Movies I Should Want to See but Can’t Bring Myself to Care About: The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Interstellar, Big Eyes, and The Grand Budapest Hotel (I know, I know. But I the horror of Moonrise Kingdom still haunts my dreams.)
Movie I Started but Didn’t Finish: Palo Alto (I didn’t hate it but I wanted to get to bed and then I forgot to watch the last half hour. It did feel like it was based on what I imagine a James Franco short story to be, though, so good job.)
I saw 27 movies in full this year. I didn’t hate any of them. Here’s my ranking from worst to best:
25. Blue Ruin. The internet told me I had to watch this movie, but I can’t say I quite understand why. It is moody and quiet, and Jan Brady shows up at the end to scream. There is suspense. But I really don’t remember that much else about it (and it’s only been two months).
24. The One I Love. The otherworldly premise of this movie is intriguing and fun for a spell. But as the mystery begins to untangle itself, it turns out there isn’t a whole lot there.
23. Love Is Strange. I might have enjoyed this film a lot more if I hadn’t recently stumbled upon Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s 1937 masterwork with a similar plotline (elderly couple loses home, must temporarily separate from one another and move into unappreciative family members’ small apartments). There’s a lot to like here. But in my eyes, the (often illogical) demands of Love Is Strange’s plot prevent the film from fully exploring the central relationships contained therein. The premise itself does the heavy lifting, forcing an emotional reaction that the screenplay fails to earn. See Make Way for Tomorrow instead!
22. The Immigrant. I loved its old-fashioned and unselfconsciously melodramatic tone. It has great performances, it’s visually interesting, and its earnestness feels like such a breath of fresh air in cinematic world that sometimes seems to value snark and deliberate impenetrability above meaningful storytelling. So why did I leave the theater feeling so underwhelmed?
19. The Two Faces of January. A gorgeously shot Patricia Highsmith adaptation that is more cerebral than suspenseful. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and for the most part it works. But at points its subtlety veers a little too far in the direction of dullness for my taste.
18. Birdman. I liked a lot about this film as I was watching it. While leaving the theater, I promised myself that I would reflect on its deeper meanings in the days to come. But then I never got around to it. In any case, my impression remains favorable enough. That said, I could have done without the attempted rape scene.
17. Still Alice. A slightly above-average movie elevated by the performance of a master. It’s fine. I appreciate that it doesn’t veer into maudlin territory. Alice’s family members range from interesting and well acted (K-Stew) to one-dimensional and poorly delivered (Alec Baldwin). But Julianne Moore is a gift to us all, and her ability to make so many subtle adjustments along Alice Howland’s path from lucidity to opacity while still maintaining the integrity of the character is a thing of wonder. In other words, DO NOT call this a make-up Oscar!
15. Frank. Birdman wasn’t the only movie this year about the tension between art and industry, innovation and commercial success. And in my mind, Frank is the superior of the two. Its plot meanders from time to time, but Michael Fassbender and his paper mache head fascinate throughout. And the movie’s strange and beautiful finale is a musical number for the ages.
14. Obvious Child. It’s hard to avoid praising this film simply for its unapologetic abortion politics. But it’s a very good romantic comedy too. Also, Jenny Slate is great, but the Gaby Hoffmannaissance is even better!
13. Whiplash. I enjoyed the tightness of the plot, the dialogue, the editing. The film kept me engaged from start to finish. Afterwards I started to ask myself if it offered any useful commentary on teaching or the pursuit of artistic mastery. Then I realized that it didn’t. And I went back to enjoying it for the well made but silly trifle it is.
12. Locke. Tom Hardy sits in his car and talks on the phone as his life implodes. While I was watching I kept trying to focus on the technical elements of the filmmaking. How long was each shot? How many camera angles are used to film such a compact space? But I kept forgetting about this mission and getting lost in the drama of Locke’s phone conversations. This screenplay would probably work just fine as an audiobook. But the fact that it also functions as a film, with such limited visual options, speaks to the success of its execution.
11. Mommy. This movie is flashy, loud, and histrionic, and the dysfunctional/affectionate mother-son relationship at its core is both magnetic and cringe inducing. At times the film’s drama overwhelms its content. So much screaming! Such abrasive people! But in the end I surrendered to the noise and the let the tortured relations at the film’s center do their work on me. The experience was unsettling, but well worth it. Also, sorry Frank, but Mommy edges you out for the best musical sequence of 2014 (thank you, Celine Dion!).
9. We Are the Best. Totally delightful. I loved these 13-year-old aspiring punk rockers and their one song, “Hate the Sport!” This is one of the better coming-of-age movies I’ve seen. Fluffy, but not fluff.
8. Into the Woods. I love this musical too much to be able to evaluate it on an honest scale. But after years of waiting for its film adaptation, I was terrified that the movie would disappoint—especially when I learned that some songs had been cut. But it did not. Rob Marshall didn’t ruin it. That is all that matters.
6. Ida. What is there to criticize? It’s beautifully shot, marvelously acted, and a fascinating, small-scale exploration of Poland in the early 1960s. Though it may not have hit me as hard as the five flashier films above it, I’m fairly confident that subsequent viewings will only serve to underscore its greatness.
5. Dear White People. Never before have a movie’s plot holes seemed so irrelevant. Perhaps I’m giving this film too much credit for its cleverness. But it’s hard not to get excited about such fresh, funny, and sophisticated onscreen dialogue about race (AND class, AND gender, AND sexuality). This should not be a rare feat, but it is. Beyond its refreshing commentary, however, this movie is a delight to watch. It has great characters and great chemistry between cast members. There’s a tangible dramatic weight behind the satire, but its many messages never overshadow its sense of fun.
3. Force Majeure. Despite sharing its major plotline with a Seinfeld episode, this film feels fully original in its execution. It deftly mixes dry humor with commentary on gender, class, and the politics of family. It’s great to look at, and it’s fun to listen to. It provokes, but it does not scold.
2. Wild. I didn’t read the book and I didn’t go into the theater with any expectations. The lost-soul-in-the-wilderness plot is not compelling to me in and of itself, and the theme of fighting demons through self-imposed struggle is a familiar one. But I loved the film’s focus on the irrepressible nature of memory and regret. I was drawn into Cheryl Strayed’s journey—not because of her ridiculous backpack and the trying situations she faces along the way, but because of the film’s ability to illuminate the thoughts cycling through her head and the tortuous memories she longs both to hold onto and to relinquish. And then, of course, there’s its secret weapon, Laura Dern (who—I’ll admit it—probably catapults the movie up about six slots in my rankings). Her ability to exude such warmth and love in her limited screen time allows us to understand all that Strayed has lost, and to make as much sense of her quest for redemption as we can. Have you called your mother today?