Hollywood studios and their arthouse offshoots let us down in late 2014. Their in-the-thick-of-awards-season releases were good but not great (“The Imitation Game”) or sincere but misguided (“Unbroken”).
Last year, three of my top-10 films (“Nebraska,” “American Hustle,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) came out at Thanksgiving or later. This year, only “Wild” fits that bill.
A middling Hollywood December is not necessarily a bad thing. Critics’ attention spans, like most people’s, are limited. But when December lacks dazzle, one’s thoughts move back to earlier releases, like May’s “Under the Skin,” August’s “Boyhood” and “Life Itself,” then sideways, to foreign-made awards-season films (“The Babadook,” “Two Days, One Night”).
Such films are more fun to recommend, anyway, since doing so feels like assisting someone else’s discovery rather than furthering a party line.
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As tempting as it is to deem this year in American film as inferior to last, I cannot, because “Boyhood” came out in 2014. Shot over 12 years, it is a once-in-a-lifetime film that one does not simply watch, but experience, at an essential level.
Here are my top 10 movies, some of which are in theaters and others available to view at home. Please do not profile my personality based on this list’s midsection, which is dark only by coincidence.
CARLA MEYER’S TOP 10 FILMS OF 2014
10. “Wild”: This is one of two movies on this list – you probably can guess the other – that tap the visceral experience of being. I know, that sounds namaste and cliché. But “Wild” speaks to a viewer’s sense of self precisely because it is not gossamer-curtained or Goop-inspirational, but etched in raw reality.
Memoirist Cheryl Strayed (played, with grace and defiance, by Reese Witherspoon) walked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to find her way back to herself. Not many would go to Strayed’s extremes, on the trail or in her past behavior (heroin use and random hookups). Yet anyone can relate to this film.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée inserts flashbacks into scenes of Cheryl walking, showing rather than telling what got her to this point. These brief glimpses of memory arrive the way they do in life, prompted by the head-clearing properties of fresh air. These moments, more than Cheryl’s physical struggles on the trail, make the viewer part of the trip. (In theaters).
9. “Life Itself”: Steve James’ admiring, unflinching portrait of Roger Ebert, much of it shot in the last months of his life, captures the stubbornness that was so vital to the famous film critic’s character. It fueled his on-screen battles with Gene Siskel and helped keep him alive for longer than anyone expected. “Life” shows Ebert, much of his jaw and his ability to speak gone after a long battle with cancer, still typing away on reviews.
This doc reminds us how un-cuddly Ebert was, despite his roundness and fondness for sweaters. Behind his easily accessible writing lay a fierce intellect.
“Life” gets to the heart of two great relationships in his life – with Siskel, and with Ebert’s devoted wife, Chaz, who saw him through his many health setbacks. The film makes a case for a love of art providing sustenance while underscoring how it cannot replace profound personal connection. (airing Jan. 4 on CNN).
8. “The Drop”: Not a lot happens in this slow-build crime drama. When something does happen, it counts, because director Michael Roskam, screenwriter Dennis Lehane and actors Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini have taken care to craft a pair of none-too-bright characters who fascinate anyway.
You root for Bob (Hardy), shuffling bartender at a tavern owned by organized criminals. He can’t be too bad a guy, judging by his affection for the pitbull puppy he found in the trash and a lost-seeming woman (Noomi Rapace) who helps with the dog.
Gandolfini, in his final film role, seems at first to do a variation of Tony Soprano. But his bar-manager character, Marv, is too disappointed by life to approach Tony’s commanding presence.
Bob and Marv share a wry outlook that’s all Lehane. Yet “The Drop” offers a hopefulness missing from other Lehane film projects, like “Gone Baby Gone.” That’s mostly the puppy. (Streaming).
7. “Nightcrawler”: You know those guys on the red carpet who thrust 8-by-10 glossies at Angelina Jolie to for her to sign without a hint of a smile? Multiply that mercenary spirit by 100, add bloodshed, and you get Jake Gyllenhaal’s freelance L.A. crime-scene camera man Lou, protagonist of this creepily mesmerizing film.
Gyllenhaal imparts bottomless need and greed as petty thief Lou discovers a gig that appeals to his amorality and desire for celebrity. That the celebrity here is basement-level – his footage appears on a if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscast, but his face doesn’t – does not lessen its appeal. (In theaters).
