There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the cinema, starting with the announcing that box office receipts were down five percent for the year. Well, as I survey the past year from my own personal experience, the answer is clear. Except for one highlight, 2014 was a dud movie year, which is surprising after the very strong years in 2012 and 2013. All fall long I wanted for the high-quality Oscar contenders to come out for the holiday season yet they never materialized. Usually I’m in a rush in late December to see all the good stuff but that wasn’t really the case this year. So in the end, I ended up seeing fewer movies than usual. (And movies that I do want to see – “A Violent Year” and Mr. Turner” – are only available in limited runs in the big cities.)
The one exception in my general disappointment of the year is my number one movie “Boyhood,” which is the most compelling film I’ve seen in years. When it came out this summer my wife and I felt very proprietary about it, like it was our little secret, so we’re excited to see that it’s in the running for all the important awards.
In any event, here’s my annual take on the year in movies:
As noted, far and away the best movie of the year. For 12 years, Richard Linklater shot a film that followed a young boy as he aged from six to 18. This is a movie in which nothing much happens but everything happens. Watching little Mason grow into a college student is fascinating and a reminder that life is full of little moments of grace, not big climaxes. But this is not just Mason’s story, it’s also a story about his parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who also grow and mature over 12 years. You come out of this movie shaken by the enormity of time’s passing but with a sense of hopefulness in how a parent can make mistakes and still produce a child with a future.
Possibly the best movie ever made about the civil rights act, and the first one ever made about MLK, “Selma” tells the story of the protests and marches in Selma from 1964-65, which helped drive the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Tense, taut, dramatic and ultimately thrilling. Remarkably accurate except for the depiction of LBJ. Oprah’s in it, but don’t hold that against it.
In any other year (i.e., in a year without “Boyhood”), Birdman would have been considered the most original film in years. It’s almost impossible to come into this movie with a clear understanding of what you’re going to experience. Michael Keaton is an actor made famous for playing superhero movie star who now wants to be taken seriously as an actor. The film is shot in a series of single-takes, with no apparent cuts and editing, which adds to the strangeness of an already strange and compelling story.
4. The Lego Movie
Everything is awesome in this movie. And fun. Another wildly original film about an ordinary Lego figurine who is called upon to rescue the universe from an evil tyrant who wants to cement the world into place. Lots of great in-jokes about the Lego characters and some hair-raising action sequences. The movie even raises some mildly interesting philosophical questions about freedom and creativity.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
Also original and fun and a huge hit. A space cowboy movie in the spirit of the original Star Wars series, before they got so weighted down with meaning and myth. The one decent “franchise” movie of the year, this could make Chris Pratt a big star (fyi, he was also the lead voice-over in “The Lego Movie” so he had a very good year, indeed.).
6. Top Five
Just like Michael Keaton in Birdman, Chris Rock plays a former mega star who wants to be taken seriously as an artist. Rock’s character is at a cross roads as his new arty movie is about to open (and bomb) even as he’s poised to marry a shallow reality TV star. He spends the day walking around with a lovely smart NYT reporter played by Rosario Dawson, visiting old haunts and generally taking stock of his life. Be advised, the movie contains crude humor and a male viewpoint that many ladies will find off-putting.
Another movie about an artist (this time a chef) who is sick of compromising his art and finds a way to rediscover himself. The movie is also about the power of social media to wreck and then rebuild a career. And also about father-son relationships. A lot of food porn, but ultimately very sweet.
A young novice is sent to visit her aunt and spend some time in the world before she takes her vows as a nun. Set in post-war Poland and shot in black-and-and white, the film takes a bleak look at humanity – and, after what happened in Europe from 1914 to 1945, why not? There’s a glimmer of hope at the end as Ida makes a conscious decision on how she wants to spend her life.
9. The Trip to Italy
A sequel to “The Trip,” which was set in Scotland, this doubles down on the premise of the original movie, which is that a couple of comedians travel around a region (this time Italy) eating expensive meals, sorting out their lives and making Michael Caine imitations. The “Trip to Italy” obviously had a bigger budget than “The Trip” because the settings are so glorious and the meals are even more sumptuous. Considering the sunny settings, the movie is surprisingly obsessed with mortality and all the elements don’t quite hang together, but it’s definitely worth seeing.
10. The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1
I was a big fan of the previous Hunger Games movie, so this one was a letdown. Of course it’s only the first part of a two-part movie, but even so, it was more about PR than actual rebelling. Katniss is a little cranky, and I really don’t understand her thing with Peeta.
11. The 100 Foot Journey
Yet another food movie, this one about an Indian family that settles in a small French village and strikes up a competition with a snotty restaurateur across the street. The oldest son turns out to be a cooking genius and there’s a whole lot of focus on getting an extra Michelin star. A pleasant diversion.
12. Imitation Game
Extremely conventional story of Alan Turning, the British math genius who helped break the German code during WWII. Benedict Cumberpatch (always a fun name to type) is Turing and plays him like he plays Sherlock Holmes on that PBS show: brilliant but vaguely autistic. Only marginally based on fact.
13. Monuments Men
Another extremely conventional story about WWII that’s also only marginally based on fact. This time we have a parcel of American art historians sent to Europe during WWII where they are supposed to protect a civilization’s worth of art. A George Clooney/Matt Daman crowd pleaser.
14. Magic in the Moonlight
I can’t understand why I keep going to Woody Allen movies. They always sound interesting but end up being tepid, if nicely shot, disquisitions of some idea that Woody has come up with. In this case, the idea revolves around whether rationalists are right to insist there’s an empirical reason for every phenomenon. And the answer is? Yes and no.
15. The Interview
I had to watch it on YouTube since it was pulled from the theaters, and I’m glad I didn’t pay a full ticket price. Very dumb and half-baked. If you’re going to mock a tyrannical monster who keeps his people in a perpetuation state of starvation, the satire should be considerably sharper than this. Seth Rogen, if you’re going to bring us to the brink of a cyberwar over human rights issues, try a little harder next time.
16. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I’ve liked some Wes Anderson movies and disliked others. This one gets a thumbs down. I appreciate that he’s a special filmmaker with a unique vision, but the affect here is so flat and the humor so very very dry that it’s hard to care about any of the characters. The premise – how modernity, in the form of fascism, destroyed Mitteleuropa culture – is certainly promising but everything’s just a little too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
17. Anchorman 2
The original Anchorman was mildly funny, but like many sequels, this one falls flat. It’s a spoof of the 1980s and the origin of 24-hour cable news.