Call 2014 the year when the Oscar-bait films failed to deliver ... big time.
“Gone Girl?” One sterling performance lost in a melodramatic swamp. “Foxcatcher?” Brilliant acting at the service of an impossibly cold saga. “Into the Woods?” A calamitous third act hits plenty of sour notes. “Birdman?” More fine performances battling a smugger than smug meta mood.
So it’s a very good thing several mainstream movies rose to the occasion along with one that epitomizes what the movie-going experience is all about.
- “Begin Again” – The director of “Once,” John Carney, nearly does it again. That’s more than enough to make this musical drama the year’s most enjoyable film. Gorgeous music, complicated story arcs and a sorta/kinda/almost romance sweep over us with the delicacy all of the above demands.
- “American Sniper” – Don’t call it a comeback, merely the perfect union between director and material. Clint Eastwood finds the heroism and humanity within Chris Kyle, the famed Navy SEAL, and Bradley Cooper handles the rest. Had the movie featured some clunky anti-Iraq War memes Oscar love would commence.
- “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – The mediocre 2011 film that introduced us to Steve Rogers didn’t prepare us for this sophisticated sequel. The creative team behind “You, Me and Dupree” delivers a knockout film brimming with tart political subplots and dazzling action. If all tentpole movies were this good indie filmmakers might go out of business.
- “Whiplash” – This deeply personal drama doubles as a treatise on the artistic condition. Don’t let that high falutin’ description dissuade you. J.K. Simmons is so perfect as a demanding jazz teacher you may never look at him the same way again. A fabulous ending makes a grand film even better.
- “Edge of Tomorrow” – The year’s worst movie title camouflaged its best sci-fi fare. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are terrific as earth-bound warriors trying to out-think and out-muscle an alien invasion. Smart, comic in the right proportions and full of furious action, “Tomorrow” astounds in ways few blockbusters can muster.
Honorable Mentions: “22 Jump Street” (The funniest movie of the year, lapping the field and the original), “Housebound” (best horror movie of the year and a hoot to boot).