There are quite a few promising titles I've yet to see, including wintertime Oscar hopefuls such as Selma, American Sniper, Mr. Turner, Still Alice, A Most Violent Year, and Inherent Vice, and most everything bound to be nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Documentary Feature. The Quad Cities area is a relatively small movie market in the Midwest, and I don't get to Chicago (or New York or Los Angeles) very often. C'est comme ça.
So the films and the order of their placement on this list of "10 Favorite Movies of 2014" will, no doubt, eventually change. Baring a miracle, though, we're good to go on that first one.
(If you're pathologically afraid of spoilers, I should probably also mention that you might wanna tread lightly if you haven't seen the films under discussion, especially with entry eight. But come on: You know that movie's hook by now, right?)
1) Boyhood. Really, after writing my initial review, talking the film up incessantly since August, and ranking writer/director Richard Linkater's cinematic act of time travel number one on my recent list of 100 favorites of the millennium, I don't know what else to say. If you didn't catch the film during its (four-week!) engagements in Davenport and Iowa City, you really should see it. It's been available for online rental and purchase for a while now, and was made available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital HD on January 6. And when you do see it, either because of genuine interest or friends' recommendations or reviewers' pushiness or impending/inevitable Oscar acknowledgment or just to see what the freakin' fuss is about, be on the lookout for the moments included in this top 12 within the top 10 - one for each of the screen years depicted in Boyhood. Every one of them, combined with many dozens of unmentioned others, helps make Linklater's unprecedented experiment the most humane, beguiling, honest, tender, and memorable achievement of 2014. (1) Seven-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his mom (Patricia Arquette), and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) in the car during their relocation to Houston, and Mason noticing his best friend trying, and failing, to catch up on his bike. (2) Mason making what looks like a perfect roll while bowling with his dad (Ethan Hawke), and watching as the ball veers into the gutter - both times. (3) Mason's unfazed realization that the vodka his mom's new hubby buys "in case we have guests" never winds up going to guests. (4) Mason refusing to hide his anger when receiving an unwanted haircut. (5) Mason repeatedly watching a Funny or Die video to avoid an unpleasant conversation. (6) Mason considering breaking up with a girl because she told him his favorite movies of the summer - Tropic Thunder, The Dark Knight, and Pineapple Express - all sucked. (7) Mason explaining to a college student that the graffiti he draws for class is "outsider art" because "that sounds less illegal." (8) Mason, for his 15th birthday, receiving the gift of a shotgun. (9) Mason in the darkroom, suffering through his teacher's clueless motivational speech. (10) Mason amusing his girlfriend with his "profound bitching" while driving - driving! - to Austin. (11) Mason, at his high-school-graduation party, giving his mom the hug we've waited the whole movie to see. And (12) Mason giving the camera the fleetest of glances, and the sweetest of smiles, before the screen goes black. Bravo, Mr. Linklater. I don't know what you'll do for an encore, but I can't wait.
2) The Grand Budapest Hotel. Given my past admiration for his works, I could easily say, "Wes Anderson has done it again!" But really, he's never done anything remotely like this. Sure, there's a sprawling ensemble cast à la The Royal Tenenbaums, giddy stop-motion animation à la Fantastic Mr. Fox, delicate narrative and character whimsy à la ... well, à la every Wes Anderson. But compared to the auteur's previous comic baubles, The Grand Budapest Hotel is practically planet-sized in scope - four generations of eastern-European finery and decay in just over 100 minutes - and this newly expanded worldview, and the humanity it inspires, appears good for Anderson. Check that: It appears phenomenal. With our entry into this thrillingly stylized universe guided by one magnetic presence after another (Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham), we eventually land on the fastidious, liberally perfumed personage of Ralph Fiennes' concierge Gustave H., who might be the most delightfully contradictory figure in modern comedies. Dignified in manner yet verbally crude, lofty yet sensible, gay yet eager to sexually service female octogenarians, Gustave, in Fiennes' beyond-marvelous interpretation, appears both blessedly sane and a little bat-shit crazy. The same could be said of the movie, which scoots with such superb control between scenes of goofy clowning (The Society of the Crossed Keys!), touching melancholy (Saoirse Ronan's face!), and cackle-inducing meanness (Jeff Goldblum's cat!), and moves with such astounding velocity, that you never have time to settle with one particular mood. You also don't want to. On a technical level, Anderson's latest is a miracle of production and costume design, composer Alexandre Desplat's score perfectly mirrors the film's ebullience of spirit, and the makeup that turns Tilda Swinton into a grimacing dowager is among the most persuasive examples of screen aging I've yet seen. But the storytelling's the thing here, and with this triumphant entertainment, Anderson is a more masterful storyteller than he's ever been before.
