Admittedly for the year 2014 I have had a harder time than usual picking films that I think are really good. With the year being over, I still have not seen any obvious frontrunners for Best Picture. I have looked at several critics' "Top Ten" lists and not only is there no consensus on what the leading films were, there is actually little overlap on "Top Ten" lists. I cannot think of any film that I expect will be on all or even most reviewers' or critics' "Top Ten" lists. We have no films that I consider are the stature of a 12 YEARS A SLAVE and certainly not a SCHINDLER'S LIST. My film critics' society has not been given as many screeners for consideration for awards than they did previous years. So admittedly there are films I have expected to be very good, like SELMA, that I cannot even find other reviewers who have seen it. That means the field is really wide open for awards Season. Whatever film gets Best Picture will have been a dark horse and a surprise.
Well, so here is what I saw that I liked. As usual, I will list them in the order of best to ... well ... quite good but not up to the best. And after the top ten I will include some honorable mention films.
1. THE IMITATION GAME
Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the busiest actors in filmmaking. Here he turns in a bravura performance as computer theoretician and code-breaker Alan J. Turing who broke the Nazi Germany military Enigma code and later was persecuted by the British government for being gay. The film--dealing in large part with using computers to break others' people's security could not have been more timely getting release at the time of the Sony hacking case. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. GONE GIRL
A film whose plot is nearly as twisted as the people the film is about. We get a thriller liberally salted with I-can't-believe-what-just-happened scenes. It is full of issues of conflict and has a stinging commentary on the current state of America media. For once the ads and publicity for the film tricks the viewer into thinking GONE GIRL is much more prosaic than the film actually is. David Fincher directs. Rosamund Pike (of DIE ANOTHER DAY) makes a stunning impression. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Wes Anderson brings us a perfect little jewel of a film sending up Middle European culture of the era before and during WWII in a film that is funny and stylish. The film is a picture postcard come to life with incredible attention to scenic detail. Ralph Fiennes is wonderful as an ever-perfect hotel concierge. Wes Anderson, who wrote the screenplay and directed, makes the viewer feel the dialog is heading off into a cliché when he pulls the rug out under the viewer. There is an army of familiar actors in small parts. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
SF story with the depth and complexity of a science fiction novel. Christopher Nolan brings INTERSTELLAR to the screen, based on an original screenplay he wrote with his brother Jonathan. As the last-ditch effort for our dying civilization, a mission is sent through a wormhole to another galaxy in an effort to find an Earth-like planet to be a new home for humanity. No previous science fiction film has ever had the scope and span that this film has. It is surprising it all fits into a very tight 167 minutes. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
5. PARTICLE FEVER
Back in the 1960s people could appreciate and enjoy scientific accounts of the space program even if they did not understand all the technicalities. PARTICLE FEVER is a science documentary for our time. The viewer does not need to have a scientific background to appreciate and enjoy this account of scientists trying to uncover the secrets of fundamental particles that could lead to a better understanding of the universe and its origins. The film follows six of the 10,000 scientists working for several years at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. They are trying to capture and find the mass of the Higgs Boson particle. For once we have a rarity, a documentary that is not depressing and not even overly political. Instead it suggests looking at the universe with a real sense of wonder. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Two Mexican immigrants illegally cross the Mexican border into Arizona and are involved in an incident that leaves the wife of the ex-sheriff dead. The ex-sheriff (played by Ed Harris) begins his own investigation into the incident only to find that his successor is coming to very different conclusions about the evidence of the crime found. The film is reminiscent of LONE STAR. It is co-written and directed by Michael Berry. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
7. FIELD OF LOST SHOES
This film recounts the story of the 1864 Civil War battle of New Market. In Virginia this battle is remembered primarily because student-cadets from the nearby VMI were pressed into service to fight the battle with some laying down their lives. Sean McNamara directs a script by Thomas Farrell and Dave Kennedy. Some of the style is reminiscent of Ronald Maxwell's films GETTYSBURG and GODS AND GENERALS. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
8. A MOST WANTED MAN
This is a spy story complicated and confusing but told with a real authenticity--in other words, a lot like any John le Carre spy story. Except this one takes place in the German equivalent of our CIA. This is an intelligent spy film and the last film this good that featured Philip Seymour Hoffman. The title refers to a Chechen/Russian who may be connected with terrorism rooted in the Muslim/Russian community in Hamburg. Hoffman gives an excellent performance as an all but defeated intelligence operative. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
A family all together for the last time gathers in a hospital where the father has requested to be taken off of life support. Writer and director Andrew Levitas examines death and life. The film has a powerhouse cast, perhaps more than was needed to make the drama work. But the drama is engaging with multiple plot lines. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
10. THE CASE AGAINST 8
Unexpectedly poignant and entertaining for a political documentary, this is a look at the story behind California Proposition 8 and the Supreme Court decision to overturn it and hence allow same-sex marriage in California. Directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White could have looked more comprehensively at the actual law, but we do see the major players. The film is exhilarating and is a surprisingly stirring documentary about California's Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being a pairing of a man and a woman, and The Defense of Marriage Act which on a Federal level denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. The court struck down Proposition 8 and on the same day said that major portions of the Defense of Marriage Act were unconstitutional. A major part of the case made against each of these bills was crafted and presented by Ted Olson. The film opens with a very impressive sample of Olson's very clear reasoning. But the end of the film I found myself getting excited for the decision that I (and probably every viewer) knew was coming. HBO makes some very fine programs for their own broadcasting. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Each film rates high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10.
ANTARCTICA: A YEAR ON ICE If you have heard about the people who stay year-round at the South Pole, you must have thought they were crazy. This film directed and co-written by New Zealander Anthony Powell will confirm it. Be prepared for some absolutely spectacular photography of what looks like an alien world. Yes, there is penguin photography, but the most interesting creatures captured on film were the people. Powell's specialty is long time-lapse photographic shots. The filmmakers stayed 12 months at McMurdo Station and Scott Base filming what life was like for a full year including six months of the darkest night on earth. If you want to go, you can have any space reserved for me.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Eddie Redmayne plays physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking in a performance painful to watch. Hawking suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the so-called Lou Gehrig's disease. The film spread itself among his life, his love life, and his science. The film is in large part about how his disease may have been a blessing in disguise, allowing his the time to concentrate and do his work. Sadly while the parts about how he did the research are unique, the story of his relationship with his wife is more prosaic. Anything that takes time away from the story of him and his science is disappointing.
THE SACRAMENT First the bad news. This is another found-footage horror film. But it is not JUST another horror film. It happens to be on a subject I find of special interest. It is written and directed by Ti West who directed HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and THE INNKEEPERS. It is no clear this should even be considered a horror film, inspired, as it is, by an actual incident. (I know that claim is made a lot for films like AMITYVILLE HORROR. But this one really did make international headlines.) There is more than a little of THE WICKER MAN in this film. This is a horror film that is more effective because it is not a fantasy. There are scenes that the cameraman would be likely to be able to film. I am not sure how the hand-held camera is able to be where it has to be. Gene Jones as Father is a charismatic and convincing talker.
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2015 Mark R. Leeper