“You know how everyone’s saying ‘seize the moment’? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”— The character, Nicole, from the film Boyhood.
“There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” — Stephen Hawking from The Theory of Everything.
First, as a filmgoer, I want to acknowledge that 2014 has been a good year for movies. For my filmgoing preferences, independent films rose to the top of the list of the best films of the year. It was also difficult to limit myself to ten best films, so you’ll notice my honorable mention list is extensive. There were also a number of films that have not premiered yet in Madison, or I missed them in their limited runs. Some of those films may have risen to the top ten. Lastly, I wanted to recognize documentaries separately from narrative films.
As a cinefile I rely on local movie venues and schedules. I want to give a shout out to theaters here in Madison for their efforts to re-engage the movie-going public by offering movie rewards, discounted show times, remodeling and updating theaters, and scheduling runs of independent films. I’m also grateful for the experience to see films by myself or with friends at Sundance 608.
I feel fortunate too to live in university community which boasts a flourishing film festival, The Wisconsin Film Festival, and a diverse and robust series of free films brought to us by the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) at the Marquee Theater and from the folks at Cinematheque. From their website: “The Cinematheque is a coalition of UW-Madison academic departments and student film groups dedicated to showcasing the best in international cinema history and fine films which would otherwise never reach Madison screens.”
Lastly, I want to thank my friends who join me for a matinee or evening at the movies, for the post film conversations about films and life, and also extend a note of gratitude to those who comment on my reviews or ask for my recommendations. To quote Roger Ebert from the film about his life:
“You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.” ― Roger Ebert, Life Itself
A Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films of 2014
A note about the criteria for my list: As a filmgoer and not a professional critic, I choose films drawn from my favorite genres. I like biopics, LGBT-themed movies, crime and suspense dramas, well-done romantic comedies, and relationship dramadies. I especially enjoy films from a woman’s point of view, even more so when produced or directed by women, or featuring a strong female lead (unfortunately more rare than it should be). Finally, I seek out movies made by a short list of favorite directors and writers often featuring a stellar repertoire of actors. A not surprising statistic, none of my top films made this year’s list of box office top ten, though two films which were on my honorable mention list, Guardians of the Galaxy and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are films I would recommend and were in the top ten for box office receipts in North America. They were absolutely entertaining in their action/suspense/fantasy genre and each displayed a fresh take on their conventions.
One last note before I present my list of best films of 2014, I want to acknowledge my gratitude for two people who greatly influenced my love of films. I dedicate this essay to my mother, Ethel Lenzke, who I watched many films with while growing up, and Roger Ebert who introduced me to movies to watch and helped teach me how to talk about them.
Top Ten Narrative Films
- Boyhood — Though this independent film written, directed and produced by Richard Linklater played in theaters this past summer after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2014, it has garnered praise by critics and filmgoers ever since. It was filmed over the span of twelve years featuring the same cast, including Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke. The film is experimental in its format and much of the dialogue was improvised by its actors. Most astonishing was the transformation of the young boy of the title who we witness growing up from the age of 6 to 18. It tells the story of a family’s journey, together and apart, and all the mundane moments of everyday life that happen in between life-changing events. The story of this family is both deeply personal and universal. Along with Birdman it is my favorite film.
- Birdman — Another film, experimental in its conception, features what appears to be a continuous tracking shot as it follows Michael Keaton, whose character, Riggan, a washed up actor and former action superhero stages a comeback on Broadway. We meet all the players from the Broadway play and from his life, a stellar ensemble cast that includes Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Amy Adams and Naomi Watts. Besides the remarkable camera work and compelling acting, the sound track is the beat of a jazz drummer which echoes the tension in the unfolding plot. The viewer must suspend disbelief when Riggan hears the voice of his alter superhero, levitates in his dressing room, and flies. Keaton and the supporting actors deserve all the accolades and awards they may receive. The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, gives Linklater of Boyhood stiff completion as best director.
