The Year In Review 2014: Civil-Rights Struggles, Punk Girls, and a Boy’s Childhood

Posted on | January 19, 2015 | 1 Comment


A darkly comic musical, a film critic’s personal struggle, a travel through space and time (and wormholes!), and 12 years in the life of one fascinating boy. These are just a few of the films that graced 2014’s screens and left us enthralled and restless about the ever-changing art form that is film. With the awards season in full swing, the Oscar nominations recently announced, 10 best lists popping up everywhere, and the year already past it’s close, it’s time to take a look back at the year in cinema. We’ll discuss surprises, disasters, memorable moments, what the Oscar nominees mean, and, of course, our favorites. So sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for some cinephile debating.

Flack: Perhaps it should come as no surprise, in our world of Internet immediacy, that both print critics and bloggers alike announced their Best-of-the-Year lists weeks before the year was finished. As soon as December began, the lists began popping up, one after another, in a rushed flurry of movie mania. By Christmas, it seemed every critic in America had written about “The Best of Film of the Year”. So…we’re kind of late to the party.

But that doesn’t matter. For one thing, Flick and I don’t see movies before their releases (that’s why critics were able to release their lists so early), and often not until they’ve played in New York and LA for months. Besides, a little time for reflection can’t hurt. And the Oscars, the last hurrah of awards season, don’t air for over a month.

So, now we’re here to discuss the year in film. We’ll talk about which films we liked and which we didn’t, but also try to find some overarching themes that explain the state of cinema. Let’s start there, with the simple yet endless question “How’s cinema doing?”interstellar-movie-still-007-1500x1000

Flick: The current state of cinema is an intriguing one, undoubtedly. Over the last few years, critics have complained that big-budgeted blockbusters are starting to become the future of film. While I certainly agree that the endless rampage of mindless studio extravaganzas is far too common, this year was filled with a refreshingly wide range of films. Yes, there was The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s 2 ½ hour conclusion to his second Tolkein trilogy, that’s greatest weakness (to name just one) was it’s ceaseless repetition and never-ending length. But there were also films such as Interstellar, a movie that while I have mixed feelings about, didn’t fail to challenge the idea of what a film with a $165 million budget could be. Sure, Christopher Nolan struggled with some of the same action flick pitfalls that Jackson did (notably running time), but what he did manage to do was make me think, something these types of films rarely do.

Independent films grew even larger in noteworthy number and many have made it to the top of critic’s lists, as well as a certain Oscar category. Birdman, We Are The Best!, Whiplash, and Boyhood all followed believably flawed characters in the types of riveting stories that keep me excited about film’s potentials. Each of those films came from directors with visions that were unique. Birdman features an astounding one-take that forces you to follow Riggan Thompson as he heads from behind the curtain to the tops of buildings. We Are The Best! matched it’s story, following three young girls starting a punk band, with a punk filmmaking aesthetic (handheld camera, inexperienced but excellent actors, etc.) Whiplash was grounded by two astounding performances, one from up and coming Miles Teller as the driven Andrew, the other from J.K. Simmons as a jazz teacher willing to take his students to the edge of sanity. And Boyhood? More on that one later.

Flack: Every year, noisy, nonsensical blockbusters get more money and attention than they deserve, while intelligent, artistic filmmakers struggle to get their voices heard and films seen. And every year, critics complain. 2014 brought us some worse-than-expected blockbusters and some truly exceptional indie films. As you said, they’re both wrong and right. I’ll start with the blockbusters.

Both audiences and critics were enamored by a number of the year’s summer tentpoles: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and, especially, Guardians of the Galaxy. All three films had their strengths, but a sense of unencumbered imagination was sorely lacking. Many would beg to differ, but I think we should stop expecting great things from Marvel. The studio has become more of an oversized producer of product and less a studio committed to making good movies. I’ll probably see the upcoming Ant-Man, but I can’t say I’m really looking forward to it.

That said, Hollywood did surprise us with one sci-fi action spectacle that felt like a relief. That’s a bit ironic, because the film, Edge of Tommorrow, was about a guy dying over and over. Before you roll your eyes, let me explain. Edge’s plot (inexperienced soldier in future-dystopia gets killed, and reborn again, repeat) may sound like Groundhog Day with more guns and less comedy. But for what it is, the Tom Cruise-starring film was a refreshing mix of exhilarating action and lively wit. Next time you have a craving for blockbuster action, check it out.

Still, the audacious ambition of smaller films thrilled me most this year (the drum-solo finale of Whiplash got my heart beating faster than anything that Marvel produced). The originality, intelligence, and artistry of the work of Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Inñártitu, and Damien Chazelle made a strong case for the enduring power of American independent cinema. Without the pressure of big studios, but with the benefit of caring executives, all three made films of precise and personal vision that brings to mind the word “auteur”. But aside from the biggest of blockbusters and smallest of indies, what other in-between films excited you?

