So, 2014 in film — a good year for movies, or a weak one?
Well, any calendar year that packs two must-see genre-benders starring Scarlett Johansson — you read that right — can’t be all bad. “Under the Skin” and “Lucy” were all that.
Any year that brings back Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) and Jon Favreau (“Chef”), makes Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pratt movie stars and tosses dirt on the coffins on Adam Sandler and Tyler Perry must be remembered. Any year in which Vin Diesel (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) gives his best performance in animated form, with just three (OK, FOUR) words of dialogue, has to be savored.
The best work by an actress was Julianne Moore’s subtle, human and affecting turn in — yes, an affliction picture” — “Still Alice.” Patricia Arquette makes a grand journey through single motherhood in “Boyhood.” But Meryl Streep is in amazing voice and playful demeanor in “Into the Woods.” Hilary Swank was period perfect in “The Homesman.” And Reese Witherspoon’s unadorned performance in “Wild” is worthy of its “Oscar bait” label.
And Gugu Mbatha-Raw? As Kenneth Tynan famously put it about a star of an earlier era, “What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.” That goes for Gugu.
Hardy had the best year among actors, though Eddie Redmayne’s transformation into Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”) was stunning, Keaton and Edward Norton dazzled as nasty versions of the worst rumors we’ve heard about their “real” personalities in “Birdman” and J.K. Simmons was in a (probably supporting) actor class by himself in “Whiplash.”
And if you missed “Get on Up,” you missed Chadwick Boseman’s playful megalomaniac take on James Brown. Netflix it.
Best documentary? Critics and Hollywood may have already given this to one of their own — the Roger Ebert biography “Life Itself.” Lovely, long and thorough film. And there’s buzz for “Citizenfour,” an “important” but dull behind-the-scenes look at Edward Snowden as NSA-gate broke. But I was more taken with James Keach’s film of singer Glen Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s and his last hurrah tour, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.” Moving, funny and very touching.
Best horror film? “The Babadook,” a demonic assault on a small “knowing” child and his widowed mother, or mom’s mania at the child whose birth caused the death of her husband?
We’ll let the Academy pick a best foreign language film between the darkly funny Swedish dissection of marriage “Force Majeure,” and the austere Polish Holocaust mystery “Ida.” It’ll be close.
Not the greatest year for animation, but “The Lego Movie,” “Boxtrolls,” “The Book of Life” and “Big Hero 6” should fill out the three picture Best Animated Film Oscar field, with one decent film left out.
The best Hollywood features? You could make a good claim to how great this year was just using titles that begin with the letter “B” — “Belle,” “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” “Big Eyes.” Or build a list out of excellent film biographies. The year was packed with them. But I think these ten will do, for starters.
“Boyhood” — Richard Linklater’s decade-in-the-making survey of American childhood is the last coming-of-age picture we need ever see. Linklater’s unfussy style perfectly married to this subject, his eye for new talent (Ellar Coltrane) is as sharp as anyone’s as his spot-on casting of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who wear their years and miles with pride as the decade progresses, seems like the work of not just an indie pioneer, but of a national treasure.
“Whiplash” — Miles Teller beat the drums until his palms bled, but only J.K. Simmons, as the sadistic, abusive jazz purist band teacher, could convince him and us that’s a righteous pursuit.
“The Theory of Everything” — Watch this and “Interstellar” the same weekend, and you’ll have a pretty good layman’s understanding of space-time. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones recreate a very complicated, supportive and curious marriage, giving this Stephen Hawking bio-pic an air of mystery that adds to is appeal.
“Belle” — Gugu Mbatha-Raw is both the naive young black woman, raised among the British gentry, whose eyes are opened — with ours — to the demoralizing horrors of the slave trade. There’s a nobility to her performance that matches the curious, questioning character’s upbringing. Being raised by the great Tom Wilkinson, as 18th century England’s greatest jurist, rubs off.
“Wild” — Maybe it’s the ex-backpacker in me, appreciating every mistake Reese Witherspoon makes as Cheryl Strayed, a lost-soul-hiking-her-way-to-sanity. Maybe it’s Laura Dern’s wounded but always hopeful supporting turn as the junky Cheryl’s mom, and the message — “Be the person your mother hoped you would be.” Whatever it was, it works, first frame to last.
“Big Eyes” — If you’re going to make a bio-pic of Margaret Keane, who secretly painted all those pie-eyed pop art waifs in the ’60s, you could do worse than casting Amy Adams. If you’re going to title it “Big Eyes,” you cannot make it without her. A surprise and a feel-good delight from Tim Burton, of all people.
“Calvary” — Brendan Gleeson was born to play an Irish priest, comically disrespected by one and all in his tiny parrish, and then threatened with death by someone the Church has wronged. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh is closing the gap with his more famous brother Martin McDonagh. And they both have the good sense to have the Great Gleeson as their muse.
“The Drop” — My favorite Tom Hardy picture of 2014 had him as a dull Brooklyn bartender whose life is upended when his crooked boss (James Gandolfini, in a final performance of cruel vulnerability) crosses the wrong bad guys. Another great adaptation based on a Denis Lehane “Gone Baby Gone” crime novel. Go figure.
“Interstellar” — People are still arguing about this delirious mashup of conventional sci-fi thriller and relativity Power Point presentation. Even astronomer Neil deGrasse-Tyson ws moved to tweet and tweet again on the solid science of Christopher Nolan’s trippy riff on “2001.” And even Tyson must have been moved by Matthew McConaghey’s soulful performance as an astronaut with the fate of human survival on his shoulders, and the “think long term” message of this cautionary thriller.
And shoot, that’s ten, meaning I can’t get into “The Homesman, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Locke,” or the fine bio-pics “The Imitation Game” or “Mr. Turner.” But maybe they’re on your list.