Another year at the movies, and this year I felt more out-of-step with my colleagues than ever. I was one of three critics who thought “The Lego Movie” was a yawn. The two Boston critics groups I’m part of went with “Snowpiercer” and “Boyhood” as their best picture, neither of which appears here, although both are worth seeing. Rather than go with the pack or make a point of overpraising movies simply because they are “different,” my ten best list reflects the movies that I found truly entertaining or thought-provoking, the ones that immediately came to mind when asked, “What’s worth seeing?”
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING – Yes, it’s Oscar bait and tidies up the life of Stephen Hawking, but it remains a powerful drama of a man who is both the greatest genius since Albert Einstein and someone diagnosed with a crippling disease that was supposed to have killed him fifty years ago. His is truly a story of the triumph of the mind and spirit, with remarkable performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
GONE GIRL – This was an edge of your seat thriller with surprise twists that you were unlikely to foresee unless you had read the book. David Fincher’s taut direction kept you from trying to anticipate what would happen next. The real reason to see this, though, was Rosamund Pike’s stunning performance. Scrupulous reviewers couldn’t say why her turn was so breathtaking so let’s just say, “See it.”
INTERSTELLAR – Once again the critical herd missed the boat on the year’s best science fiction film. Last year it was preferring “Her” to the far superior “Gravity.” This year the raves were for Tom Cruise’s adequate, if unoriginal, “Edge of Tomorrow,” which flopped so badly at the box office it was renamed for its DVD release. Meanwhile Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film literally reached for the stars, tackling everything from relativity to climate change to the bonds of parental love. This is a film whose reputation will undoubtedly grow with time.
BELLE – In a year where the racial divide tragically made the news, this is a film that should be widely seen. Based on a true 18th story of a mixed race woman born into British high society at a time when British ships were still transporting slaves, it raises all the right questions about hypocrisy and privilege. Relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives an intense and sensitive performance in the title role.
CHEF – After doing the “Iron Man” movies director Jon Favreau returned to work on both sides of the camera with this gentle comedy about a chef (Favreau) tired of making the same old dishes and who freaks out after getting a bad review. He ends up buying a food truck and going on the road with his young son. It’s a story about food, social networking, and father/son relationships. Favreau surrounds himself with a great cast including Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, and Robert Downey, Jr.
INHERENT VICE – Thomas Pynchon’s dense novels are deemed unfilmable but Paul Thomas Anderson (who write and directs) tackles his ’60s film noir and wins. Don’t worry if you have trouble following the story. This is a movie about its complex and often duplicitous characters as a hippie detective (Joaquin Phoenix) attempts to unravel a complicated murder plot. There’s a number of great performances here, but special mention must be made of Josh Brolin, whose cynical plainclothes cop seems to be from another planet.
INTO THE WOODS – Stephen Sondheim’s best work on film may be “Stavisky,” a 1974 French film for which he did the score. However this adaptation of one of his most popular Broadway shows does an excellent job of capturing what makes the show work while transforming it into a movie. Unlike too many recent movie musicals, this one transports you into its world even if you’re noticing what was lost in the transition. Fortunately we can enjoy both.
AMERICAN SNIPER – Clint Eastwood at 84 continues to amaze. After doing “Jersey Boys” earlier in the year he was back with the true-life drama about the American sharpshooter who held the record for the number of enemy killed. Bradley Cooper – in a performance many will be surprised he had in him – gives us a soldier who feels called to duty, not someone looking to be an action hero, and who has to grapple with the way his combat experience affects him.
TOP FIVE – Tired of being both a literal and figurative cartoon figure in his movie roles, Chris Rock takes firm control of his film career with this story about a stand-up comedian/actor who wants to be taken seriously. It’s genuinely funny but, for a change, is a movie about real people dealing with their dreams as well as the reality of their lives. Rosario Dawson is marvelous as the reporter trying to get him to reveal himself and finding it involves revealing herself as well.
22 JUMP STREET – Okay, it’s not necessarily a film for the ages but it was the single funniest comedy of the year, full of knowing jokes about it being a sequel (starting with its title) and the contrivances of its plot. This might have been simply a very entertaining summer movie but for its closing sequence which provided teasers for sequels for years to come. Those few minutes said more about Hollywood and the movies in 2014 than a slew of critics awards and year end reviews.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.