2014: Top 25 Movies of the Year

Here are the best movies of 2014, the ones which I think most deserve commendation. I didn’t see every movie in the world this year, but I think I did a pretty good job getting to as many as I could, and these are the ones that rose to the top 25 of that large sample.

hero_TheTaleOfPrincessKaguya-2014-1Honorable Mention: Best Animated Film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

With its watercolor artwork and unwavering sense of fantasy, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is unlike any animated film I have ever seen, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is also the second consecutive film I’ve dubbed animated picture of the year from the Japanese traditional animators Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought My Neighbor TotoroPonyo and the masterful Spirited Away. Last year they gave us The Wind Rises, the last feature from master Hayao Miyazaki. To compare Princess Kaguya to Miyazaki’s work would not be fair to this wondrous movie, but to say that it is a worthy installment into the Ghibli catalog is a great honor, well deserved.

life-itself7Honorable Mention: Best Documentary, Life Itself

Steve James got the best review of his career in 1994 when Roger Ebert gave his documentary masterpiece Hoop Dreams four-stars and writing that it transcends documentary. “It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and expose, journalism and polemic,” wrote Ebert. “It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” Over a decade later, Ebert hand picked James to direct a movie that would impact Ebert more emotionally even than Hoop Dreams did,the story of his own life. Members of the film — particularly independent film — community seem to have taken their turns paying tribute to the man who made film criticism a popular profession and point of discourse. But Life Itself is also not only a documentary and biography, it is a portrait of an era and the industry and art form that defined it.

grand-budapest-hotel-revolori-ronan25. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A comedian described The Grand Budapest Hotel as the ultimate parody of a Wes Anderson movie, and I have’t heard a better description of it yet. I remember the first time I saw the trailer, and seeing the color pallet and hearing quips and upbeat music for the first time and turning to my friend to say that all this was missing is Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, and then there they were. It lacks the intimacy and control of Anderson’s earlier greats like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, but it is as quick and quirky and fun as he has been, and his characters are as complete as ever. They are headlined by Gustave Age, another impressive demonstration of range by Ralph Fiennes, whose charisma is matched only by his mystery.

mr-turner-skip-crop24. Mr. Turner

One of my most anticpated of 2014, Mr. Turner did not disappoint after opening at the Cannes Film Festival to a shower of awards, especially for its lead Timothy Spall. Spall descends into the role of historic painter J.M.W. Turner as the audience descends into his mind. The world of the movie, shot by Dick Pope, is seen how he saw it, how he painted it. Which is to say, at once an exquisite reminder of how beautiful the world can look and a daring challenge to find it looking that way again.

Endurance-Spaceship-Interstellar-Movie-Background-800x50023. Interstellar

With Interstellar, Chris Nolan and Warner Bros. tried to create the ultimate philosophical science fiction experience that would twist the mind into never looking at the world, or at one’s self the same way ever again. Where the movie seems to have failed — and this might be the only place — is that they already did exactly that thing four years ago with Inception. But while the earlier film dared to talk about grand psychological themes by diving into the finite space of one person’s mind, Interstellar tries to comment on the nature of individual people and emotions by taking its audience on an abstract journey through time and space. It’s a 2001 remake attempt that is over explained but equally stunning to look at, and Hans Zimmer’s score let’s you get lost in the gorgeous vastness of space with Matthew McConaughey.

Article Lead - wide6160811110ogxwimage.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.10oh4f.png1412231138500.jpg-620x34922. Obvious Child

I can’t say enough about the writing and star performance in this super and wacky take on the romantic comedy genre. It’s dirty, it’s different, and it’s delicious. Jenny Slate is going to be a huge star in the blink of an eye; there is no doubt in my mind about that. Her turn as an amateur comedian in need of an abortion was fresh and bouncy, and they way that she felt like a square peg in the round hole of what dances dangerously close to boring rom-com territory makes this picture as enjoyable as a viewing experience as you’re likely to find.

Theory_of_Everything_WEdding_Kiss_Still21. The Theory of Everything

A lot of people are going to question me for saying this, but here goes: I thought The Theory of Everything was an absolutely lovely romance-history that transcended biography by never really even becoming biography. I’m famously sick and tired of “Based on the Inspiring True Story” films, and especially regarding biographies find they loose their impact when they romanticize their historical figures and forget that they should also be making a good movie (I’m looking at you Imitation GameSelmaUnbroken, none of which you will find on this page). The Theory of Everything managed not to feel like a plea to admire Stephen Hawking like those others did, possibly because the still living and working Hawking is someone we all already know so much about. Rather than paint a picture of the man, it let us fill in the frame with our wealth of knowledge of Hawking, his science and ALS sothat it could focus on making a charming movie-going experience anchored by great mimicry by Eddie Redmayne.

begin-again20. Begin Again

Begin Again slowly climbed up my ranking all year. I liked it more and more the more I thought about it. An independent film that doubles as a not-so-subtle love letter to independent film, Begin Again is a wholly modern movie that meditates on contemporary celebrity, the modern family, and the relationship between art and life. The movie asks Can a song save your life, and it answers with a resounding Yes. For the chemistry between its stars and its incredibly relatable emotional core, this is a movie that I look forward to seeing again and again over my years more than maybe anything else that came out in 2014.

the-one-i-love-sundance-119. The One I Love

Super smart and creepy and weird and awesome. The One I Love seems to totally abstract and incomprehensible when its secret trajectory remains hidden, and I have no intention of spoiling it here. I promise, when you see it, the title makes very literal sense, and the film’s courageous storytelling and editing take flight. The ambiguity of the moral is not moral ambiguity in the tradition sense of debating whether the simple act was right or wrong. You know what is morally right and wrong, you just never really know exactly what everyone is doing. It’s Twilight Zone -esque fun, so trust me, it’s worth your time.

Birdman-Movie-Visual-Effects 18. Birdman

Your Academy Award winner for Best Picture. A showbiz critique like no other — not just because its criticism is unique, but because it is a movie like no other — I’m not kidding when I say Birdman oozes greatness. Because of its one-of-a-kind editing technique (it is composed mostly of seamlessly bound long tracking shots) makes it really hard to ever look away from the big screen, so it becomes an electric viewing experience, knowing that something special is happening but always waiting for the climax that never comes because the pace keeps building and building. It derails in its final act, it abandons it’s cut-less gimmick for no discernible reason and the over-the-top acting looks better on some stars than others, but Birdman is a must see if only for study of the character Riggan Thompson, played by his own spiritual parallel Michael Keaton.

edge-of-tomorrow-tom-cruise-slice 17. Edge of Tomorrow

Birdman is a meditation on striving to resurrect careers marked by early blockbuster success that hinders post-franchise success. Edge of Tomorrow is a golden counter-example, a blockbuster action sci-fi starring Tom Cruise that is more human and honest than most movies bound by the real world. Aside from its predictably flawless special effects and editing, Edge of Tomorrow is a genre bender that also carries the weight of the war film and a strange bildungsroman. To describe its plot simply, it is Independence Day meets Groundhog Day with more intimacy and psychology than those two fine movies combined. It’s more than that. Protagonist Cage’s body returns to the same beginning every day, but the journey his mind takes, and Cruise’s ability to show that, are great cinema.

Under the Skin Official Trailer 16. Under the Skin

Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001 and Rod Serling’s landmark television series The Twilight Zone are each about to get referenced for the second time on this short list. Under the Skin is a sublime science fiction triller that replicates the slow burn of it’s Kubrician spiritual ancestor, also mimicing its aesthetic. The visuals and score of Under the Skin are its formal triumphs, but the story is mysterious and alluring to boot. It defies explanation; even though the explanation is so cut-and-dry that doesn’t seem to matter and the mystery lives on even after the emotional final scene.

