Although I am very proud to have been a voting member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences since 1984, I do not know how to determine a “best” film or performance. To me, “best” is too subjective to be used in relation to any artistic endeavor. To do so would be akin to claiming that Van Gogh was a better painter than Rembrandt…. Mozart a better composer than Chopin…Rodin a better sculptor than Michelangelo.
In addition, industry politics, personal popularity (or lack thereof), and professional jealousy play major roles in the voting each year.
Consequently, I believe that each of us can honestly identify only our own favorite movies.
So, here’ my list for 2014:
1. The Hundred Foot Journey was my favorite film of the year because it contains everything I love most about movies: wonderful characters, two terrific love stories, an exotic locale, great humor, extraordinary acting, writing, and directing, a life-affirming, heartwarming ending…and, of course, amazing food!
Director Lasse Halstrom (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Safe Haven) has become a go-to director for love stories and he outdoes himself in this exhilarating movie about a refugee Indian family that finds itself adrift in a gorgeous small French town that is dominated by Le Saule Pleureur, a one star Michelin restaurant. The family’s oldest son is a gifted chef of Indian cuisine, so his father (played by Om Puri , one of the most lovable character actors ever!) buys the restaurant across the street, thus igniting a dining war with Le Saule’s estimable owner (who else but the glorious Helen Mirren?). The son falls in love with the sous chef from the French restaurant, the rival owners find they are inexorably drawn to one another, and we in the audience are delighted witnesses to an instant classic.
Oh…and did I mention the food??????
The film centers on a thief in 1914 New York who falls in love with a woman who needs a miracle to survive consumption, a disease which was then fatal. Along the way, they and we encounter angels, demons, spirit guides and a dazzling vision of who we might be as souls, both in this life…and hereafter. The end result is a deeply passionate love story that illuminates the beauty of love, our humanity…and our immortality.
As I watched the film, I kept wondering “How did they get this through the Hollywood system?” Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, and Jennifer Connelly are excellent actors and “names” but how did they get this overtly spiritual film financed? When I saw the end credits, I had my answer. The film is written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer of A Beautiful Mind and also The DaVinci Code and Cinderella Man. Mr. Goldman obviously called in every favor at his disposal and put himself on the line to get this film made….for which I say: “Mr. Goldman, you won your Oscar for A Beautiful Mind…and I thank you for Winter’s Tale, which obviously came from a beautiful heart.” Winter’s Tale is surprising, wonderful, timeless, and deeply moving.
3. Birdman. A dark, searing portrayal of the downside of celebrity, Birdman is also one of the most dazzlingly creative films I have ever seen. The jaw-dropping vision and sheer filmmaking talent of director Alejandro Inarritu is almost impossible to describe in mere words and is so unique that only the immortal Stanley Kubrick comes to mind as a directorial comparison.
The film focuses on actor Riggan Thomas who once rose (literally and figuratively) to stardom in an action franchise in which he played a superhero named Birdman. As we find Riggan, however, he is trying to revive his moribund career by directing and starring in a Broadway play. Riddled with self-doubt, self-loathing, and regrets.. and seemingly possessed by demons and delusions, both real and imagined (maybe?), Riggan appears destined for an epic flameout…or resurrection…or both.
Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Riggan is devastatingly vulnerable, explosive, mesmerizing, and destined for a surefire Academy Award nomination. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis are brilliant in supporting roles as well….but the film belongs to both Mr. Keaton and Mr. Innaritu.
Before I saw the film, friends had told me to be ready for a style of filmmaking that I had never seen before but I was still unprepared for the sheer audacity of Mr. Innaritu’s unique and prodigious visual imagination.
Birdman is a truly original, innovative, emotional, one-of-a-kind film, with an ending that does indeed……soar.
4. The Theory of Everything tells the story of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking whose startling intellect and imagination at England’s Oxford University marked him as destined for greatness in whatever scientific field he chose. Though popular with his classmates, Mr. Hawking was painfully shy in social settings until he met a young woman with whom he fell deeply in love. Almost without warning, however, he was stricken with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) which he was told was incurable and would limit his life expectancy to no more than two years.
Confined to a wheelchair and imprisoned in a body that he could no longer control, Stephen Hawking nonetheless learned how to use a unique computer through whose keyboard he could actually communicate by moving his eyes over the keys. The love story he shared with his wife Jane is the backbone of the film and is both touching and inspiring as Jane joins Mr. Hawking in refusing to be intimidated or deterred by his illness.
Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn, Les Miserables) so completely inhabits the role of Mr. Hawking that I sometimes felt like I was watching Mr. Hawking play himself. An Academy Award nomination seems certain. Felicity Jones (The Invisible Woman) is also wonderful in communicating the love and respect that Jane Hawking felt for her husband and also how and why the Hawkings eventually decided to end their marriage but remain close, dedicated friends forever.
Mr. Hawking has now outlived his prognosis by more than 40 years by having found the fierce courage to match his equally fierce intellect.
Logline: A woman (Jennifer Aniston) sustains crippling and disfiguring injuries in a tragic car accident in which her only child is killed. So deep is her grief that she rejects her loving husband (Chris Messina) and descends into drug addiction, alcoholism, and bitterness. In the depth of her despair, she connects with the soul of a young woman (Anna Kendrick) who has recently committed suicide by jumping off a bridge, leaving her husband (Sam Worthington) and young child alone to deal with the consequences of her action.
A light comedy it’s not, right? But here’s the surprise: the film somehow miraculously and unexpectedly becomes an inspiring and ultimately uplifting road map to overcoming grief and beginning life anew.
Jennifer Aniston’s performance is quite literally a revelation. Appearing throughout the film with deep facial and body scars but without an ounce of any other makeup at any time, Ms. Aniston also put on a significant amount of weight for her role in which she is almost as unrecognizable as Charlize Theron was in Monster. The result is a vulnerable, powerful, poignant, beyond courageous, tour-de-force, career-defining performance.
While Cake is certainly not for the faint of heart, it does illuminate with great compassion and love how someone can fall deeply into the abyss of grief and then somehow, some way, claw back up into the sunshine. As such, I somewhat suspect that this film will be shared in years to come by friends and family with loved ones who are in the grieving process…. and that some of those loved ones will indeed see the film as a glimmer of light and hope. When a movie can do that, it transcends the delivery medium and touches the essence of our humanity. The film opens in select cities on January 23.
Bradley Cooper gives another bravura, Oscar-worthy performance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle who, during 4 tours of duty in Iraq, became the most decorated and accurate sniper in American history. Credited with personally saving the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers, Mr. Kyle struggled mightily to balance his passionate love of country, the moral dilemmas he faced each day in combat, his responsibility to his brothers-in-arms, and an equally passionate love of his wife (played with sensitivity and dignity by Sienna Miller) and family.
Director Clint Eastwood puts us right in the middle of both the Kyles’ family drama and also the chilling, every day life of soldiers during the Iraq war. Harrowing, engrossing, and deeply emotional, American Sniper drew me into its thrall from its very first frame to its unexpected and poignant conclusion.
Now, about that cinematic hero: over the last 55 years, Clint Eastwood has evolved from the stony-faced action hero of “spaghetti westerns” to a mind-bogglingly diverse and talented director. As a director, most people know Mr. Eastwood for dramas such as the Academy-Award winning Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby but he also directed such sensitive and poignant films as The Bridges of Madison County, Gran Torino, Trouble with the Curve, and the deeply spiritual love story Hereafter. Last year, Mr. Eastwood also directed Jersey Boys, the film adaptation of the smash Broadway musical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.
Oh, and Mr. Eastwood was 84 years old when he directed American Sniper. Yes. 84! The film opens nationwide January 16.
7. The Imitation Game. During the early years of World War 2, Nazi Germany was wreaking havoc throughout Europe by coordinating their attack plans via the Enigma Machine, which was at that time the most sophisticated coding device ever produced. The sequencing of the code was so sophisticated that it required anyone who wanted to decode it to sort through hundreds of millions of possibilities. …and the code was changed every 24 hours so any decoding attempts had to start anew each day.
Brash, brilliant, eccentric, uncompromising British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberpatch) volunteered to help his government break the code but Mr. Turing’s personality was so imperious that he soon became persona non grata with everyone with whom he came in contact. Enter Jane Clarke (Keira Knightley) as the only woman hired by Mr. Turing to work on his solution to Enigma. With her coaching, Mr. Turing ultimately convinces his colleagues that only a machine, not humans, can break the Enigma code. To do so, Mr. Turing conceives, designs, and builds the world’s first computer, the code is eventually broken, and the war is shortened by at least 2 years, saving over 10 million lives.