Flick: A film that’s been talked about a lot lately is Selma and it’s one that I really loved. While the film received incredible reviews and lots of early buzz, I think the Oscar snubbery has really gotten in the way of the fact that this is a truly incredible film. Ava DuVernay, nearly unheard of previous to the film, took over directing reins after Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, and others quit the project. The film we are left with is truly incredible with a great cast led by the astounding David Oyelowo. Oyelowo captures the spirit, the flaws, the intricacies, the voice, and the drive behind Martin Luther King Jr. and he carries the entire film. His performance is one of, if not the, best of the year and the Academy’s inability to see that shouldn’t get in the way of people seeing the movie.thumbnail_20110

Into the Woods, a film by no means on the same level as Selma, was very entertaining. It really had everything it needed to succeed as a family film released for Christmas, but for some reason it didn’t really get a lot of attention. Meryl Streep showed off her high notes, James Corden stepped up his emotional game, and Chris Pine stepped in for a scene-stealing number. It was dark, funny, and most interestingly, a musical. There are so few musicals coming out that the ones that do should be cherished. This is no Sound of Music or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but it is a highly enjoyable film.

Let’s talk about a film that surprised you. Maybe one you weren’t expecting to be so good or one you missed at the theater but caught up on at home.

Flack: We Are the Best!, which you mentioned before, had a small release, unsurprising for an indie foreign film released in the middle of summer. But Lukas Moodyson’s Swedish comedy blends feminist girl power with DIY punk rock to joyous effect. And the premise is irresistible: kids with no musical experience/talent start a band. Catch it on Netflix.

Another film I caught up on long after it’s summer release was Get On Up, the often-ludicrous but always energetic James Brown biopic. Director Tate Taylor, who made The Help, tackles too much too quickly, broadly, and simply, and the film often feels like a messy first draft. But Chadwick Boseman, as James Brown, slips into the role of Mr. Dynamite and just disappears; even when the film falters, his infectious energy and pure funkiness holds it all together. I can’t recommend the movie, but Boseman and the concert scenes are undeniable.

Here’s a question: what do you think of this year’s onslaught of biopics (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Unbroken, Get On Up)? If a film’s historical subject is fascinating, can you accept the film’s cliches? Or does this genre’s Oscar-baiting conventionality need to be shaken up?

Flick: Like all genres, I feel like the outcome is more dependent on the filmmakers talent than whether or not they’re helming a sci-fi, comedy, or biopic. The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game were two that I felt really worked. They had directors (James Marsh and Morten Tyldum) who approached these people’s (Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing) lives with genuine emotion. At the end of the day, what makes or breaks a biopic is the actor in the lead role. If the actor fully immerses themselves into the character, making us believe they are that character, the film typically works. If they make a half-hearted attempt and aren’t believable, the film tends to collapse. (Get On Up is an exception; Boseman’s performance was phenomenal, the film not so funky.) Eddie Redmayne perfectly embodied Stephen Hawking’s brilliant, disabled self. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch slid right into the tortured soul of Turing, making us sympathize with the tormented genius.


Apart from these three, which I think were really the three most talked about biopics (in part because of their similarities) of the year, I didn’t get a chance to see Big Eyes, Mr. Turner, or Unbroken. I don’t see it as a trend that needs to stop, it’s really just the classification of films that follow the lives of historical figures. The one thing I do think should stop, however, is the cradle-to-grave technique. Get On Up’s use of it really hurt the film, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game’s choice to not use it helped them out. By honing in on a certain period of the person’s life, filmmakers are really allowed more freedom to relax the pace of their film. They have less ground to cover, and more room to explore a singular event significant enough to warrant an entire film.

The next topic I want to delve into is the Oscars. All end of year discussions aren’t really complete without some mention of the golden statuette and you and I certainly have some opinions. Asides from what you mentioned in your highly informative post (read it if you haven’t!), what can you tell me about February 22nd’s big night?

Flack: Sorry to be anti-climactic, but I have to respond to your thoughts on biopics. I disagree that “if the actor fully immerses themselves into the character making us believe they are that character, the film typically works”. This year’s biopics (Get On Up, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game) featured believable, committed, Oscar-worthy performances but tired direction lacking true depth or artistry. Theory and Imitation had fascinating stories and great acting, but the politely polished style of directors Marsh and Tydlum felt anything but original. Paradoxically, I found both films engrossing and enjoyable films despite those flaws; my immediate emotional reaction was a positive one. Only looking back, do I notice the lack of a personal stamp from either filmmaker.