Jake Gyllenhaal looks scarily thin on the set of his new movie 'Nightcrawler' in Los Angeles 15. Nightcrawler

For some reason I can’t explain, I get the feeling from Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, is a movie that a lot of people will be talking about for a long time. It’s themes, which are not gently beaten around but are directly hammered repeatedly, seem timely but are objectively much more universal than at first glance. What is specific to this time is that Jake Gyllenhaal’s protagonist Lou Bloom is an early millenial, part of the Participation-Trophy generation, and Nightcrawler might be the best on-screen depiction to date of the stuntedness of my peers and myself in this regard. Except rather than realize he doesn’t want to grow up and flying off to Neverland, Lou becomes the villian of his own fairy tale.

maxresdefault 14. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

This Iranian film by first-timer Ana Lily Amirpour is a spectacular atmospheric drama with stunning cinematography and costuming to makes its very strange subject matter than slow-marching plot easy to sit through. On top of its formal and thematic accomplishments, it is also a truly believable interpretation of what it would be like to have vampires in the real world (read on for another). The smartest thing about it is all of the vampire tropes and how Amirpour brings them in to A Girl Walks Home while not drawing attention to them and keeping them within the bounds of reality: her costume is all black and white but looks fairly ordinary, she glides around as if floating but on a stolen skateboard.

into-the-woods-anna-kendrick-emily-blunt 13. Into the Woods

When every movie this winter seemed to want to tie in to current world events, and to will away some societal evil, Into the Woods existed to be fun. By taking the form of an opera and being put in a world that completely abandons a look of reality it became the ultimate escapist film, one that allowed me as a viewer to forget for two hours my busy schedule and and of the harm in the world, and that is exactly what the world needed. It’s a live action movie that looks and feels like a fairy tale, where the hardships of reality still exist but there’s no better way to move on than to sing it out.

14 12. The Babadook

The scariest movie I have ever seen. Period. What makes movies scary is not an accident, and it definitely isn’t a vague concept or special effects. It is editing and sound design and The Babadook makes use of masterful technical filmmaking to make what might just be the most important horror film since The Blair Witch Project, and the best traditional horror film of the new century by a wide margin. Not only is it scary, but it is moving and character driven. It is to the contemporary indie revival as The Exorcist was in the New Hollywood era: a horror fable about a mother desperately fighting to protect her child from a supernatural force that on the screen seems all too real. Knock knock knock.

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11. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her

Another film that is the first of its kind, this experimental indie is by its very nature the most truly complete a cinematic story can be. Composed of two very good if bluntly ordinary films played back to back — Him and Her — this piece is a unique portrait of grief in modern city life. Him recounts the story of a man who must cope with his wife leaving him suddenly after she attempts suicide. Her is about that wife’s emotional struggle after losing their child. It is about perspective and that every story has, and needs two sides. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain give what might just be their respective career bests. Chastain is especially powerful, as her acting stigma of a childish air with unexpected maturity helps her portray the complicated situation of a grown woman but one broken by emotional trauma.

1b20e91b0dff5836cf4f404a8ba2365b 10. A Most Violent Year

There has never been a film that so clearly and to such a great effect channeled The Godfather before JC Chandor’s period crime thriller A Most Violent Year. Set in the Winter of 1981, the most crime-ridden period in the recorded history of New York City, A Most Violent Year is occupied by a man who bridges the gap between hero and anti-hero, a venue that has been surprisingly under-represented. He tries fervently to stay straight and avoid falling into the cycle of organized crime and corruption, but its specter haunts him at every corner and seems to be able to smell his desperation. This film also contains two of the year’s finest performances. Oscar Isaac is in the lead as an oil man full of ambition but unwilling to do what it takes. Jessica Chastain is his wife, the daughter of the major crime lord who might have a little taste for foul play in her blood.

gone-girl-movie-screenshot-sugar 9. Gone Girl

David Fincher is slamming the door as the premier director of dark neo-noir. His career already contains the electric and violent expressionistic film Se7en and true crime masterpiece Zodiac. Now he adds the very good best-seller adaptation starring Batman and a Bond Girl. Affleck is impeccably cast as the husband that you truly want to believe is totally harmless, but also seems like there could be a brutish underside to. Pike is equally well cast as the “amazing” woman we kind of don’t blame him for getting sick of. Of course, her uninteresting incompatibility with suburban life did not merit the death penalty, and this quickly evolves into a film that literalizes the question of whether his being a disinterested and selfish husband should land him on death row. These too-good-to-be-true newly weds take less than five years to descend from they marriage they want to the one they deserve.

Whiplash-5547.cr2 8. Whiplash

When I walked out of the theater after Whiplash I thought two things. First, I was ready to run through a brick wall. Its sound design and impeccable and fast and electric editing charged me up with adrenaline. It was a far more exciting and enticing finale than any movie about a snobby kid who plays drums had any right to have, and for that this movie will have serious staying power and be a favorite of young people in need to a face to relate to their antagonistic adult figures for generations. It is super charged in that way; it becomes Andrew versus Fletcher, good versus evil, us versus them. Second, I thought that whatever it was, I wanted to work as hard as I could to be great at something. No, to be one of the greats. Whiplash‘s style provided the first. It’s story provided the second. Both are powerful and they work perfectly in tandem.

palo-alto-2014-08 7. Palo Alto

Palo Alto is a representation of adolescent life that has been missing from motion pictures largely for about three decades. But it handles this material far more gently and carefully than the flood of teen dramas in the 1980s did, thanks largely to Gia Coppola’s exquisite direction. Not overly moralistic or expository, Palo Alto is a snapshot. It seems to be an arc-less chapter in the book of life, which I think is how most teens actually feel about their lives. They know they are supposed to be going somewhere, but don’t understand why the wave isn’t carrying them. It is limbo in every way. One character finds he doesn’t fit in among the senior citizens he volunteers with or with the children at the library. Another thinks she is too mature for silly boys her age, but is seen to be way too fragile to carry on a relationship with an older man. Palo Alto is about the transitional period when everything is changing, but nothing seems to be.

Only-Lovers-Left-Alive-2014 6. Only Lovers Left Alive

The best film of Jim Jarmusch’s increasingly iconic career in experimental and independent filmmaking is the second realistic vampire movie on this list. I will never understand that coincidence. Anyway, while A Girl Walks Home is an unbelievable and unbelievably weird atmospheric experience, Only Lovers crafts very compelling characters and a centuries-old backstory that adds are really enticing element of faux-context to the ultra-modern narrative. Shot and set in the middle of the night in hollowed out Detroit, Jarmusch doesn’t only create vampires that could fit into the world as we know it, but a world that seems to be made just for vampires. But even though I’ve mentioned vampires three times already, the greatness of Only Lovers is that it really doesn’t matter whether they are vampires or not. This is perhaps the most believable on-screen love I have ever seen. I didn’t say romance, which implies the process of falling in love. I said love, the product of time and closeness brought to life by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleson as two ageless characters whom it seems literally hurt when they’re apart.

