Ave DuVernay’s unflincing account of civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama is the most painfully relevant film of 2014. Sure, Oscar decided to ignore the director’s brilliant work as well as David Oyelowo’s stunning, wearied performance, but that doesn’t mean you should. DuVernay is a master storyteller at the top of her game and with her stewardship, Selma is a well crafted, straightforward punch to the gut.
Another underappreciates 2014 gem, Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr. Turner, releases to home entertainment today as well. While the films are markedly different, they do share some wonderful elements in common. Leigh’s approach suits the material beautifully as his painterly camera and fluid direction give the story room to breathe, while a magnificent lead performance from Timothy Spall keeps you spellbound. Both boast wonderfully nuanced turns from a large, capable ensemble and both were woefully underappreciated by the Academy. You should give them a chance.
The Academy takes some punches every January as the rest of us scratch our heads over the films and performances they deem most deserving of recognition, and even more questionable, those they believe are not. 2015 is no different. The Oscar nominations reveal much deserved love for Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but where is Selma?
Yes, Ava DuVernay’s visceral and all too relevant film on Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery earned – and we mean earned – a best picture nomination, but where was its original screenplay? It should be sitting where Foxcatcher sits.
Equally wrong-headed is the exclusion of the faultless DuVernay among the ranks of directors. Though The Imitation Game was a wonderful film and Morten Tyldum offered superb helmsmanship, that should have been DuVernay’s slot.
Best Actor is usually a loaded category, and 2015 is certainly no exception. Still, Selma’s David Oyelowo and Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal deserved spots instead of Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell and perhaps even Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game.
Again, both performances were great and both films were great, but Oyelowo and Gyllenhaal really needed to be noticed, and quite honestly, Oyelowo may have deserved the win.
Perhaps the most baffling exclusion is The LEGO Movie from the best animated film category. How is this even possible? It’s a better animated film than absolutely anything else on the list. We’re thrilled at the inclusion of both The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea and wouldn’t remove those, but Big Hero 6 was one of the blandest and most derivative animated efforts in years and has no business in the same area code as an Oscar nomination.
Amy Adams and Jennifer Aniston could be miffed at being left off the best actress list, but to be honest, it wasn’t an especially strong year for that category. Either could be swapped in or out for almost anyone else on the list, with the exception of Julianne Moore. While Still Alice is not the strongest performance of her career, and it not actually an exceptional film outside of her work, she’ll finally win an Oscar this year, so thank God for that. Quite honestly, We’d have given one of the nominations to Essie Davis for her superior work in The Babadook, but that’s just dreaming on our part.
And while we’re in fantasyland, We’d have given Tilda Swinton a nom in the best supporting actress category for her turn in Snowpiercer. It may be simply tradition to offer Meryl Streep a seat at the table every year, and she certainly was fun to watch as the witch in Into the Woods, but Swinton was more fun and more deserving.
The major nominations are below.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
JK Simmons, Whiplash
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Emma Stone, Birdman
Keira Knightly, The Imitation Game
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Every year Oscar season sees a healthy number of well made biopics for the Academy’s consideration, and those efforts are very often rewarded: 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, The Iron Lady. But in the 14 years I’ve been covering film in Columbus, none has been as painfully relevant as Selma.
Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach and lovely, muted frames common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not the run of the mill, laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut.
Working from a screenplay by first time scripter Paul Webb, DuVernay unveils the strategies, political factions, internal frictions and personal sacrifices at play in the days leading to the final march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Yes, she simplifies some complicated issues and relationships, but she is a powerful storyteller at the top of her craft and her choices are always for the good of the film.
The reliable David Oyelowo exceeds expectations as Dr. King. His passionate reserves at the pulpit and the microphone are goosebump perfection, but it’s in the quiet moments that he most impresses, having a bone-deep feel for the man’s weariness as well as his humor, his failings and his faith. It’s a beautiful performance and the heart of a powerful film.
At all times, DuVernay’s film certainly maintains an appropriate reverence for the material. Her cast is more than up to the challenge, beginning with the powerhouse turn from Oyelowo and extending through an impressive, sizeable ensemble. But it’s the filmmaker’s strength in storytelling that elevates this film above others, because DuVernay is never heavy handed, never preachy, and yet every scene is weighted with its historical significance as well as the disheartening immediacy of these events.
