Nobody asked for it: My roundup of films for 2014

Dear cinema: I’m sorry. My favorite piece of media all year was easily the first season of “True Detective.” There was no big piece of movie making I was really looking forward to. But there were some surprises, and I’m happy to admit it. Rather than hand out my own “awards” for film of the year–best screenplay and strangest accent and the like–I’ll let these mini reviews do the talking. These are the more “awards season” flicks (I did see “Horrible Bosses 2,” but it did not find its way onto the list). My favorite few are at the top, and then it trickles down from there more or less.

“Birdman”: Unquestionably my favorite film of the year. The entire cast is standout, from Keaton’s raw performance to Edward Norton’s honest professionalism to Emma Stone’s frustrated young woman–in the same mold as her frustrated young woman in Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight,” but utterly different. Writer-director Alejandrio Inarritu’s script may appeal more to show biz folks than the rest of the country, but it’s a fine and funny script nevertheless. Neither the jazz percussion score nor the long, long camera shot that is the film get tired, as they shift from spacious to claustrophobic flawlessly and grant the film a dream-like elegance.

“American Sniper”: If the consistently inconsistent criticism of “American Sniper” is any indication, it’s a tricky movie. It also happens to be a very good movie, one of the best of the year. Eastwood’s direction is solid and sensitive, complex and compassionate, triply so considering the subject. And Bradley Cooper’s performance is exactly what I have come to expect from him: physical, professional and powerful.

“Gone Girl”: I don’t necessarily go for the “thriller of the year,” but I’m happy to do so this time around. Haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on the intricate script, but it’s enough to say that both leads were outstanding–Rosamund Pike as a quad-plicitous sociopath and Ben Affleck as a schlubby, dishonest everyman caught between opportunity and survival. The supporting cast is just as good; Tyler Perry shines as a media savvy lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris is perfect as a creepy ex, and Carrie Coon is great as Affleck’s sister, probably the only truly selfless character in the film.

“Calvary”: I really wanted to love something that could be described as a “non-supernatural religious thriller,” but it turns out I can merely like it. The photography is beautiful, and Brendan Gleeson is beyond likeable as a deadpan priest. However, some of the bone-dry humor doesn’t translate well across the pond, and the ending sank in as unsatisfying. Still, it’s not like the Coen brothers made a movie this year, and it’s always nice to see Dylan Moran working.

“Fury”: It can’t be the best war movie of the year–that’s already “American Sniper”–but “Fury” is good old fashioned movie making at its modern best. Although not necessarily as deep as he thinks he is, writer-director David Ayer makes an honest effort to consider how men deal with the horrors of war, and he manages to hit all the war picture tropes fairly well along the way, balancing between action packed and meditative moments, as well as gritty and beautiful photography. Brad Pitt has grown into these world-weary roles quite well, and Shia LaBeouf’s eccentric warrior priest comes across as the most interesting person in the tank. But the real star? The tense, tight editing of the battle sequences.

“Noah”: Although not my favorite Darren Aronofsky film, there is still enough Aronofosky in it to make it worthwhile. It’s a message picture, heavy on environmental awareness, but with enough brooding from Russel Crowe and Ray Winstone (the cast is thoroughly watchable) to make it worth a glance for the philosophical set. I think it’s a testament to the Aronofsky’s vision that he’s still recognizable, despite the film being his most reliant on CGI to date–the recount of prehistory, from creation to the first murder, is unmistakably his.

“Under the Skin”: At once the most boring and most fascinating movie of the year, “Under the Skin” seemed to forget that the point of movies is to move, but it remembered that cinema is, at the end of the day, a visual medium. The film was basically a series of vignettes in which Scarlett Johansson drove around Scotland with the most passive aggressive scowl in the universe for 20 minutes at a time, ending up in some outrageously inventive visuals–locked in a room that swallowed naked men, or shedding her black skin in the middle of white, swirling snow. Director Jonathan Glazer helmed some of Radiohead’s music videos, so I suppose no one should be surprised.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: A Wes Anderson movie for Wes Anderson movie fans, of which I am one, but while I liked “Grand Hotel,” I still feel a little disappointed. I’m not sure what I can complain about: the cast is great, the mood is charming, and the photography and visuals—perhaps the best aspect of the picture—are respectively smart and gorgeous. But it’s almost too much Anderson, and I long for just a touch of restraint.

“Magic in the Moonlight”: I’ve already sort of mentioned it, but while Woody Allen’s latest effort is pleasant entertainment, it ain’t great movie making. Perfectly cast–Emma Stone is delightful as a clumsily American medium, and Colin Firth is almost too obvious as a stuffy English academic–and probingly witty, the film suffers on the visual side. I doubt Allen cares too much about making converts at this point though.

“Interstellar”: I don’t go to Christopher Nolan for content per se. At best, I go to him for concepts, and “Interstellar” had nothing short of the future of the human race and its place on the space-time continuum on the menu. The movie asked some interesting questions, but I’m not sure about the answers it offered. Still, Nolan is never short in the technical department. “Interstellar” sports some spectacular visuals, but it’s Hans Zimmer’s sensitive, subdued score that won my heart. It was easily the most emotional part of the journey.

“Boyhood”: Every year, someone makes a big mistake in cinema. This year, it’s either me or the countless critics who have heaped enough praise on this picture to drown a toddler. Maybe I’m missing something. I’m happy to admit Richard Linklater’s gimmick of filming over a 12-year period is genius, but the film itself is overlong, unimaginatively shot and sports a jerky, uneven narrative. That said, the supporting cast is the most interesting part of the picture, and Patricia Arquette does the heaviest lifting as far as acting goes.

Looking back at this list, it seems I thought this year was a year for actors. Since I’ve already mentioned philosophical whodunnit “Calvary,” I might as well mention thoughtful genre flicks “Stonehearst Asylum” and “Edge of Tomorrow” since they all have Brendan Gleeson. Three films, all of which were good, and all of which featured fine performances by the man. He was obviously the anchor of “Calvary,” and his bookend appearance in “Stonehearst” and central spot in “Edge” gave the films sullen gravitas.

Up next: “The Homesman.” Still to see: “Whiplash,” “The Judge,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” “Mr. Tuner,” “Big Eyes,” “Foxcatcher,” “Inherent Vice”… Anything I’m forgetting?

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