3) The Lego Movie. Almost every line of dialogue in this animated comedy by directors/co-writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller sounds like it was conceived by a 12-year-old. In most cases, that would be considered an insult. In the case of The Lego Movie, it's just about the highest praise I can offer. As the film was released nearly a year ago, I'm presuming I can Rosebud the surprise and reveal that our plastic-block characters' breathtakingly hilarious and witty adventure proves to be the handiwork of a prepubescent human playing with his father's intricate, hands-off Lego world in the family basement. Some viewers and reviewers were put off by this twist. But the movie doesn't really work without it, because it provides a rationale for everything that makes the film special: the deliberately artificial movements, as though each figurine were being moved by invisible, not-terribly-dexterous fingers; the plot culled from numerous other movies worshiped by middle-schoolers; the gliding over of meaningless backstory; the complete lack of profanity ("Darn darn darn darny darn!!!"); the parental short temper of President/Lord Business, who just wants people to stop messing with his stuff! Consequently, the Lord/Miller movie we're watching, complete with pricey visuals and a clever 12-year-old's idea of peerless action-comedy dialogue, is actually the amazing sci-fi blockbuster playing in young Finn's head while he messes with Dad's stuff. And when you add the ingenious effects, the not-so-veiled social and pop-culture critiques, the vocal work by actors (Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Charlie Day, and many others) whose grins are also audible, and the year's fizziest theme song ... . Well, folks, everything is awesome.
4) Whiplash. When I suggested to a friend that we catch this burgeoning-percussionist drama over my Thanksgiving in the Chicago area, she told me, after the film ended, that its plot and previews made her think we were in for the Second Coming of Drumline. (And she still went. That's a good friend.) Maybe that's also why so few viewers nationwide bothered with writer/director Damien Chazelle's sophomore outing, despite the rave reviews and the buzz, ever since January's Sundance Film Festival, for J.K. Simmons' supporting performance. But I'm not sure you've ever seen more exhilarated patrons leaving an auditorium than my friend, my brother, my sister-in-law, and I as we exited Whiplash, because sweet Jesus is this movie a so-exciting-I-can't keep-my-hands-from-clenching-
5) Under the Skin. For reasons detailed in my original review that are too disheartening to reiterate, I knew I'd eventually see director Jonathan Glazer's singular science-fiction thriller one more time, just to make sure it was as good as I thought it was. Yet in all honesty, I figured that'd be it. Brilliant though it obviously was, Glazer's work boasted so many uncomfortable, painful, downright unpleasant passages that I presumed it would get stored, after a second look, in my file of "Relentlessly Icky Movies" alongside Michael Haneke's Funny Games, and his shot-for-shot American remake, to be admired from afar and never, ever watched again. (Even on a first viewing, Glazer's shot of a wailing baby on the beach was almost too wrenching - I can barely think about it without welling up.) So why have I subsequently wound up viewing, and adoring, this fascinating nightmare nearly a half-dozen additional times? That's probably a query best left to a therapist, but what I can tell you is that Under the Skin - its director's first feature since 2004's similarly engaging oddity Birth - is utterly transfixing. Partly, the film is a captivating puzzle whose pieces seem to change shape even while you're putting to together: Who's the dead girl? Who's the biker? Once the aliens get their meat, what do they do with it? But the part I respond to more fully and excitedly is the one that's like a dead-serious fish-out-of-water comedy: Scarlett Johansson, in a performance of astonishing subtlety, doing her best to pass as human while slowly learning what it means to be human. With its evocatively imagined visuals and the keening buzz of Mica Levi's score, the movie is sublime sci-fi/horror - eerie and thoughtful and thematically resonant. In Johannson's scenes with disfigured actor Adam Pearson, or her careful appraisal of her mirror image, or her heartrending climactic trudge through a forest, it's simply sublime.
