Top Movies & Documentaries of 2014

    icon Dec 26, 2014
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As digital ‘On Demand’ services have expanded with companies such as Netflix and Hula, the line between television and movie theatres providing the only avenues to screen the ocean of films and documentaries released each year has ever so constantly eroded, which for the consumer is decidedly a good thing.

The following is a breakdown of notable films and documentaries released in 2014 that I feel possess something that goes beyond the grain of the predictable. Whether these films ever make it to the Cineplex’s populating the Great Lakes Bay region or not is rapidly becoming a moot point.

Thanks to top-notch film festivals in the region such as Hells Half Mile, The Saginaw Riverside Film Festival, The Lawnchair Film Festival and Midland’s Matrix series, coupled with long-standing groups such as the Saginaw Valley Film Society and Tri-Cap, chances are very strong that you’ll be able to catch each of these films on the Big Screen when they finally cycle through the season. And if not, I highly urge you to seek them out on many of the online digital film provider services.   Each of these works offers an unforgettable experience.


Of the many talented contemporary American filmmakers, the work of Richard Linklater has resonated strong thanks to his literary approach to script-writing and willingness to approach large themes such as love, connection, loneliness, and the exhilaration of self-discovery through a determination to expand the scope and nature of autobiographical filmmaking.

With the stunning work achieved in his trilogy of films consisting of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset & Before Midnight, Linklater mapped a generational expanse beginning with the story of two lovers that meet on a train heading to Vienna back in the 1990s, picking up the story again 10 years later in Paris, and last year following them once again married and with children, dealing with familiar themes and fresh insights among the ruins of Greece.

With his 2014 release Boyhood, writer-director Linklater carved out shooting time over a 12-year expanse to tell the story of a then-six year-old Texas boy (newcomer Eller Coltrane) growing up as the child of divorce parents, portrayed here by Ethan Hawke & Patricia Arquette.  He then follows these characters as Coltrane ages in real time intervals to the age of sixteen.  Needless to say, his gamble paid off in spades and fortunately, none of the actors got sick or passed away.

Sculpted from the highs and lows of his own life, this is Linklater’s landmark work to date and his most deeply rendered personal expression.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Writer/Director Wes Anderson possesses the gifts of a true cinematic auteur because he is capable of taking the millions of possibilities existing within the world and through the lens of choice that he places upon the perspective of his characters; render a world for the viewer that unlocks the key to our own imaginations. 

In his 2012 film, Moonrise Kingdom, he told a memorable story of adolescent first love where his young lovers carved their own trail and created their own reality against a background of adult pain & misery; and in The Grant Budapest Hotel, he leaps from the present day to 1985, 1968, and finally to 1932 to tell a story and trace an arc of artistry, friendship and love that tells the story of the rise of Nazism and the occupation of much of Europe – particularly, one small no longer existing central European country where the hotel of the title is situated.

In telling his tale Anderson is also able to examine the marrow of what we call style – some long vanished; but essentially born from the vestiges of the past. Politically, he filters out specifics in order to conduct a lab experiment of sorts that takes essential elements of the times and show their enduring force to the present day.

As New Yorker critic Richard Brody nails it: “The hotel is the embodiment of taste, and the central character is the embodiment of its delights. It’s a state of affairs that matches Anderson’s own art: the virtual signature that’s present like a watermark throughout his work is also a part of his personal style, his dress and his manner, his very way of life. Comparable to such high stylists as Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, who similarly exhibited in person the extreme stylistic precision of their work. The artist isn’t just the creator of style but also its bearer, and the artist’s very presence is a work of art in person, creation on the wing by means of a turn of phrase, a gesture, a way of dressing, the aura of charismatic influence.”

The words given, in friendship and in love—the recognition of kindred souls of refinement and judgment, self-control and dignity, aesthetic taste and the will to realize it—appear here as the very soul of a moral politics that transcends accidents of circumstance and particular historical incidents


This film is a tour-d-force for Michael Keaton, who creates a memorable character in a film that works in similar ways to the animated vigor of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Alejandro Gonzalez cinematic roller coaster ride is about a Hollywood superhero trying to get respect on Broadway and Keaton gives the performance of his lifetime in this whirling comic assault in which the laughs literally leave bruises.

