The two most daring and innovative films of 2014 - "Birdman" and "Boyhood" - couldn't be more different. Alejandro G. Inarritu's wild, woolly backstage drama, with Michael Keaton in his tighty-whities worrying about his career and his soul, is a nonstop whirl of crackling dialogue, crackerjack performances, and careening camerawork. This story of an actor trying to shake off his winged superhero persona from decades past literally flies.
Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," on the other hand, is a movie about steady passage, the incremental steps in a journey from grade school to college dorm. Over the course of a dozen years ("12 Years a Naif?"), the director reassembled his group annually - the boy-turning-teen Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette (as his mother), Ethan Hawke (as Dad), and a clutch of other actors - for a couple of weeks of new shoots. The results, low-key, loping, verite, have cumulative power. Nothing flashy about "Boyhood," even as time flashes by.
Theater owners worry that their business is going elsewhere (domestic box office numbers are down over last year) as studios keep cranking out focus-grouped formula fare with interchangeable scenarios and visual effects. Yet adventurous, ambitious, surprising films are still out there to see. "Guardians of the Galaxy" broke from the Marvel Universe template to become one of the biggest, and funnest, moneymakers of 2014. Similarly, the interlocking inventiveness of "The LEGO Movie" caught audiences, and the industry, by happy surprise. (Yes, a sequel is in the works.)
Biography and history were big this year. Four of the five Golden Globes best-actor (in a drama) nominees brought real-life figures to the screen: Steve Carell's John du Pont in "Foxcatcher"; Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing, the World War II English codebreaker, for "The Imitation Game"; David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in "Selma"; and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." Golden Globes actress nominees Amy Adams, Felicity Jones and Reese Witherspoon likewise portrayed flesh-and-blood characters in "Big Eyes," "The Theory of Everything," and "Wild," respectively.
While the longtime companions played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in "Love Is Strange" were fictional, this very New York story about family, friends, and a relationship put to the test felt utterly real.
Scarlett Johansson played the opposite of real - a spooky alien seductress in human form in the strange and disturbing "Under the Skin" - and then a chemically enhanced superwarrior in Luc Besson's "Lucy," one of the summer's biggest hits. New York indie auteur Jim Jarmusch dipped into genre fare - vampires - to emerge with the sanguine, sublime "Only Lovers Left Alive." Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston played a couple for the ages, in a film as much about the sustaining power of music as it was about blood.
The psychic shocks of combat reverberated in two strong films about balancing work and family, war and peace (and the quest for personal peace). In the criminally under-screened "Fort" Bliss, Michelle Monaghan is an Army medic in Afghanistan, with a young son back in Texas. In "American Sniper," Bradley Cooper is a Navy SEAL marksman, a veteran of repeat tours in Iraq, with a wife and child back home (also Texas). Their struggles are palpable, profound.
Another big trend this year was the postapocalyptic dystopian YA fantasy: Shailene Woodley in "Divergent," Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush in "The Giver," those trapped kids in "The Maze Runner," Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Game: Mockingjay - Part 1," Woody Allen in "Magic in the Moonlight." No, strike that last one - as best I can recall, it had something to do with debunking Emma Stone in Roaring '20s France. Not one of the Woodman's best.
And speaking of best, in addition to "Birdman" and "Boyhood," my list of the 10 top films of 2014 goes like this:
"Calvary" - Brendan Gleeson is heartbreaking as an Irish priest told that he has a week to live - by a murderous anonymous parishioner. A West Country western, gorgeous, funny, and inspiring, with a killer script and direction from John Michael McDonagh.
"Foxcatcher" - Carell, certain to be on the Oscar shortlist for his eerie portrayal of the tragic Newtown Square multimillionaire du Pont, likens director Bennett Miller's approach to that of someone speaking in a low whisper. You have to lean in to hear - and see - what is being said, and the results jolt you all the harder for their quietude.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson's biggest picture to date, set in a richly imagined between-the-wars hostelry tucked in the European Alps, boasts an all-star cast (who knew Ralph Fiennes could do comedy?!) and an underlying melancholy that belies the movie's screwball charm.
"Ida" - London-based Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his homeland for this breathtaking 1960s-set portrait of a Polish novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) who, before she takes her vows, goes to meet an aunt she never knew. The woman, a judge who worked in the old Stalinist regime, is a hard-bitten stranger. The women's journey is one of haunting revelation.
"Locke" - A tour de force performance from Tom Hardy as a construction engineer whose whole life crumbles around him as he drives the British motorways, fielding phone calls (hands-free) in his car. Writer/director Steven Knight brings together the intimacy of theater and the energy of cinema, brilliantly.
"The Lunchbox" - The year's best rom-com comes from India, by way of the dabbawalas who deliver thousands of homecooked lunches to office workers in Mumbai. One of those lunches goes astray, and the lonely widower accountant (Irrfan Khan) who gets it by mistake begins a relationship - by handwritten notes - with the housewife who prepared the meal. More food, and missives, ensue.
"Mr. Turner" - The sunset years of British painter J.M.W. Turner, and the sunsets and seascapes he painted, are brought to light by director Mike Leigh. Leigh's stock player, Timothy Spall, gets the role of his career as this mumbling, prolific, complex man. And if you love Turner's work, you'll love the way Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope have brought his artistic vision to the screen.
"Nightcrawler" - Jake Gyllenhaal lost poundage and gained acting cred in Dan Gilroy's super-dark, witty commentary on chasing the American Dream - and chasing ambulances and cops around L.A., capturing the carnage on a videocam.
In the documentary field, Laura Poitras' inside view of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, "Citizenfour," has its contextual and narrative flaws, but it is of such historical significance that it would be hard, and foolish, to ignore. "Code Black" takes you inside a giant, gigantically underfunded big-city hospital emergency room. "Finding Vivian Maier," about the posthumously discovered photographer, is indeed like finding a gem. "Life Itself," about film critic Roger Ebert and his struggles with cancer, is inspirational in so many ways. And "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon," made by Mike Myers, pays homage to, well, a supermensch - a champion of musicians, movie stars, and celebrity chefs whose path has crossed, and crisscrossed, those of luminaries from every quarter.
Speaking of quarters, that's about as much as you should spend if you somehow find it necessary to go back and revisit the big, vacant superhero pics "Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," or Seth MacFarlane's woefully unfunny western parody "A Million Ways to Die in the West," or the misogynist fanboy film noir "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." And venture into the dysfunctional family hell of "This Is Where I Leave You" at your own risk. The Jane Fonda boob-job jokes will haunt you the rest of your life.