My favorite 2014 movies include ‘The Imitation Game,’ ‘Boyhood,’ and ‘A Place at the Table.’
I saw 27 excellent films in theaters, on cable/dish TV, and via Netflix and Netflix Instant streaming — which is 59% more good movies than the 17 I saw last year. I have been compiling a best films list for more than 20 years, and usually more than half of my selections are foreign, but this time the Yanks predominated.
Once again, the most enjoyable shows I saw were TV series (mentioned below the films list), probably because writers are unfettered there and allowed to do good work. If you click on my name, you will find 23 terrific mysteries and comedies from U.K, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand that I reviewed this year on The Rag Blog.
- THE IMITATION GAME is a stunning, gripping, brilliant, fact-based story about quirky English mathematician Alan Turing who led a team of scholars, linguists, chess champions, and intelligence officers in breaking the Nazi’s unbreakable Enigma Code during World War II, thus shortening the war by two years and saving about 14 million lives. He did this with his invention, “the Turing machine,” which is now known as “the computer.” In 1952 he was arrested and charged with “gross indecency,” at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The film is up for scads of best picture, writing, directing and acting awards — especially for Benedict Cumberbatch, magnificent as Turing. It is a hell of a movie.
- BOYHOOD is a totally unique movie that actually follows actor Ellar Coltrane from age six to 17, as it does his mother (Patricia Arquette), father (Ethan Hawke) and sister Lorelei Linklater. So it took 12 years to film. We watch with fascination as the characters age and go through the vicissitudes of childhood and adolescence. It is a great insight into growing up, parenting, and coping with a range of adult and youthful challenges. It has already taken several best picture awards. At RottenTomatoes.com, 99% of 213 critics praised it.
- 12 YEARS A SLAVE won 225 awards (including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and 216 other nominations, but until early 2014 I didn’t get to see this true story of a New York man abducted into slavery. It is a grueling, horrifying ordeal, but the protagonist’s struggle to maintain his dignity amidst years of cruelty is uplifting, dramatic, and beautifully realized onscreen.
- A PLACE AT THE TABLE is a well-made, distressing documentary about hunger in wealthy America, which is experienced by 49 million of us. Insights from experts and activists are intercut with stories of a mother struggling to feed her kids, a second-grader dependent on friends to feed her, and a little girl with asthma which is exacerbated because her mom can only afford to feed her empty calories. For me the most incredible stat was that by 1980 hunger had almost been eliminated in the U.S., but that it has shot up dramatically since Ronald Reagan decided poor people were lazy and didn’t deserve any more handouts.
- DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Oscars and a passel of other acting awards for this moving true story of a man struck by AIDS who found ways to fool restrictive laws and obtain medications for other sufferers. I missed this excellent movie in 2013 but caught it in 2014.
- GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA is a wonderfully revealing, intelligent, amusing biopic of one of our great thinkers, writers and activists. With his acerbic, opinionated, and informed approach, Vidal rips away at the facade of the present state of American democracy, using interviews and historical footage of his famous appearances on television and talk shows over the last 50 years. Though distressing and pessimistic, this is a highly entertaining and thought-provoking film. Gore reveals his fascinating life.
- LE WEEK-END (France-U.K.) is a comedy-drama about a British couple (wonderful Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) seeking to revive their shaky marriage with a weekend in Paris. It is one of the most realistic and insightful examinations of modern marriage on celluloid, and the Paris setting is enchanting. There are tearful and joyous moments, and the characters are very believable. Jeff Goldblum shows up to add complexity and charm. This one is really a treat.
- IN A WORLD is a hilarious screwball romantic comedy/satire which won the Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for writer/director/co-star Lake Bell. It’s about a struggling vocal coach who strikes it big in the cutthroat world of movie-trailer voiceovers, only to find herself in direct competition with her father — the industry’s reigning king. It sends up sexism, satirizes Hollywood, examines family ties, and features a surprisingly tender romance.
- PARIS-MANHATTAN (France) is an adorable rom-com about a Jewish Parisienne who loves Woody Allen films and who discusses her troubles with a poster of him in her bedroom. He answers with snippets of dialogue from his films. The man she loves is taken away by her sister, and at 30 she is lonely and considering an unsuitable suitor. Stars Alice Taglioni and Patrick Bruel are terrific, and Woody makes a marvelous surprise appearance at the end.
- HALF A YELLOW SUN (Nigeria) features another powerful performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, ably supported by Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, and several fine African actors. It is a gripping, dramatic, historically accurate story of twin sisters who marry men on different sides of the shockingly violent Nigerian Civil War of the mid- and late 1960s, in which the Igbo people struggled to create the state of Biafra. Excellent.
