Movie News & Reviews

The best films of 2014: Three critics’ picks

Michael Keaton is Riggan and Emma Stone is Sam in “Birdman.”
Michael Keaton is Riggan and Emma Stone is Sam in “Birdman.” 20th Century Fox

Let’s hear it for “Birdman” and the “Boyhood” wonder.

We asked our three film critics to give us their 10 favorite movies of the year. As critics are wont to do, they disagreed as much as they agreed.

Robert W. Butler, Jon Niccum and Loey Lockerby concurred that Michael Keaton’s meta-meditation on stardom, “Birdman,” and Richard Linklater’s years-in-the-making “Boyhood” belonged on their individual lists.

But there are many other movies our critics believe are among the year’s best. Check out their lists.

Robert W. Butler

2014 wasn’t a year of great movies.

Great performances, yes, but often in movies that were only good.

Which poses a problem for the critic assembling a 10 best list. Is a spectacular piece of acting enough? Just how far can it lift a movie that in other regards fails to reach the stratospheric atmosphere of cinema art?

Examples: Eddie Redmayne’s astounding work as cosmologist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Robin Wright in “The Congress.” Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler.”

Ultimately you have to fall back on the basics, looking not at a film’s parts but at its totality, at the personality it presents to the world. Does the experience stick with you, burrowing into your consciousness so effectively that months or even years later you can recall the thrill of viewing?

These are the films that did it for me this year. There are several documentaries (the genre least insulting to the intelligence of audiences), one foreign title and several independents (a couple of which came and went in the blink of an eye).

There’s only one mainstream release because, well, because Hollywood is less into discovery than into recycling the tried and true.

1. “Ida”

Poland, 1961. Orphaned in the war, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take vows as a nun. But first she must meet her only living relative: her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, cynical judge who rather unkindly informs Anna that her real name is Ida and that she’s a Jew.

The aunt and niece hit the road to excavate their family’s tortured history.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” succeeds brilliantly as a story of personal awakening, faith and disbelief. It’s also a probing examination of Poland’s troubled past, from the rabid anti-Semitism of the German occupation to the drab amorality of the post-World War II Communist era.

And along the way the film achieves a sort of meditative state, thanks to languid pacing and some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography ever. “Ida” works on so many levels that one viewing doesn’t do it justice. On streaming services and DVD.

2. “Boyhood”

Richard Linklater made “Boyhood” over 12 years, annually shooting scenes featuring the same actors. The result melds the specific with the universal in a way never before experienced in a fiction film.

Young Mason (played from ages 6 to 18 by Ellar Coltrane) grows up in Texas, the son of a good-hearted mother (Patricia Arquette) who makes bad romantic choices and a largely absent father (Ethan Hawke) who is little more than a kid himself.

There’s no real plot, just the accumulation of small snippets from a life that add up to powerful insights about growing up, aging and the passage of time.

Despite its long gestation, “Boyhood” maintains a constant tone. Linklater has opted for a low-key, insightful approach that pulls us ever deeper into Mason’s world. The film becomes a profound statement about being human. On streaming services. On DVD Jan. 6. It might return to select local theaters.

3. “Rich Hill”

This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary from cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo focuses on three adolescent boys coming of age southeast of Kansas City in Rich Hill, Mo. It’s a compassionate and sobering study of poverty in America.

Harley, Appachey and Andrew and their struggling families are the people the rest of us look upon with amusement and disdain. But as 14-year-old Andrew, the most likable and promising of the three, declares: “We’re not trash. We’re good people.”

“Rich Hill” leaves us aching from the emotional and spiritual toll of poverty, part of a generational cycle that seems destined to be repeated indefinitely.

Yet despite the odds, Andrew hopes that things eventually will turn around for his family: “God must be busy with everyone else.”

Get ready to have your heart broken. No video release date set.

4. “Birdman”

In his marvel of tour de force filmmaking, writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”) delivers a heady mix of dark comedy and psychic meltdown with energy vibrating from every frame.

Michael Keaton is a former action movie star trying to regain artistic credibility by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. The film follows him through the rehearsals and preview performances as his world unravels — and the whole thing is presented as one long, uninterrupted take.

Lacking conventional editing, which plays a huge role in setting rhythm and dramatic tone, “Birdman” compensates with camera movement, incessant jazz drumming on the soundtrack and the exquisitely crafted dialogue delivered by a hugely talented cast (Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and especially Edward Norton as an actor whose method is maddening).