- Ida — The film depicts the journey of Anna, a young Catholic novice nun in the Polish People’s Republic in the 1960s, who is encouraged to discover her past by the Mother Superior before she decides whether to take her vows. Anna meets her last remaining relative, her Aunt, a former Stalinist prosecutor and alcoholic. Anna’s past is revealed, she learns her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that she is the orphaned child of Jewish parents who were killed in World War II. This is a coming of age story like no other and is beautifully photographed in black and white. The film depicts a specific time and place and some controversy has followed the film in its portrayal of Polish-Jewish and Christian-Judaist relations. The film is directed by Pawel Pawilkowski and has been nominated for numerous awards.
- The Theory of Everything – The biopic film about Stephen Hawking is directed by James Marsh, Man on Wire, and Project Nim, who made two of my favorite documentaries of preceding years. The story is an adaptation of the memoir by Hawkings’s wife Jane, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Andrew McCarten. Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist and author of the groundbreaking and bestselling book, The Theory of Everything suffered from motor neuron disease. The film depicts the debilitating progression of his condition and the remarkable support his wife Jane provided as they raised their family and he conducted his research and wrote his books. The film has been described by some critics as “mawkish” for its depiction of the relationship between Stephen and Jane, how it changed over time, and that the film did not explore enough about his theories or scientific writing. Both leads, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, as well as the film, have been nominated for numerous awards.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel — Director and storyteller, Wes Anderson, with his magical ability to create fantastical worlds with incredible art direction does it again. His repertoire cast including Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, F. Murray Abrahamson, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Adrian Brody, Tom Wilkinson, and more, dazzles, sparkles, and entertains from beginning to end. The film is a visual delight in every way and Anderson continues to add to his amazing catalog of work.
- Whiplash — This story of the relationship between student and mentor, written and directed by Damien Chazelle with Miles Teller as the drumming student and J.K. Simmons as the teacher, reverberates with percussive tension. It’s a story of the pursuit of greatness as Teller’s character, Andrew, auditions for the first chair in a prestigious music conservatory’s jazz band led by J.K. Simmon’s character, Fletcher. The film is a character study of two driven men, mentor and student, and poses the question of what price are we willing to pay for greatness, to be the best. The drumming and jazz in this movie are worth the price of admission alone, yet it is impossible to take your eyes off of the riveting, abusive, and bloodied acting.
- Love Is Strange — Ira Sachs, wrote and directed this love story that was perfectly-timed this year as same sex marriage populated the headlines, our hearts, and water cooler conversations. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, two gay men who after almost 40 years together legally marry in Manhattan surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends. Soon after their lives take a dramatic downturn when George loses his job at a Catholic school, and the partners soon find themselves homeless and couch surfing. It tells the poignant story of who and what we love.
- Wild — Wild is based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed, entitled, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. In 1995, Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon who also produced the film, hiked the 1,000 mile trail to heal and grieve the ending of her marriage, her beloved mother’s death, and in an effort to restore her life after a downward spiral of careless sex and drug use. The film was a challenge for me to watch as I put myself in the character’s shoes. The following excerpt from a film review by Mary Ann Johanson from Isthmus helped explain the pervasive anxiety I experienced as I went on this trek with Cheryl Strayed. I found myself judging her decision to do this trip solo, for putting herself at risk to the dangers of nature, but also making herself vulnerable to the dangerous nature of some men. “Kudos to director Jean-Marc Vallée and Hornby for nailing one aspect of a woman’s perspective that I have never seen onscreen before. It’s the wariness women always — always — have when dealing with strange men. Cheryl meets a lot of men on her months’ long trek, because it’s almost all men doing the same hike. And Wild rightfully acknowledges a thing that most women know: Most men aren’t dangerous, not even the ones who turn out to be creeps and jerks. But we never know which one is going to be the exception. And Vallée creates enormous suspense at every single instance when Cheryl faces an encounter with a male stranger: Is this that one?”
