Cinema survives: The year's ten best films

Tom Long
The Detroit News

In many ways, 2014 was typical of the modern movie age.

Audiences continued their quest for eternal adolescence, with every one of the top 10 box office hits being fantasy driven. And they showed the comfort we find in the familiar — eight of those top 10 hits were sequels or remakes of well-known stories.

But then 2014 took an odd, dark turn toward the end.

In the face of cyberhacking and threats of violence, the political satire "The Interview" was yanked off the wide Christmas release schedule. Not only did this set a dangerous precedent for public gatherings — how long will it be before someone shuts down the Super Bowl? — it likely made a risk-averse business even moreso. Studios will be less likely to support delicate or potentially controversial subjects and will likely instead pump out more superheroes, witches and orcs for mass consumption.

Which makes the best films of this year seem somehow more important. Because despite all of it, people are still making good movies. And sometimes those good movies even make good money. As awash in mediocrity as we are, as fearful as the current business model may be, good films continue to be made.

That is something worth celebrating and I celebrate it here with my top 10 films of the year and 10 more beyond that. Cinema survives. Indeed, it somehow thrives.

"Boyhood" (R) – Quite simply the most audacious film of the century so far. That writer-director Richard Linklater even conceived the idea of shooting a film over a 12-year period, watching a family and a boy (Ellar Coltrane) grow up and wrestle with reality, is wonderful invention. That he was able to make it work artistically, to hold to a coherent vision over all that time, is even more impressive. Yet the entire enterprise feels emotionally true beginning to end.

"The Imitation Game" (PG-13) – One wonderful thing about this British World War II drama is it follows the invention of something — the computer — without getting weighed down in the nuts and bolts of how it works. But the film's success comes down to Benedict Cumberbatch's tender-tough and often funny portrayal of the real-life tortured genius Alan Turing, a gay outlier who saved millions of lives.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (R) – Michael Keaton leads a very fine ensemble in this story of an actor famed for a superhero role trying to find redemption in a serious drama on Broadway. Mixing whimsy and worry with magical realism and long, mesmerizing camera shots, writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu offers dark comedy as cultural critique.

"Mr. Turner" (R) – Mike Leigh's painterly portrait of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, which has yet to play Detroit, features perhaps the year's single best performance by Timothy Spall, who brings a grunting, primal honesty to his subject that's both disconcerting and surprisingly tender.

"Under the Skin" (R) – Scarlett Johansson is mesmerizing in this edgy film about an alien inhabiting human form for dark reasons. Director Jonathan Glazer purposely leaves questions hanging everywhere, challenging the viewer to put it all together, and somehow it all coalesces, weirdly, beautifully.

"Locke" (R) – Writer-director Steven Knight wrote this one-man show, in which a man drives alone at night juggling various crises via his phone, for star Tom Hardy, and Hardy more than earns his trust. Necessarily low-key, the script still offers up plenty of tension and heartbreak. What happens? Life happens.

"Whiplash" (R) – First time writer-director Damien Chazelle's story of an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) near broken by a dictatorial music teacher (J.K. Simmons) downright crackles with energy. It's the role of a lifetime for Simmons and an auspicious debut for Chazelle. And that drum solo...

"Cake" (R) – Somewhat lost in the year-end shuffle and yet to arrive in Detroit, this drama starring Jennifer Aniston as a scarred woman struggling with chronic pain remembers to smile at all the right times and features Adriana Barraza in a wonderful supporting role. Far and away Aniston's best work.

"Selma" (PG-13) – Due to open in Detroit Jan. 9, director Ava Duvernay's look at Martin Luther King Jr.'s fight to win voters rights for blacks wisely hones in on one specific period and reveals King's personal and political struggles as well as his doubts and resolve. Artfully made.

"Nymphomaniac" (Not rated) – Lars von Trier's predictably bizarre epic of sexual addiction somehow blends in discussions of fly fishing and classical music among many other things. Charlotte Gainsbourg takes risks most actors wouldn't even consider. Not for the prudish or fainthearted, and with both parts it's about four hours long, so be aware.

And 10 more ... "Nightcrawler"... "Blue Ruin"... "Snowpiercer"... "Only Lovers Left Alive"... "American Sniper"... "Gloria"... "Guardians of the Galaxy"... "Tracks"... "The Drop"... "Men, Women & Children"