Of the hundreds of films he’s seen in 2014, critic Stephen Rebello has chosen these as the best of the best. So, without further ado, and in alphabetical order, here’s the cream of the cinematic crop:
Michael Keaton, who soared in two Batman movies and later crashed and burned his way off the Hollywood A-list, plays an actor desperate to be remembered for something more than playing a comic book icon, Birdman, a long, long time ago. Things fall apart when he seeks public and personal redemption by tackling Broadway in an adaption of a Raymond Carver short story. A terrific script, as interpreted by director Alejandro G. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, becomes two hours of jazzy, freewheeling, whip smart moviemaking shot, scored, and acted to perfection. It’s like All That Jazz, 8 ½, A Double Life, and All About Eve had a baby.
Writer-director Richard Linklater’s quietly brilliant fictional chronicle of a Texas first-grader’s evolving life with his mother father and older sister — filmed over 12 successive Texas summers — is a once in a blue moon event. The film may look like reality TV but rather than go for the pushy, manufactured, pre-scripted trash, it instead captures easy, unforced moments, moods, and vignettes, some big, mostly tiny, that make up our lives. Pay close attention, Linklater seems to say, all of it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Beautifully understated, sharp as glass shards, amazingly tender and featuring great performances, especially from Patricia Arquette is a flawed, all-too-human mom.
An anxious, claustrophobic horror movie for our surveillance-obsessed age, Laura Poitras’ documentary about former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempt to rip the lid off the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on every one of our cellphone calls, emails, web searches, the works. No holds barred, we’re shown exactly how our government is determined to gain more information — and power — over all our lives. The scariest and most deeply troubling film of the year, bar none.
THE IMITATION GAME
In the rousing, beautifully-made, good old fashioned WW II-era suspense movie, Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of the year’s gold standard performances as Alan Turing, the real-life mathematician, cryptanalyst, brainiac and stammering social misfit who not only pretty much singlehandedly invented the computer but also helped defeat the Nazis and yet was hounded and destroyed because he was gay. Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore keep Turing — the true enigma — at a distance, wisely leaving him almost as shadowy and unknowable a figure as when we first meet him..
Goofball, moving, crazily satirical, here’s a flat-out brilliant, infuriating, dazzling film based on Thomas Pynchon’s wayward novel of a ’60s stoner detective (Joaquin Phoenix) lured into a tangled web by his beautiful, massively screwed-up. Directed by one of our greatest, Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s like a Raymond Chandler thriller filtered through a purple haze of grass, sadness, and a peculiar kind of befuddlement and malaise that have gripped America since the ‘60s and ‘70s. Odd and absolutely beautiful.
THE LEGO MOVIE
Everything is awesome. Everything is crap. Writer-directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord raise cookie cutter marketing sponsored content and turn it into wickedly funny, satirical, hugely entertaining art. It’s an animated kids movie — Chris Pratt voices a blue collar worker who guzzles chain store caffeine, vegges-out in front of lame sitcoms before learning to go up against the overlords — but it’s one that tells us all to save ourselves by resisting and reclaiming our uniqueness. Great stuff.
Director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman tease out everything spooky, doom-laden, and devastating in their meditative, chilling exploration of reclusive, warped, filthy rich heir John duPont’s obsession with freestyle Olympic wrestlers. As DuPont, Steve Carell, armed with a whopper of a fake nose, delivers a weird and persuasive performance of Norman Bates-like creepiness and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as the wrestling brothers he’s trying to pit against each other, each deliver knockouts. Vanessa Redgrave, as a living Mrs. Bates, makes her few scenes a master class in acting.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Writer J.C. Chandor’s fabulously low-key slow burner about money, compromise, and the underbelly of the American Dream unravels in 1981, the year New York saw an all time high in murder and rape. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are in peak form as a couple under indictment, being attacked by hijackers and at odds with each other as they try to bring their heating oil delivery business to the next level. Gripping, tense and bristling with intelligence, the movie plays like something Sidney Lumet might have made in his heyday.
Some might rather watch paint dry than to give it up for director-writer Mike Leigh’s quietly majestic 150-minute film about the life of the 18th- and 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner. For us, Leigh’s immersive, melancholy movie, anchored by Timothy Spall’s growling, wary, blustery performance, is a sumptuous banquet of color, light, human foibles and grace.
Director Bong Joon-ho’s grabby, one-of-a-kind first English language film is a class-struggle parable hidden like Easter egg in a gritty, wildly imaginative post-apocalyptic action thriller. Set aboard a super-train ringing the globe with the oppressed classes battling their way to the front of the train, it’s a crazy collision of styles, genres, with brutal gore, visual poetry, and blistering politics grinding side by side. It does what great science fiction has always done, it comments on what is happening in the world right this minute and it agitates. It’s one wild, crazy-brilliant, and freaky ride.
Runners-up: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gone Girl, Ida, Leviathan, Only Lovers Left Alive, Selma, Tim’s Vermeer, Under the Skin, Whiplash.