Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater) A gimmick is only a gimmick if it isn't used well. In Boyhood, it is a technique. We see not a character grow old in makeup, but a real, live human being change before our eyes. This is an emotional pick for me. My son turned two just before I saw Boyhood, and the idea that he will grow up is only now turning real.
Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay) I saw the movie on a weekday. The audience stayed through the end credits song and applauded. DuVernay and actor Oyelowo pull up the impossible tasks of 1) telling a saint's story in a way that avoids both haigiography and denigration and 2) marking a historic victory for freedom that avoids both self-congratulation and complacency.
Selma's existence serves to highlight the political dimension of the Civil Rights movement that has somehow gotten lost in the popular retellings. We forget that equality is not inevitable - it happens because people take action to create it.
Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu) The Broadway Russian Ark. The continuous shot is impressive, but doesn't overwhelm the narrative in the way Joe Wright's much shorter takes do. The narrative gets more than a bit formulaic, but the acting performances elevate the material. Keaton gives one of the best performances of his career.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson) My favorite Wes Anderson yet. He's finally at the point in his career where he's comfortable with a plot, and the results are exciting. I can't wait to see where he goes from here. Adventure is a good fit for him. I'd love to see him direct a Bond film a decade or so from now.
Anderson's style also seems perfect for both time periods the film is set in. It's modern, yet somehow simultaneously not modern.
Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle) Engrossing, exciting movie that took me on a journey I didn't expect. The first 30 minutes lulled me into thinking it'd be an Oscar-bait biopic. Then, is surprised me, and again and again. The final showdown was beautifully cathartic, like the coda to a rock song. But it kept me thinking. Was it worth it? What does the movie want us to think?
The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh) A nice takedown of the manic pixie dream girl trope. A good, mainline biopic that occasionally dips its toe into the water of ambition, finds it too cold, and withdraws. (The strange fantasy sequence near the end of the movie, for example, seems like a start at a theme that was later cut)
American Sniper (dir. Clint Eastwood) I think I saw a different movie than everyone else. Rather than jingoistic sadism or a paean to an American Hero, American Sniper focuses primarily on the moral injury suffered by soldiers when they kill. The movie's didactic lessons - Al-Qaeda in Iraq is evil, PTSD is real, soldiers who suffer deserve our support - are nowhere near controversial. But, it's nice to see any movie that reminds Americans about the wars they chose to forget several years ago.
The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum) Fills this year's World War II Biography slot at the Oscars. Cumberbatch as Turing was the most obvious casting decision of the year. The movie played it safe for the most part, but did its job admirably.