December 26, 2014

THE 11 BEST 10 FILMS OF 2014 and Other Movie Thoughts


There was a distinct feeling in 2014 that movies–the business and art of mainstream American film–reached a kind of tipping point.  The industry seemed to collectively hit that moment in its flight when so much fuel has been burned that there’s no longer any realistic possibility of returning to home base.

Trends that have been going on for years steadily accelerated.  Hollywood studios wholeheartedly embraced their evolution into becoming ever-bigger conglomerations of hugely expensive long-range movie franchises, in the same way that a single multinational operates food courts that consist entirely of its owned Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell stands (a development superbly dissected by Mark Harris in his recent Grantland piece).  Television, derided for decades, became the home not only for quality comedy and drama, but for ever more idiosyncratic, original works of narrative art (and now not just in terms of writing, but from directors like Steven Soderbergh, who’s committed himself practically full time to Cinemax’s The Knick), fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hopeful new players and what may turn out to be a bubble of financing that doesn’t really care if viewers actually, you know, watch their content, as long as it’s paid for via subscription fees.  At the same time, independent films that aren’t linked to big-studio operations like Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics are more and more being released simultaneously (or nearly so) on VOD–making them just another form of television for the vast majority of potential audiences.  (The Christmas surprise of The Interview being released on streaming platforms including YouTube along with independent cinemas may mark the beginning of a sea change in even how some high-profile films will get distributed.)  Multiplexes, having failed to garner lasting premium ticketbuyers with 3D (although the technology is still hugely popular overseas), are investing in immersive experiences with giant screens and blasting sound that shake audience chairs, while alcohol and full menus are served during the films.  For serious moviegoers, it’s starting to feel not so much like the apocalypse as the post-apocalypse.

None of this means that good and even great films won’t continue to be made.  Some of the franchise movies, notably those being assembled by Marvel, are terrifically enjoyable, and beyond that, there are solid business reasons for the studios to want a quota of moderately-priced, middling-risk projects each year as they seek to attract high-level talent for their ranks, earn awards recognition and esteem and develop new creative engineers for their franchises.  What’s changed, perhaps permanently, is the level of expectation audiences are likely to feel as the lights go down.  The days when the sense that a new film by Coppola, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coens might change your life–or at least the way you see life–are now reduced to the hope that they won’t disappoint, a worried reassurance that ambitious, serious filmmakers are still out there doing their increasingly isolated thing.

These films were among those that didn’t disappoint:

1.  BOYHOOD (IFC):  By most conventional measures, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a very odd Best Film of this or any other year.  Unlike the drama directly below it, Boyhood isn’t scintillatingly written or dazzlingly directed  Its plotting is mostly mundane, and no one will be particularly surprised if its star and focal point, Ellar Coltrane, is never heard from again as a leading man.  It is, instead, a triumph of concept and dogged execution, created painstakingly over a dozen years.  Even more powerfully than Linklater’s Before trilogy, Boyhood conveys the workings of life and time–an entire journey from childhood to independence conveyed in a single narrative gulp.  The sheer commitment to the project by Linklater, Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and the director’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater (not to mention the studio that financed the venture) was staggering, but so was the craft and vision of the result.  Watching Boyhood was the most cumulatively overwhelming experience of the movie year.

2.  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Fox Searchlight):  No one makes movies quite like Wes Anderson, whose style is so individual that it earned an SNL parody last year.  At times, he buries himself under his remarkable production designs, leaving his films feeling airless.  The Grand Budapest Hotel, though, was Anderson’s best since The Royal Tenenbaums, a story as engaged with its characters (and even, in a more than glancing way, with politics!) as with its kaleidoscopic aspect ratios and and stylistic quirks.  His customary superb, enormous cast was headed by Ralph Fiennes, in a  performance as moving as it was droll.

3.  WHIPLASH (Sony Classics):  A dazzling second feature film by Damien Chazelle, who turned a music institute rehearsal room into a battlefield and made jazz drumming more exciting than all the buildings and cities destroyed in the year’s comic book extravaganzas.  The veteran J.K. Simmons and the relative newcomer Miles Teller gave spectacular performances as a tyrannical, ruthless educator and the not-entirely-innocent student who becomes his inspiration and his target.  Unfortunately, Sony hasn’t found a way to make this chamber piece appeal to a wide audience (it’s only earned $5M after 11 weeks of release), because once seen, its driving pace and relentless characters aren’t soon forgotten.

