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This Author’s Best Picture List for the Year Feb. 2014 to Feb. 2015

Updated on February 9, 2015

Written on 02/05/2015

Regrettably, this list is solely based on movies the author has actually seen at this point.

The Oscars are coming up quickly, this author's Super Bowl and New Year's Eve all wrapped in one! That means another year of movies is coming to an end, and a pretty good year it has been. In celebration, let us look back on some of the best entries into cinema during 2014 and early 2015, and have a little fun predicting the Best Picture Winner. (Don't forget to vote on your pick at the very bottom of the article!)

Be sure to tune in for the 87th Academy Awards on February 22, 2015 at 7 p.m. ET (4 p.m. PT, 5 p.m. MT, 6 p.m. CT).

17. Before I Disappear

The author confesses that he is not sure of this gem’s official release status, and so does not know if Before I Disappear will be a contender for next year’s Oscars and other awards (which he hopes it will). Nevertheless, the author was fortunate enough to see Shawn Christensen’s hip and human drama at the Tallgrass International Film Festival of Wichita, Kansas in October 2014.

Richie (Christensen) is a man in a downward spiral. A lackey for the mob, drug addicted, and left lonely by the departure of his true love, he is hell-bent on committing suicide. In the middle of the act, he gets an out-of-the-blue phone call from his estranged sister Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who needs Richie to pick up her daughter Sophia (Fátima Ptacek) from school. Reluctantly, he does so, and the one-night engagement turns into an urban odyssey of uncle and niece united for the first time. Through Richie, Sophia gets something close to a father figure, and through Sophia, Richie begins to find a new reason to live with responsibility that is meaningful. However, it may be too late to save himself.

High-stake, purely human drama mixes with a humor that has rhythm. Richie is the slightly unreliable narrator with a soul that needs saving, pulled around seemingly aimlessly by Sophia in a portrayal that is sure to signal the start of a promising career for Ptacek. One of the film’s highlights is a dance number, brought on by Sophia’s need to loosen up, which occurs in a bowling alley. It is comically fueled by Richie’s drug and blood-loss fueled hallucinating, but seems to celebrate positivity and good feelings.

Before I Disappear, already based on an Oscar-winning short film, is sure to leave one humorously enlightened and happy to be alive.

This film is available for rent!

16. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies*

As Peter Jackson’s conclusion to his six-part endeavor of bringing Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga to the silver screen, it is a satisfying and defining point to the full-circle story; even to the disdain of hardcore fans of the novels (Jackson has explained on numerous occasions that the screenplays are faithful to the notes, books, and their expansive appendices, but that creative liberties were taken to rearrange the timing of events to suite a cinematic narrative). As the hobbit Bilbo Baggins tries to make peace between an army of dwarves and elves, the forces of the Necromancer march on the Lonely Mountain. Meanwhile, Smaug the dragon terrorizes Lake Town. This makes for the biggest, most action-packed battles in the saga since the Battle for Gondor in The Return of the King.

Some might have cringed at the thought of Jackson going the Lucas route of creating a prologue trilogy to an already successful and beloved franchise. Indeed, this author even initially thought that dividing the comparatively smaller novel of The Hobbit into three epic parts was a stretch. Thankfully, Jackson could fall back on the exhaustive amounts of Tolkien’s notes about Middle Earth, and fill in the missing gaps (not found in the novel) that tell most all of the origin stories needed to better understand The Lord of the Rings. Jackson also made the accomplishment of an effective prequel in other instances where Lucas blundered. First, Jackson got the casting right. Jackson gave the lead of Bilbo Baggins to the capable and dynamic Martin Freeman, whereas Lucas apparently wanted a bland, corny, and constantly whiney Anakin Skywalker, so went with the hacks Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen. The dwarfs were also well picked, easily carrying on the spunk and courage of John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli. The additions of Benedict Cumberbatch’s motion-capture and voice performances of Smaug and the Necromancer are sweetly hair-raising. Second, Jackson does not spoil the first trilogy by giving away twists with excessive foreshadow. Instead, he gives hints that would peak the curiosity of chronologically-watching audiences and subtly wink to long-time fans. Lucas blows all of his greatest episode IV-VI secrets out the airlock by showing Luke and Lea to be Anakin’s offspring; so much for The Empire Strikes Back’s shocker ending and Return of the Jedi’s revelations. Lastly, Jackson stayed mostly true to the look of his first three films, making the continuity of the prequels occurring in the same world believable. Lucas? Nah. He shelved his cool, gritty, sandy, wild-west-like outer space in a cold hunk of carbonite, leaving a shiny, clean, plastic universe that is utterly unrecognizable. Alright, enough of the Lucas-bashing. Star Wars is still pretty awesome.