The closer black Americans came to the same simple freedoms others took for granted, the more dangerous their lives became, the more anger they faced in the streets, the more outrage was heard from the system that didn’t want – not just yet – to recognize their rights. That shameful time in American history was 1965 – a full fifty years ago. How awful that those wounds feel so fresh.
2014 was a banner year, with great films in an enormous range of genres: blockbusters and indies, horror and SciFi, dramas and comedies, as well as films from first time filmmakers, a lot of great stuff from women directors, and an unusually high number of excellent films with one-word titles. No idea that that trend might mean. Anyway, today we walk through our 20 favorites of the past 365 days.
20. Into the Woods: Rob Marshall proves again that he’s the man you want filming a musical, using inventive techniques to bring the cross-cutting fairy tale narratives in this Sondheim musical to glorious life. Not your traditional Disney effort, Into the Woods offers a sophisticated, often dark but insightful and imaginative look at the other side of fairy tales.
19. The Lego Movie: The tone is fresh and irreverent, the voice talent spot-on, and the direction is endlessly clever. The Lego Movie was the most fun to be had at the cinema in 2014.
18. Guardians of the Galaxy: Director James Gunn nails the tone, the color, the imagery, and the sound of one Earthling dartin’ about space scavenging, smooching, and basically living the dream. The effortlessly likeable Chris Pratt leads a crew of ragtag misfits who collectively become the most enjoyable team of intergalactic scoundrels since Han Solo piloted the Falcon. This is the definition of a great summer movie.
17. Calvary: World-weary humor, brilliant writing and one stellar performance from the always remarkable Brendan Gleeson mark this underseen gem from Ireland about humanity, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption.
16. The Imitation Game: A wonderful mix of exciting historical mystery and heartfelt examination of the complicated man at the mystery’s center, The Imitation Game is a film about secrets boasting an Oscar-worthy performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
15. American Sniper: The bio of America’s most lethal sniper is tense, heartfelt, and wise. Director Clint Eastwood hasn’t been this invested in years, and along with an astonishing lead performance from Bradley Cooper, strikes just the right tone with a story that could have easily been mined for manipulation. It isn’t, which is another reason to salute American Sniper.
14. Locke: A masterpiece in simplicity, Locke tags along on a solo car trip: just you, the great Tom Hardy, and several simultaneous crises he handles on his mobile.
13. Under the Skin: This hypnotic, low-key SciFi thriller – the latest from filmmaker-to-watch Jonathan Glazer – follows Scarlett Johansson around Glasgow in a van. Light on dialogue and void of exposition, Under the Skin demands your attention, but it delivers an enigmatic, breathtaking, utterly unique vision of an alien invasion.
12. The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer.
11. Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest defies easy summarization as an inebriated PI (played by Joaquin Phoenix as you’ve never seen him) fits together pieces from several different puzzles to create an unpredictable, barely coherent but wildly enjoyable whole.
10. A Most Violent Year: This gem is a film about the merits versus moral compromise of the American dream, and a slow boil drama that keeps you on edge for its full 125 minute running time because there is absolutely no guessing what is coming next.
9. Snowpiercer: Though incompetently marketed and abysmally underseen, Snowpiercer is an immediate dystopian classic. Visionary direction from Joon-ho Bong maximizes claustrophobic tension while brazen casting victories (Oh my God, Tilda Swinton!) and another solid lead turn from Chris Evens work together to create an enthralling allegory of the makers and the takers.
8. Foxcatcher: Director Bennett Miller’s understated true crime film benefits from seriously unusual casting. Steve Carrel is revelatory as John du Pont, millionaire weirdo and wrestling enthusiast who bankrolled Olympic hopefuls (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, both award worthy), ensnaring then in his unpredictable psychosis. It’s riveting stuff.
7. Only Lovers Left Alive: The great Jim Jarmusch (Ohio boy!) updates the vampire genre with a well conceived twist on the unusual, aided by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s wonderful performances as well as his own dry humor and magnificent eye for visuals.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The great eccentric genius Wes Anderson inches his way closer to mainstream acceptance and Oscar with the most meticulously framed, wickedly clever dark comedy. Filled with melancholy and whimsy, full to bursting with fascinating cameos, and boasting an almost unimaginably perfect performance by Ralph Fiennes, it’s a work of genius that could spring only from the mind of Anderson.