- CHINESE PUZZLE (France) is the highly enjoyable third film of Cédric Klapisch’s wonderful Xavier trilogy — L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005) — all starring outstanding actors Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France, and Kelly Reilly. In this film, Xavier (Duris) is now 40 years old and divorced from Wendy (Reilly), but when she moves to Manhattan with their children, he follows and gets involved in several amusing romantic and legal complications and misunderstandings involving Tautou and de France. This comedy-drama is tremendous fun.
- JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR, ably directed, co-written, and co-starring Billy Bob Thornton, is an engrossing comedy drama showcasing the great talents of Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Frances O’Connor, Robert Patrick, Kevin Bacon and Ray Stevenson. In small-town Alabama in 1969, the funeral of an estranged wife and mother brings two very different families (one local and one English) together for many comic, angry, poignant, dramatic and unexpected developments. A happy surprise.
- BEGIN AGAIN is a very engaging comedy drama with much good music. It’s about a young singer/songwriter (Keira Knightley) who is abandoned by her boyfriend/music partner when he cheats on her and then becomes a successful rocker. She meets a disgraced music biz exec (Mark Ruffalo) who builds a band around her and records an outdoor album in various spots around Manhattan. The film co-stars James Corden, Mos Def, Adam Levine, and Catherine Keener.
- TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM won last year’s Best Documentary Oscar, 18 more awards and 17 other nominations — justifiably. It is an excellent look at backup singers behind the top bands. In it we hear from 40 of the singers, along with the likes of Ringo Starr, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Elton John, David Crosby, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, and Mick Jagger. We also hear some truly great music.
- THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (India-Abu Dhabi) tells of a cook and his restaurateur family motoring through Europe after Indian political violence destroyed their restaurant and killed the mother. They land in a French village and decide to set up an Indian restaurant there. That puts them in direct competition with the haute cuisine restaurant across the street run by snobbish Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren, transcendent as ever). Events turn foes into friends. The great Om Puri stars as Papa Kadam. This rich comedy drama is highly enjoyable on several levels.
- MANDELLA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (U.K.-South Africa) is a deeply involving chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life, from his rural village boyhood to his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Idris Elba is amazing in the title role, which earned him Oscar and Golden Globe Best Actor nominations, six awards, and 24 other noms. After resisting the Sharpville Massacre, lawyer Mandella is sentenced to life imprisonment for treason and serves 27 years in a tiny cell. This is a highly dramatic and uplifting biopic.
- SOUL KITCHEN (Germany-France-Italy) was a very pleasant surprise. In Hamburg, German-Greek chef Zinos (star and co-scripter Adam Bousdoukos) runs a popular but shabby local restaurant serving unimaginative food. While wrangling with health and tax authorities, he hires a temperamental Spanish chef who throws out the old menu and introduces haute cuisine… which promptly loses Zinos all his customers. To complicate maters, he signs the restaurant over to his feckless jailbird brother and buys a ticket to Shanghai, in pursuit of his girlfriend. Many happy, funny, and unexpected developments follow in this really enjoyable film.
- INTO THE WOODS is a terrific filmed production of one of Steven Sondheim’s stranger musicals. In addition to very clever songs and great art direction and cinematography, it boasts a terrific cast headed by Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, and Christine Baranski. It is marvelously directed by Rob Marshall, who was Oscar-nominated for helming Chicago and who took home an Emmy for his sizzling choreography of Annie. Screenwriter James Lepine tells and then fractures the tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. The musical was interesting on stage but is truly captivating on film.
- THE GRAND SEDUCTION (Canada) is a really delightful 2013 English-language version of the equally charming 2003 French-Canadian language movie Seducing Doctor Lewis, utilizing the same script. We loved the first one, with its French-Canadian cast and locale, but this version was even better, because it was in our own lingo and boasted the herculean talents of Irish thesp Brendan Gleeson. To survive, a dying (fished out) Newfoundland fishing village needs to lure a large factory which can employ its populace, but to do so it needs a doctor. The villagers must persuade a young doctor (Taylor Kitsch) that this would be a great place for him to live and practice. That involves a series of complicated lies and stunts. This is a very funny and appealing comedy for the whole family.
- THE MONUMENTS MEN (Canada), starring, directed and co-written by George Clooney, excellently supported by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville, is based on true events and is enormous fun. In the “greatest treasure hunt in history,” 345 monuments men from 13 countries found more than 1,000 hidden troves and rescued about five million artworks and cultural items which the Nazis had stolen from wealthy Jews, museums, universities, and religious institutions. The film depicts the harrowing adventures and challenges facing seven representative monuments men.