james-gandolfini-in-the-drop-movie-3 5. The Drop

This is Dennis Lehane’s screenwriting debut, and he also wrote the source material, a short story entitled Animal Rescue. It shares a lot with other film adaptations of Lehane’s prose, such as Mystic River, a highly celebrated urban crime thriller that twists and turns with its enigmatic characters, of which its city is one. All of that description also applies to The Drop, though the characters and crime feature very little overlap and the tale is relocated from Southie to Brooklyn. It features one of the best written characters of the year, protagonist Bob played by Tom Hardy. It also features his associate Cousin Marv, played by James Gandolfini in his farewell performance. It was the perfect note for Gandolfini to exit to — wishing that he’d never exited at all — as a city man worn-down by life and mourning his loss of power and respect. After a monologue he gives about once having been feared and respected, I swear I could almost hear Paulie Walnuts say, “See ya later, T.”

wild-movie-review-20144. Wild

Wild is an emotional experience that at once serves the superficial needs of the audience by playing with the oldest tricks in the book, and weaves ultra-subtle brilliant storytelling and comments on the nature of the human experience. It is as much about memory, identity and the ways in which the mind creates narratives and handles solitude and grief as it is about one woman’s overlong walk through the woods. Wild has been criminally under-appreciated because people are afraid to dig into to, to really pay attention to and appreciate the details (horrible CGI fox aside). The way Cheryl, played by the incomparable Reese Witherspoon, effectively teaches herself to walk in the first minutes of the narrative set the stage for a film about growing psychologically, about songs bouncing around in your head, and about learning to live with yourself before you can live with others.

365054_563457-InherentVice3. Inherent Vice

I have probably typed this sentence about twenty times in the past few months but I feel I can never say it enough. Paul Thomas Anderson is probably the most talented filmmaker alive. His body of work is second to none, a string of movies so great that they would all be defining moments in the careers of most other filmmakers, without one false note. Inherent Vice is another one, and I’m beginning to think after seeing this wild and funny, twisted and contemplative, stylized and cunning tribute to its medium and its city that PTA can literally do no wrong. The novel upon which Inherent Vice is drawn was said to be unfilmable. If anyone can look that challenge in the eye and obliterate it, it is evidently Paul Thomas Anderson. Every frame is expertly created, and the candy-colored aesthetic is second only to the magnetic and cavernous mystery.

ida_still_022. Ida

Ida is almost a nostalgic piece that longs for traditional European art cinema and is every bit as great as the mid-century classics. It is the unmistakably Bergman-esque tale of a young ethnic jew looking to become a nun, but first experiencing life and exploring her identity outside the convent. Gorgeously shot, graciously acted and gently paced, Ida is an incredible achievement for Polish director Pawel Palwikowski. It’s moments of silent reflection are among the best the big screen has seen in decades, and its character arcs are as surprising as they are understandable, the balance every storyteller suffers to reach.

boyhood31. Boyhood

I’ve seen Boyhood twice, spent hours talking about it and even more hours reading about it and I’m still not sure I have the words for what this movie did to me, so I won’t try. It is a masterpiece, a once-in-a-generation special film that can never be replicated and will be discussed as long as cinema exists in popular discourse. It’s a portrait of a life. Life isn’t about vampires and not everyone has cool jobs and great apartments and makes music. Life, according to the works of Richard Linklater, doesn’t need to be dressed up  to make a good movie. It is crazy and touching as it is. No need to highlight any specific peaks and valleys. No need to embellish. See it for yourself, you won’t be sorry. It is a movie that challenges everything we thought we knew about the nature of story, history, growing up. It doesn’t feel at all like a movie. It feels like one of those dreams that is so realistic you don’t realize you’re dreaming until you wake up and it’s still the middle of the night. With it’s own unique pace — necessary for its content — Boyhood can be enjoyed from any beginning and to any end. Just jump in and roll along with Mason. Then, when it ends go live your own life with a new appreciation of the way time passes and that you should always try to enjoy the now.

Now, I invite you to comment or tweet at me and tell me why I’m wrong. I did not get around to every film this year that I had hoped to, especially Goodbye to LanguageTop Five and The Congress, which I was really looking forward to. Oh well. On to 2015. Last year at this time I said that my most anticipated 2014 film was Boyhood, and as you can see I was not let down. So I’ll write here that 2015’s is quite different: Inside Out. I’m cautiously optimistic that it triumphantly will mark the return to Pixar’s inventive greatness.

2014: If I Could Give Out Awards

Here is what I would do if any let me vote on anything, including a category that I still don’t believe doesn’t actually exist. Enjoy.

 

hardy

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:

Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

Tom Hardy, Locke

Scott Haze, Child of God

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

In Locke, Hardy acts alone. Last year, I gave Robert Redford a nomination for this award saying that All is Lost was a tribute to his stardom and his immense talent and charisma, that he proved his greatness because he was able to hold the frame for every bit of a film by himself and keep it interesting. But that’s Robert Redford. He’s a legend, we know how great he is. Tom Hardy accomplished the same feat, perhaps better, and his legend is still being written. He morphs into Ivan Locke,not only manipulating his accent but being shockingly effective as a physical performer considering he is sitting still for most of the film. Locke doesn’t work without a great star turn, and Hardy made it work. Keaton was as expressive and powerful as can be asked for in Birdman, same with Haze in Child of God, who told me that like an athlete he is proud of the performance because “I felt like I left everything on the field.” Gyllenhaal was delightfully terrifying in Nightcrawler a very powerful film in which he creates a new incarnation of the antihero. And Redmayne, well, ole Eddie brought tears to the eyes of the man he played. Hawking said “at times it felt like I was watching myself,” and I can’t think of a higher honor for an actor. A note on Hardy, if this was for a year’s body of work, he’d still win, and could easily have made two appearances on this shortlist with The Drop.

 

cotillardBest Performance Actress in a Leading Role:

Jessica Chastain, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Essie Davis, The Babadook

Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Slowly solidifying her case as the best actress working today, Marion Cotillard took a mediocre movie and made it a powerful emotional experience. In Two Days, One Night, she plays desperate perfectly — not too out of control, not to relaxed either. The writing for her character is limited and often bound in cliche, but her expressive performance as a fighting-for-her-livelihood mother makes the moral components of the film that much more difficult to swallow. Again, if this award was for a full year’s body of work, the female honor might to go this winner, as Cotillard impressed in her first leading English-language role in The Immigrant. But that honor might have been stolen by Jessica Chastain for her work not only as the eponymous Eleanor Rigby, but in Interstellar and A Most Violent Year (keep reading). Rigby was the  ultimate role for her acting stigma of soft, girlish charm presented maturely. In Wild, Witherspoon commands the film was the grace she has come to perfect of the years. That same chin-out spunk we’ve seen for decades is on display as the real-life Cheryl Strayed, but this time it seems less ironic than deserved. Davis and Slate took inventive genre films — supernatural horror, romantic comedy — and gave them star-making performances. Davis is deliciously over-the-top as the horrified single mother in The Babadook, and Slate is bouncy and brilliant as the knocked-up comedian in Obvious Child.

 

simmons

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:

Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Oscar Isaac, The Two Faces of January

Edward Norton, Birdman

JK Simmons, Whiplash

Yes, the guy from the Farmers’ Insurance commercials and Sam Mendes’s J. Jonah Jameson gave the most extreme and most finely tuned performance of the year as the, frankly, terrifying leader of an elite student jazz orchestra. Doesn’t sound like an award-friendly role to you? Exactly. In Whiplash, a Sundance darling, he absolutely cut loose and was as good as the somewhat two-dimensional role could have asked for, matching co-star Miles Teller’s soft-spoken confidence with off-the-walls crazy. Norton was big and expressive as well, and could easily have won this award for his wild yet charismatic turn in Birdman. Isaac was on the top of his game in what is already a fascinating career in the exquisite sunny noir mystery The Two Faces of January. Brolin was strangely hilarious in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cavernous neo noir, playing both straight-edged cop (his hair is cut to a flat top, meeting at a perfect 90 degrees in the back, which tells you something about the character) and pot eating (you read that right) lunatic. Hawke’s performance in Boyhood was sublime and powerful. He may have undergone the twelve year transformation better than parallel co-star Arquette, but, well, keep reading.