Where the third and final Hobbit film (and its companions) falter slightly are in the areas of advancement in CGI technologies and theatrical gimmicks. What made the original trilogy visually relatable and intimate were a.) the scenes that didn’t need CGI were not CGI, and relied on the beautiful, New Zealand landscape and b.) the horrible Orcs and goblins were mostly big, scary men in fantastic prosthetics and makeup. The Lord of the Rings made Middle Earth look like a real possibility, and the monstrous armies were frighteningly tangible. In The Hobbit films, we see digital Orcs and glossier backgrounds. What a shame that they looked slightly more like video games and not movies. This is gut-wrenchingly cranked up for people who saw the projections in 3-D High Frame Rate (48 frames per second, like they use to broadcast football games). This made the effects look even more game-like, unfortunately, and more visually lack-luster than an episode of Doctor Who. People who skipped out for the normal, 2-D projections saved their eyes and their money.

*(1 Nomination: Best Sound Editing)

15. Nightcrawler*

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “What Desperate Times Conceive”.

This thriller from new-man-on-the-big-scene Dan Gilroy has snagged him a best screenplay nomination, but unfortunately not a best actor one for leading man Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays thief turned video paparazzi kingpin Louis Bloom.

More of an intense character study than a full-fledged, plot-driven narrative, Nightcrawler holds a mirror up to today’s society that craves sensationalism in the information the news and media provide. What is staring back is a bloodlust that is just as thirsty as it was when our ancestors watched lions tear gladiators apart in the Coliseum, and Bloom is just the kind of ambitious breed from the underbelly that can satisfy it. His actions bring into question the price of sacrificing journalistic integrity, commentating on the very actions that some members of the press no doubt commit in our increasingly violent world.

Gyllenhaal might have had a better shot at the nomination had other great performances not stocked up the ballot. Nevertheless, his transformation into Louis Bloom is probably his best performance to date.

*(1 Nomination: Best Original Screenplay)

14. Snowpiercer

A surprise hit, thanks to its rising popularity on alternative platforms like Netflix and VOD, Snowpiercer is one of the best pictures of the year from the small screen. Not only is it a new take on the futuristic dystopian drama, it also has a surprising and fun cast.

After a catastrophic experiment to end global warming turns the Earth into a frozen, uninhabitable wasteland, the surviving population is forced to live on a long train that constantly travels around the globe. A social class structure keeps the wealthy and privileged towards the front of the train, and the poor workers towards the back. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) and his leader Gilliam (John Hurt) organize a rebellion amongst the “tail-dwellers” to take the train, and must do battle with the forces of the train’s master, Wilford (Ed Harris), under the command of Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton). What Curtis will discover at the front of the train is something monstrous, a conspiracy and radical social contract he never dreamed of.

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English-speaking film debut, and what an introduction to an American audience! It has done extremely well by critics and box office receipts, but would have had a much larger release initially in America if Harvey Weinstein had not made such a big, stupid stink about editorial control.

This film is available to own!

13. The Zero Theorem

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “Seeking Salvation from Information Overload”.

Veteran director Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, returns to the screen yet again with the futuristic story of a number-cruncher named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz).

The terminally-ill Qohen is assigned to stay-at-home work, and he is given the daunting task of trying to solve the Zero Theorem, a massive, complex equation where the result of “everything” must equal “nothing”. Along the way, he is assisted by the young programmer Bob (Lucas Hedges) and coaxed along by the “stress-relieving” temptress Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry). What ensues is a series of events that disrupts Qohen’s quiet, little world in the midst of an interconnected universe void of privacy and liberty, a universe we may not be too far away from in actuality.

Part sci-fi dramedy and part cautionary tale, Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem follows in the vein of his previous, dystopian works Brazil and 12 Monkeys. It may possibly be one of his best works since Brazil, with a return to quirky anarchy and crazy photography, though unfortunately not in the opinion of some critics and the dreary box office politicians. The Academy tends to avoid Gilliam because he is a true artist in cinema, and he rarely plays ball with Hollywood institutions.

This film is available to own!

12. Calvary

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “A Lone Holy Man in the Unholy, Wild West of Ireland”.

