The Year In Movies 2014: Spencer’s Picks

boyhoodBy Spencer. Ranking the best movies of the year isn’t nearly as simple a task as writing a year-end list for music. None of us at S&N are professional critics, so we’re limited to the movies we managed to see during the year—and as you might imagine, thanks to the time demands of visiting a theater, we consume a lot fewer movies than albums. There are a whole slew of films I wanted to see this year, but still haven’t had the chance: The Imitation Game, Whiplash, Unbroken, Birdman, Nightcrawler, Mr. Turner. So bear that in mind when reading my picks for the best movies that I personally watched in 2014. Some are art-house obscurities and some are summer blockbusters, but all of them impressed me in their own way. And no movie, of 2014 or probably the last decade, impressed me as much as Boyhood.

1. Boyhood
2. Locke
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
4. Guardians Of The Galaxy
5. Gone Girl
6. Under The Skin
7. The Theory Of Everything
8. Begin Again
9. Interstellar
10. Wish I Was Here

With a virtually unanimous consensus from the major critics’ awards, it’s pretty clear already that Boyhood will be this year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars. Rightfully so. I gushed over this movie back in July, and nothing in the fall’s slate of Oscar contenders has even come close to Richard Linklater’s accomplishment: to capture life more realistically than it’s ever been captured on film before. Funny, touching, innovative, and unlike the usual art-house fare, thoroughly watchable, this is a movie that just about everyone can love, from the snobby auteur to the casual fan. It’s perfection, and it’s a movie I think we will remember for a long time to come.

locke-poster1Locke comes from the complete opposite side of the spectrum. It’s moody, shot entirely at night, and heavy on drama and life-changing moments. Whereas Boyhood‘s gimmick is its twelve-year span, Locke captures just an hour-and-a-half of one man’s life, virtually in real time. The concept is simple: a man, driving alone, speaking on a phone, trying to hold his life together. Sound boring? It’s not. With any other actor, this movie might have been unwatchable. But Tom Hardy is Hollywood’s single most underappreciated talent, and if he is overlooked for a Best Actor nod for this performance, it will be an absolute crime.

Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier_poster_005With all due credit to the summer’s other big Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the better picture by a hair. Unlike its sunnier cousin, this is a movie that engages with big, timely ideas—about the dangers of government surveillance and the police state, the loss of American innocence, and the blurred modern lines between good and evil. It plays like a throwback to 1970s political thrillers, thanks in no small part to the inspired casting of Robert Redford. And Scarlett Johansson is finally allowed to give us a fully-developed female character in her third outing as the Black Widow. (Bonus points for the plot tie-in with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, which rebooted that show’s whole storyline and took it from bland superhero story-of-the-week to one of TV’s most complex spy serials).

gotgThen there’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, which surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations in both box office receipts and quality filmmaking. By all rights, a movie starring Chris Pratt, a talking raccoon, a walking tree, and a green-skinned woman (along with whatever the hell Drax was supposed to be) should’ve been a curiosity piece. But a perfect cast, a witty if nonsensical script, and an unexpectedly heartwarming touch made it the year’s biggest hit. And the biggest surprise? If, a year from now, we’re looking back at GOTG as the better film than Avengers: Age Of Ultron, it really won’t be all that surprising.

gone-girl-40653-poster-xlarge-resizedWhen I read Gone Girl last year, I considered it to be a nearly unfilmable book. Boy, did David Fincher and Ben Affleck prove me wrong. Affleck might make a lousy Batman, but he was the perfect choice for Nick Dunne, and he turned in some of his finest acting to date. Meanwhile, Rosamund Pike was an out-and-out star, and I hope to see big things from her in the future. Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of the script from her own book was pitch perfect. Even the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch was spot-on. Executed to perfection, Gone Girl is proof that there’s still a place in this world for a blockbuster with a brain.

Under-the-Skin-PosterJonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin flew quietly under the radar last spring, but is suddenly popping up on a lot of top ten lists. The pacing is slow and the story is mysterious, but no film this year featured more unforgettable imagery. Scarlett Johansson does her finest acting to date (with barely a hint of dialogue, no less) as an alien in human form driving the streets of Scotland, luring random men to their doom in metaphorical pools of inky blackness. Confusing on first view, the freaky visuals aren’t always meant to be taken literally—and that’s part of the fun. The movie is a textbook example of how to use purely visual storytelling to convey big ideas. It’s in the second half, when Johansson silently breaks down under the weight of her newfound humanity, that the movie becomes something more than sci-fi or horror—but an open commentary on compassion and alienation.

Theory-of-Everything-PosterThe Theory Of Everything is a movie we’ve seen a thousand times before: noteworthy historical figure overcomes illness and/or adversity through love and sheer force of will. It’s the acting of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones that gives this one life. Redmayne delivers a clinic in physical acting, expressing so much through a look or a strained gesture; the difficulty level of his turn as Stephen Hawking will likely be earning him a golden statuette come February. As for Jones, her performance as Hawking’s wife is perfection in its own right—understated, defiant, exhausted. How many movies end up being the breakthrough moment for not one but two major stars?

