documentary about the life story of film critic Roger Ebert – the writer of thousands of articles and dozens of books on film criticism.  However, what Roger Ebert is best known for was his team-up with fellow Chicago-area film critic Gene Siskel in the 1980s and 1990s.  Siskel & Ebert headlined a TV show every Sunday night where they reviewed that week’s new releases for millions of watchers.  Their show came on late every Sunday night, after the local news, but I was one of those viewers almost every Sunday night.   Their passionate arguments over films paced my childhood, with my favorite installments being their annual “Top 10 Films of the Year” episode every December/January.  Gene Siskel passed away in 1999, replaced by Roger Roeper.  Roeper wasn’t necessarily bad, but he was overpowered by Roger Ebert and the show was just never the same.  This documentary, directed by filmmaker Steve James (who also directed Hoop Dreams, one of Ebert’s favorite films) is an un-biased look at Ebert’s life, revealing many aspects of the populist critic that most of us never knew.  In his early career, Ebert struggled with severe alcoholism and depression, he didn’t marry until he was in his 50s and met his soul mate, and the last chapter of Ebert’s life was filled with a rigorous fight with cancer.  This cancer would eventually take his jaw, and subsequent consequences would take his ability to speak.  But, right up until the day he died, Ebert was always able to write.  He never stopped watching films and writing about them from his macbook pro.  Life Itself goes into great depth about Ebert’s entire life, his personal and professional relationships, with a special focus on the last few months and days of his life – while James’ camera was constantly rolling.  Most suprising to me was Ebert’s friendships with filmmakers of all ages.  Most people see filmmakers and critics as enemies – but Siskel & Ebert broke down these barriers.  Aforementioned Ava DuVernay credits her ascension as a director to Ebert seeing something in her after her first film – he constantly encouraged her, as he did for Werner Herzog and even Martin Scorsese – who gets emotional when he remembers how Siskel & Ebert supported him with friendship at a time in the late 1980s when he was battling drug addiction and everyone in Hollywood had written him off.  Siskel & Ebert believed in Scorsese who was then at a veritable crossroads.  Their friendship helped him not only beat back his addiction, but use it to persevere.  Scorsese connects this experience to the making of Goodfellas in 1990, arguably Scorsese’s best film and the beginning of a phenomenal second act in his career.  People often view and portray art critics as curmudgeonly, bitter, and self-important but Life Itself breaks down those barriers between filmmaker and critic the way Ebert did.  It reveals Roger Ebert as a life-loving man who probably loved nothing more than movies.  His words (sometimes of harsh criticism and other times of passionate praise) will be missed, but not as much as the love he brought to the experience of watching movies.  This love connected with me as a ten year old aspiring filmmaker, and Life Itself was a humbling reminder of the magic of going to the movies.  It’s an experience that Roger Ebert enriched for all of us.

And now, as Siskel & Ebert would say, “the balcony is now closed.”

Famed film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed thousands of films on their show "Siskel & Ebert."

Famed film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed thousands of films on their show “Siskel & Ebert.”

~ by Dan Fabrizio on February 22, 2015.

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