 

arquetteBest Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

Laura Dern, Wild

Naomi Watts, Birdman

The twelve-year tale of a single mother is as much Patricia Arquette’s magnum opus as it is director Richard Linklater’s. She has mentioned repeatedly that she wanted to take on the role as a single mom herself, and to honor her own mother. But most telling about what this character meant to her is her comments on the film experience itself, that she never wanted it to end and never wanted to let anyone see it. It was an extremely private and personal experience for her, and the performance reflects that by feeling as unmistakably real as any actor has ever made a character. The other four in this category was wonderfully expressive, all stealing scenes from other fantastic actors, but all pale in comparison to Arquette this year.

 

Theory score

Best Original Score:

Johann Johannson, The Theory of Everything

Son Lux, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Gone Girl

Jozef von Wissem, Only Lovers Left Alive

Hans Zimmer, Interstellar

I walked out of The Theory of Life and the first thing I said to describe the near-ineffable sensation it left me with was this: That was lovely. Vocally opposed to run-of-the-mill biopics about inspirational 20th-century figures, and really bored of them, I loved The Theory of Everything because it transcended that. It became far less about selling books about Stephen Hawking than about using a real scenario to make the audience feel something. That’s where Johannson’s score comes in. To make a movie about a crippled genius, Hawking, relatable for a healthy idiot, Me, it had to pack an emotional punch beyond simply showing his illness. The Eleanor Rigby score did something similar, making the grief of the story, which images can only try to capture, come off the screen. Only Lovers Left Alive had one of the most original scores I have ever heard, dancing in between classic sci-fi tropes and the garage rock that the protagonist might have written. All three are great, if unconventional, romances, all helped by the music. Gone Girl and Interstellar are genre films that needed steady motifs in the composition to push us through equally cavernous stories, both doing so memorably with simplicity and grace.

 

boyhood soundtrackBest Non-Performed Soundtracking to a Film:

Linda Cohen, Inherent Vice

Meghan Currier, The Skeleton Twins

Susan Jacobs, Wild

Dave Jordan, Guardians of the Galaxy

Randall Poster, Boyhood

Guardians is here because of how well the protagonist’s playlist finds the delicate balance that makes it seem unmistakably like it matches every scene in the movie, but it does so loosely enough to make it a believable accident. Wild is because of how cleverly the soundtrack is cut to reflect the psychology of isolation, how one thinks when they are simply alone in the woods. The Skeleton Twins gets in despite being one of my least favorite movies of the year because it provided one of the most memorable musically motivated scenes of the year, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig lip-synching a duet of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship. Inherent Vice comes in a close second for how gracefully it employs the pop music of its period, like Neil Young rolling along to a powerful romance scene. Boyhood wins for a similar reason, with the addition of luck and sheer intelligence. It takes songs from the time it was made and edited, which are spread out over twelve years, and based those choices on the ways pop music truly sounded in that time. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t cover that much time, only a bit over a decade, but the change in pop music is still apparent in the soundtrack, from “Yellow” to “Get Lucky.”

 

into the woods productionBest Art Design of Production and Sets:

Marco Bittner Rosser, Only Lovers Left Alive

David Crank, Inherent Vice

John P. Goldsmith, A Most Violent Year

Dennis Grassner, Into the Woods

Kevin Kavannaugh, Nightcrawler

A live action movie that looks more like an actual fairy-tale world than any animated film perhaps since Sleeping Beauty (1955), Into the Woods was simply magical, and I’m not just saying that. In a time in history when we are involved in wars at home and abroad, when prejudice and insecurity haunt people whereever they go and the movies have taken it upon themselves to reflect that, Into the Woods was an escape everyone needs. Because of its production design, it isn’t only a metaphorical escape, but a literal descent into another world, one with more color and charm than anywhere on Earth. A Most Violent Year was powerful for the opposite reason, that it dragged you mercilessly into the real underground of New York in the 1980s. Nightcrawler was also notable for its realism. It brought its cameras to dozens of real spots in greater L.A., bringing the eeriness of the movie right to the doorsteps of the entertainment and television industry perpetrators. Only Lovers Left Alive was exhaustively detailed, creating mixed worlds of the undead and a modern hipster. Inherent Vice was just awesome, colorful and in-your-face, but in the best way possible.

 

whiplash editing

Best Film Editing:

Sandra Adair, Boyhood

Tom Cross, Whiplash

Jennifer Lilly, The One I Love

Simon Njoo, The Babadook

Christopher Tellefsen, The Drop

Walking out of Whiplash, I was ready to run through a brick wall. That is the power of its editing. The story, while exquisitely told, is limited emotionally as a flat-out critique of the Participation-Trophy generation, but its editing makes it feel like a thrill ride and dumps you on the other side completely intoxicated by its every moment. “I wanted to make an editor’s showcase,” said director Damien Chazelle. He succeeded. It is way faster and more exciting than a movie about a teenage jazz drummer has any right to be. In The One I Love, the story exists wholly in its editing. Seriously, you could have the dialogue and performances remain completely the same, or watch on set or put it on the theater, and it would be lame and nonsensical. Instead it was a super fun sci-fi thing experience that compares itself to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and The Twilight Zone. The bottom two — The Babadook and The Drop — are masterpieces of their genre who show the audience exactly as much as need be seen, no more and no less, until their respectively electric third acts. Boyhood is special, and in my mind this is a tie. Edited bit by bit over twelve years, yet maintaining a constant pace and flavor throughout, Adair’s work on Boyhood is every bit as masterful as Cross’s.

 

birdman cinematographyBest Cinematography:

Yves Belanger, Wild

Jeff Cronenweth, Gone Girl

Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida

Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Dick Pope, Mr. Turner

This movie is everything wild and exciting about movies without the cheese of, well, of what it makes fun of. Composed of a series of neatly tied long takes (no, morons on my twitter feed, it is not one shot, for the last time), Birdman comes to life. Because of its lack of traditional editing technique, it is impossible to look away from; Lubezki makes the very most of that attention. Mr. Turner brilliantly does something quite simple and covered to death, but something quite special no matter how often we talk about it: It looks like a Turner painting, it really does. Gone Girl and Wild capture the energies of their films perfectly. In the former, it is a grey-ish, watercolor pallet and a series of voyeuristic shots match the chilling mystery of the plot. The latter employs highly romantic and wonderous lighting and framing that make the film strike the emotional cord that Strayed’s story deserves. Ida, a masterpiece of contemporary European art cinema, contains minimalist performances and writing that is highly present. It’s cinematography is revealing and powerful, and cut into stills it is just as beautiful.