- The Imitation Game — This is the story of mathematician Alan Turning and his code-breaking colleagues who crack the Nazi’s enigma code during World War II and who were credited with saving lives and bringing the war to an earlier end. It is also the story of how Turning, played convincingly by Benedict Cumberbatch, was punished for his homosexuality and chemically castrated. It wasn’t until last year that he was posthumously pardoned by Queen Elizabeth. Turning’s work is often credited as the basis for digital computing. Both Cumberbatch and his costar, Keira Knightley as well as the film have been nominated for numerous awards.
- Foxcatcher — The ensemble cast of Foxcatcher and the tragic story based on true events make this film a must see. It is dark and unrelenting in its storytelling and the actors have transformed themselves into the people they portray. Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo and Tatum Channing are immediately convincing in their roles. The story of John du Pont, heir to the family chemical fortune fulfills his ego-driven fascination and desire to coach and train an Olympic wrestling team to compete in the Seoul Olympics of 1988. Warning: This is a difficult film to watch, yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off these people and the tragedy that unfolds.
- Obvious Child
- Gone Girl
- Skeleton Twins
- The Drop
- St. Vincent
- Begin Again
- Le Weekend
- A Most Wanted Man
- Big Eyes
- Two Days, One Night
- A Most Violent Year
Narrative Films on My Must See List (Films that have not premiered yet in Madison, or I missed when here)
- Goodbye to Language
- Force Majeur
- Inherent Vice (see postscript below)
- Selma (see postscript below)
- Still Alive
- Mr. Turner
- Life Itself— This biography of Roger Ebert tells both his back story as a film critic, reporter and writer and the ending of his life, lovingly and intimately told by director Steve James, documentary director of films including Hoop Dreams, a film Ebert championed, Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife, the love of his life and Ebert himself from his memoir Life Itself. Read my review from earlier this year.
- American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs— In 2005 the film’s director Grace Lee released the Grace Lee Project where she interviewed several subjects with the same name. From the Wisconsin Film Festival website, “For this more focused new project, the director revisits one of her namesakes: Detroit-based author and social activist Grace Lee Boggs. Known for her landmark work on behalf of black communities during the civil-rights era and black power movements, the Chinese-American Boggs is no stranger to radical stances, some of which led to her being closely followed by the FBI. Boggs, who will turn 99 in 2014, was a committed Marxist who, along with her husband of 40 years, James Boggs, split with Marxist leaders in order to speak more directly to the question of black liberation, an issue far more complex than the mere notion of equality with whites. Someone who stubbornly believes in the ability of individuals to change completely and transform their own minds, Grace Lee Boggs remains as feisty as ever as she approaches her centennial. This fast-paced and sometimes critical portrait, loaded with lots of great historical footage of the Boggses, is irresistibly inspiring. Audience Award, 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival.” Read my full review of the Wisconsin Film Festival here.
- Finding Vivian Meier — It’s the previously untold story of a street and portrait photographer. Ms. Maier’s portraits were not staged or styled. Her subjects were often captured surreptitiously as she marched out into to the streets of Chicago with the children in her care. Vivian was a nanny to some of Chicago’s upper middle-class and wealthy families who lived along the North Shore of Lake Michigan. She left her job as a seamstress in New York to become a nanny so she could find ways to be outdoors, to be out in the world yet still hide in plain sight. Vivian was an undercover artist. Vivian was many things. She was described by those who knew her —and no one knew her intimately — as eccentric, reclusive, private, mentally ill, abusive and a probable victim of abuse, a hoarder, a mystery, and an enigma. After her death and the discovery of a mother lode of undeveloped film, slides, personal possessions, 8 and 16 mm movies, cassettes of interviews and personal commentary and ephemera, she is now being exposed following her death as the brilliant street photographer and undiscovered artist she was in life. See my complete review here.
- Fed Up — This documentary reveals the myths, misconceptions and conspiracy of the big business food industry, government regulators and health care providers. The result is a generation of children and adults who suffer from morbid obesity, an addiction to sugar, and growing medical problems. The heart of the film is the young people and their families who chronicle their personal journeys to reduce their weight and eat healthy. See my complete review here.