I’m not sure that “Birdman” makes a big statement, but moviemaking this spectacular is statement enough. In select local theaters.

5. “CitizenFour”

Is Edward Snowden a megalomaniac? A head case? An America-hating traitor?

After watching “CitizenFour” you may call him a hero.

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras was one of the first people Snowden contacted after making off with top secret files revealing how our government eavesdrops on the phone calls and emails of average Americans. She set up her cameras in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden was debriefed by Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, who would break the story.

Snowden doesn’t appear to have a Messiah complex. He’s perfectly rational, says he’ll accept the consequences, insisting, “I’m more willing to risk imprisonment than risk my intellectual freedom.”

“CitizenFour” drives home the immensity of metadata collecting in this country in ways that leave viewers shocked and bewildered. It’s like having a front-row seat on history. On DVD in February.

6. “Gone Girl”

More than a hugely effective mystery about a missing woman and the husband suspected of her murder, “Gone Girl” is one of cinema’s most supremely cynical statements about marriage.

Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (who grew up in KC and here adapts her best-selling novel) have enough ideas for three movies. In addition to great-ish performances from Ben Affleck as the hard-to-like husband and Rosamund Pike as his entitled and astonishingly devious wife, “Gone Girl” delivers a hugely perceptive and bleakly comic depiction of the tabloid media, Internet opinion-making and the astoundingly shallow fickleness of the American public.

The film has been called misogynist. But it doesn’t limit its contempt to women. You end up rooting not so much for any one character — they’re all seriously flawed — but for the film itself, which despite its glum view of human nature is utterly engrossing and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

Suspense, social commentary, great performances and a seriously twisted outlook — this is one killer movie. In theaters.

7. “Land Ho!”

In Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens’ minimalist marvel, two graying 60-somethings take a vacation to Iceland and deliver one of the truest films ever about male bonding.

Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), a retired New Orleans surgeon brimming over with good ol’ boy boorishness and political incorrectness, volunteers to finance the expedition. His pal Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), a sad sack former symphony musician now working in a bank, is still smarting from his divorce and really needs an escape.

Cruising in a massive Hummer, smoking pot and relishing expensive meals, bumping up against the opposite sex and taking in Iceland’s scenic wonders (Mitch compares an erupting geyser to the Earth having an orgasm), these two gents tell us a lot about aging and friendship.

“Land Ho!” unfolds naturally and without big dramatic moments. It seems to be the perfect combination of scripted dialogue and off-the-cuff improvisation. And when it was over I was ready to follow these two just about anywhere. On DVD.

8. “20,000 Days on Earth”

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s doc about Aussie rocker/Renaissance man Nick Cave is one of the best films ever about creativity.

An unconventional, kaleidoscopic vision lacking anything like a straightforward biography, it focuses on revealing conversations between Cave and longtime bandmate Warren Ellis, singer/collaborator Kylie Minogue, actor and friend Ray Winstone, and psychologist Darian Leader. These feel like spontaneous chats, yet they have been filmed and edited in the style of a studio fiction film — beautiful lighting, stunning frame composition, multiple camera angles.

This is a probing portrait of a man for whom every experience is the inspiration for creativity — even the most intimate moments of his marriage (his wife, understandably, refuses to be seen on camera).

“A song stares down our own extinction,” he says. “You can be God-like for a moment.”

Or you can watch this movie and at least feel it second-hand. On DVD and select streaming services.

9. “The Homesman”

Tommy Lee Jones co-wrote, directed and stars in this terse yet haunting Western about a reprobate drifter (Jones) and a spinster lady (Hilary Swank) who transport across the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s an unusual cargo: three women who have been driven mad by life on the frontier.

The movies traditionally view the West as a place of growth and possibility. But Jones finds isolation and terror in the endless empty landscape and overwhelming skies.

It’s the intimate moments that provide a bit of respite: the army deserter-turned-claim jumper who slowly discovers his humanity, the “uncommonly alone” woman desperate to seize a last chance at happiness.

Jones eschews dramatic grandstanding, and the film’s humor is dark and subdued. Still, in its last act “The Homesman” becomes surprisingly moving. It’s a genuine art film with a world view as bleak as anything in Cormac McCarthy. In select local theaters.

10. “Whiplash”

My memories of Damien Chazelle’s film have only become stronger in the weeks since I first saw this drama about the angry, violent relationship between a young drummer (Miles Teller) and the conservatory professor (J.K. Simmons) who leads him in the school’s elite studio jazz band.