6) Birdman. Do you ever see a movie and feel, egotistically, that it was somehow made specifically for you? That's pretty much how I felt throughout Alejandro González Iñárritu's verbally crackling, visually staggering show-biz tragicomedy. Like many of my generation, I've loved Michael Keaton since the Night Shift days. Here he is, in thunderously fine form, in his first big-screen lead in ages. I love tales of backstage life. Here's Keaton playing Riggan Thomson, a former movie A-lister on the B slide hoping to resurrect his career by writing, directing, and starring in a four-character kitchen-sink drama for Broadway. (On a related note, I love the works of Raymond Carver, and Riggan's play is based on the author's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.") I loved Keaton as Batman, yet was relieved when he decided not to appear in a second sequel. Riggan's former screen success was based on his starring as the superhero Birdman, and his fall from grace came when he refused to appear in a third sequel. I generally love snarky literary and pop-culture in-jokes on-screen, especially when delivered with a dose of meta. Birdman finds Damian Young's pretentious interviewer name-dropping Roland Barthes, Zach Galifianakis' harried agent oblivious to Jeremy Renner's fame, and a Broadway co-star poking fun at Riggan's career in comic-book movies ... with that co-star played by the former Incredible Hulk Edward Norton. I love Emma Stone. She's given a lengthy monologue - one that, I'm sure, will soon be delivered in collegiate acting classes nationwide - suggesting just how good she is now and how unbelievably good she's eventually going to be. I love Amy Ryan. She's wonderful in it. I love David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Naomi Watts makes out with a woman. (Watts and Andrea Riseborough are also wonderful here.) I love Emmanuel Lubezki cinematography. Lubezki himself shoots this one to look like one uncut, two-hour Lubezki take. I love percussive scores. Antonio Sanchez provides a doozy of one. In short? I freaking love Birdman.
7) Foxcatcher. I'll have more to say about Bennett Miller's true-crime saga in a few weeks, once area audiences are actually able to see the thing. (I caught this new release by the thus-far-unimpeachable director of Capote and Moneyball in Chicagoland over Christmas.) Allow this, then, to merely serve as an appetite-whetter for my inevitable rave about the hypnotic, nerve-racking, stomach-clenching experience of Miller's latest, a movie so confidently and tightly assembled that it was bound to be misread by some reviewers as "cold." That's just about the last word I'd use to describe it, as this tale of billionaire murderer John du Pont and Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz actually has emotion bleeding through every pore. Apart from a few go-for-broke scenes involving Channing Tatum's Mark, though, it's exquisitely well-hidden emotion, with the heartbreak behind its complicated family dynamics, and its characters' elusive and questionable pursuits of the American Dream, apparent only in its suffocating silences and gorgeously sustained tension. Steve Carell, as you may had heard, gives a transformative, utterly terrifying portrayal of the tortured, sick du Pont. But Tatum, who never seems to tire of topping himself, easily matches him, and Mark Ruffalo is devastatingly excellent as the more subdued David. Achingly sad though the material is, I watched it in a state of near-complete happiness. (You don't cast Carell, though, if you don't want at least some humor, so be on the lookout for the incredibly rare sequence of overt verbal comedy in which a coked-up du Pont orders Mark to try the drug and repeat the phrase "ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist" over and over.) And while the movie hasn't opened locally, it's landing, on January 16, at Iowa City's FilmScene - the same (and thus far only) area venue that housed Whiplash and numbers nine and 10 below, along with Citizenfour, The Skeleton Twins, Snowpiercer ... . Securing a FilmScene membership just makes good financial sense. [1/14 author's update: Due to the popularity of holdover hit Selma, Foxcatcher will now open at FilmScene on January 23 instead. But Foxcatcher is opening locally at Davenport's Cinemark and Moline's Regal cineplexes on the 16th -- huzzah! And FilmScene still makes good financial sense.]
