I was an esteemed member of the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee, so I have received about 50 screeners of some of the best films this year. Here are my top 10 favorites:
1. Whiplash – Who would have thought that a movie about a jazz drummer, written and directed by a rookie named Damien Chazelle, would have been one of the most exciting, inspiring, and cathartic movies of the year? A young drumming student, Andrew (played by Miles Teller), wants nothing more than to be one like one of the jazz greats that he looks up to so much, and he knows he needs his verbally abusive band conductor, Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), in order to get there. Simmons, whom you may recognize as the dude who played Juno’s dad in “Juno” and Farmers Insurance commercials, is a revelation in this film. He deserves every nomination for supporting actor that comes his way. Many questions are raised as to whether Fletcher’s use of negative reinforcement is healthy to his young pupils. In his mind, the only way to get someone to rise to the next level is to tear them down in order to motivate them to prove him wrong. He has developed some promising young musicians because of this technique, but at what cost? The best line in the film is when he claims that, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” It’s an interesting perspective and it really causes one to wonder if he’s right. When a movie sparks conversation and debate, that’s when you know you’re onto something good.
2. Foxcatcher – My immediate reaction after this movie ended was that I didn’t like it. I thought the performances were great, but I felt that the story left too many questions unanswered. But after some days went by I was still thinking about the docudrama and wondered if that was what was so genius about it. It’s a character study centered around industrial heir, John DuPont, whose life has always been catered to, but enveloped in a deep sadness and loneliness that could bring anyone to the brink of insanity. DuPont’s sense of entitlement had him believing that he could develop some wrestlers into world champions at his estate even though he has zero experience in the sport or in coaching. He takes an interest in one wrestler in particular, Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum), and their relationship toes the line of appropriateness on a number of occasions, making Mark turn against him. DuPont summons Mark’s brother David, played by Mark Ruffalo, to assist him and becomes increasingly jealous of David’s affable personality and closeness to Mark that he will never have. DuPont’s madness seems quite sad in the beginning when you internalize his lonely circumstances until his greediness gets out of control one day and he tragically unleashes it on David. It’s a brilliant illustration of American avarice and excess of the extremely wealthy and their disregard for others.
3. The Imitation Game – The reason why this film is so great can be summed up in two words: Benedict Cumberbatch. I think he may be the most popular guy on the internet in comic book/gamer circles, but besides that, he is a fantastic actor. In this film he plays Alan Turing, a man who nobody seems to really know anything about, who was one of the most important key players in code breaking German messages during WWII through his development of a machine that was an early model of what is now a computer. The reason little has been studied about him is because he was gay, something that was illegal and disgraceful in Great Britain at the time, and was just very recently royally pardoned by the Queen. It is an interesting character study of Turing, who grappled with his identity so much that he committed suicide at age 41. Thankfully, this film is getting Turing the recognition he finally deserves, with a beautiful story and the help of a great supporting cast including Kiera Knightly and Matthew Goode.
4. Still Alice – All I have to say about this is, if Julianne Moore doesn’t win the Oscar then the Academy is blind, deaf, and ignorant. She gave the performance of a lifetime in this film about a college professor, known for her great mind and intellect, who develops early onset Alzheimer’s. It explores the steady decline of Alice’s (Moore) greatest asset and how differently each of her family members deals with it. The most surprisingly empathetic reaction comes from her youngest daughter Lydia, played by Kristin Stewart, whose acting career she has never really supported. Lydia is the only one who asks Alice what it’s like to go through what she’s going through and really listen to the answer. She allows her to make mistakes without judgement and helps her without complaint. When Alice’s husband John, played by Alec Baldwin, decides to separate himself by taking a job out of state, it is Lydia who selflessly comes to take care of her mother and put her career on hold. It’s a heartbreaking tale about watching someone you love lose the sense of who they once were.
5. Gone Girl – I did not read this book by Gillian Flynn, so I was completely engrossed in the plot of this crime drama that runs almost 3 hours long. There is never a dull or boring moment, mainly because of, in my opinion, David Fincher’s brilliant direction. Ben Affleck, Nick, is perfectly cast as the vanilla, underachieving husband and Rosamund Pike so perfectly translates Amy’s vacant eyed gaze and Stepford wife persona. It’s a very complex plot with a lot of twists and surprises focusing on the unraveling of a 5 year, seemingly blissful, marriage after Amy goes missing. The media plays a main character in the film, manipulating the public to believe whatever it wants about the outcome of what happened to her. My criticism of this film is that the ending felt completely rushed, as it throws a lot of information at you and time skips ahead through a series of montage shots. It felt as though Fincher either ran out of time and money, or was pressured to keep the film under a certain number of minutes. But other than that it was great. After seeing this movie though, you will undoubtedly question how well you really know your partner and possibly have nightmares about them murdering you in your sleep.
6. Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal has really solidified himself as one of the most talented character actors working today, as evidenced in “Nightcrawler,” in which he plays a borderline sociopath named Louis Bloom, whose wide eyed naiveté and obsessive personality drives him to do whatever it takes to be a successful freelance videographer. He starts selling his work to a local TV station and quickly works his way up the ladder to become someone they want to use exclusively, because of his shameless, in-your-face videos of horrific crimes and car crashes committed all over Los Angeles. He will stop at nothing to get ahead, even if that means compromising the decency and well-being of others to get there. The TV station in business with Louis is struggling to stay relevant and needs something shocking to make waves to the media-hungry public, but they struggle with whether or not his videos cross an ethical line. It’s subject matter is very current, as Twitter and Gawker have become acceptable news outlets for the general public to keep up to date on current events, making television news seem slow and outdated. I loved the story and the gritty backdrop of seedier parts of LA, but the ending took a weird turn in tone for me. Still, it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.
7. The Skeleton Twins – Not many people I know have seen this indie film even though Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader, SNL alums, play the lead characters. It’s a wonderful dramedy about twins Maggie and Milo, played by Wiig and Hader, who reunite after 10 years of estrangement when they try to commit suicide on the same day. Both of them lack any sort of coping skills for their lives, instead opting for a path of self-destruction. But after repairing their relationship, they realize that they have more in common than they think and can use each other for support and comfort instead of trying to go it alone. This film pulled at every single heartstring in my chest and made me realize how important siblings can be to your personal growth. They know you better than anyone and can call you out on all of your bullshit without fear of repercussion. This movie also made me realize that some of the best dramatic actors come from a comedy background. Comedy comes from pain and Wiig and Hader understand that better than anyone.
8. Boyhood – Richard Linklater decided that he wanted to make a film spanning over the course of 12 years, documenting the journey of a young boy’s adolescence in real time. The result is an amazing achievement that has never been attempted in cinema before. I applaud Linklater and the whole cast for their persistence in this project. Usually what you get in films is a slice of life; A brief moment of time. In “Boyhood,” the audience gets to see many slices of life: what it was like for Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, while his mother went through different boyfriends and marriages, his dad coming in and out of his life, and moving several times. It’s incredibly interesting to see how it affects him and how it shapes what he becomes and how he views life and love as he gets older. The most impactful moment is in the final act of the film, when his mother (Patricia Arquette), reveals how aging and her kids moving out of the house has made her fear what’s next. She asks, “is this all there is?” Which is a question I’m sure many people have wondered, but been too afraid to ask out loud. For me, it made me reevaluate my own life and the path that I want it to take and how much your decisions affect those around you. It’s a little long at 3 hours, but well worth all of that time.
9. Begin Again – I can’t believe how much I loved this movie and how much it’s held up against everything else I’ve seen this year. It’s still resonating with me and I’m still listening to songs from the soundtrack. Kiera Knightly plays a young woman named Gretta who suffers a huge heartbreak in her life when her musician boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) cheats on her, leaving her personally and professionally broken and hopeless. But soon after she meets a struggling music executive (Mark Ruffalo) one night at an open mic after she is reluctantly called up to the stage to sing, and they strike up an unlikely friendship and partnership. They rediscover their joy in life and heal through the music that they create together. It’s a story about perseverance, reinvention, and the power of music. It’s not a new story, but it’s a fresh take on it from John Carney, the same writer/director who brought us the amazing film “Once”. It’s touching and inspiring and has an unpredictable ending, which is a nice change. Kiera Knightly was great in the part of Gretta, although I wish they had cast someone who had a better voice to be playing the part of a professional singer. The music played a huge role in the film and you should do yourselves a favor and purchase the song “Lost Stars” by Adam Levine on iTunes.
10. Birdman – I went back and forth about including this film on the list. I love it for its creativity and ingenuity, but I felt as though there was about 30 minutes that could have been edited out, and that the ending could’ve been better executed. The whole film is supposed to seem as if it is one long take to symbolize the energy and movement of a stage play. Michael Keaton is brilliant as the lead actor of a play that he’s producing to be his comeback role after struggling to regain some legitimacy following his popular role as “Birdman” in a series of superhero films. Riggan (Keaton) suffers crippling anxiety, which manifests itself with delusional fantasies and a mean voice in his head, with all the pressure he has put on himself to make the play a success. It doesn’t help that his co-star is a raging ego-maniac (Edward Norton) and that his daughter (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and blaming him constantly for all of her problems. The score is mostly jazz drumming, which helps add to the mounting tension, but can also give anyone watching it with a history of anxiety major discomfort. The performances are really great though, and the direction by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is legendary.
-Grand Budapest Hotel
-Under the Skin