Expect an Oscar nod (and probably a win) for Simmons, playing an educator-as-drill sergeant who is routinely profane, insulting and capable of reducing young musicians to sobs. He’s a monster — but a brilliant one.

In the less showy role, Teller (of last year’s “The Spectacular Now”) more than holds his own, suggesting that behind that puppy-dog demeanor lies a fierce ego desperate for validation.

These two offer acting as hand-to-hand combat, and when they’re finished there is blood — literal and figurative — all over the drum kit. At Tivoli and Town Center.

Jon Niccum

1. “Whiplash”

Like other primers of classic entertainment, “Whiplash” opens with a drumroll. But all the sweat, sacrifice and passion that go into making that drumroll is what this riveting drama reveals.

The Sundance winner presents a battle of wills at a premier arts conservatory between a merciless music teacher (J.K. Simmons) and a stubborn young jazz percussionist (Miles Teller) who is obsessed with being the best. The veteran Simmons (“Juno”) plays the instructor in “Full Metal Jacket” mode, yet with shades of compassion that make his domineering presence an Oscar-worthy showcase of praise and abuse.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” (named for the Hank Levy tune that factors into the dazzling soundtrack) always stays a step ahead of the audience, never rushing or dragging as it builds to a virtuosic onstage confrontation. At Tivoli and Town Center.

2. “Boyhood”

Real life occasionally permeates a movie in a way that carries it beyond simple entertainment. That’s “Boyhood,” one of narrative cinema’s most committed endeavors.

Filmmaker Richard Linklater (the “Before” trilogy) reveals key scenes in the life of shy Texas kid Mason (Ellar Coltrane), beginning in elementary school and ending when he arrives at college. Linklater shot the enthralling project as a series of short films over the span of 12 years, so the audience gets to witness Mason age for real.

Equally fascinating is seeing the effects of time on his pragmatic mom (Patricia Arquette) and dreamer father (Ethan Hawke) as they navigate a series of marriages, careers and ill-timed decisions. Rarely has a picture displayed this level of scope and intimacy. On streaming services. On DVD Jan. 6. It might return to select local theaters.

3. “Mistaken for Strangers”

The best documentaries often arise when a filmmaker doesn’t really grasp what the story is until shooting is finished. That’s the case with “Mistaken for Strangers.”

Slacker Tom Berninger is invited to be a roadie for his older, thinner, better-looking brother Matt, lead singer of the National. (Never heard of them? No worries.) He decides to film the band on and off the stage during its European tour.

But the music is only a backdrop. What emerges is a touching personal tale about Tom’s lifelong inability to live up to his brother. As expectations and harsh realities collide, Tom realizes this movie could be his redemption. No DVD date set.

4. “Wild”

“I’m an experimentalist. I’m the girl that says yes instead of no,” declares Reese Witherspoon in this absorbing adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical nature adventure.

Up to that point, the “yes” mostly included infidelity and heroin use. But with her life in turmoil, Strayed attempts a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail despite no previous backpacking experience.

Witherspoon has never been better (or seemed more like an adult) than in “Wild,” a performance that could realistically net her a second Oscar. Buoyed by director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”), Witherspoon captures the fear, desperation and liberation that accompanies an enormous leap of faith. In theaters.

5. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”/“Guardians of the Galaxy”

Marvel unleashed two of its most entertaining superhero projects, which also happened to be the year’s best adventure flicks.

Remove the refreshingly old-school action and “The Winter Soldier” would work just fine as a political thriller — a twisty, trust-nobody epic that shares as much with 1970s paranoia classics such as “Three Days of the Condor” (also starring Robert Redford) as it does “Iron Man 3.”

Cap (Chris Evans) finds himself disavowed by his government when he uncovers a Patriot Act takeover that ranks with the best lunatic Bond villain schemes.

Meanwhile, “Guardians” upgrades a D-list comic book team into the slickest, funniest blockbuster of the year. Chris Pratt portrays an opportunistic intergalactic bandit whose latest theft earns the wrath of a warlord bent on wiping out a rival race.

But the bandit’s camaraderie with the motley heroes of the title — including a genetically modified raccoon and a tree-like humanoid with a limited vocabulary — gives this buddy pic its mojo. On DVD and OnDemand.