And the Oscars? The Academy’s failure to recognize Selma in a few major categories has been met with heaps of media attention, and (for the most part) rightly so. But we should also notice, and applaud, their widespread recognition of indie films. Besides typical Oscar bait like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, movies like Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and frontrunner Boyhood got lots of love. That indie-loving attitude was a nice surprise. That said, I was shocked Life Itself, Steve James’ poignant tribute to and examination of Roger Ebert, was left out of the Best Documentary category. Another big snub, in the animation category, was The Lego Movie. Neither of us loved that film as much as most; can you elaborate on your opinion? Any other Oscar thoughts?


Flick: I’ll start with my thoughts on The Lego Movie. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the faulty but usually trustworthy critic’s consensus website, the movie was the 3rd best reviewed film of the year with a 96% “fresh” rating. The almost unanimously positive praise came out of nowhere and it surprised me enough to go see the film. While I can’t say I completely didn’t like the film, it certainly didn’t even near the great Pixar films, such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. That being said, the film certainly did have it’s fair share of laugh-out-loud moments, pop culture references, and recognizable actors’ voiceovers, to keep it highly entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend seeing it instead of some of the other fantastic films of the year, but to truly review the year in film it is an important one to watch.

The rest of the Oscars? This year has just the right mix of predictable and surprising nominations to make the show interesting. The Best Picture category doesn’t have any real surprises other than the fact that it is the first year, during the Academy’s 5-10 nominee rule, there have not been nine nominees (there are eight). Surprises? Steve Carell in Foxcatcher for Best Actor, Marion Cotillard in for Best Actress, Song of the Sea (see it at the PCFF!) over The Lego Movie for Best Animated Film, and Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller for Best Director.

In terms of the show itself, Neil Patrick Harris certainly has the chops after hosting the Tony’s for three consecutive years. Plus, it’s the Oscars. Anything can happen…Right?

Flack: Many complain about the Oscars. They favor big movies! They favor small movies! Only old people watch them! Why are they pandering to a younger audience? And so on and so on. But there’s something about the show’s distinctly old-school-Hollywood devotion to glitz, glamour, and gold statues that’s irresistible, if only to argue over and criticize. I, for one, will be watching on February 22.

Besides the films themselves, 2014 was marked by drama, tragedy, and surprise. Early in the year, news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was spread, and during summer, that of Robin WIlliams’. Obituaries seemed to flood the film world, more so than in most years. It was a year of often great cinema, but the movies took a few painful blows too.

And who could forget the drama (which seems to have died down quicker than it sprang up) surrounding the Seth Rogen and James Franco buddy comedy The Interview, which was pulled from theaters after threats from North Korea?

Now we must answer the question we’ve been tiptoeing over since this conversation began: What’s the best/your favorite movie of the year? I’ll start. As expected, my choices are both personal, as well as over-analyzed and critiqued. So…here goes.


For me, there were two 2014 films that stood above the rest. My second favorite of the year is Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s breathless and relentless jazz drumming drama about a college musician (Miles Teller) facing a nasty, psychologically abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons). Chazelle, only a second time director, made one of the year’s most technically precise pieces of cinematic artistry: the cinematography, editing, and music flow together to create suspense, confusion, and atmosphere. The film is as exact and meticulous as the drumming Teller’s character practices. But at the movie’s heart lies a thoughtful, psychologically murky examination of artistic perfection, and how much one is willing to sacrifice to reach such heights.

My favorite film of the year, however, is Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age journey Boyhood. Shot over 12 years with the same cast, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he ages from 7 to 18, going from first grade to the first day of college, as he transforms from cute video-gamer slacker to thoughtful and loquacious photographer. As many have noted, the film would’ve been noteworthy even if it hadn’t been this good. Luckily, it’s even better than good. Linklater follows up on his brilliant premise with a little movie that feels big, or an epic that feels intimate. By capturing the seemingly insignificant parts of Mason’s life (haircuts, graffiti escapades, new houses, wide-ranging conversation), he stitches together a quilt of moments that sum up the joy, the awkwardness, the disappointment, the rebellion, the love, and the ordinary normality of boyhood, and also girlhood, and adulthood, and life. The wonderfully natural performances (Coltrane as Mason; Lorelei Linklater as his irritating sister; Patricia Arquette as their struggling single mom; and Ethan Hawke as their divorced slacker dad) are a joy to watch, not just because seeing them grow up and age on screen is a profound experience. The four lead actors capture the flaws and eccentricities of their characters and, by the time the film’s done, we feel like we’ve known them for 12 years.