Brendan Gleeson is better known to wider audiences as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter film series, but in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, he is a tour de force as Irish priest Father James.

Father James is threatened during a confessional by a man in his congregation. He is given a week to live by the enraged man, who seeks revenge for being raped by a priest as a boy. Father James does not break the Seal of Confession, and refuses to turn-in the man, even though he knows exactly who it is. If the want-to-be-killer stays true to his word, Father James has only seven days to reconcile with his estranged daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) and protect his small church from an increasingly hostile cast of townspeople.

In true McDonagh fashion, heavy shades of black comedy swirl with mortal drama, making Calvary a great piece of modern commentary on faith, forgiveness, and family that also provides unforgiving entertainment.

This film is available to own!

11. Unbroken*

Directed by veteran actress Angelina Jolie, Unbroken is the traditional World War II soldier’s story with a few awe-inspiring twists. First, Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) was an Olympic contender in the 1936 Berlin games. Second, he survived 47 days at sea after the bomber he was on was forced to go down. Finally, he was captured and sent to not only one, but two Japanese POW camps, where he was subjected to the cruelty of Corporal Mutsuhiro "Bird" Watanabe (Miyavi).

Unbroken has everything that an Oscar-darling should: a strong lead character, hardships and trials, a screenplay based on true and inspirational material, and an obvious message about never giving up on one’s self. It was snubbed in all of the major categories. However, the true artistry of director of photography Roger Deakins did not go unnoticed, and he snagged the nomination for best cinematography.

*(3 Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing)

10. Interstellar*

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies on a Cosmic Level”.

Christopher Nolan seems intent on trying to outdo himself with every motion picture he completes. For the past decade, most of is energies have been funneled into The Dark Knight Trilogy by Warner Bros. (who, in turn, graciously let Nolan have time and resources to make The Prestige and Inception as a reward for making them sooooo much Batman money). This time, it seems that Nolan wished to pay homage to his forefathers in the form of the sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar.

To the trained eye, the story of spaceship pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), and his quest to save the human race by finding an inhabitable planet through a black hole, firmly salutes such great films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Koyaanisqatsi. Certain shots, elements of the production design, and Hans Zimmer’s semi-predictable score make it quite apparent.

However, Interstellar is a brand new story that does present ideas based on recent theories in quantum physics and space travel. Albeit with a couple of classic Nolan Brothers’ plot holes, the story still impressed acclaimed physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is exciting to see that Nolan has faith in audiences to give them a movie that has a lot going on, and that he has created something with old Lucas-Spielberg-Coppola Blockbuster nostalgia.

*(5 Nominations: Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design)

This film is available for per-order!

9. American Sniper*

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “A Study of Warrior Culture”.

The widely acclaimed, yet controversial life-story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, gets the Clint Eastwood treatment in American Sniper.

It came as a shock to some, and no surprise to others, when the docudrama/war thriller was nominated for best picture. Though it may not win, the film certainly has qualities that any good, American war film should have. Eastwood presents Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as nothing more than a soldier trying to do his duty and what he believes is right. The battle sequences are gritty and fast-paced. The topic of PTSD and the moral tug-of-wars of modern warfare are not sugar-coated or covered up. Though there are times the story verges on becoming right-winged propaganda, it is saved by the honest portrayal of what it could be like to be a soldier.

*(6 Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing)

This film is available for pre-order!

8. Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson is better known for her roles as romantic comedy girlfriends and skin-tight jumpsuit-clad action heroes. In the very indie flick Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer, Johansson seemed to step out of her comfort zone, donning a role with very little glamour, very little dialogue, and, yes, very little clothing. All of this she did stunningly as well as hauntingly.

Johansson plays an unknown being that charades around the Scottish countryside as an attractive, human female. After luring men back to her hideout, she feeds them into some kind of contraption that appears half mechanical and half organic. Things begin to go array when she starts to become aware of compassion and sympathy. At one point, it seems that she might be capable of falling in love. This concerns her motorbike-driving overseer (Jeremy McWilliams), who frantically tries to find her as he cleans up after her mistakes. At the film’s conclusion, the creature finds out who (or what) she really is at a time that proves grim.

