Scott Feinberg's Top 10 Films of 2014

THR's awards analyst includes on his list of favorites a drama, a biopic, a war pic, a film noir, two rom-coms, two documentaries and two foreign-language films — three of which are music-centric
The Weinstein Company
Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo in 'Begin Again'

With just hours remaining in 2014, I wanted to document for myself — and share with you — the films that I enjoyed the most this year. I have seen hundreds of titles — on the big screen and on screeners, at festivals and at multiplexes — among them all of the top Oscar contenders, up to and including every film on the documentary and foreign language film shortlists. In other words, I have done my best to be well-versed in what's out there — but, needless to say, no list of this sort is anything but a subjective exercise for anyone.

It pains me that I do not have room to acknowledge, on the list itself, more of 2014's extraordinary films (i.e. the 12-year project Boyhood, the acting showcases Birdman and The Imitation Game, the timely Selma and films both profound and moving, such as Citizenfour, Finding Vivian Maier and Leviathan, and funny, such as The Humbling and Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon); performances (i.e. Selma's David Oyelowo, Still Alice's Julianne Moore, Get On Up's Chadwick Boseman, Dear White People's Tessa Thompson, The Skeleton Twins' Bill Hader, Fort Bliss' Michelle Monaghan, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby's Jessica Chastain); and scenes (i.e. the silent sparring in Foxcatcher, the highway showdown in A Most Violent Year, the 16-minute opening sequence of Into the Woods, the firing of a man for being gay in Love Is Strange, the courtroom speech in Black or White and the pantomimed soccer game in Timbuktu) — so I've taken the liberty of doing so here in the intro.

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The last thing that I'll note, for those who primarily follow me for my objective assessments of the awards race, is that the following list and remarks reflect my personal opinions and do/will not in any way impact my projections or analysis on this site, through which I strive above all else to accurately report what has happened and forecast what will happen. My demonstrated ability to do that over the years is what has led many of you to my coverage, and any failure on my part to do that would undoubtedly lead many of you away from it, so you can rest assured that I mean it when I say that one has/will have no bearing on the other.

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10. Magic in the Moonglight (Sony Pictures Classics, 7/25, trailer)

Go ahead and dump on me and my taste for including it but, again, this is a list of the 10 films that I liked the most this year, and as this selection — along with my pick for the number one slot — should make abundantly clear, I'm not aiming to please anyone else with it. The fact of the matter is that I loved the latest annual installment in Woody Allen's unparalleled canon for reasons that I can't entirely explain — and I saw it multiple times. All that I can say is that it struck me as tremendously cute and charming and the sort of well-written, chemistry-dependent romantic-comedy that Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn would have starred in for George Cukor, oh, 75 years ago. Colin Firth and Emma Stone were perfectly cast, though, for me, in an unlikely Pygmalion-esque love story that some have maligned because of their 28-year age difference — which I'm sure they were particularly fixated on because of who the filmmaker is — but that didn't deter Howard Hawks from pairing Humphrey Bogart with Lauren Bacall (24-year gap) or Alfred Hitchcock from pairing Jimmy Stewart with Kim Novak (25-year gap), and it didn't bother me.

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9. American Sniper (Warner Bros., 12/25, trailer)

It's remarkable how much can happen in just a few years. Three years ago, Bradley Cooper was "the guy from Wedding Crashers" or "the guy from The Hangover." Today, he's one of our finest actors, having given great performances in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now this — the latest masterwork from 84-year-old Clint Eastwood, which is structured, via a great script by Jason Hall, like the Westerns about reluctant gunfighters that made Eastwood famous — which features Cooper's most impressive performance to date. The unflinching drama, a passion project for Cooper which he also produced, chronicles the life and death of Chris Kyle, a Texan good ol' boy of fine moral and patriotic stock who winds up in the military, then in Iraq and then as a legend thanks to his unparalleled abilities as a sniper in the war zone there. To play him, Cooper packed on 30 pounds of muscle in just three months and acquired a convincing Texas accent and swagger to portray Kyle, and it is largely because of his transformative work that American Sniper belongs alongside The Hurt Locker as the two best films yet made about the war in Iraq and the service and sacrifice of those who fought there and their families.

8. Wild Tales (Sony Pictures Classics, 2/20/15, trailer)

On paper, Damian Szifron's Argentinean comedy sounds a little bizarre: it is a feature comprised of six short segments, none of which are connected to one another apart from sharing themes of vengeance and anarchism. The thing is, each segment, in my opinion, is an utterly hilarious mini-masterpiece and better than the vast majority of live-action shorts that have been awarded Oscars. I won't begin to get into their storylines, since so much of what makes them special is that they often go in the most unexpected of directions. But I'll just say that it takes a brilliant and crazy sort of mind to come up with premises like theirs — and a top-notch director to tell them with such economy and artistry, which is enhanced by a great score by two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla. Many people are surprised to learn that there was a fourth and a fifth Marx brother, Gummo and Zeppo; wait 'til they find out there was a sixth, Damian!

7. Red Army (Sony Pictures Classics, 1/23/15, trailer)

Many of the best documentaries tackle subjects that seem familiar to most us and show us how much about them we really don't know. This is one such documentary. Many know about the 1980 Olympic hockey match in Lake Placid, at the height of the Cold War, in which the Americans beat the heavily favored Soviets ("Do you believe in miracles?!") en route to winning the gold. But what many do not know, until they see this deeply engaging and moving film by an incredibly talented young documentarian named Gabe Polsky, is the remarkable story of the five players at the core of that Soviet team, before and after that game. Through great recent interviews and awesome archival footage, it explores that, as well as the importance placed upon sports all around the world, the psychology of patriotism and the complicated relationship between Russia and America in the past and the present, which is important to understand as tensions between the two countries reach levels not seen since the Cold War.

