Ambitious, ingenious, fearless. These are but a few of the superlatives that my fellow critics and I are bestowing on the best films of 2014. Unlike in past years, several of the most frequently lauded productions have predominantly LGBT storylines with Pride, Love is Strange and a few others I note below included on many top ten lists. Here are my choices in order of excellence, with more than ten films singled out since some share the same critical ranking and/or common themes.
1) Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live Die Repeat on home video, released by Warner Bros.): This was the best out of a summer full of smarter than usual sci-fi spectacles (i.e. Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) but it flopped due to box office overload. Exciting, clever and funnier than expected, it also boasts one of Tom Cruise's best performances ever as well as a terrific action heroine turn by Emily Blunt. Edge of Tomorrow is the epitome of why we go to the movies: to be entertained, challenged and moved.
2) Boyhood (IFC Films): Twelve years in the making, writer-director Richard Linklater masterfully captures the maturation of both a young man (charismatic newcomer Ellar Coltrane) and his family. The never-better Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play the boy's parents. Although a work of fiction, Boyhood may be one of the most observant, truthful films ever made.
3) Gone Girl (20th Century Fox): David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel emerged as the best, most satisfying mystery/psychological thriller in a long time. It also works as a wicked satire of class, marital dysfunction, media culture and legal manipulation, which stars Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris (in a decidedly non-gay role) all revel in.
4) Limited Partnership (Tesseract Films) and Alive Inside (Bond/360): Two inspiring, genuinely life-changing documentaries. The first introduces most people to the nearly 40-year long effort of Tony Sullivan and the late Richard Adams to have their 1975 same-sex marriage legally recognized. Alive Inside, meanwhile, reveals the amazing impact that personalized use of music is having on people with Alzheimers Disease and other forms of dementia. The cultural significance of these moving documentaries can't be denied.
5) Get On Up (Universal): In a year of exceptional biopics (see also #7, #8 and #10 below), this electrifying look at the life of James Brown was the standout for me due to its unusual, non-linear craftsmanship and a powerhouse performance by Chadwick Boseman as "the Godfather of Soul." Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, alumnae of director Tate Taylor's The Help, are great as always in brief but vivid supporting roles.
6) The Circle (Wolfe Releasing) and Ida (Music Box Films): The year's best foreign language releases and their respective countries' (Switzerland and Poland) entries in this year's Academy Awards. Both deal with uncovering the past, whether it be a real-life gay organization that flourished underground in Nazi-era Germany (The Circle) or a young nun discovering her tragedy-tinged Jewish background (Ida). They are equally engrossing and beautifully made.
7) Unbroken (Universal): Angelina Jolie's riveting, ultimately spiritual account of the brutal years American pilot Louis Zamperini spent as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II. Dreamy British actor Jack O'Connell is impressive as Zamperini (who passed away just last summer at the age of 97) and Japanese pop star Miyavi, making his film debut, is truly sinister as the prison camp's brutal commanding officer. This is also the most beautifully photographed movie of the year courtesy of the acclaimed Roger Deakins.
8) Cake (Cinelou Releasing) and Wild (Fox Searchlight): Women recovering from traumatic losses are the central characters in these life-affirming stories, one of them (Wild) based on a bestselling memoir. Jennifer Aniston gives an astonishing, multi-nominated performance in Cake (which was fashioned by a gay screenwriter, gay director and a gay producer) as a member of a chronic pain support group who becomes fixated on the suicide of another member. Fellow award nominee Reese Witherspoon, also thoroughly de-glammed, headlines Wild as Cheryl Strayed, who hiked alone for more than 1,000 miles to get her life back on track. Both films serve as unique, rewarding journeys of the soul.
9) Interstellar (Paramount): The latest opus from Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight and Inception fame is typically thoughtful but more emotionally resonant than his prior films, dealing as it does with parent-child relationships, a dying planet Earth and a hopeful trip through a wormhole in search of a more habitable new world. Matthew McConaughey follows his Oscar-winning work in last year's Dallas Buyers Club with another memorable turn, and the movie features two of the coolest cinematic robots since C-3PO and R2-D2.
10) The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Company) and The Theory of Everything (Focus Features): A pair of smashing British studies of two of the most fascinating men of the last century. Gay mathematician turned World War II codebreaker Alan Turing is the timely subject of The Imitation Game and is superbly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Kiera Knightley is also excellent as Turing's colleague and would-be "beard." Eddie Redmayne is no less extraordinary as physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, capturing the man's physical deterioration due to ALS in excruciating detail while honoring his dignity.
Honorable mentions (movies in no particular order that I rated a B+ or higher): The Lego Movie, Odd Thomas, The Babadook, Whiplash, Love is Strange, Jodorowsky's Dune, The Decent One, Muppets Most Wanted, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, Life Itself, Pride, Into the Woods and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
While I was spared a lot of truly bad movies released in 2014, there were nonetheless some films that definitely disappointed me. Chief among these were The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Sony), a drippy, overstuffed sequel to the smartly scaled-back 2012 reboot; Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox), Ridley Scott's lavish but otherwise familiar take on the Ten Commandments with a wasted Sigourney Weaver; Pompeii (Sony), a similarly over-produced epic set in the volcano-afflicted city; Jersey Boys (Warner Bros.), which doesn't come alive as a movie musical until, strangely, its closing credits; and the simply unfunny horror spoofs Stage Fright and Crazy Bitches.
We wish everyone a happy new year at the movies!
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.