Under the Skin, based bizarrely on a novel by Michel Faber, could easily have been some kind of modern, B-movie schlock like the likes of Ed Wood. However, Glazer masterfully uses practical effects, allegorical visions, and sounds to create an experience that feels like 2001: A Space Odyssey mixed with a David Fincher dark drama. Ironically, Johansson brings a human element to the story as she plays something that is obviously not human. Her character, which looks at the human race from a totally outside point of view, shows us the best and worst of human traits and how we ultimately treat each other. She inflicts pain upon humans, but their fate almost seems far more humane (and strangely sexier) than the harm that is eventually inflicted upon her. Though the creature has committed unspeakable acts, one could almost feel sorry for her at the end. She learned so much about humanity when it was too late.

This author commends the visual flare and Johansson’s performance in Under the Skin, and wished that the Academy had given more consideration to it in the categories of cinematography, editing, and best actress in a leading role.

This film is available to own!

7. Gone Girl*

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “Anatomies of Modern Murder and Modern Marriage”.

Gillian Flynn’s novel about a man and his missing wife is masterfully crafted into cinematic form by master director David Fincher. Though the film was robbed of nominations for Fincher and the whole picture itself, Rosamund Pike’s performance rightfully seized a best actress nomination.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is suspected of murdering his wife Amy (Pike), her whereabouts a mystery and her blood found in great quantities in their home. As Ben proclaims his innocence and plays the part of worried husband, he has really no idea that he is playing an even bigger part in a well-constructed crime story. Ultimately, he is being duped.

Gone Girl is modern-Hitchcockian fun twisted by Fincher’s dark takes on human violence and sexuality. Just like Terry Gilliam, Fincher doesn’t care much for the butt-kissing and politics of the film industry. He has proved himself constantly, so has no need to. Hell hath no fury like the Academy scorned… or something like that.

*(1 Nomination: Best Actress)

This film is available to own!

6. Life Itself

It is a real shame that this feature length documentary is not up for an Oscar. For that, this author gives the Academy two thumbs down. The story of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert was everything an engaging, non-fiction piece of cinema should be. It was informational, inspiring, comical at times, and touching. It opened the Tallgrass International Film Festival 2014.

The opening of the film finds Ebert in a hospital room, half of his face gone from the surgeries that battled his cancer. However, the brave, enthusiastic man is typing away on his laptop, never silenced by his disease. His wife and true love, Chaz, stands by his side literally and metaphorically. As he reminisces to the camera, (with the help of the speaking capabilities of his computer) photos, interviews, archival videos, and graphics act as flashbacks, telling the entire tale of how a Chicago kid got one of the greatest jobs in the world at one of the largest newspapers in the country. The highlights of his career include winning a Pulitzer Prize, co-writing the screenplay to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, co-hosting a T.V. show with fellow critic and frienemy Gene Siskel, and mingling with Hollywood’s elite at a plethora of festivals around the world.

The ending is, of course, sad, but not necessarily tragic. Ebert went out on his own terms, working in the job and life he loved right up until the last. Perhaps the Academy was too afraid to nominate Life Itself, because it probably would steamroll the competition.

This film is available for pre-order!

5. The Imitation Game*

It is about time that popular culture pays some respect to the man who helped save the world from the Nazis and invented the computer. He was also gay, in a time and place where homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment or state-forced hormonal treatment.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the hero with an insanely high I.Q. in Morton Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. Genius is only the first word that describes Turing. Much like a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg of the 1940s, Turing is the father of the very machine that made the two previously mentioned fellows. They have nothing on their forefather. He built the very first computer (affectionately named Christopher) completely from scratch in the secretive Bletchley Park, its job to crack the Enigma Codes that the Nazis used to coordinate their war plans.

The film has the awesome feeling of The Social Network meets Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets PBS series The Bletchley Circle. Smart dialogue and subject matter blends beautifully with historical thrills and personal dramas. On top of that, it has an interesting and refreshing dynamic between the two lead characters. Traditionally two parts that would no doubt have incited a romance, Turing and Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) are only good friends. They still manage to break each other’s hearts in certain ways, but their situation shows that man-woman duos on the screen do not have to end up falling in love or having sex to be real, emotional, and fulfilling examples of relationships.

*(8 Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design)

This film is available for pre-order!

4. Foxcatcher*

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “Shaking Hands with the Bird of Prey”.

Multimillionaire John du Pont hires the Schultz brothers, a pair of Olympic medalist wrestlers, to coach his own Olympic wrestling team on his sprawling estate in Pennsylvania. What follows is a series of events, filled with psychological abuse, physical stress, and outlandish business deals, that ultimately leads the characters and audience down a road ending in tragedy.