The plotline parallels Keaton’s own career, as the comic genius first displayed in Beatlejuice gave way to his own franchise performance as Batman, which led to a long period of silence. And as his career nosedives, the character of Riggan Thomson that he portrays decides to direct and star in a play adapted from a Raymond Carver tale on Broadway.  But what is really at play here is a derision of Hollywood for committing ‘cultural genocide’ with its annual assembly line of high-tech digital superhero/fantasy films that have permeated the movie industry.

But beyond the satirical onus of the film is a significant one: the notion that ‘superhero’ powers dormant in our spirit can suddenly emerge with youthful necessity in the mortal fabric of the middle-aged.

Gone Girl

David Fincher has brought to the screen defining films drawn from some of our finest novelists, beginning with Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’ and including his remarkable take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

With his latest work Gone Girl, Fincher translates Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel to the screen, with a tight script written by Flynn herself. The film is a dark satirical look at relationships for the ages – a perverse tango between two duplicitous people that deserve each other. As Nick Dunne, Ben Affleck turns in one of his strongest performances and is matched by Rosamund Pike who channels the feminine side of a Hitchcockian banshee.

Fincher has always tested the boundaries and in this film he turns out one of the year’s most controversial films; and like all of his work it is both challenging and unsettling, leaving more questions than answers in its wake.

Inherent Vice

Director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of his generation’s finest and most uncompromising filmmakers. With his debut major theatrical release he paired Burt Reynolds with Mark Walberg in Boogie Nights, took the 1970’s Porn industry and dissected the multi-faceted layers of its characters involvement, ascent, and descent into the decadence, drugs, and debauchery of that industry and transformed it into a metaphor for the cultural degeneration of the ‘Me’ decade of the 1980s. 

In his follow-up film Mangolia, Anderson deftly examined the seemingly disparate relationships between a coterie of characters and deftly tied them together with the driving notion that no event or interaction in life is ever entirely ‘random’; but connected by actions that like waves, ripple into manifestations affecting the lives of others.

And now with his much-anticipated film Inherent Vice, Anderson tackles something that no other director or screenwriter has ever attempted: bringing a work by the prolific, challenging, and intricately detailed American novelist Thomas Pynchon to the screen.  Although I have not yet seen this film, the fact that Anderson possesses the determination and ambition to render a Pynchon work to the cinema for popular consumption makes this work a winner in my book.

Because Pynchon’s themes and plots are intricate mosaics, filled with dense and carefully detailed prose that explores lofty topics such as entropy, which is the physics of systems breaking down into a state of stasis – there is always more going on in the world of a Pynchon novel than can be captured in a traditional linear plot-line. His works are also tied together by the science of semiology, which is a mathematical order of codification that sets out to trace how human behavior is often mysteriously dictated by symbols. 

With the exception of The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice is perhaps the one that is most adaptable for the big screen. Written in 2009 it’s set in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s, after the Manson murders, and follows the character of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, as he attempts to crack the disappearance of a real-estate mogul while navigating a city of burnouts, beach bums and loan sharks. The cast is equally sprawling, featuring among others, Reese Withersppon, Owen Wilson, Martin Short and Josh Brolin.

Released on December 12th, early reviews indicate that Anderson has done Pynchon proud, as a signature trademark of Pynchon resides in the notion that solving one crime will simply reveal another, deeper one. 

Sonic Highways • The Foo Fighters

Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters has managed to navigate his band to the height of relevance and keep Rock ‘n Roll alive in an age of digital manipulation, which has in many ways taken the humanity and emotion out of music the same way it has done to the cinema.  In order to celebrate the Foos 20th anniversary together as a band, Grohl decided to start over and take the group to seven major cities in America that have helped shape American music  - the goal being to absorb the culture of each community and create an original song reflective of those influences.

With this stellar HBO Documentary series, Sonic Highways finds the band landing in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and New York City.  In the process and through interviews with major artists stemming from each of those cities, Grohl has put together a modern history of American music that helps to explain the stylistic origins of creativity that distinguish the sound of each city, while showing us the often precarious point that it stands at today

My only disappointment is that he left out Detroit.  Come on Dave – how could you bypass the birthplace of Motown, Aretha Franklin, The MC5, The Stooges, and Jack White, to name but a few?


Director Ava DuVernay finally creates a fitting chronicle about a pivotal turning point in American history in this timeless and heart-pounding film about Martin Luther King, Jr. (portrayed by David Oyelowo) and his famed 1965 voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. Oyelowo is focused and powerful and DuVernay makes every moment of this film intimate and crackling with energy.

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