The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE TEN BEST FILMS OF 2014"

The Ten Best Films of 2014

Another year has come to an end, which means it's time for one last look back at the most notable movies of the past twelve months. I love making this list every year, because it's a chance to remember – and ring the bell one last time for – the films that meant the most to me in the twelve months just past. I try to create a diverse list every year, and this one is no exception. It's got comedy, drama, action, romance, music, and animation. One caveat, though: don't take the rankings too seriously. Distinguishing one level of greatness from another is virtually impossible.

Here are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2014:

10. Begin Again - Mark Ruffalo is a washed-up record label exec and Keira Knightley is a heartbroken singer/songwriter. They find personal redemption after teaming up to record some songs in this sweet story about the transformative quality of music. I saw Begin Again back in July, gave it 3 ½ stars, and then found I couldn't stop thinking about it for months and months. An eventual second viewing made me realize I should have awarded it the full four stars. (I've since amended my original review.) Begin Again is a true feel-good picture, one that sends you away feeling like you're walking on a cloud. The final five minutes are my favorite thing in any film this year. More music movies from John Carney (Once), please.

9. Snowpiercer - The best science-fiction stories are the ones that use the fantastical to comment on modern realities or social issues. Bong Joon-ho did just that with Snowpiercer. The world has frozen in the future, and the few remaining survivors endlessly circle the globe on a high-tech train. The poor are relegated to the dirty, overcrowded rear cars, while the rich and the elite are closer to the more comfortable front. Chris Evans plays the guy who leads a revolt against this situation. Snowpiercer uses rousing action sequences to emphasize its themes of socioeconomic imbalance and the resentment it creates. Here's a picture that excites you and stimulates thought simultaneously.

8. Foxcatcher - John du Pont was the heir to a chemical company fortune. He ended up murdering an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler. It's a strange, hard-to-comprehend story. Nonetheless, director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) shows fearlessness diving into the dark psychological torments that led du Pont, wrestler Dave Shultz, and his brother Mark into the perfect storm of tragedy. Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo (again!) and Channing Tatum all do A+ work in this haunting, disturbing film.

7. Whiplash - Remember Mr. Holland's Opus, in which Richard Dreyfuss played a music teacher who inspired his students with encouragement and praise? Yeah, well, this is the opposite of that. J.K. Simmons plays a verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive music instructor who torments his desperate-to-be-great-at-all-costs pupil, played by Miles Teller. With a dazzlingly sharp script and tight direction, Damien Chazelle has crafted a darkly funny story that uncomfortably, but correctly, suggests that a dysfunctional approach is sometimes as powerful a motivator as a functional one.

6. A Most Violent Year - Many filmmakers experience a sophomore jinx, but I believe in a “junior jinx.” The third movie in a director's career is where they either establish artistic consistency or stumble badly. J.C. Chandor studiously avoids that jinx with his third, and best, film, which comes on the heels of the terrific Margin Call and All Is Lost. Oscar Isaac plays the owner of an oil trucking company who tries to stay honest in a business that's increasingly dirty – both in a physical and a moral sense. Jessica Chastain does typically strong work as his tough-as-nails wife. A Most Violent Year explores the difficulties inherent in staying honest when the world around you is becoming increasingly corrupt. It's a morality tale, told with grace and insight.

5. American Sniper - The difference between an on-the-ground soldier and a sniper is that the former looks right into the eyes of his enemy before pulling the trigger. Clint Eastwood - adapting the story of Chris Kyle, who was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history – looks at the implications of that on one's very soul. Bradley Cooper, bulked up significantly and sporting a thick Texas accent, disappears into character as Kyle. American Sniper examines how he struggles to deal with the cognitive dissonance his job entails. On one hand, he's fighting terrorists. On the other, some of the people he has to kill are women and children. Often unbearably tense and always psychologically and emotionally captivating, American Sniper isn't interested in patriotism for patriotism's sake; it's interested in the cost of patriotism for those most invested in defending the right to have it.

4. The Imitation Game - Detractors have criticized this movie for having some significant historical inaccuracies. So what? All movies based on true stories have them. Besides, The Imitation Game gets at the larger truth in telling the story of how Alan Turing (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch) invented a machine that broke the Nazi Enigma code during WWII. The Imitation Game is about secrets: why we need to have them, why they sometimes need to be exposed, and the toll keeping one for too long can take. The best surprise of the film is that the screenplay by Andrew Hodges has crackling dialogue and moments of perfectly timed humor. A dry biopic of Turing this is not.

3. The LEGO Movie - Let's be honest. We all expected a two-hour toy commercial from this one, right? Instead, writers/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller delivered an inventive, hilariously funny, heartfelt ode to the power of imagination and creativity. The LEGO Movie is, for my money, the most magical animated picture of recent years.

2. Selma - Much more than a cinematic history lesson, Ava DuVernay's film is a fascinatingly detailed account of how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo, in the performance of the year) strategized a civil rights march to spotlight unjust regulations that kept African-Americans from voting in the South. Stirring and inspiring in equal measure, Selma pulls you into its subject matter, giving you a better understanding of what it must have been like to be present for a key historical event – and why the civil rights battles our country is fighting today are every bit as vital.

And my choice for the Best Film of 2014 is:

Boyhood

1. Boyhood - Richard Linklater had the idea to tell a story about a boy, following him from ages 5 to 18. Instead of casting different actors to play him at different ages, Linklater opted to shoot the movie over the course of twelve years, so that we could see his young star, Ellar Coltrane, and all the other actors (including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) grow older as the story progressed. That approach gives an already terrific coming-of-age tale a deeply profound impact. There's no overarching plot here; Boyhood is simply a series of scenes showing the events that shaped the main character and turned him into the adult he's about to become when the film ends. That's more than enough. If you could plug into a teenager's mind and download all his memories of childhood, you'd get something akin to this elegant, beautiful, sincere, and compassionate movie.

Those are my picks for the best films of 2014. Again, the rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, especially the top three, which are essentially equal in my mind (and were all going to be my #1 at one time or another during the decision process). Just make sure you check each of these ten pictures out. They're well worth your time. Happy New Year, and thanks for your ongoing readership!

Honorable Mentions: The Babadook, Big Eyes, Big Hero 6, Blue Ruin, Calvary, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, Force Majeure, Fury, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, Kelly & Cal, Nightcrawler, Noah, The Skeleton Twins, St. Vincent, The Theory of Everything, They Came Together, Top Five, Unbroken, and Wild.


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