6. “Under the Skin”: Director Jonathan Glazer here upholds the experimental tradition of fellow Brit Ken Russell. As his film follows an alien (Scarlett Johansson) carrying out a nefarious mission in Scotland, naturalistic street scenes shift to more formal setups obviously shot on soundstages.
Just as you accept the artificial constructs as part of the arty experience, “Skin” grows an unexpected heart. Johansson projects uncertainty, and the viewer moves from appreciation to investment. (Streaming, DVD).
5. “Gone Girl”: David Fincher’s cool visual eye polishes the feverish content of Gillian Flynn’s best-seller to a high tabloid gloss. Flynn, expertly adapting her own work, trimmed most of lead character Nick’s (Ben Affleck’s) pop-culture references, and with them his seeming innocuousness. Add Affleck’s resemblance to Scott Peterson, and the actor’s ability to look smarmy by just sitting there, and Nick’s possible involvement in his wife’s (Rosamund Pike) disappearance does not seem farfetched.
British actress Pike is a revelation. As sophisticated New Yorker Amy, who always let Missouri boy Nick know he’s lucky to have her, she’s a Hitchcock blond who glides through life before earthier instincts overtake her. (In theaters).
4. “The Babadook”: This Australian film scared me so much that I hesitate to invoke its titular monster’s name, even in print. Directed and written by Jennifer Kent, the movie starts out eerie and never abates, relying on atmosphere, acting, lighting, camera work and editing instead of cheap jump scares.
Kent’s script enhances the chilling idea of a kid (excellent Noah Wiseman, 7) visited by an evil spirit by having it come through a seemingly benign picture book.
Sad and lonely at its brightest, the film starts with a widow (Essie Davis) trying to cope with her son’s acting-out at school, and his claims the book character talks to him. As she travels from dubious to believer-by-fire, Davis gives a performance so full-bodied and complex as to be nearly unrivaled in the history of the horror genre. (Streaming, cable on demand).
3. “Two Days, One Night”: Belgium’s filmmaking Dardenne brothers (“L’Enfant”) again capture, with exquisite honesty, the daily uncertainty that comes with belonging to the poor and working classes. Here they craft a quiet thriller in which the villains are poverty and despair. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker laid off after management forces her co-workers to choose between her and their 1,000-euro bonuses. Sandra must try to change their minds, over a weekend, after management agrees the first vote was flawed and she will get a second.
Carrying echoes of “12 Angry Men” and of real-life corporate squeezing prompted by the global financial crisis, “Days” is a complex story simply told. As Sandra walks through town, knocking on doors, the film confirms our fears about human nature at times, defies them at others.
Cotillard shows how Sandra, who had been on leave because of mental-health issues, must gird herself before each encounter, shoulders squared, expression fearful. But Sandra will become emboldened by her quest to keep her job and rebuild her self-worth. (Opens in early 2015 in Sacramento).
2. “Birdman”: Who knew the guy who made “Babel” was fun? Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, with ample assistance from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s constantly moving camera and Antonio Sanchez’s irresistible drums, turn a Broadway theater’s backstage passage ways and stage into the vibrant center of the world. A place in which artistry, ego, pop culture and commerce collide, and decency gets nicked in passing.
Michael Keaton, his electric screen presence undimmed by a deeply lined face, plays on his Batman past as a faded comic-book film actor seeking a comeback. That Keaton is likely to be nominated for his first Oscar in his own comeback deepens the film’s “meta” fun. (In theaters).
1. “Boyhood”: The abilities to transport, and to connect us to the shared human experience, are hallmarks of great cinema. These qualities rarely exist in the same film. They do in “Boyhood.”
As it shows actor Ellar Coltrane, as fictional boy Mason, grow up before our eyes, “Boyhood” consciously unspools the viewers’ subconscious. Adults’ memories of childhood, of what it looked and felt like, grow fuzzy with time. “Boyhood” takes us back to live in those memories.
The film shows a generosity of spirit. Mason is our guide, but not our hero. The heroes are his parents (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke), who forge on, loving and protecting their son despite being flawed and in need of some growing up themselves. (DVD, streaming).
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.