Mr. Cumberpatch is mesmerizing as the enigmatic (pun intended) Mr. Turing who was a gay man in a society that still actually criminalized homosexuality. Tormented by both his own unique intellect and vision, forced to try to temper his high expectations of both himself and those around him, trapped in a life style charade by the arcane moral restrictions of the society in which he lived , Mr. Turing was the very definition of a sensitive, tortured soul…and Mr. Cumberpatch does a virtuoso job of showing us every aspect of Mr. Turing’s inner turmoil.
A riveting thriller and character drama, The Imitation Game illuminates the life and work of a genius who singlehanded changed the course of World War 2, while also having to confront intense gender prejudice. Alan Turing was a true hero….in every sense of the word.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel stars dramatic heavyweights Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, and Jude Law. Seeing that cast, you’d expect a remake of 12 Angry Men or something akin to it, yes? But, wait, the film is actually an uproarious comedy!
Director Wes Anderson’s utterly unique, idiosyncratic style from films such as Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom comes to full fruition in this off-the-wall, ingenious, screwball, totally wondrous and utterly indescribable film.
The plot? Well, let’s see. There’s this great hotel that is now crumbling but once was the height of European old world luxury, particularly when it was run by a legendary concierge who had an affair with one of the hotel’s wealthiest guests who then died and left him a great fortune which was then challenged by her other heirs leading to several threats, chases, and red herrings but ultimately leading back to the modern day hotel and its new concierge who was the original concierge’s protege and where a journalist interviews the owner of the hotel who tells him his version of what actually happened. And that’s only the first 10 minutes….then there’s this other love story….and….
Somehow, Mr. Anderson finds a way to channel both the hellzapoppin’ story and the considerable acting prowess of his cast into a signature style that allows his actors to be their dramatic selves while also being utterly hilarious. Watching him work that comedic alchemy is a totally unique and enchanting experience.
9. Wild. In 1994, author Cheryl Strayed’s mother died and her marriage ended because of her resulting alcohol and drug use and a series of extra-marital affairs. Feeling completely adrift, she sets out the next year on a grueling 1100 mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks, Oregon.
Wild is certainly an appropriate description of both the portion of Ms. Strayed’s life that precedes her epic journey and the hike itself. Many years later, she wrote the best-selling book that inspired the film.
Wild, unabashed, and fearless is also how actress Reese Witherspoon tackles her most challenging film role as Ms. Strayed. Although Ms. Witherspoon came to prominence in Legally Blonde, it was her work in Walk The Line with Joaquin Phoenix that first presaged her brilliant performance in Wild. On camera in virtually every shot of the film, Ms. Witherspoon brings us along with her on both her epic physical journey (which our Australian friends would call “going walkabout”) and also the emotional transformations that her character experiences along the way.
At its core, Wild is all about the courage to face the unknown and ultimately oneself. It’s also about the understanding that we know so little about the significance of life’s moments until we see them from the vantage point of time and perspective. Mostly, for me, the film is about being constantly alive to possibility so that we can heed the call of destiny even when we have no conscious idea of what that moment will mean until years later.
10. Gone Girl. Like many filmgoers, I love a great thriller, particularly one whose plot surprises me at least once along the way. The element of “whoa-I didn’t expect that!” that is lacking in so many thrillers is front and center in Gone Girl. Having not read the novel on which the film is based, I am so glad that I had no idea where the story was going because there were a couple of moments that I didn’t see coming at all.
Although it’s very difficult if not impossible to construct a plot summary of Gone Girl without giving away some of those surprises, I can say that it centers on a man named Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who tells the police that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has disappeared. The official investigation of the disappearance soon focuses more on Nick’s potential responsibility. Along the way, we meet a fascinating set of characters such as Neil Patrick Harris (in a very different role than we’ve seen him in before); Kim Dickens as the lead detective, Carrie Coons as Nick’s fiercely loyal sister, and Tyler Perry as a celebrity defense lawyer. To divulge anything else would be to spoil the threads of suspense that both unwind and interweave from that point forward.
Mr. Affleck and Ms. Pike are utterly convincing in their respective roles and director David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) does an extraordinary job of building suspense by telling the story without calling any attention to himself.
And the film also performs a major public service because I think a lot of husbands have now learned their wives’ exact blood type. Right, guys?
So…where do we agree or disagree?
Which films would you list that I missed or exclude that I included?
Please join in and thanks!!