8) Gone Girl. I enjoyed David Fincher's gleefully sadistic take on Gillian Flynn's bestseller a lot the first time around. But it wasn't until a second - then a third, then a fourth - exposure that my prior complaints proved completely moot. Originally, I felt the movie was unfairly biased toward Ben Affleck's Nick and against Rosamund Pike's Amy, the latter of whom appeared to be an untrustworthy, nearly cartoonish sociopath from the start. To which I now think: So what? Not having read it, I still don't know how Flynn presents her characters in the novel. But in Fincher's version of the tale, with Gone Girl's author/screenwriter providing reams of deliciously quotable dialogue, it seems the Dunnes and the many thrilling archetypes surrounding them are all sharing space in a razor-sharp, pitch-black comedy about marriage to an untrustworthy, nearly cartoonish sociopath. Once I comprehended just how close-to-the-vest yet simultaneously balls-out Fincher and his cast were going for their cringe-inducing laughs - suggesting a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode with simulated rape and torrential bloodletting - the things I disliked at first notably improved for me, particularly a few deliberately overscaled supporting portrayals. (Somehow, I initially failed to notice how David Clennon's sinister Miles Drentell cadences were painting a perfect portrait of Amy's father, and I now relish the beautifully melodramatic pause Lisa Banes takes when Amy's mother speaks at her missing child's press conference: "Our Web site is www.FindAmazingAmy ... dot com.") The things I previously loved, meanwhile, I'm now in love with, from Fincher's typically superb craftsmanship to the throbbing wah-wah electronica of Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' score to the ridiculously fine supporting cast led by Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, and Kim Dickens. The movie's already great Fincher; with time, it might prove to be classic Fincher.
9) Force Majeure. Or: Gone Girl on the Alps! Okay, there's no murder, no candlelight vigil, no Neil Patrick Harris promising the most luxurious, soul-draining future imaginable. (Instead of theoretical pregnancies, there are also actual kids here, played by the disarmingly cute sibs Clara and Vincent Wettergren.) Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund's foreign-language title, however, is every bit the mysterious, savage marital comedy that Fincher's and Flynn's is, and in its meticulously composed and designed images reminiscent of those in The Shining, just as much of a horror film. Force Majeure's simple description finds a vacationing family coming undone after the father's shocking act of cowardice in the presence of an approaching, non-threatening avalanche. But this whole, spectacularly engrossing movie is an avalanche - one in which the emotions of a momentarily abandoned spouse cascade from distrust to fear to anger to embarrassment, and one in which her husband's defensiveness degenerates into the lowest, most riotous depths of self-pity. (There's unforgettable, high-wire hilarity in the breakdown of Johannes Kuhnke's patriarch, who sobs so hard while undressing that he can't get his head out of his shirt.) Like Gone Girl, the movie asks: How well do we know those closest to us? Unlike that considerably more blithe outing, this one is genuinely interested in the answer. Östlund's supremely layered work has much fun exploring the after-effects of ugly marital disputes; in one magnificent scene, Mom (the fabulous Lisa Loven Kongsli) rails to a pair of acquaintances about Dad, and the man she relates the tale to later finds himself wholly unable to sleep. But the movie is also a profound meditation on complacency and compromise and middle-age - and still entertaining enough to end with a scary-ass bus ride down the French Alps. I can't wait to see, hear, and read it all again.
10) Life Itself. I will never forget the experience of reading Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times review of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. It was May of 1984, I was 15, and I'd already been a six-year fan of his and TV partner Gene Siskel's movie-review program Sneak Previews. While reading Ebert's four-star review of Spielberg's sequel, I came across his mention of the kid who played Indy's pint-size partner Short Round. But instead of seeing the parenthetical name of the young actor who played him (Jonathan Ke Kwan), here's what was actually published between those parentheses: "name of actor." As a fledgling film critic myself, I likened the moment to seeing your mom cry for the first time or recognizing your dad's first utterance of the F word: Roger Ebert is human! (As are, I'd later learn, copy editors.) And this deeply loving and moving documentary on the man is, for me, like a two-hour expansion of that unforgettable realization: a celebration of Roger Ebert in all his complex, disarming, charming, grating, brilliant, brave humanity. The man was always too smart and original a writer to extend praise of the "You'll laugh, you'll cry!" variety. But not being anywhere near as gifted, I'll readily say that you will laugh (never more so than when he and Siskel try intensely hard to get through the taping of a TV spot without tearing one another's heads off), and you will cry. (The recollections offered by Ebert's widow Chaz are clear-headed yet unfailingly affecting, and the images of her husband in his post-cancer ordeals would be unendurable if not for Ebert's determination to stay engaged, alert, and funny - at least for the camera, for us - throughout them.) Above all, though, you'll feel. Which is also a sentiment too cornball for Ebert, but perfectly apt when a documentarian gives you the sense of a complete life lived in two hours of screen time. For Ebert, seeing director Steve James craft such a glorious, warts-and-all tribute would likely have merited a big thumbs-up. For this movie lover who considers Roger Ebert perhaps his most significant adult influence outside of his own family, my only appropriate response to Life Itself is a heartfelt "Thank you."