5. Whiplash: As sure as J.K. Simmons will walk home with his first Oscar this year, Whiplash will astonish you. No film this year ratchets tension like this one, as one musician and his mentor do battle that makes the Hobbit look light hearted. Brilliantly written, expertly directed, and boasting two excellent performances (not to mention some really great music!), Whiplash is easily one of the best features of 2014.
4. Nightcrawler: No telling why it took so long to combine Network and American Psycho, but Nightcrawler is here now, so buckle down for a helluva ride. Jake Gyllenhaal is at his absolute best in a film that is as scorchingly relevant an image of modern media as it is a brilliant character study in psychosis.
3. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will nab some Oscars this season. This is a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at their playful, creative best.
2. Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut.
1. Boyhood: Richard Linklater manages the impossible. By checking in on one family every year for 12 years, collecting not the major incidents but all those everyday moments, he provides an achingly, hilariously, touchingly realistic impression of an entire childhood. The cast is brilliant, and the sense of family they evoke is as authentic as anything you will ever see on film. Boyhood is a film like none other ever made, and it is imperative viewing.
Of the many excellent trends in movie houses this year, our favorite was the focus on female directors. Here we celebrate our favorite films of 2014 helmed by women.
Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut. It opens in Columbus on January 9. Do not miss it.
The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer. It also marks first time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent as an artist to watch.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature – also Iran’s very first vampire film -is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.
Obvious Child: Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with this one. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.
Belle: Amma Asante’s directorial breakout is the fact-based tale of a bi-racial girl raised by her aristocratic grandparents in 18th Century England. Well told and perfectly cast, with the always flawless Tom Wilkinson playing the family patriarch and a wondrous turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead, the film draws parallels you never knew existed between past and present.
Beyond the Lights: Mbatha-Raw impresses again with help from another female behind the camera in this cautionary tale about fame by Gina Prince-Bythewood. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.
Unbroken: Angelina Jolie’s second effort behind the camera tells the truly amazing story of an Olympic runner turned WWII POW. Her attention to detail benefits the historical epic, and another strong turn by Jack O’Connell keeps your attention.
Weird theme for great 2014 movies: one word titles. The oddest trait we saw emerge in great films this war was the one-word title film. A full 15 of the best films of 2014 had single-word titles – who knows why? Whatever the reason, in no particular order, are the best of the one-word-title films (and some of the very, very best films of the year.
1. Wild: Reese Witherspoon will no doubt garner her second Oscar nomination and quite possibly her second Oscar starring as a woman who walks 1100 miles solo to get her head together.
2. Selma: Ave DuVernay’s powerful, painfully relevant biopic on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marches on Selma, Alabama delivers all the punch it needs with one word.
3. Unbroken: Angelina Jolie returns to a spot behind the camera for this true tale of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis Zamperini.
4. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will scoop up some Oscars this year.
5. Calvary: Woefully underseen, this wry, weary and brilliant look at the affects of Catholicism’s abuses boasts the great Brendan Gleeson’s best performance.
6. Whiplash: Holy shit! JK Simmons gets the role of a lifetime as an abusive music teacher who is either trying to push his students to greatness or is trying to get away with absolute sadism. This may be the most tense film of the year.
7. Nightcrawler: Another amazing film, this one positing a weirdly sometimes likeable sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal at his absolute best) in the context of local news – what better fit could there be?
8. Frank: Another underseen gem, this one has the great Michael Fassbender hiding inside a giant plastic head in an exploration of madness and music.
9. Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller returns with another masterpiece in understatement, a true crime tale of Olympic wrestlers and insane billionaires that could bring Oscar nominations to the unlikeliest of actors: Steve Carell and Channing Tatum.
10. Rosewater: Jon Stewart proved his mettle behind the camera with this touching, insightful and underseen true story of a journalist jailed during the Iranian elections of 2009.
11. Boyhood: The best film of 2014, Boyhood’s filming spanned 12 years and let us glimpse something no other film has ever captured.
12. Wetlands:Underneath the shock and body fluids is a deeply human story boasting a fearless and nuanced performance.
13. Snowpiercer: The best SciFi in a year of especially great SciFi, the film was sabotaged by its own studio and still wound up wowing audiences everywhere.
14. Interstellar: Not Christopher Nolan’s best, but when his intergalactic epic is working, it is a mind-bending ride.
15. Locke: A one man show that highlights the talents of perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, Tom Hardy. See it. Do it!