Linklater, with his subdued, nimble direction, isn’t interested in visually daring imagery or cinematic showiness (though we do get some effortless tracking shots). He’s fascinated by the average struggles of life, the fleeting nature of time, and the cumulative effect of childhood. He’s got a canny, perceptive ear for two-person conversation, a savvy take on pop culture and it’s effect on our lives, and a delicate understanding of how a child’s influences shape them into the adult they will become. Ultimately, the power of Boyhood is too sophisticated for overused headline-adjectives (Incredible! A Once-In-a-Lifetime Experience! Dazzling!), which I, admittedly, may have overused in my original review. But Boyhood is nothing if not a deeply moving experience that inspires an outburst of feelings. Yet Linklater touches something deeper, something honest, something universal yet hyper-specific. I’m still not sure what that is. Is it his ability to put the passing of time right in front of our eyes? Is it his careful examination of a boy, and his family, and all the other important people in his life? Is it his fascination with little moments, rather than big milestones? After seeing Boyhood at the theater, I couldn’t wait to repeat the experience, and, when I finally saw the film again a few days ago, I realized this is the kind of the movie that I’ll want to return to again and again over the years. Perhaps my view of it will change over time, as I grow up. Perhaps I will uncover the mysteries and meanings of the film, as I age. But I know this: Boyhood is a special little movie, a masterpiece of the everyday. Watching it, a huge smile spread across my face; later, I was nearly moved to tears. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that had such fly-on-the-wall realism. It does so in a way only movies can achieve, using the capabilities of cinema in unique ways that highlight the ordinariness of our lives. The closing shot is perfect, because it is both complete and open-ended. After three fleeting hours, I was hungry for more. Isn’t that the highest achievement a movie can make?

Flick: At least the highest a film this year did; I, too, was deeply moved by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, also my favorite film of the year. Hearing the film summed up as “a groundbreaking film, twelve years in the making” tends to lead to overly-hyped disappointment. But it’s true: Linklater has crafted a film so titanic in ambition, yet so flawless in execution. The result is 2 hours and 46 minutes of a filmmaker at his best. Without a doubt the most important time I spent in the theater this year, the film’s greatest strength is it’s ability to feel so real. By combining the real-life experiences of his cast and crew with his own recollection of growing up in Texas, the film feels more true to life than most.

At the center of the film is Ellar Coltrane, a nonprofessional who comes across as anything but. His Mason Jr. is a patchwork of what it means to be a boy growing up and he grows from child to adolescent, teenager to man. Coltrane is aided by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, who plays his sister. Patricia Arquette is Mason’s mom, struggling to raise her two children while avoiding (or gravitating towards) abusive husbands. Ethan Hawke is Mason Sr., the out-of-the-picture dad who is trying to reconnect with his wife and kids.

Like you, I was deeply touched by the sometimes brutal frankness of which Linklater imbues this story. It is rough-around-the-edges in a way that feels natural and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. When the film drew to a close, after 12 years or a little over 2 ½ hours, I was just about sure that no other film would move me the way Linklater’s sprawling, ambiguous, and remarkable heck of a film did. And I was right.

Although there were certainly some other great films, even if they didn’t near Boyhood’s brilliance. My second favorite film of the year is Birdman. The experience of watching it was similar to Boyhood, in that it felt so new and fresh. Unlike Boyhood, Birdman didn’t span 12 years-but it did span one seamless take. Emmanuel Lubezki, the visionary cinematographer behind The Tree of Life and Gravity, brought his idiosyncratic knack for framing scenes with sheer style. He can film a conversation scene like no one else can; no shot-reverse-shot here. Instead, he follows the characters as they bounce from stage to street and bar to sky.

The story is equally intriguing: Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) aims to restart his career with a Broadway play, years after his famed Birdman films. But when he calls in popular actor Mike Shriner (Edward Norton), things get complicated. It’s all helmed with impeccable precision by Alejandro Gonzaález Inñártitu. The ending, in particular, is especially ambivalent and much discussed. But that’s what makes the film so great: it’s different, it’s daring, and it’s pretty darn good.

With the year behind us and 2015 already in full swing, what can we expect this year? A few films I’m personally looking forward to: Tomorrowland, Macbeth, and, possibly more so than anything in recent memory, Star Wars: Episode VII. Let’s hope the force is as strong with this year as it was with last.

Here are our top five favorite films of the year. In order! (Take that you cop-out alphabetical sorters!)

Flick’s Top Five

5. We Are The Best!

4. Selma

3. Whiplash

2. Birdman

1. Boyhood

Flack’s Top Five

5. The Wind Rises

4. Birdman

3. Selma

2. Whiplash

1. Boyhood