6. Keep on Keepin' On (RADiUS-TWC, 9/19, trailer)

This stunning documentary, which marks the directorial debut of a mega-talented 30-year-old Aussie named Al Hicks, chronicles the relationship between a music student and teacher in a way that is every bit as impressive as Whiplash — but leaves viewers feeling hopeful and inspired. That's because its two subjects, the twentysomething blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin and the nonagenarian jazz legend and teacher Clark Terry, are both such remarkable men, and because Hicks — who, like Miles Davis, Quincy Jones (who became a producer of the film after meeting the filmmaker) and Kauflin, was also once a student of Terry's — managed to capture their interactions during some of the most trying times in their lives, which they helped each other to endure. If ever one needed proof that music is good for the soul and that one selfless man can change the lives of many others, this — like another excellent 2014 doc, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me — is it. Quite simply, it's the best documentary of the year.

5. Nightcrawler (Open Road Films, 10/31, trailer)

There has always been a tendency to ghettoize "genre films," as if they are inherently less worthy of being considered "art" than other sorts. This film, as much as any from 2014, illustrates why that's hogwash: it's a beautifully made, deeply disturbing and incredibly entertaining look into the psyche of a disturbed loner who craves acceptance. The feature directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, a veteran screenwriter who also penned this pic, it hinges upon the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal who, fortunately, has never been better. The actor dropped 30 pounds to look creepy enough to play Lou Bloom, an LA-based ne'er-do-well who becomes a TMZ-like videographer, rushing to the scenes of tragedies to record their aftermath and then sell the footage to local news stations, without any sense of empathy for his subjects or his sidekick. The film is, in some respects, a hybrid of the 1970s classics Taxi Driver, Network and Being There, but it's also very much a story for the present day — especially for Angelenos who live every day alongside paparazzi who have no concept of privacy, decency or anything but making a buck.

4. The Theory of Everything (Focus Features, 11/7, trailer)

This intimate, deeply moving portrait of the intersecting lives of Dr. Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane — adapted by Anthony McCarten from Jane's autobiography and directed by Oscar-winning documentary-turned-narrative filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire) — features two of the most impressive performances of the year, given by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, respectively. It could have been just another formulaic biopic about a man confronted with a serious affliction and his wife who helps him to get through it, but it's so much more — quite simply, it clicks on every level, from the acting (it's incredible how convincingly Redmayne portrays Hawking's ALS-induced physical transformation) to the music (Johann Johannsson's score is my favorite of the year) to the cinematography (Benoit Delhomme does gorgeous work) to certain scenes that will stay with me forever (Jane and Stephen kissing beneath fireworks, Jane trying to show Stephen how to communicate after his tracheotomy and the final moments of the film, in particular). It also tackles head-on a number of interesting debates: Can science and religion be reconciled with one another? And, of course, being a film about Hawking, what are the origins of the universe?

3. Two Days, One Night (Sundance Selects, 12/24, trailer)

What happens when you pair two of the world's best filmmakers with one of its best actresses? This film, the first by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne to star an actor of international renown, Marion Cotillard, following decades of other great minimalist — some would say "neorealist" — works about the struggles of working-class people just to get by. And this one, like their earlier masterpieces The Promise (1996) and Rosetta (1999), revolves around unemployment and the impact that it can have on the unemployed and those around them. While neither that subject matter nor the film's logline — a woman who has lost her job spends a weekend trying to get it back — may sound particularly sexy, the resulting film is, like the best of Vittorio de Sica's work, as edge-of-your-seat riveting as any action-packed thriller. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, she races against the clock trying to convince others to do the noble thing, finding some more receptive than others — only she needs a majority to save her job, as well as her self-esteem. No woman this year gave a better performance than Cotillard's.

2. Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics, 10/10, trailer)

107 minutes have never gone by as fast as they did when I was watching this exciting, electric, emotional rollercoaster of a trip to the movies, which won the grand jury and audience awards at Sundance. Written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle (who adapted it from his own semi-autobiographical short), edited by Tom Cross (who gives it a real rhythm and pulse) and built around out-of-this-world performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons (who have never been better), it centers around an ambitious young drummer at a Juilliard-like conservatory and his complicated relationship with one of its most revered but feared instructors, who stands between him and his dreams. In the most entertaining and sometimes uncomfortable of ways, it begs some very interesting questions: What does it take to be one of the greats? Is doing that worth the price one must pay in the rest of one's life? What kind of a teacher is most effective? And where is the line between tough-love and abuse — or, in today's parlance, "bullying"? I could keep going, but Simmons would probably show up shaking his head and making that hand-tugging gesture that suggests, in no uncertain terms, that I've already said enough.

1. Begin Again (The Weinstein Co., 6/27, trailer)

I have loved this drama and its colorful characters ever since Sept. 2013, when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life?. Just like writer-director John Carney's prior film, Once (2007), this one also focuses on musicians during times of transition — Adam Levine is becoming a pop star, his girlfriend/collaborator Keira Knightley is not and music producer Mark Ruffalo's personal and professional life is rapidly going down the toilet until, that is, he meets her — and features beautiful original music, this time written by the former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander and his collaborators. (There is no better song in a movie this year than "Lost Stars.") It is as charming a movie as you'll ever see without being formulaic (the "right" couple doesn't even hook-up!), and it possesses at least one moment of sheer movie magic that I could watch a thousand times and never tire of (when Ruffalo starts to imagine what Knightley's voice would sound like with musical accompaniment and the dormant instruments behind her start playing themselves). In a year of strong films about artists grappling with the challenges of fame — among them Beyond the Lights, Birdman, The Humbling and others — and all sorts of other interesting topics, I liked this overlooked gem the most.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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