6. “Locke”

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) might be sitting in the driver’s seat, but he is rarely in control. The British changeling Hardy — who can effortlessly play the mountainous supervillain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” or a mousy Brooklyn bartender in “The Drop” — portrays a construction supervisor and family man whose meticulously organized life unravels in real time during a harrowing car ride to London.

Writer/director Steven Knight (“Redemption”) provides Hardy with Oscar-worthy material that showcases the actor’s ridiculous range within a tightly controlled setting; Locke’s only interactions are on a hands-free phone. It’s positively hypnotic. On DVD.

7. “Birdman”

Merging fantasy and reality, “Birdman” steers one simulated unbroken shot through the opening weekend of a cursed theater production.

The film stars Michael Keaton (1989’s “Batman”) as Riggan, a former box-office star known for playing the superhero of the title. Riggan is mounting a Broadway drama that could resuscitate his career. The backstage conflicts are rife — from a hotshot method actor (Edward Norton) to Riggan’s bitter daughter/personal assistant (Emma Stone).

But what catapults this heavy film into greatness is the battle with his comic book alter ego, heard as a voice in his head (who sounds suspiciously like Christian Bale’s gravelly Batman) that berates him to access his innate superpowers.

The tale is ambiguous about whether Riggan possesses such powers, but there’s never any doubt about the ones exhibited by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”). In select theaters.

8. “Blue Ruin”

Macon Blair portrays a shaggy homeless dude living in his rusted Buick (the “Blue Ruin” of the title) who slips back into society when he learns a murderer is getting released from a Virginia prison. Soon, he becomes a lone McCoy who has taken on a clan of Hatfields.

The Cannes winner is a revenge thriller that doesn’t seem to know it’s a revenge thriller. Instead, filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier crafts an engrossing character study where the quietly resourceful protagonist carries out his grim mission with tragicomic results. There’s not a moment in this indie effort that feels phony. On DVD and some streaming services.

9. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Love-him-or-loathe-him filmmaker Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”) delivers another fastidiously shot comedy rife with color and atmosphere. Only this time he adds a level of likable humanism to the mix. The story isn’t really about anything — Anderson’s movies never are — but it proves endlessly inventive and energetic. And for once there’s an actual ending!

The terrific Ralph Fiennes plays a legendary concierge of a majestic hotel in 1930s Europe, with Tony Revolori debuting as his novice lobby boy who learns tricks of the trade. Invading armies, a stolen painting, heirs to a family fortune and Bill Murray all converge in this stylistic free-for-all. It’s Anderson’s best effort so far. On DVD and OnDemand.

10. “The Skeleton Twins”

Unlike many “Saturday Night Live” veterans, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader prove their glory years may be ahead of them. Case in point: “The Skeleton Twins,” a profoundly moving study of two damaged siblings. A real laugh-until-you-cry experience.

The comedians play twins Maggie and Milo Dean, who move in together after his attempted suicide ends their 10-year estrangement. There are some big laughs in this indie drama — notably when Milo tries to soothe the enraged Maggie by lip-syncing to Starship’s schlocky hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” — but the film’s lingering effect comes from the deep, unwavering connection shared by these unhappy souls. On DVD and OnDemand.

Loey Lockerby

1. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Wes Anderson invents a detailed world for every movie he makes, and the one he created for this film might be his most charming yet.

Set in an alternate-reality version of 1930s Europe, “Grand Budapest” features a funny, relaxed Ralph Fiennes as the concierge of a luxury hotel who takes a young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) under his flamboyant wing. Using fake backgrounds and real emotion, Anderson lets his joy in his work leap off the screen and right into your heart. On DVD and OnDemand.

2. “Birdman”

There’s something gimmicky about shooting a film to look like one uninterrupted take, unless Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is doing it. With cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and an incredibly nimble cast, Inarritu goes backstage as a once-popular movie star (a terrific Michael Keaton) tries to mount and survive a comeback, using a Broadway play.

“Birdman” is strange, insightful and frequently hilarious, and the filming technique is seamless, keeping viewers as off-balance as the characters. It’s not a gimmick if it works this well. In select local theaters.

3. “A Most Violent Year”

Set in New York City circa 1981, J.C. Chandor’s drama is equal parts mystery and crime drama. It has a deliberate pace, but don’t let that fool you — it’s as tense as any hyperkinetic action flick.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are exceptional as an almost-upstanding businessman and his ambitious wife, but this is Chandor’s movie all the way. In his hands, a slow car chase along pothole-strewn side streets is as nail-biting as a shootout. And the shootouts are pretty impressive, too. Scheduled to open Jan. 30 in Kansas City.

