Tuesday, February 17, 2015


[A version of this article appears in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/feb/17/counterpoint-oscars/ ]

I have even less interest than usual in making Oscar predictions this year; it's the whitest and most unimpressive slate of nominees in years, overlooking a particular wealth of absolutely amazing work, including some featured in the films below. But as is my tradition, I offer this list of the 10 best films of 2014 just in time to provide a counterpoint to the Oscars, with a little bit of Academy Awards commentary thrown in.

My three top films were hard to rank; I could make a case that any one of them was the best film of the year. The two I ranked first are underappreciated, and both happen fundamentally to be stories of heroic faith. They are followed by two films that have received and deserved a lot of awards notice. My list also includes three films that I first saw at last year's Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), two of which garnered Oscar nominations. I've provided links to my full-length reviews of all but three of the films; those I have yet to review, so I've provided a preview of forthcoming longer pieces on them.

First, here's the list:

1.  Selma

2.  Calvary

3.  Boyhood

4.  The Grand Budapest Hotel

5.  Metro Manila

6.  Keep On Keepin' On

7.  Ida

8.  Two Days, One Night

9.  Dear White People

10. Finding Vivian Maier.

1.) Of all the films on my list, "Selma" pulls off the most difficult and important storytelling on this or any list. The American film industry loves stories of dark chapters in other people's history (most notably Nazi Germany), but doesn't have much of a track record for producing films that wrestle competently with the troubled parts of our own, barely more recent history. Ava DuVernay deserved an Oscar nomination for best director for what she accomplished here: a depiction of an important chapter of American Civil Rights history which neither whitewashes nor oversimplifies, and which imparts a sense of the canny strategy, guts, and heroic faith that it took to win for black Americans rights already guaranteed to them by the Constitution. She has set the bar for future work in telling the scores of neglected stories of this part of our history. And David Oyelowo deserved best actor honors for presenting Martin Luther King, Jr., as a living human, a young man thrust into leadership with the skills to pull it off but also with flawed humanity.

As with any historical drama, valid questions can be raised about some dramatic choices (most notably about Coretta Scott King, whose depiction here likely diminishes her influence, though no more than has chronically been the case). But compared to most other fact-based dramas (including the Oscar-nominated "The Theory of Everything," "The Imitation Game," and, most egregiously, "American Sniper"), "Selma" gets the balance right between facts and truth. You can read my full length review here.

[Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language; on at least 69 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Song; deserved nominations for Best Director (Ava DuVernay) and Best Actor (David Oyelowo); still in limited release and well worth seeing on the big screen.]

2.) "Calvary" is the film that means the most to me personally. It is also a perfect depiction of heroic faith as it might be lived by the rare person who takes seriously what faith demands in daily life. I actually can't think of a film that deals with questions of faith in a more complex and challenging way--which may account for why it hasn't really received the critical reception that it deserves. What passes for faith, in life and on film, is too often way more packaged and safe than what is depicted here; this film is pitched perfectly between faith and doubt, and shows how heroic action often occurs in exactly that intersection. It's a film I will return to for inspiration again and again. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence, and some drug use; deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (John Michael McDonagh), Best Actor (Brendan Gleeson), Best Original Screenplay (John Michael McDonagh), and Best Original Score (Patrick Cassidy); on at least 19 other critics' top 10 lists; available on DVD and streaming.]

3.) "Boyhood" has received universal acclaim--and that acclaim is, for once, well-deserved. By filming over the actual span of the lead character's childhood and making flexible and attentive use of that childhood in constructing this story, writer-director Richard Linklater created a container for storytelling that is far more authentic than the usual film fare, certainly more authentic than other coming-of-age stories and stories about children. He gets excellent work from the two children at this film's center, and also great work from the parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who deserve to win Oscars for their performances. The film is full of nuance about how kids and parents can be both good and perfectly awful, sometimes in the same moment. The film has been justly criticized for depicting an unrealistically white Texas in which the only Latino character is a crude stereotype; though that isn't okay, I still think the film succeeds on its own terms, and I hope Linklater has absorbed that very fair criticism in the midst of all the praise he has justly received. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for best supporting actor (Ethan Hawke), best supporting actress (Patricia Arquette), original screenplay (Richard Linklater), and best director (Richard Linklater); on at least 151 other critics' top ten lists; still in limited release and also available on DVD and streaming]

4.) Wes Anderson's films are famously not for everyone, and I will cop to being a fan, though not of every one of his films. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is one of his best. It is characteristically quirky, laugh-out-loud funny, and packed with interesting characters who are both comic and soulful. He has achieved a meticulous and dazzling visual style here that feels both borrowed and original; Anderson loves old things and puts them to fresh use. And the film's plot centers around a very ugly and complicated part of European history, which gives the whole enterprise an air of tragic wistfulness that makes it linger in one's memory. Like all of Anderson's best films, I expect to revisit this one often.

[Rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for cinematography, costume design, film editing, production design, and original score; also nominated for best picture, best director (Wes Anderson), and best original screenplay (Wes Anderson); also deserved a nomination for best supporting actor (Ralph Fiennes); on at least 116 other critics' top ten lists; available on DVD and streaming.]

5.) "Metro Manila" was my favorite film of last year's PIFF, and I am really disappointed that the film achieved neither a theatrical release nor the critical acclaim that it deserves. That's the price that director Sean Ellis paid for following the path that the Filipino story he sought to tell led him; he worked with Filipino actors, relied on them to translate the story into Tagalog, and accepted the challenge of directing in a language he didn't understand. Those choices surely dimmed both the film's commercial prospects and its chances for awards recognition (since it doesn't look like typical award-worthy fare), but the pay-offs in terms of the authenticity and depth of this story are profound. This film literally took my breath away when I first saw it, and I highly recommend taking its absorbing journey into the lives of marginalized people. You can read my full-length review here.
[Not rated; in Tagalog and English; deserved Academy Award nominations for best director (Sean Ellis), best original screenplay (Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers), and best picture; available on DVD and streaming]

6.) I admired the film "Whiplash" and am happy for its Oscar nominations for best picture and best supporting actor (J. K. Simmons). However, the antidote to the philosophy of Simmons' character--a conservatory band director who espouses the view that great music requires sadistic abuse at the hands of a mentor--can be found in the transcendent "Keep On Keepin' On." This documentary--my hands-down favorite of the year--explores the relationship between jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, who played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie and was a mentor to Quincy Jones, and a young sight-impaired pianist, Justin Kauflin. Kauflin is merely the latest in a long, long line of musicians who Terry has mentored and loved into doing their best musical work, and here one sees a relationship that is profoundly life-giving to both men. Both are struggling with health issues and life challenges, and both speak the language of music so well that listening to and watching them is a very moving revelation. This is love personified--and it works.

[Rated R for some language; deserved an Academy Award nomination and win for best documentary feature; on at least 2 other critics' top ten lists; available on DVD and streaming.]

7.) "Ida" is another of the films I saw first at last year's PIFF, and it is a beauty. Set in Poland in 1962, it follows a young novice nun's reluctant journey into her own history, where she discovers that she is a Jew and that her family history contains terrible tragedy. The director cast a veteran to play Ida's hard-bitten aunt, who has managed her trauma by grabbing at destructive power, and chose a young woman he encountered in a coffee shop to play the title character. Both choices paid off richly, and the latter actress (who had never acted before) perfectly captures the soul of a young woman at a crossroads, whose years of spiritual practice prepare her to struggle with questions she had not thought to examine. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality, and smoking; in Polish; nominated for Academy Awards for best foreign language film and best cinematography; on at least 58 other critics' top ten lists; available on DVD.]

8.) The films of Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are concerned with realistically depicting the day-to-day struggles of the working class, and "Two Days, One Night" is their very finest work to date. Its main character, Sandra, about to return to her factory job after a medical leave, learns that her job has been eliminated by a vote in which her foreman presented her colleagues with a choice between receiving a significant bonus or keeping Sandra in her job. What follows is a weekend in which Sandra, having persuaded the boss to hold a re-vote the following Monday, sets out to persuade a majority of her colleagues to change their minds. Marion Cotillard perfectly captures Sandra's fear and agony, and the story unfolds to demonstrate the array of ways in which people respond when called upon to think about interests other than their own. This acutely perceptive film tells a particular and somewhat ordinary story very well; it also functions as a metaphor for the ways in which we humans often badly assess the stakes of our constant battles for resources and energy. There is much, much to think about here.
[Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements; in French, Arabic, and English; Marion Cotillard is nominated for and deserves to win an Academy Award for best actress; on at least 37 other critics' top ten lists; still in limited theatrical release]

9.) I little suspected that "Dear White People" would end up on my top 10 list when I first saw it, because it was so uncomfortable to watch. That discomfort turned out to be so rich with ideas and tools for struggling with them that this clever film won me over with its sheer ambition. It tosses up a whole host of questions about race that no other film has dared to touch, and then wisely resists answering them. This film contains challenges for everyone on the spectrum, and that kind of rare courage and originality deserves a shout-out in any year. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated R for language, sexual content, and drug use; deserved an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay; on at least 9 other critics' top 10 lists; available on DVD and streaming]

10.) Finally, another of the films I saw first at last year's PIFF, "Finding Vivian Maier" tells the story of an obscure life that contained actual buried treasure, and gives one pause to reflect on how often the same may be true of those we overlook. Its subject spent her life as a nanny to a number of Chicago families, while obsessively documenting her observations of the world in beautiful and artistic photos which she never developed, and which were later discovered by the filmmakers. The film applies a kind of reverence to the exploration of a very odd person with a keen eye for outsiders, and invites reflection on the neglected art of attentiveness. You can read my full-length review here.

[Not rated; in English and French; nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature; available on DVD and streaming]

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