BOYHOOD: Richard Linklater’s extraordinary “12 years a film” feat! He directed the same cast over a dozen years and captured the ephemeral truth about one boy’s childhood and growing up in a broken home. It’s a “meta” experience for filmgoers who watch the actors and the characters they play, age on camera over time, while the boy played by the soulful Ellar Coltrane–expressive and engaging at every age– evolves from a dreamy 6 year old to a substantial young man of 18. The resulting film captures something ineffable onscreen: the more subtle dramas that shape our everyday lives, and the filmmaker holds us there, focusing our gaze on a point just below the horizon, where our lives are lived, often unobserved. The drum that beats continually throughout is a question: What’s the point? What is the point of a life, an accumulation of days, some aimless, some shocking and difficult, and relentlessly moving forward? The last scene suggests a response, packing the punch of an answer hiding in plain sight.
BIRDMAN: It’s another “meta” movie moment as the triumphs and tribulations of a movie star played by Michael Keaton who made his reputation playing a superhero named BIRDMAN (Keaton, you’ll remember, played Batman!) tries to reinvent himself as a serious thespian on the Broadway stage. The fab all-star cast includes Edward Norton as a “difficult” but talented stage actor, Emma Stone as Keaton’s surly, drug-recovered daughter, Zach Galifianakis as a hyperkinetic theater manager, Naomi Watts as an actress making her broadway debut, and the endless tracking shot that literally makes all the world a stage.
INTO THE WOODS: An ultra-talented cast of Hollywood actors who can REALLY SING bring Stephen Sondheim’s haunting masterpiece of a stage musical to life on the big screen. Rob Marshall directs this glorious-looking dark fairy tale about what happens “after” the “happily ever after.” Anna Kendrick’s crystalline soprano as Cinderella, Emily Blunt’s moving vocals as the Baker’s wife, and Chris Pine’s ultra-swaggering prince, along with Meryl Streep’s wildly funny and furious witch– all dazzle. Johnny Depp plays the wolf in a costume that look like his usual duds.
FORCE MAJEURE: This initially quiet film by award-winning Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund finds a nuclear family on a ski holiday in the French Alps suddenly blown apart when they are caught in an avalanche and the impact reverberates through every primal relationship in the film. This “act of God” –while beyond their control–makes everyone liable, and the results transformative. An unusually wrenching, riveting cinematic experience.
CITIZENFOUR: This documentary puts you there when Ed Snowden, the NSA whistle blower still in hiding, spilled top secrets, letting us see just how much big brother is watching. We are inside the Hong Kong hotel room and Snowden’s brain as he explains how and why to filmmaker Laura Poitras and reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. His well-reasoned argument about why privacy is inextricably linked to personal liberty completely turned my head around. The film lays it out and lets us decide what to think.
FOXCATCHER: This is the true story of two Olympic wrestling brothers, and the very rich man who covets them. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play Olympians Mark and Dave Schultz. Enter a barely recognizable, eagle beaked, dead-eyed Steve Carell as the creepy John E. du Pont, heir to the du Pont fortune, who takes over as their sponsor. A power struggle brews and boils over into one of the weirdest and most compelling tales ever told. These three actors form the most complex and engrossing menage onscreen this season, and may prove unbeatable in Los Angeles this February at the 2015 Games known as the Oscars.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: It’s the modern day spinner of cinematic fairytales Wes Anderson’s latest! A whimsical concoction as pretty as a wedding cake, a multi-tiered tale, within a tale, within a tale, the GRAND and very PINK Hotel Budapest is presided over by one Gustave H., (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s ultra-refined concierge, and involves a wide-eyed lobby boy named “Zero,” Tilda Swinton as a wealthy octogenarian who’s “dynamite in the sack,” a family squabble over inheritance, a priceless and definitely kitschy piece of Renaissance art, a greedy evil son (Adrien Brody), a knucklebound henchman with a frightening underbite (Willem Dafoe), a lanky lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) and his soon to be airborn Persian cat, monks on skis, cliff-hanging climaxes, and plotting pastry chefs! You can check out anytime you want–but you never want to leave.
WHIPLASH: The film hits you like a slap in the face. WHIPLASH is not just the name of Hank Levy’s eccentrically metered jazz tune, but describes the dangerous dynamic between a young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and his bullying instructor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) at an exclusive music conservatory. Andrew takes a licking and keeps on ticking in one of the most emotionally violent movies ever made about the birthing of a musical artist. The movie by writer/director Damien Chazelle grabs you, pounds you into submission, and leaves you strapped to the edge of your seat, right up to the last few seconds– and beyond.
OBVIOUS CHILD: A small gem of a romantic comedy starring Jenny Slate as a raunchy standup comic who hooks up with a solid and serious grad student played by Jake Lacy, as they plot the punchline to an unexpected event. Slate is a surprise here, endearingly and daringly at the heart of the film as a modern young woman with an old-fashioned problem. She makes you laugh and cringe, while he charmingly weathers the slings and arrows of her outrageous routines.We think we know where it’s going, and it sort of does–but the script is full of fresh moments and dialogue, the performances true, the sentiment real– very “today ” and “yesterday” all at once.