 

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Best Direction:

Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Gia Coppola, Palo Alto

Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Jean-Marc Vallee, Wild

This is a dark horse, I know. Palo Alto is a charming mini-masterwork that is intricately edited, intelligently paced and contains great performances by a vast ensemble of otherwise okay actors. Perhaps the finest compliment possible to give a film is this, which is true of Palo Alto: It is a worthy installment in the Coppola family catalog. Its details are its director’s touch, and what make it such an amazing movie. An example of one of those details. It is a film about the limbo of late-adolescence, the period high school students undergo. After her first rendezvous with an older man, Emma Roberts’s April is shown riding in a car. Her hand and hair are out the window, taken by the wind, and we the viewers feel as free as she does. But in the car she is sitting in the back seat, being driven around like a child. It is an understated and under-appreciated work that I predict will have serious staying power and become a film people turn to, nostalgically, for years to come. The same can be said of Boyhood, the much better movie of course, and the achievement of ambition and scale it needed cannot be ignored. It is a beautiful moving portrait of time. Wild‘s Vallee drew great performances from his stars, and created a movie that is as much about a feeling as it is about a story. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Only Lovers Left Alive — I’m just now realizing that two vampire movies made this small list in this category — are atmospheric and alive. They make classic styles feel extremely modern while finding balance in their respective genre-crossing ambitions.

 

boyhood screenplayBest Original Screenplay:

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive

Justin Lader, The One I Love

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child

Here is the honorary award for Linklater’s vision, his ambition and his tenacity. He created the all-american story, or at least the beginning of one version of it, and then saw where it went. Try this. Write a story by writing one chapter over the course of a couple of days, once a year for more than a decade and see if it comes out as crisply and uniformly as Boyhood. Then compare whether it is as charming, entertaining and sentimental as Boyhood. The odds are pretty low. I think the screenplay for this once-in-a-generation masterpiece is being criminally overlooked, a mistake I refuse to be a part of. The others in this category are fantastic as well, but comparatively ordinary. Anderson’s ultimate Anderson-movie was wild but contained, funny but human, making it a hell of a ride. Only Lovers Left Alive was perhaps the most believable a supernatural film has been, creating from the world of fantasy scenarios and conversations that seem to perfectly fit into the world as we know it. The One I Love made me write in my notes, “this is the strangest, most awesome thing ever,” so there’s that. Obvious Child was hilarious, and it is a shame that just being hilarious isn’t given enough credit — then consider that it is more than just comedy and you get one of the best screenplays of the year.

 

inherent vice screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

Dante Harper, Edge of Tomorrow

James Lapine, Into the Woods

Dennis Lehane, The Drop

Three of these nominees are self-adaptations. Gillian Flynn penned the uber best seller Gone Girl before David Fincher was a glint in her eye. The film transcends the novel as a twisted study of suburbia, boredom and what they do to people. It’s characters alone are incredibly colorful, its action is just icing on the cake. James Lapine was part of the team behind the original Broadway run of Into the Woods, then making minor changes to bring to the screen a story that is clever and impossible not to enjoy. Dennis Lehane’s short story Animal Rescue gave way to his first screenplay — though many wonderful movies, like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, have been adapted from his novels and he served in the writers’ room on The Wire —  with The Drop. It is a crime thriller that approaches Eastwood’s 2003 adaptation for its tonality and elegant mystery. Then there’s the team-written and repeatedly edited (listed above is the first writer to provide a film treatment, though his work served more as a guideline than anything else) Edge of Tomorrow, a smart and human sci-fi blockbuster that has a surprising amount of wit and morality. Then, in a league unto itself, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Based on the landmark of contemporary literature by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is funny, scary, mystifying, and on point both regarding its period setting and its psychological approach drawn from Pynchon’s narration. The way Anderson went about adapting a novel that many considered unfilmable is very smart, making the least likely and therefore most effective of narrators, and creating what might be the first cavernous candy-colored neo-noir.

 

Tomorrow, I will rank and explain the films of 2013 I most admired, and there you can find my Best Picture and runners-up.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014): Post-Punk Spookiness

girl_walks_home_alone_at_night_xlgOverall Rating: A

Most people react with the same pessimistic assumption when they first hear the title of this flick. That sounds like it’s going to end badly. Poor girl. And so on. It is the triumph of this brilliant title, which sets the stage for an excellent atmospheric drama perfectly, that they are all right for the wrong reasons. It is dangerous, but not for the girl, who is the hunter, not the hunted. She does merit sympathy, but because she is sad, not because she is helpless.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a vampire movie. It holds back on telling you that for the first act, where the eponymous girl is seen only briefly, moving slowly in the poorly lit streets of an Iranian suburb (the film was actually shot in Burbank, California, and the blurring of the line between what is supposed to the underbelly of the orient and what looks familiarly western is as haunting as the supernatural violence is). But the markers of the weird genre hybrid that invokes everything from romance to western to of course horror, and all with an unmistakable noir styling. Because of this mix of motivations and sensations, it would be easy to dismiss this film for not appealing to any one specific desire of the audience. It plays with this even more by teasing, showing just enough so that you the viewer can keep up but the mystique still remains. Atash, the male protagonist and really the character that binds our perspective of Bad City (it’s actually called that) in place. He is too shy, or perhaps too respectful, to ask all of the questions, so he is left largely in the dark, guessing about the essence of this beautiful stranger. And so are we. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night seems to cut every scene right before its climax, at least in the second half. How people get where they’re going and when they leave is not a concern of the story. It is far less about plot than about its atmosphere, and it is better for it.

Why is it that foreign filmmakers are so far ahead of American filmmakers, even independent ones, at letting go of the trap of narrative. Richard Linklater, who let his magnum opus Boyhood roll to the beats of life and famously began his career with films that acted more like “a day in the life” than any traditional plot structure, might be the lone exception. In addition to Boyhood, two of the two handful of movies I saw from 2014 are exactly this: atmospheric, genre-defying slow burns, made by non-western directors and shot in stylistic black and white. One of these is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night by Iranian rookie feature filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour. It reeks of heavily noirish styling. In the shadows and silences, when an unknown girl stands alone against the wall and does and says very little, is when this film is at its most effective. The other, for those of you keeping score, is Polish director Pawel Pawlikoswki’s Ida, a masterpiece and visual feast about a young nun, built onto the foundation of the classic road movie. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night resembles the more serious Ida visually, as scarce movement tells a far richer story and the nonsensical explosions of color in contemporary Hollywood films.

Some of this style comes from its long, wide takes, resembling the Spaghetti westerns for the 1960s. Picture Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in his distinct poncho and hat, eyes strained, staring at distant nothingness for many more seconds than any contemporary American filmmaker would dare. Now replace that with a striped shirt and Iranian Hijab, looking more relaxed at comparable nothingness. Then replace Eastwood with the beautiful star Sheila Vand, an American born to immigrants from Iran, known for her small role in Argo and not much else. Her performance is restrained but quite great. One particular moment that stood out to me is when she is essentially messing with one of the townsfolk, mirroring his movements from across the street. When he panics and runs away, she cracks a wry half smile, she had fun. She is delightful as the girl of the title, one who must go from the expression of a blank page to monstrous and murderous in the blink of an eye. He makeup and costuming are equal successes, necessarily vampish in aesthetic while contemporary enough to be believable.

The vampire elements of the film are admirable, even if not terribly important to the atmosphere of the picture. What I really loved was that it was able to modernize the spooky, traditional vampire tale without losing the charm and camp of those classics in the way pulp filmmaking has turned. The music, which contains western motifs, is laced with traditional cues recognizable to supernatural films, but because of its Iranian sound, that can be easy to forget. She has the fangs and pale skin and is even very cold, but other vampire myths are ignored in the interest of believable storytelling and stylistic cinema — the first time the girl is seen, for example, it is in a car’s rearview mirror. She’s scary, sure, but also relatable and human. She bathes. She tries to learn how to ride a skateboard — a genius play on the horror trope of the specter gliding through space instead of walking, the girl rolls slowly with a hand against the wall to benefit her ballance, her dress hanging so low that creeped-out onlookers cannot see the board and its wheels.