4.  GONE GIRL (20th):  Director David Fincher and novelist/screenwriter Gillian Flynn pulled off a trick with a crazy degree of difficulty, successfully translating her giant bestseller, which turns on a particularly literary sleight-of-hand, into a satisfying film.  Fincher’s touch brought out the very dark humor inherent in the material, and Flynn disproved the axiom that a book’s original writer is the last person who should be entrusted with transferring her work to the screen.  The performers were first-rate, with Ben Affleck perfectly cast as the ambiguous suspect in his wife’s disappearance, and Rosamund Pike an admirable manager of her character’s wild swings.  The rest of the ensemble was dotted with unexpectedly great choices, including Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris, and–most far-fetched of all–Tyler Perry, tremendous as Affleck’s sharp defense lawyer.

5.  THE IMITATION GAME (Weinstein):  Traditional biographical filmmaking of a very high order.  The story of Alan Turing encompasses everything from spy thriller to technological milestones to social commentary, and Graham Moore’s very fine screenplay attempted to cover it all.  At this point, Benedict Cumberbatch may be the only person in movies to be “typecast” as a genius, and he was supported by the kind of bench that British period pieces thrive on, including Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Charles Dance and Matthew Goode.  Morten Tyldum, moving into mainstream movies after his super-violent thriller Headhunters, did an expert job of balancing all of the film’s timeframes, tones and elements, and letting the material speak for itself.

6.  THE BABADOOK (IFC):  The year’s biggest surprise, a nerve-jangling, disturbing, genuinely frightening horror movie from Australian first-time feature writer-director Jennifer Kent that took its inspiration not from the current crop of cheap-shock genre trash but from classics like Repulsion and The Shining.  Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman gave terrifying performances in what was for long stretches a two-handed duel between mother and son.  It raised the possibility that what appears to be a demon may instead be the projection of a family’s damaged psyches, and even more dismayingly, that the latter may be no reassurance at all.

7.  A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (A24):  J.C. Chandor’s third feature film took yet another entirely different tack from his Margin Call and All Is Lost, confirming him as one of the most restlessly gifted of the new crop of filmmakers.  Most Violent Year is a resurrection of the 1970s Sidney Lumet school of human-sized thriller, concerned with character and morality more than splashy action and violence–but along the way delivering the single most thrilling chase scene of the year.  Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain headed an ensemble that was tasty down to the smallest role, as they navigated the dangerous terrain of the heating oil business in New York circa 1981.

8.  WILD (Fox Searchlight):  Another adaptation of a bestseller, and another true story beautifully brought to life.  Nick Hornby’s script and Jean-Marc Vallee’s filmmaking sensitively and tough-mindedly told the story of Cheryl Strayed, a broken young woman who rediscovered herself along a months-long hike along the Pacific Coast.  The other key member of the creative group was Reese Witherspoon, who found and developed the material as lead producer (she also produced the film of Gone Girl, instantly making her one of the major behind-the-scenes figures of the year), and gave a gritty, totally convincing and often virtually one-woman-show performance as Strayed.

9.  TOP FIVE (Paramount):  Chris Rock came of age as a writer/director with an uproarious comedy that not only deserved the comparisons it begged with vintage Woody Allen, but for the first time conveyed the brilliance of his stand-up on the big screen.  Rock fearlessly took on every subject from race to gender to ethics, loaded the cast with practically every funny person he knew (and gave them all A-level material), mixed it all with rom-com and shook.  The result is unaccountably so far failing to hit with audiences, but it’s a triumph nevertheless.

10.  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (Focus/Universal):  In a year rich with strong biographies, the life and marriage of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) still managed to be special, not a story of debilitating illness, but of a complicated and believable relationship.  Redmayne was spectacularly successful at duplicating Hawking’s gradual slide into physical decay, but his performance wasn’t just a stunt–his Hawking was human and textured every step of the way.

11.  GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Marvel/Disney):  It would be willfully blind to compile a list of the year’s best movies and completely ignore the genre that keeps Hollywood afloat.  Guardians of the Galaxy was unquestionably 2014’s most enjoyable giant-sized romp.  James Gunn’s direction, and his script with Nicole Perlman, found a hip, self-mocking humor amid the spectacle, powered by the soundtrack’s AM radio hits.  The splendid cast was headed by new superstar Chris Pratt and genre goddess Zoe Saldana, along with Dave Bautista, and with Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper providing the wit and humanity that brought to life a digital tree and raccoon.  Franchises eating the movie universe may be bad, but some franchises are better than good, and Guardians is one of them.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  The LEGO Movie, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), Into the Woods, The One I Love, Selma, The Immigrant, Interstellar, Obvious Child, Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler,

BEST FOREIGN FILMS:  Ida and 2 Days, 1 Night

BEST DOCUMENTARIES:  Life Itself and Citizenfour


THE 10 WORST MAJOR MOVIES OF 2014:  Blended, Annie, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Sex Tape, Winter’s Tale, Devil’s Knot, They Came Together, Let’s Be Cops, A Million Ways To Die In the West, The Equalizer




About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."