4. “Gone Girl”

Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel is seriously twisted, so who better to direct it than David Fincher? “Gone Girl” may not be as gruesome as some of his other films (no “What’s in the box?” here), but it has a vicious tone that doesn’t let anyone off easy.

Ben Affleck gives a deep performance as a shallow pretty boy whose wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing. This is no angelic victim, though, and Pike is scary and mesmerizing in a role that should make her a star. In theaters.

5. “The Babadook”

Jennifer Kent’s debut feature has many typical horror elements, from a creepy kid to a shadowy monster to mysterious loud knocking at the door. What sets “The Babadook” apart is how well Kent utilizes her directorial toolbox, building tension while making the audience question its own perceptions (and those of the characters).

In the end, there are is no clear explanation for the plight of a frazzled single mom (Essie Davis) and her anxious child (Noah Wiseman). That may be the scariest thing about it. In theaters.

6. “Boyhood”

Richard Linklater has never played it safe, and he took perhaps his biggest risk by filming this coming-of-age story in real time. Ellar Coltrane is a revelation as the central figure, whom Linklater follows for 12 years, along with his sister (the director’s daughter, Lorelai) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette).

That everyone involved was able to go back to these characters over more than a decade is as impressive as the fact that they were willing to try it in the first place. On some streaming services. On DVD Jan. 6. It might return to select local theaters.

7. “Guardians of the Galaxy”

For a rush of pure fun, you couldn’t do much better in 2014 than “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Avoiding the dark themes that its fellow comic-book adaptations now employ, “Guardians” uses absurd humor to fuel its story, with Chris Pratt leading a ragtag team of not-so-super heroes. When the ill-tempered talking raccoon is not the breakout star (that would be the lovable talking tree), you know you’ve found perfect interstellar travel companions. On DVD and OnDemand.

8. “Life Itself”

Of course, a film critic would love a movie about Roger Ebert. He’s essentially the profession’s patron saint. But Steve James’ doc is no hagiography, rapidly tossing aside the straight biographical approach to examine Ebert’s often difficult personality and how it mellowed when he met his beloved wife, Chaz.

James got warts-and-all access to Ebert in his final months, and seeing the erudite legend struggle with the cancer that took his speech just makes you admire him all the more. On DVD Feb. 17.

9. “Big Hero 6”

Sure, “The Lego Movie” was awesome, but did it have any characters you wanted to hug? “Big Hero 6” has several, especially the gentle, balloon-like robot Baymax, who cares for young genius Hiro Hamada in this futuristic Marvel adaptation (the company’s oddest franchises were its best this year).

The nerds and misfits triumph here, as they usually do in movies, but watching them think their way to victory is as enjoyable as watching them fight. In theaters.

10. “Ida”

This quiet, black-and-white drama from Poland could have been made in the era it depicts, and that’s a high compliment. In the early 1960s, a convent-raised orphan (Agata Trzebuchowska) is sent to find her only living relative before she takes her vows. She ends up learning plenty about her family — and about the shadowy corners of her country’s history.

Structured and shot like a European new wave film, “Ida” doesn’t provide many answers but expects its audience to contemplate the questions instead. On streaming services and DVD.

STAR CRITICS’ TOP 10’s

Movies appearing on multiple lists in bold. “Birdman” and “Boyhood” appear on all three critics’ lists.

Robert W. Butler

1. “Ida”

2. “Boyhood”

3. “Rich Hill”

4. “Birdman”

5. “CitizenFour”

6. “Gone Girl”

7. “Land Ho!”

8. “20,000 Days on Earth”

9. “The Homesman”

10. “Whiplash”

Loey Lockerby

1. “The Grand Budapest”

2. “Birdman”

3. “A Most Violent Year”

4. “Gone Girl”

5. “The Babadook”

6. “Boyhood”

7. “Guardians of the Galaxy”

8. “Life Itself”

9. “Big Hero 6”

10. “Ida”

Jon Niccum

1. “Whiplash”

2. “Boyhood”

3. “Mistaken for Strangers”

4. “Wild”

5. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier/“Guardians of the Galaxy

6. “Locke”

7. “Birdman”

8. “Blue Ruin”

9. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

10. “The Skeleton Twins”

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