The annual trend is that movie studios release what they deem their cream of the crop, or best films towards the end of the year for award considerations because the most recent films are the ones that stick in the mind of voters. Regardless of that fact, earlier in the year several outstanding films were released that were just as worthy and shouldn't be forgotten. That said, in looking back at all the movies I saw in 2014, the list below reflects the ones that left an indelible impression and stuck with me the most when it came to great storytelling, performances, and emotional impact.
Whiplash - Writer/director Damien Chazelle's gripping, intense drama centers on an obsessed drummer with high aspirations and his brutal band instructor that go head to head in a battle of wills and determination. Filled with more tension than most action thrillers, the film features two of the year's most outstanding performances from its leads, Miles Teller and JK Simmons. Everything about this film is top notch, including the directing, the writing, cinematography, editing, sound design, music and pacing, that draws you in and never hits a wrong chord.
The Imitation Game - The beautifully executed historical drama is based on the true story of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and cryptographer that during World War II led his team of the best cryptic minds in England to crack the German communications' Enigma code, deemed the most difficult in the world and impossible to break. Benedict Cumberbatch is magnificent and totally convincing as Alan Turing, a socially awkward genius and arrogant loner, who, instead of being hailed as a war hero, was unjustly prosecuted for being a homosexual.
Gone Girl – This mystery crime drama from acclaimed director David Fincher, (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) working from Gillian Flynn's script she adapted from her global best selling novel of the same name, revolves around the disappearance of a woman, whose husband becomes the only suspect in her disappearance and murder after mounting evidence points to him. In a breakout, star making role, British actress Rosamund Pike shows remarkable range, delivering a standout performance in this complex, multilayered role that should earn her a Best Actress nomination come Oscar time. Filled with twists and turns, it is one of the most interesting, well crafted thrillers to hit the screen last year.
Nightcrawler – In writer/director Dan Gilroy's chilling and tense thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal demands the screen, turning in the best performance of his career as a smart but amoral sociopath and overly ambitious videographer who will go to any length to capture newsworthy graphic footage on his camera to sell to an LA TV station.
A Most Wanted Man - In his last leading role before his untimely death, Phillip Seymour Hoffman delivers a magnificent, nuanced performance, totally immersing himself into the mindset and persona of a world weary, moral German operative leading a small anti terrorist unit in Hamburg. The story centers on a mysterious half Chechen, half Russian refugee that comes to Germany hoping to make a better life for himself within Hamburg's Muslim community. Unsure of whether Karpov is a terrorist threat, rather than arresting the young man, Bachmann chooses to keep a watchful eye on him, tracking his every move though surveillance techniques that will reveal his true intentions with the hope of using him as bait to snag a “bigger fish”. Sophisticated, intelligent, gripping, filled with intrigue, and most definitely, thought provoking, A Most Wanted Man captures your attention as one of the best spy thrillers in years.
Kill the Messenger – Based on the remarkable true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb, this explosive political thriller stars Jeremy Renner who turns in his most powerful, intense performance since 'The Hurt Locker', as the investigative news reporter for the San Jose Mercury, who in 1996 was given some top secret, classified information that exposed the CIA’s involvement in using drug money to fund arms for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels under the Reagan administration. Examined is the price one man pays as a whistleblower for refusing to back down, regardless of threats, to do what he believes is right in exposing illegal covert operations tied to the crack cocaine plague on our nation's streets. Horrifying and troubling, Kill The Messenger is an important, thought provoking film about the abuse of power, and should be seen.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes –In the superb followup installment to 2011's rebooted “Planet of the Apes” franchise, director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) does a masterful job working from a smart, beautifully written script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who penned Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and their new collaborator, Mark Bomback. Reeves structures a well paced, intriguing story with social-political overtones that draws you in both visually and emotionally. With its great story, just the right amount of action, fantastic seamless special effects, well developed characters and superb performances, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has everything you want from a movie going experience.