Also released this year, and it will be impossible for future scholars to talk about one of these but not the other, was Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleson as a century-old couple. As a vampire film (and in my opinion, overall, but not by much) Only Lovers Left Alive is more pointed than A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. It is more aware of the tradition it comes from, creating great comedy as well as striking empathy from its supernatural situations. A Girl Walks Home kind of doesn’t care, but in the best way possible. It doesn’t ask the audience to suspend disbelief, making it one of the weirdest moviegoing experiences out there. Everybody runs from the girl but they don’t really know why. They also don’t know why they can’t escape. It feels like she is a vampire incidentally, not that the movie is about a vampire, and that is what makes it stay with you. It’s visuals are wonderful, its atmosphere thick, but what audiences will remember is watching a boy fall ignorantly in love with a depressed and lonely undead.

Inherent Vice (2014): Candy-Colored Neo-Noir is as Awesome as it Sounds

309431id1h_InherentVice_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet_6C.inddOverall Rating: A

Inherent Vice is an intellectually dense, creatively unmatched, historically loyal, narratively wild and formally divine tribute to its genre, its city and the cinematic medium itself. Retaining the language, in narration, of prose master Thomas Pynchon, while executing his cavernous character piece with the gifts of Paul Thomas Anderson (whom I have previously called, in writing, the most talented filmmaker alive today), the result could only be as astounding as it is.

By its genre, I mean the neo-noir, the descendant of the great urban mysteries of the film noir era. Inherent Vice in plot bears a striking resemblance to Chinatown, except replacing shock with laughs and cigarettes with weed. These two L.A.-based stories of private investigators fighting the established powers that be in a complex plot involving land moguls and fair shares of water are also both period pieces. Chinatown is set in the traditional noir era, even though it is made much later. Inherent Vice is set in the time of Chinatown, interestingly, and rather than relying as the former did on the general mistrust and cynicism of its the late-Vietnam era, it explicitly shows it. By its city I mean Los Angeles, all of which is shown in a justifiably cloudy haze, from the beach to the ‘burbs.

This is a movie that at once offers a little for everyone, and yet discourages me from recommending it to the mainstream. Whether you are thirsty for a stoner comedy or a hard-boiled detective story or an atmospheric romp, there is something in Inherent Vice for you, but it is also the most Paul Thomas Anderson movie of all the Paul Thomas Anderson movies, long cuts and deeply specific directing included. It evokes the bally-hoo of Boogie Nights with the character-building prowess of Magnolia with the infinitely meaningful slight of hand of There Will Be Blood. No, this latest installment into his catalog is not on par with that 2007 masterpiece, but is a formidable second-place, a slightly bolder but slightly less accessible and less ground-breaking creation. But with his unmistakable dedication to character and tone rather than events, the literary-minded filmmaker uniquely qualified to adapt Pynchon’s novel did it justice.

A repeat Anderson lead player is involved: Joaquin Phoenix, who earned an Oscar nod under Anderson’s direction for The Master returns as Doc, the hippie version of Nicholson’s Jake, who bites off a lot more than he can chew and carries us with him deep into the winding and nearly unintelligible narrative. That highly complicated and kind of all over the play plot line is one of the alienating things about the film that would turn off the main stream audience, but in the age of new criticism and affordable home media, watching Inherent Vice again and again and again to take note to how Anderson’s adaptation carefully ties every last loose end together — which it does — is going as intellectually rewarding, regarding both atmosphere and storytelling, as film can be.

The soundtrack is very good in the story, if sometimes drawing too much attention to itself. But when the music is great anyway — highlights include Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” and Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” — so why not just enjoy those moments. It puts you in 1970 almost as much as Josh Brolin’s palpable distaste for hippies, or Phoenix’s wild sideburns do. The rest of the cast is littered with personas that are hard to believe Anderson hasn’t made use of before, like Reese Witherspoon and Martin Short, in his best role for years. Inherent Vice was as good a time as you can ask for a film that also packs in so much art, and it is a supreme achievement that will be studied for decades.

A Most Violent Year (2014): How long can you stare a man in the eye?

a-most-violent-year_posterOverall Rating: A

Every piece of art that is set in or is about New York (or, in the case of A Most Violent Year, both), exists in one of two distinct worlds, but worlds that, creatively, are always aware of one another. Some films are set in the world after September 11, 2001. Some are set in the world before it. A Most Violent Year is set in the most statistically crime-ridden year in the history of the city, 1981, when the Towers were still standing. Were this film shot in 1981, or at all in the pre-9-11 world, keeping the Towers in the frame would be to make a statement of prestige, of technological prowess, ambition and pride. Even if just a guise, they would have been the filmmaker deliberately drawing attention to New York as the established center of the universe. But JC Chandor’s period drama was made over a decade after the attacks — just the right amount of time to use them as he does, because our wounds have scabbed but not completely healed — so his persistence in keeping the Towers hovering near the corner of the frame is much more haunting and sinister. Instead of the aforementioned positivity they represented at one time, they now represent loss, devastation, lack of control and the temporary nature of all things.

In the opening credits of A Most Violent Year, the first crew member credited after the usual suspects (director/writer, producers) is the visual effects supervisor. At this point, anyone paying attention to the credits thinks, How much visual trickery could there possibly be in a character-driver gangland thriller? When that credit hits the screen is the first shot of the title sequence with the South Manhattan skyline, Towers and all. It still doesn’t feel like an effect, but at some point you realize those aren’t there anymore, and man, this movie is probably going to be a real downer. They look like their peering into the camera, making it hard to ignore them and reminding us that 1981 was the eponymous most violent year only for so long.

The tagline for the movie reads, “The result is never in question. Just the path you take to get there.” This is the truth for the singular story of A Most Violent Year, but also the history it represents, because 34 years later we know how the city has changed, visually and culturally.

The gorgeous atmospheric thriller’s story is pointed by Abel Morales, a one-time truck driver who climbed the ranks to own his own heating oil dispensary, becoming a key player in a very competitive business. It’s the American Dream embodied. He vehemently fights becoming involved in organized crime. He has his success because of charm, skill, hard work, and a little luck. But in the world of A Most Violent Year, these things can only take you so far. The film takes place over the span of one visibly chilly month, after Abel has put down his life savings to make a down payment on a property on the river for his business, to store more oil and ship directly to his own tanks, cutting out the middle-man. He has thirty days to come up with the rest of the money, or the deal is moot and he loses the down payment. Why take the risk, especially now, with legal troubles heading his way and violence threatening his drivers and salesmen? His motto is, “When it is the scariest to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise, you end up staying in the same place your whole life.”

Abel is played by perpetual up-and-comer Oscar Isaac, last winter’s Llewyn Davis in another cultural history of New York City. Isaac is an incredible talent who actually benefits from his atypical look and style relative to traditional leading men. He captures the plight of Abel as much as his confidence and charm. He is able to make the weight of Abel’s stress physically apparent in his facial expression, seeming to age from scene to scene. His performance makes it easy to understand why Abel has been so successful; Chandor’s dialogue makes it easy to see that his success won’t continue.