The major highlights to Foxcatcher include its unique plot and amazing ensemble cast. What first feels like a family docudrama about brothers turns into a sports drama, and then pulls another twist to become a psycho-thriller, all the while never losing the identity of the last genre it departs from, resulting in a refreshing movie that is delightful in being unpredictable. Channing Tatum (playing Mark Schultz) transforms from a champion to a victim as he is pulled between the powers of Steve Carell’s masterful du Pont and Mark Ruffalo’s solid David Schultz. Carell’s performance is the most noteworthy, leaving behind the shells of rom-com dads and modern fools for a mentally-complex and monumental character that left an actual impression in the worlds of economics and sports. Carell deserves his Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role.

*(5 Nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Makeup and Hairstyling)

This film is available for pre-order!

3. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)**

(* could steal the Best Picture Oscar)

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “Leveling-up on Fame”.

Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is looking for a comeback with his Broadway play after his fall from fame as the action hero Birdman. Problems arise as he must replace an actor with artistic, method performer Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), make ends meet financially with the help of his friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), and attempt to control and understand his drug addicted daughter Sam (Emma Stone). All of this occurs as opening night approaches and the critics loom like vultures.

Unique in editing and camera work, and loaded to full capacity with powerhouse performances, Birdman is a prime contender for best picture winner. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his crew have taken great care as superb visual artists to make most of the entire film appear to be shot in one long take. Linklater went to great lengths to expand the passage of time in Boyhood, while Iñárritu went to great lengths to speed it up in Birdman. The result is a film refreshing to the general audience with its high energy. It is, by all accounts, a jazzy film in its kinetic style and musical score.

Last, but not least, let us not forget Michael Keaton’s excellent performance as underdog Riggan, playing a man who wants so badly to return to relevancy, and succeeding in returning to it himself in all actuality.

*(9 Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing)

This film is available for pre-order!

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel**

(* could steal the Best Picture Oscar)

Wes Anderson borrows the minds of audiences yet again, asking them to suspend their disbelief and imagine that there really was a European country of Zubrowka that existed between the two World Wars. In this country was one of the most luxurious and most accommodating hotels in the world: The Grand Budapest. It was run by Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his loyal, dedicated lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). As if things were not already adventurous enough for the two, with many guests requiring them to do many things, they became embroiled in a noble family drama turned art heist turned murder.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is W. Anderson’s best work yet. Though he has produced other greats like Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, this Oscar contender has everything one of his films should have, and more. It has the kind of dry, quirky, straightforward humor and characters of his invention, with the humor laced with smart cheekiness and characters swept up in extraordinary circumstances. This time, however, everything, especially the characters, feels far more relatable. They don’t just send each other frilly letters (seen in an overhead shot) saying “I love you” in monotone, they actually do love each other. On top of that, beautiful, scaled-down models and practical effects make a small, wholesome production take on the slight edge of an Old Hollywood epic.

W. Anderson may finally have the lethal combination to steal an Oscar every time he is nominated from now on if he keeps reinventing the formula of this winner.

*(9 Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hair)

This film is available to own!

1. Boyhood***

(**author predicts Best Picture Oscar Winner)

Read more about this film in this author’s article: “Timely Cinema”.

This is director Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, a work of modern cinema that is as experimental as it is intimate. Boyhood will surely become one of the best movies on all critics’ lists and AFI100 lists. A Criterion Collection acquisition is likely eminent. It may not be quite etched in stone yet, but Boyhood should quickly become one of the most important films of all time. This author would be surprised if it does not win the Academy Award for Best Picture (although the best chances of upset would be from The Grand Budapest Hotel or Birdman).

Boyhood is the chronicle of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from grade school adolescent to college-bound young man. This includes the parallel maturation of his sister, Samantha, (Lorelei Linklater) and the troubled roles and love life of their single mother (Patricia Arquette). His only forms of escape are weekends with his father (Ethan Hawke) and the relatable American experiences of antics with friends and the discovery of love.

Where films of epic scope manipulate the passage of time in changes of set, makeup, and casting, Boyhood goes with the passage of time, returning to the same cast to shoot scenes over a period of twelve years. The result is an expansive time-lapse nearly three hours long, seamless without title cards, making the audience reacquaint themselves with characters and say “Ah! I remember you.” It is as if Linklater lassoed a fraction of a lifetime, pasted it into a moving photo album, and shared it with the world.

*(6 Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing)

This film is available to own!

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