- ENOUGH SAID is a highly enjoyable comedy-drama-romance, made even more poignant as it was the penultimate film of James Gandolfini, who is great in it. A divorced single parent (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) meets a sweet, funny, like-minded empty nester (Gandolfini), and their romance soon blossoms. She befriends her massage client (Catherine Keener), who constantly complains about her terrible ex-husband. Sure enough, it’s Gandolfini. The film humorously and poignantly deals with the vicissitudes of relationships.
- WORDS AND PICTURES is a smart rom-com in which rival teachers, flamboyant English pedagogue Clive Owen and stoic art instructress Juliette Binoche, disagree about the relative importance of words vs. pictures — so they set up a contest and let their students decide. The film is clever and the cast is fine.
- THE NAMES OF LOVE (France) tells of an extroverted left-wing young woman who sleeps with right-wingers so as to convert them. She meets a discreet 40-something whom she assumes is fascist, but she learns that she is wrong. Several interesting characters populate this lively tale.
- LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is a rom-com-dram in which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway were both nominated for Best Performance Golden Globes. The supporting cast includes Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Josh Gad, Gabriel Macht, Judy Greer, George Segal, and Jill Clayburgh. A randy Zoloft and Viagra sales rep meets a woman with Parkinson’s disease in 1996 Pittsburgh, and a complicated romance develops.
- WASTELAND (U.K.) is a tricky tale of revenge in which four friends plan to rob a drug kingpin and commit an act of revenge against him for framing one of them and sending him to prison. A detective inspector (Timothy Spall) questions Luke Treadway about his role in a failed robbery and subsequent murder. There is a very enjoyable twist ending.
- THE MOON AND STARS (Italy-U.K.-Hungary) is a World War II drama in which the spread of fascism taints the romance between a German actress (Catherine McCormack) and an English actor (Jonathan Pryce) during the 1939 filming of the opera Tosca, produced by Jewish homosexual Alfred Molina.
- IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY tells of suicidal 15-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) checking into a mental hospital but finding that the children’s ward is closed, so he has to stay with the crazy adults. The cast includes Aasif Mandvi, Viola Davis, Emma Roberts, Zach Galifianakis, and Jim Gaffigan. Gilchrist begins a romance with Roberts, who is in for self-mutilation, and he forms friendships with several other patients. The film has many amusing moments and a few interesting surprises.
I will make a public confession. Many of us are obsessive or fanatical about something: food, sex, a sports team, making money, drugs, politics, ear washing, Lithuanian folk music, or perhaps something weird. My obsession is good television — particularly well-written, produced and performed British TV. I watch a shitload of it and usually enjoy most of it; thus this column. Here is a list of American TV series I particularly enjoyed. They are in no particular order, except that I think the finest of them all is the hilarious, brilliantly incisive Last Week Tonight, hosted by sly, witty Britisher John Oliver, on Sunday nights (and returning to HBO in February).
Other U.S. TV product I joyously watch (or watched) includes: Legit, The Newsroom, Homeland, Ray Donovan, House of Lies, Boardwalk Empire, Law & Order SVU, Madam Secretary, Elementary, Orange is the New Black, Blacklist, CSI, Suits, Justified, White Collar, Totally Biased, Veep, The Killing, The Guardian, Criminal Minds, The Daily Show with John Stewart, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Affair, Inside the Actors’ Studio (Robin Williams and Dave Chapelle episodes) and the 12 regular-season football games that the Dallas Cowboys won.
From overseas I liked the excellent French crime series Spiral, the international series Crossing Lines, Canada’s Murdoch Mysteries/The Artful Detective, Ireland’s Love/Hate, New Zealand’s Outrageous Fortune, and Australia’s Rake, Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, and Underbelly.
From Britain my favorite was the absolutely brilliant five-part crime drama Line of Duty. I also really enjoyed: Worricker, Downton Abbey, Scott & Bailey, Vicious, Party Animals, Lark Rise to Candleford, Murder City, Blandings, Last Tango in Halifax, Jack Irish, The Graham Norton Show, The White Queen, Falcón, Midsomer Murders, Inspector Lewis season VII, The Game, New Tricks, The Paradise, Death in Paradise, Mister Selfridge, Wild at Heart, Murder Investigation Team, Thorne, Call the Midwife, Exile, Endeavor, Sherlock III, Miss Marple VI, Poirot XIII, Peaky Blinders, Death Comes to Pemberley, and DCI Banks.
[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine. Read more of Alan Waldman’s articles on The Rag Blog.]