JC Chandor, whose first three features — all written and directed by him — have all been exemplary cinema, is a master of dialogue. His first film, Margin Call, earned him an Oscar nod for its writing, much deserved. It was a fiery epic of a contained nature, managing to be thrilling while being set predominantly in a Wall Street office building on the eve of the 2008 financial crash. It’s Sorkin-esque fast-talking is what made it compelling. His second movie went in the total opposite direction. All is Lost features literally no dialogue at all, only a lonely Robert Redford lost at sea. A Most Violent Year peppers in both the director’s willingness to let talented stars like Redford or A Most Violent Year‘s Isaac, Albert Brooks, Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo do their thing; and sharp conversations that make the audience cling to every word.

There’s no mistaking that A Most Violent Year aims to join the long history of urban crime dramas, even with a protagonist who risks life and limb to keep himself away from omnipresent underworld pressures. Thematically and aesthetically, it channels The Godfather to great lengths. The lighting is point but soft and dark, giving an atmosphere that Gordon Willis was known for during the New Hollywood era. Isaac, in a scene or two, appears to be doing his best Michael Corleone impression, which a man in Abel’s position 9 years after Michael came to the big screen might actually do. Narratively, it is the inversion of The Godfather. In that masterpiece, Michael takes over his father’s business with the promise to innocent wife Kay that he was trying to make it legitimate. In Chandor’s addition to the genre, Abel is trying to keep his business straight, but with no help at all from his crooked wife, daughter of a crime leader.

These are chiastic looks at the American Dream, but it is the dream they are discussing. Sometimes, you need a few strings pulled to get what you want. This is true for gangsters and legitimate businessmen and even District Attorneys, of varying levels of desperation. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t necessarily matter who is pulling the strings and to what ends. He is terrified of Jumping to the other side of the law after so moralistically denying it, but he isn’t as willing as you might think to take the leap.

Stuart Scott, 1965-2015

“Good morning and welcome to SportsCenter. I’m Stuart Scott, that’s Steve Levy and we have a great show for you all.”

Stuart Scott began on camera at ESPN in 1993 with the debut of ESPN2, quickly graduating to the premiere network. I was born in 1994, quickly becoming a passionate sports fan. In the category of things you just can’t make up, I woke up every single day of my childhood — beginning when I was old enough to be able to and ending when I went to high school and the early mornings became too early — to give myself an hour to watch SportCenter before going to day care, to catch the bus, to baseball practice. My mom would even make fun of me in the summers when I would watch it again and again and again even though each hour repeated the same content. I loved sports, and what made SportsCenter so special was how clearly those guys on the TV did too.

My sister, who is for all intents and purposes the same age I am, was really into the types of things we were supposed to be into. She was always watching cartoons on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. For her, the figures she looked up at the TV to were Spongebob Squarepants, Timmy Turner and Tommy Pickles. Solid role models, no doubt, and no one my age could deny their entertainment value, but the characters I spent my youth with were slightly different: John Anderson, Linda Cohn, Neil Harris, Chris McKendry, Chris Berman, Karl Ravich, Scott Van Pelt, Steve Berthiaume, Michael Kim, Mike Tirico, Peter Gammons, Rachel Nichols, Steve Levy, Bob Ley, Stuart Scott.

I grew up on these guys, their voices and their mannerisms, as much as anything else I grew up with. But it was subtle, subliminal. I went a number of years without watching very much SportsCenter. I had other things to worry about. The Internet had made it easier than ever to stay up-to-date and informed. It wasn’t until after that hiatus that when I returned to my beloved SportsCenter and realized the nostalgic connection I had to simple phrases like “I’m Linda Cohn” and “Stuart Scott reports.” I realized that even though the vast majority of viewers considered it forgettable soundtrack to clips of their heroes, no highlight was complete, no big shot as sweet or big hit as timely without Scott: “Booyah!”

On screen, he was everything a broadcast anchor ought to be. He was professional, collected, smooth. But he was also completely and uniquely himself. I still remember him from before his 2002 eye injury, and I remember being impressed that he remained in front of the camera after it. The man was SportsCenter embodied. He made TV news cool.  He sat down with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Intellectually, you always knew that he was only half a tier below a rock star. Everyone loved him. He hung out with pro athletes and celebrities. On SportsCenter, though, you couldn’t help but forget all of that because of that familiar and authoritative delivery that oozed integrity. SportsCenter has changed for the worse over the years. In order to compete with second screens, it has taken up coverage of non-sports issues, like what an athlete may have posted on Instagram, and is begging for viewers with gimmicks like being hosted by Will Ferrell in character as Ron Burgundy. It is hard to watch in a way that it never was with Stuart Scott. In his 2008 ESPYs performance, “I Love Sports,” it is no surprise that Justin Timberlake included in his tribute to the world of sports the line “Stuart Scott reports.” He was a TV anchor for the Allen Iverson generation, and don’t underestimate his influence as such.

I love sports, more than you can ever know. I love SportsCenter. I love Stuart Scott. Too humble to have ever described himself this way, I can say without hesitation that Stuart Scott was “as cool as the other side of the pillow.”

Link to ESPN’s tribute: http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=12118361

Top Ten Television Episodes of 2014

Look, I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, or at least not enough to qualify this list, but I feel that just as I have missed some necessary television this year, so has everyone else, and the critics’ year-end episode lists have a few glaring holes in my opinion. So, acknowledging that I have not seen everything that aired this year, here are the ten episodes of serial fiction television I most admired from this year of the programs I follow, with series repeats allowed. Read on, then tell me why I was wrong @BrALatham.

10. “Selina Kile,” Gotham

gotham

Certainly the finest chapter in the roller-coaster start for Gotham, Selina Kyle managed to do what is ever-so-hard for second episodes to do — it supplied tension and interest with it’s own, contained story that other episodes have lacked, while acknowledging that we are still getting to know these characters. And Archie Graham from Field of Dreams is in it, so bonus points. The success of “Selina Kyle” lies in its eponymous hero, the young Cat Woman, whose unique skill set allows the show’s creators to do fun things with the camera and add the kind of suspense most network cop shows lack. Extended, it feels like “Selina Kyle” could have been a unique, stand-alone film in a lot of ways. Its story was rich and tense, and it began building toward more of the same (which unfortunately Gotham failed to supply) by showing Copplepot and making clear that even protagonist Gordon’s moral decisions have immoral consequences.

 

9. “Time Zones,” Mad Men

madmen1 There might not be a better feeling than when something you think you know so well — a long-time friend, even yourself — can still surprise you. That’s what Mad Men did by coming right out of the gates with its crucial seventh season in this season premiere episode. It was as good of an opening chapter as the show has had in a long time, and is a keystone in the series’ wildly overlooked east versus west themes which have dominated Don’s storyline throughout the series (“A Tale of Two Cities,” “Tomorrowland” were direct precursors to “Time Zones”). But it was the hairpin turn of some of the characters that made “Time Zones” unforgettable. Does distance really make the heart grow fonder, or is Don being a good boy in spite of his crippled marriage? Why hasn’t a little sunshine done even the slightest thing for Ted’s morale? Mostly, who are you and what have you done with the real Pete Campbell? In a show so unapologetically about New York in the 1960s, Los Angeles plays a very big role.

 

8. “The Last Call,” The Good Wife

goodwife

Let’s get one thing straight, The Good Wife is the best show on the basic networks in a very long time, and we need to talk about it as much as anything the cable and premium networks have made. This is the most devastating and potent half hour of television drama I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it dark acknowledgement that sometimes, even in times of greatest need, you just might not find the answer seperates it from the rest of basic, always resolved television that CBS used to rely on. Julianna Margulies is at her most obviously fantasic coping with death in ways that require great, great writing to complete within 22 minutes of run time. I can’t recommend The Good Wife enough, and it’s possible “The Last Call” is the high point of the series, to date.