And a Few Other 10s (and One Five):
10 Runners-Up That I Saw at Movie Theaters: Big Hero 6, Citizenfour, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, John Wick, A Most Wanted Man, Noah, Rosewater, Top Five, Wild.
10 Runners-Up to Those Runners-Up: 22 Jump Street, Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Beyond the Lights, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Gambler, Hercules, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Muppets Most Wanted, The Skeleton Twins, Tusk.
10 (or Maybe 11) Runners-Up That I Saw on Home Video or Streaming: The Dog, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, The Immigrant, Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II, The One I Love, Pride, Snowpiercer, Stranger by the Lake, The Trip to Italy, Venus in Fur.
10 Runners-Up to Those Runners-Up: The Babadook, The Double, Frank, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, Locke, Night Moves, Obvious Child, Only Lovers Left Alive, They Came Together, Virunga.
Five Putnam Museum Favorites (in order of preference ) ... : Mysteries of the Unseen World, Galapagos: Nature's Wonderland, Titans of the Ice Age, Pandas: The Journey Home, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.
... Although I Did Actually See Six: The Earth Wins.
10 Titles That Are Totally Easy to Sit Through: Annie, The Boxtrolls, The Drop, Fury, Heaven Is for Real, Lucy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Non-Stop, Oculus, When the Game Stands Tall.
10 I Recommend with Some Reservations: The Giver, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Imitation Game, Meet the Mormons, Million Dollar Arm, Neighbors, Pompeii, This Is Where I Leave You, Veronica Mars, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
10 I Recommend with Many Reservations: As Above, So Below, Deliver Us from Evil, Dolphin Tale 2, Get on Up, The Homesman, Jersey Boys, The Nut Job, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Penguins of Madagascar, The Quiet Ones.
10 That Could've Been a Lot Worse: Brick Mansions, Devil's Due, Dracula Untold, God's Not Dead, Into the Storm, Moms' Night Out, Planes: Fire & Rescue, Step Up: All in, Think Like a Man Too, Vampire Academy.
10 That Should've Been a Lot Better: Enemy, Godzilla, Interstellar, Into the Woods, The Judge, Magic in the Moonlight, Nightcrawler, The Theory of Everything, Transcendence, Unbroken.
10 Great Things in Blah-at-Best Movies: The floating instruments in Begin Again; the superimpositions in Goodbye to Language 3D; the big eyes in Big Eyes; Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1; Eva Green in 300: Rise of an Empire; Keegan-Michael Key in Let's Be Cops; 90-year-old Eva Marie Saint acting well and looking gorgeous in Winter's Tale; the food shots in Chef; the food shots in The Hundred-Foot Journey; Kristin Chenoweth singing "Poisonous Love" in Rio 2.
10 Big Hits I Could Hardly Care Less About: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Divergent, The Equalizer, The Fault in Our Stars, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Maleficent, The Maze Runner, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, The Purge: Anarchy.
10 Sequels, Remakes, Reboots, Et Cetera I'd Have Been Much Happier Without: Annabelle, Dumb & Dumber To, Endless Love, The Expendables 3, A Haunted House 2, Left Behind, Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Sin City: A Dame to Kill for, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers: Age of Extinction.
10 That Didn't Need to be Sequels, Remakes, Reboots, Et Cetera to Be Crap: And So It Goes, Draft Day, Need for Speed, The November Man, Ouija, The Pyramid, Ride Along, Saving Christmas, That Awkward Moment, Wish I Was Here.
And My 10 Least Favorites of 2014:
10) Men, Women & Children. Surprise! An Adam Sandler movie in my bottom 10! Bigger surprise? It's not because of him!
9) Exodus: Gods & Kings. Please, God, damn it.
8) The Monuments Men. A.k.a. the monumental event in which even fans such as myself deemed George Clooney unbearable.
7) Sabotage. Is Ah-nuld re-e-eally sure he's done with politics? If so, can we convince him otherwise?
6) 3 Days to Kill. Which is what bored viewers might need to make it through.
5) The Identical. Slightly less fun than licking an Elvis Presley postage stamp for 90 minutes.
4) I, Frankenstein. I, loathing you.
3) Persecuted. Because apparently home movies get nationwide theatrical distribution now.
2) Blended. Surprise! Another Adam Sandler movie in my bottom 10! But this time? It's totally because of him!
1) America. This is why They hate us.