BY KEVIN CARR
The releases of 2014 have been a rocky road. When many of them were announced, they were like a kindergarten class of inspiring kids with plenty of ambition and potential. However, as the films matured to release date, we were left in a sea of mediocrity. Films that could have been fantastic blockbusters – like “Godzilla,” “Maleficent” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” – were fraught with problems, making them forgettable at best. Even the end-of-the-year award slate offerings – including “Big Eyes,” “Into the Woods” and “Unbroken” – had such promise but ended up being uninspiring.
Still, in the batch of releases throughout the years, there were some stellar movies to highlight. Like my best-of lists of previous years, I demonstrate my soft spot for animation, and I am happy to see a nice mixture of award-bait movies and blockbuster tent-poles, and even a few lesser-known films that missed out on others’ lists. Anyway, on to my ten favorite of 2014…
10. BIG HERO 6
Disney Animation Studio has done a fantastic job reinventing itself in the digital age. Featuring in-house competition from Pixar, the original animation studio struggled to differentiate itself with later cell efforts like “The Princess and the Frog” and then with full CGI films like “Tangled.” Last year’s mega-hit “Frozen” paved the way for this film that was bright, colorful, innovative, action-packed, endearing and also pleasantly culturally inclusive. Capitalizing on the hot superhero movie trend, “Big Hero 6” introduced kids of all ages to a bigger world with amazing potential, and it did so in a quite original way.
This was one of the earlier award-bait movies I saw this season, and it was a hard film to follow. Having been a fan of Stephen Hawking for decades, I was immersed in the larger account of his life and relationships rather than just his scientific theories. With fantastic performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything” managed to tell a tender story of imperfect people doing the best they can under circumstances that were both empowering and crushing.
8. ST. VINCENT
Another early viewing for award season, I was skeptical of this film at first because it seemed to tread familiar ground. And sure, this isn’t the first time that Bill Murray has played an off-kilter and flawed hero. However, there’s a deep degree of humanity that he brings to the role. Balanced perfectly by his young co-star Jaeden Lieberher, Murray gives a commanding performance in one of the few films that managed to bring a tear to my eye this year.
I’m such a die-hard Wes Anderson fan that it is hard to overlook one of his films in my end-of-the-year lists. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was another unique-yet-familiar film from the quirky director. It tells a sweeping story with both comedy and tragedy, and it’s presented against such a peculiar backdrop, it makes the entire film feel unique. Anderson has done it again with his brilliant ensemble cast.
This was one of the first great films of 2014, hands down. Not only did it manage to tell a mainstream and extremely popular story, it managed to inject just the right amount of heart and soul into the film to give us a dose of creative heroism we needed. It’s rare for a film that drops in February to stay atop my list all year, yet this is one that did it. Literally enjoyable by people of almost any age, “The Lego Movie” was hugely fun and brilliant to watch.
No, this didn’t make the list just because Scarlett Johansson gets naked (thought that doesn’t hurt, I must admit). There was a series of films released by A24 this year that broke new ground and brought back the true meaning of speculative fiction. A slow-burn of a movie, “Under the Skin” is full of unanswered questions and moral ambiguity. It refuses to judge itself and its own characters and leaves much to be pondered by the audience.
It is rare that a film can be exciting and exhilarating when it’s competing with other movies of the same caliber. It’s even more rare for a war film to not have any real presence on the battlefield at all. Sure, there are a few well-chosen shots of war, but the majority of “The Imitation Game” takes place in a room with people talking and writing formulas on paper. It’s a thinking man’s suspense thriller about the Allies trying to break the German Enigma code. Balancing the overall Enigma story with the tragic end of hero Alan Turing’s life, “The Imitation Game” reveals both a time of triumph and a time of unpleasantness in western history.
Marvel Studios certainly took a gamble with the release of a film based on little-known characters from the comics. It paid off in spades, but it was unclear if that would happen even up until the time it was released. I was skeptical when I first heard about this movie, but after seeing early footage and trailers, I was sold. James Gunn struck a perfect balance between old-school fun action and humor to give us a new look at what Marvel has on the horizon, and it’s wickedly exciting.
2. THE BOXTROLLS
On this list, you’ll notice a lot of films from families that have been on here before. “Guardians of the Galaxy” joins several Marvel titles to make my best-of-the-year list; “The Grand Budapest Hotel” joins a host of Wes Anderson films. And now “The Boxtrolls” joins films like “ParaNorman” and “Coraline” from Laika animation studios. Stop-motion animation is quickly becoming a lost art, and Laika is helping to keep it alive in the new millennium. Like the other Laika movies, “The Boxtrolls” is moving and clever, with a special edge that comes with a tiny dose of creepiness. Brilliantly designed and gorgeously animated, “The Boxtrolls” is a rare breed of films that are truly made out of the box.
1. AMERICAN SNIPER
It’s never a foregone conclusion that I will like – let alone love – a film by Clint Eastwood. As much as I respect him as a director, Eastwood has put together plenty of technically brilliant but overall dull films. However, his gentle-hand approach works remarkably well in this true story of Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in U.S. military history. Deliberately told outside of much of the war’s context, “American Sniper” presents itself with the detachment needed for military operation while still keeping a singular goal in mind. Sure, there are obvious liberties taken with the narrative to make the movie flow, but the overall end product is a film that emphasizes the critical need for this morally conflicted job in real-life operations.