begin_againFar from heavy, Begin Again is so saccharine that it’s easy to dismiss as fluff. But this is a blog that loves music, and no movie this year better expressed that love. The follow-up to John Carney’s Once—probably the best film ever made about how music can heal—Begin Again may not have the homespun realism or raw originality of its predecessor. But for all of its Hollywood glossiness, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo shine as a songwriter recovering from heartbreak and a record producer looking for his own comeback from life’s lower points. As for Adam Levine, I’m still unsure whether his turn as a pop star more concerned with fame than quality is knowingly self-deprecating or just blissfully unaware. But the movie brilliantly lampoons those in the industry who treat music as merely a commercial exercise—while reminding us that, for those who keep looking for it, there’s still an audience for music that means something.

interstellar3Interstellar is by no means a perfect film. After first watching it, I was mostly annoyed by the choppy script, the glaringly obvious plot holes, and the failure of Christopher Nolan to live up to the promise of the film’s trailer. All of that said, the world would be a far better place with more movies like Interstellar. It aims high and it thinks big. It’s unafraid to delve into weighty topics, and it doesn’t water down its science for the masses like some better films—say, The Theory Of Everything. The visuals are spectacular. And McConaughey acts his ass off, particularly in the scene where he watches his children age into adults on a tiny video screen in a matter of minutes. Most studio movies are so afraid to fail that they fail anyway. This movie has its failures, too, but it gives them to us with absolute fearlessness. There’s something to be said for that.

wishiwasheremovieFinally, Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here didn’t get a lot of critical love from anyone who wanted it to be the next Garden State. The comparison is unfortunate, because Wish I Was Here, despite a few forced efforts to recapture the previous film’s quirkiness, is full of feeling. And whereas Garden State was a commentary on the awkwardness of young adulthood, Wish I Was Here is equally smart in its engagement of the everyday desperation of middle age. Sad, funny, and more mature than anything Braff has done to date, it’s everything that This Is 40 aspired to be, but wasn’t.

Listing the year’s worst films would be a pointless exercise, since I no doubt didn’t bother to see them. Instead, I’ll comment on some of the year’s biggest disappointments: films that had me excited going in, but left me flat.

I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, but I’m a little bewildered why The Grand Budapest Hotel is getting so much love from the critics. Visually, it’s everything you’d expect from Anderson, but it lacked any of the charm of Moonrise Kingdom or Rushmore and failed to show a single character I could give a damn about. Pretentious, aimless, and worst of all, uninteresting, to me, it’s Anderson’s worst film.

Likewise, I’m not as high on Snowpiercer as the critics. Yes, it’s an inventive movie, and there were moments (like the hatchet fight in the darkened tunnel) that were brilliant. But the philosophizing and social commentary were clunky at best and trite at worst, and the plot failed to get over the initial hurdle of believability that’s so crucial to the best sci-fi.

And X-Men: Days Of Future Past, for all of its visual heft and epic scale, completely failed at moviemaking’s most basic task: to get me to care what happens. It was the comic book movie I was most looking forward to this year, and it was the one I least remembered. Meanwhile, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 somehow managed to make the same mistake that ended the Tobey Maguire franchise—cramming in too many villains and too many storylines—which is really even more inexcusable since Spider-Man 3 should have put Sony on notice of how well that strategy ends up working out. In focusing so much on franchise-building, they likely crippled the franchise entirely (though it just might have opened up the door for a Spidey appearance in a future installment of the Avengers franchise?).

How about you? What were your favorites of 2014? What were your biggest disappointments?

5 thoughts on “The Year In Movies 2014: Spencer’s Picks

  1. I’m terrible at keeping up with movies, but I wanted to second your assessment of Wish I Was Here. I actually think about the movie and the issues it revolves around quite a bit.

    On Grand Budapest Hotel. I can see your view, but I really like caper/farce films. They crack me up. I think GBH was one of Anderson’s more directly funny films. Rushmore, for example, I would crack a smile whenever Bill Murray did anything…GBH made me laugh out loud. Now is it his best? I don’t know, but I enjoyed it.

  2. @Antony: Do you think GBH is worth a Best Picture nomination? Because it seems pretty clear from the number of critics putting it in their top 10 that it’s going to get one. I can see your point about the movie, but I’m mystified as to why serious film people are giving this one more love than they gave to Moonrise Kingdom or Royal Tenenbaums or even Rushmore. As best I can tell, the appeal is almost entirely visual — the kind of kudos heaped on a movie purely for the direction and not for the underlying script or actors.

  3. There are lots of ways of thinking about awards like “Best Picture.” One is that the BEST picture of the year gets it. That seems naive and not borne out by the historical evidence. So your choices are hype, movie-folks self-congratulation, or one of those “we know this is long overdue and this might not be your best movie, but it’s quite good and so here’s an award” awards. I could defend GBH as BP on this last count.

  4. I think you’re absolutely right about that: the love for GBH seems more like a belated “career achievement” kind of thing, in the same way that Scorsese only won Best Picture for The Departed (a good movie, but maybe only his sixth best?) and Denzel won the Oscar for one of his worst roles (Training Day). And that tendency in critical circles has always irked me. Always evaluate the work itself, not the person who made it.

    Funny how that doesn’t happen so much in musical circles, either, isn’t it? Imagine if critics fell all over themselves to gush over In Through The Out Door or Backspacer or Songs Of Innocence out of belated recognition for an artist they had previously undervalued? (I swear that last one wasn’t a shot at Rolling Stone).

  5. Okay, so I finally saw Whiplash, and …. damn. That was just a fantastic movie from start to finish. If I had a chance to rewrite this list, it would easily go in at #2.

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