The Theory of Everything – Based on the true story of world renowned, brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's first wife Jane's 2007 memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking, the film recounts how, as a devoted wife, Jane sacrificed her own career aspirations to care for and support her husband that was stricken with the devastating motor neuron disease (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) which left him wheelchair bound and unable to speak. Highlighted by a flawless, Oscar worthy performance by Eddie Redmayne and solid work by Felicity Jones, this intimate, revealing story about two strong willed, highly intelligent people whose marriage was faced with intense challenges, pressures and obstacles, sends a strong message that it is not the limitations that define us, but how we choose to overcome them. Heartbreaking at first, the end result is both inspirational and uplifting.
Love is Strange - Directed with sensitive precision by Ira Sachs (“The Delta,” “Married Life”) who cowrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, Love is Strange is a bittersweet love story about a committed, loving, gay couple whose relationship is challenged when life throws them an unfortunate curveball. The totally convincing, brilliant, understated performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina who have amazing, natural chemistry, bring a heightened credibility to what ultimately is a moving and memorable tribute to the unyielding power of love.
Guardians of the Galaxy – Marvel Studios delivers another winner in this enormously entertaining, action sci-fi adventure filled with just the right mix of heart, humor, action, and special effects. It is about a band of space alien misfits that unite to recapture a mysterious orb and keep it out of the hands of Ronan (Lee Pace) a powerful villain with plans that threaten the entire universe. Chris Pratt, who transformed from chubby sit com star (Parks & Recreation) to fit and muscular super hero, brings lots of charm and charisma to his character, Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, a 70's music loving, bounty hunter, that leads his team, dubbed the Guardians, including a clever, gun-toting raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Groot, a tree-like creature (voiced by Vin Diesel whose dialogue is limited to three words, “I am Grute”), deadly female Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the revenge driven, fully tattooed, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). The entire cast appeared to be having a blast and so did I.
In additional to the above top ten, below are several praiseworthy, must see films that deserve more than just “honorable mention”.
Selma - Director Ava DuVernay does an excellent job in recounting the true events surrounding the historical 1965 Selma to Montomery, AL march for equal voting rights led by the Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Wild – The emotionally riveting true story based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir comes to the big screen with a raw, deeply moving performance by Reese Witherspoon as the real life woman who decided to overcome her pain and self destruction and reclaim her life by going on a grueling, solo hike of more than 1100 miles through the Pacific Crest Trail.
Still Alice – Julianne Moore delivers a fantastic, heart wrenching performance as a renowned linguistics professor who is stricken by early onset Alzheimer's disease. The story follows her attempt to battle the devastating symptoms, stay connected to who she once was, and live her life to the fullest as long as she can.
The Babadook – Australian Jennifer Kent makes an impressive feature film directorial debut, delivering one of the scariest, well executed, horror stories in years with her story centering on a grief stricken widowed mother (an excellent Essie Davis) and her six year old son (equally fine, Noah Wiseman) who are haunted by the monstrous, dark entity known as The Babadook (a variation on the Boogey Man) that comes to life from a mysterious pop up book.
Citizenfour – Whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the unlawful invasion of privacy by the NSA made international headlines and made him a target by the 'powers that be' who labeled him a traitor for revealing top secret information that, allegedly, threatens U.S. security. After being contacted by Snowden, who was forced to flee the country, Award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, captures her secret meetings with the smart and eloquent young man inside a Hong Kong hotel, detailing his story as he tells it, live in front of the camera, as it unfolded. The result is a harrowing, chilling documentary by a courageous filmmaker and her subject who attempt to set the record straight, regardless of any personal consequences.
Maleficent – This reimagined, new spin on the fantasy tale Sleeping Beauty seen from the wicked witch's point of view, has all the right elements beginning with the perfect casting of Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie as the titled character in which she delivers a be-witching performance. While some Sleeping Beauty purists may have trouble with the new take on the old story, I found the themes of redemption, forgiveness, the many natures of love, and the several twists and turns, especially the clever one at the end, to be very rewarding. Beautifully crafted, this enchanting movie exceeded my expectations.
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies - The adventures of Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield and the Company of Dwarves comes to a satisfying conclusion in this final chapter of award winning filmaker Peter Jackson's The Hobbit Trilogy that features an awesome 45 minute battle for Lonely Mountain. With its stunning visuals, set design and CGI effects that work to enhance the engaging story, I am saddened that, although hooked from the get go, I have to give up this hobbit.