 

7. “Seeing Things,” True Detective

truedetective1

The first episode of True Detective was fantastic and mesmerizing and wonderful in every way, but it was in the follow-up that True Detective really became True Detective. Consider for a moment the episode’s title. This is more than a police procedural and obviously more than another odd-couple, buddy cop drama. It is about these brilliantly performed men, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Because of past trauma, which is explained in this episode, and some series drugs over many years, Rust has hallucinations (there is a beautiful exchange between these men in a final episode where Rust discusses living with these things in his head) and it seems obvious that the title refers to him and those mysterious symbols in the sky. But it is also in this episode where 2012 Marty reveals he has been divorced, and as his affair becomes a focus and the team takes a trip to a bunny ranch, what Marty can’t keep his eyes off of becomes just as important. But I mean more than that when I say this is when the series distinguished itself and set itself on the path toward greatness. Here, Rust’s monologues cease to feel like gibberish and suggest his unique qualification for the Lange case, they find the victim’s diary which begins talk of The Yellow King, and Reverend Tuttle and the search for Lange’s church push the series in its mythical, spiritual direction.

 

6. “Fight,” Masters of Sex

mastersofsex

Everyone and their mother has spent the first two years of Showtime’s best show (There, I said it) comparing it to Mad Men. There’s the protagonist who is the greatest at his work but unspeakably bad at home life. There’s the period setting, exhaustively designed and with delicate social commentary. Now there’s this episode, which is to Masters of Sex as “The Suitcase” was to Mad Men, a fiercely contained exploration not of either lead specifically, but of their relationship on subtextual levels. Aside from the decidedly unsubtle symbolism of the sexually ambiguous delivery at the beginning of the episodes, “Fight” is as revealing yet tightly written as any installment of the great dramas, of which it deserves inclusion. Set on the night of a boxing match (a Fight, eerily reminiscent of that Mad Men episode) this episode is about the subtextual battle between the brilliantly acted protagonists in a sexual power struggle that both reflects Masters and Johnson’s similarities and differences. They are quite the pair, and that is what makes their metaphysical sparring all the more intoxicating.

 

5. “Cuanto,” Boardwalk Empire

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In the midst of the ends of other shows, like AMC’s dynamic duo, I think people unfairly forgot about another landmark bringing it’s story to a close. Boardwalk Empire was the spiritual sequel to The Sopranos and is among the most well acted series to have aired, but for some reason people overlooked it. Maybe that’s because of its lust for blood. The period gangster drama, like Breaking Bad, sometimes let itself down by sacrificing story for a little bit of violence. But unlike that other druglord series, Boardwalk Empire salvaged itself with its beautifully drawn characters. That’s what “Cuanto,” the series’ best episode, is all about. A lot like this list’s number 2, it brings together in charming harmony two estranged leads in a way that is at once realistic and fairy-tale-esque. The Nucky-Margret storyline is intercut with Capone’s ruling of Chicago, complete with a reminder to present audiences just how big of a deal he was. While other series have Margret-type characters (Meagan Draper for example), Boardwalk shows her more respect than any other. “Cuanto” shows that not only CAN she manage her life by herself, but she HAS and WILL. The episode’s climax, with the two enjoying an evening on the boardwalk, was incredibly rewarding for anyone who watched the series for five years. Also, great line: “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?” / “Pro-hib-ition” / “I hear ya sister.”

 

4. “How Your Mother Met Me,” How I Met Your Mother

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Speaking of rewarding to long-time viewers, this episode is on this list for a few reasons. First, the final season of How I Met Your Mother was not good, but it was not that bad either and it gets an unfairly bad rep,so I’m making up for that. Second, it was a return to vintage How I Met Your Mother, one of the few truly great sitcoms, which had long since been left behind. And third, because I felt like I had to include a comedy to show that I do like fun. How I Met Your Mother’s 200th episode was everything that makes the show great, right down to heartwrenching endings and countless near-misses. But most of all it was true to the show’s main point: How I Met Your Mother is a misnomer, Ted admits in season 8, and really it is the story of “How I became the man I had to be before I met your mother.” “How Your Mother Met Me” also walks that delicate balance, showing at once how Tracy’s life criss-crossed with Ted’s since 2005 and how she came to be ready to meet a new guy. It’s at once very funny and very warm, and it was a necessary and effective way to spend time with the woman we had all been waiting for. While the rest of the season had its moments (“You passed my test, girl”; Ted and Robin on the beach; the actual meeting), this chapter rises above the rest to circa 2007 How I Met Your Mother levels.

 

3. “Chapter 26,” House of Cards

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The House of Cards season 2 finale distinguished itself as one of the finest not only of the series, but of the year of television, for one scene. That’s not to say that the rest wasn’t fantastic, as the rebirth of Jackie Sharp and wonderfully shocking resolution to the Raymond Tusk debacle, paired with the fact that the wayward middle of the season had returned to under control were enough to put this on the radar, but number 3? It was that majestic letter scene, Frank Underwood breaking out his old Underwood typewriter to take the biggest risk — in search of the highest reward — of the series. Frank clearly is the smartest man in the room, and his majestic prose was cheesy enough for audiences to see right through, but poetic enough to fool the in-over-his-head President Walker. It was the high point of the series so far, even with other stone-cold shocks earlier in the season.

 

2. “The Strategy,” Mad Men

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“What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were with was family.” The final nail had been placed on the coffin of Don’s marriage. Peggy had just turned thirty. Pete had given up his new life to return home. They were all lost, all alone. What does Don have to worry about, asks Peggy. “That I never did anything,” he answers, “That I don’t have anyone.” The world in which Mad Men began was a world ruled by finely dressed me from their suburban homes. That’s what Don had and lost. It’s what Peggy fought but with regret. It’s what Pete always strove for, but failed to get. Now, it’s 1969, that world is gone, and it is replaced by one where men walk on the moon and “nuclear family” and “family” no longer mean the same thing. There are lots of talked about scenes from “The Strategy,” but none so potent as the final few minutes of the three protagonists sitting around their family table. There are times when I try to articulate myself but know someone else has already said it better, so check out this essay on the end of the halfseason of Mad Men, which is some of the best analysis I’ve ever read about the best show I’ve ever seen.

 

1. “The Secret Fate of All Life,” True Detective

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Cinema, Theater and Television are very close cousins with distinct differences. Cinema is a director’s medium; it’s all about tone and pace and feel because the audience is submerged in the story in a dark room from beginning to end. Theater is an actor’s medium because it is live, it is all about what is physically happening in front of the audience each and every night. Television, then, is a writer’s medium, a medium most dedicated to story and character. Nick Pizzolatto’s writing on True Detective is so good that I know my words cannot do it justice, and “The Secret Fate of All Life” has the best writing on that series. It is the bridge to the cinematic 8-hour epic. It begins with the thrill of what we thought would be the series climax, the closing of Cohle and Hart’s case in what they describe as a firey shootout. It winds into the future, daring to answer questions that we didn’t even know we had about Rust and Marty’s lives together after the case and Cohle’s itch that they might not have gotten their guy. I cannot say enough about this perfect hour of television.

 

That’s that. I like to do my year-end movie lists in February because I have more time to see all of the films and more people are paying attention because it is the height of awards season. Here’s 2013’s top 25 to hold you over.