- Alive Inside — The documentary is the story of how music from our past can be a pathway and awakening for those who suffer from memory loss. Dan Cohen, social worker and founder of the nonprofit organization Music and Memory customized and distributed iPods to people who were silent and isolated socially in nursing homes and rehabilitative care facilities. The results are breathtaking and will move you to tears. Best-selling author and neurologist Oliver Sachs and musician and teacher, Bobby McFerrin are featured.
- The Rugby Player— It’s the story of one of the forty passengers aboard Flight 93 who wrested the plane from hijackers and crash-landed the plane in Shanksville, PA on September 11th. Mark Bingham’s story is told in a moving documentary, 10 years in the making, by producers and director, Scott Gracheff. What makes Bingham’s story so powerful is that it’s told by those who knew him and loved him the most, his single-mother, Alice Hoagland, his extended family, and his band of fraternity brothers, rugby teammates, and the close friends he grew up with and loved and business partners who knew his generous spirit first hand which made it easy to understand how Mark would step up without hesitation to be a hero on that fateful day. Mark Bingham was also an avid videographer, capturing his story in his own words and playful images. We learn, besides being the leader of his fraternity and a star of his college rugby team, he came out as a gay man and lived openly and with gusto. Watching this film, I wanted to know Mark in life and be his friend. His legacy lives on in the memorial to Flight 93 and in The Bingham Cup an international rugby tournament trophy, and in the passionate retelling of his story by his mother Alice, his friends and loved ones. Grachoff’s documentary film, The Rugby Player, is an unsung testament to an unsung hero.
Documentaries Films on My Must See List (Films that have not premiered yet in Madison, or I missed when here)
- Happy Valley
Note: All copyrights for film posters belong to the filmmakers and distribution studios.
Postscript — 1/11/15
This weekend I had the opportunity to see both Selma and Inherent Vice, two long-awaited films on my must-see list and contenders for my Filmgoer’s Guide to Best Pictures of 2014.
Selma has been in the news this past week with allegations by Joseph Califano, former Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the characterization of former President Johnson’s position on voting rights was not historically accurate and did not reflect the true nature of his relationship with the Reverend Martin Luther King (MLK). Further fueling the debate was the timing of the op ed pieces by The Washington Post and Politico. Some insiders wondered if the release of the articles on the eve of the mailing of the first batch of Oscar ballots was intended to influence the voting.
Now, back to the film, it was a moving portrait of Martin Luther King, activists representing various groups, religious leaders, and supporters of voting rights and the non-violent civil-rights movement of the mid-1960s. Ava DuVernay’s masterful direction and the perfectly cast ensemble of actors was compellingly believable from the very first word uttered. David Oyelowo embodied the power, conscience and charisma of MLK. A biopic so rooted in both history and the news of the day must resonate immediately with the audience and this film did. It is deserving of any and all accolades it may collect.
Inherent Vice is a film of a different time, place and sensibility. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite directors, whose films include Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and The Master. He employs ensemble casts of actors and his story-telling style is reminiscent of Robert Altman, another of my all-time favorite directors. Music too is always an integral character of his films.
Inherent Vice is an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s a stoner story of the 1970s and a satire and unraveling of the psychedelic, rock-a-rock, marijuana-fueled hippie era. The film is a hybrid of the The Big Lebowski, Chinatown, and The Big Sleep.
I knew I was going to be entertained and laugh out loud after about 20 minutes into the film when Joaquin Phoenix, playing Larry “Doc” Sportello, private eye, while investigating the disappearance of a real estate tycoon visits the soon to be developed site of Channel View Estates. Instead he stumbles on to Chick Planet Massage and the parlor operator, Jade, offers him the “Eat Pussy Special of the Day.” Much to his dismay, Jade’s colleague, Bambi appears and the two women engage in oral sex, not including him in the sex play. Two women in the audience at Sundance left the theater. Yes, this was going to be an interesting story.
Both films qualify for addition to my list of a Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films of 2014.