Performance reigns high

Hollywood calling

Performance reigns high

From technically-advanced productions to independent films, 2014 saw a mix of movies where content was the real hero. Pradeep Sebastian writes about the highs & lows of Hollywood this year...

The best films of the year turned out to be small, independent movies, not blockbusters. Except for Interstellar, none of the big, anticipated productions got much critical acclaim as evidenced by Ridley Scott’s Exodus.

Gone Girl, though, is a strange case — both a box-office and a critical hit that was touted to be an Oscar favourite, the film has now disappeared from most best of year end lists. It seems to have paled before a clutch of even more acclaimed movies that have seen recent releases like Selma, Whiplash, Birdman, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game to name only a few from a growing list of late December releases.

Scoring low on many critics’ list are also The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, End of Tomorrow, The Amazing Spiderman 2 and Fury. Personal disappointments this year for me have been The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie high on the list of most film critics, Noah, Dawn of The Planet of the Apes, Transcendence, Million Dollar Arm, The Monuments Men, The Two Faces of January, Rosewater and The Hundred Foot Journey.

And personal favourites: Words and Pictures, a little-seen gem about writing and painting with a riveting performance from Clive Owen, Locke, Belle, The German Doctor, Night Moves, Lucy, and The November Man.

Interstellar

The most satisfying science fiction film since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Christopher Nolan seems to have the ability to immerse an audience in a world he and his brother dream up — they’ve been doing that from Momento to Inception to the last Batman instalment. The science behind the plot has been widely disputed and questioned (a black hole is something to stay away from, not travel towards) but it’s all sci-fi gobbledegook anyway, and not to be taken seriously. Just enjoy the trip. If you missed seeing it in a theatre, too bad.

The Imitation Game

Another tour de force performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing the British mathematician and cryptanalyst who broke the Engima code and pioneered modern day computing. Turing sadly and devastatingly was never given the honours he deserved, or even recognised for his work, having been arrested for “the criminal offense of homosexuality” in the 1950s. Turing breaking the Enigma machine code is said to have been the turning point in World War II.

Selma

A civil rights drama with a definitive performance from David Oyelowo as the African American leader Martin Luther King. The focus is on King and President Johnson (the great Tom Wilkinson) as the civil rights marches catch fire. Selma becomes pertinent as the debate on race relations in America reaches feverish heights after the Ferguson riots. One critic remarked that King’s leadership puts to shame the non-performance of the present administration even though led by an African American.

The Theory of Everything

Explores a little-known aspect of Stephen Hawking’s life: his marriage. Marvelous performance from Eddie Redmayne who transforms himself into a believable Hawking. This, however, is the story of his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) who fought indefatigably by his side. As partners in life and work, they break new ground in medicine and science, beating all odds.

The Trip to Italy
The follow up to The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Italy, indulging in gourmet food and passing the time making impersonations of famous actors. Director Michael Winterbottom once again allows these wonderful comic actors to improvise as they go along, making up their own dialogue. Forget the food, and forget the road trip — two overdone movie concepts — focus on the duelling impersonations, the witty banter, and the painfully honest self disclosures that lay bare an actor’s ego, and you have a terrific film here that pays tribute to actors and acting.

A Most Wanted Man

John le Carre ushers us into a new spy regime where torture has replaced spycraft, and in the light of the recent report of CIA torture and cruelty, this espionage thriller suddenly becomes even more relevant and provocative. Modest in scale, tense, and with a brooding European setting, this is vintage John Le Carre. At the centre of it is a quietly remarkable performance by Hoffman, a studied turn as a smart, world-weary spy going up against the philistines of the Intelligence community.

Birdman

A movie that came out of nowhere taking critics by surprise. It’s about acting, actors, and the egos they have to battle. It’s also the return of Michael Keaton, Tim Burton’s favourite actor, the first Batman and best known for Beetlejuice. Keaton got lost along the way as an actor, repeating himself in every role. Here he finally plays a star who once played a movie superhero having to make a transition to theatre — to acting on Broadway. An ensemble of stellar actors shine here with Keaton. Written and directed by Alejandro Inarittu, Birdman is a fine black comedy about actors, career, and family.

Inherent Vice
It’s never easy to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel, so no one has dared to before, until Paul Thomas Anderson who does a masterful job of making you actually feel you are immersed in a Pynchon world of paranoia, conspiracy, comedy and cool. One of those odd movies that is at once a drama, a comedy and a mystery. Plus, it’s a stoner movie! The story isn’t easy to summarise, but it involves a private detective looking into the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend! Watching Inherent Vice is close to a psychedelic experience, laid back, hazy, rapturous and goofy.

Boyhood

This little film from Richard Linklater has become somewhat of a legend in the annals of movie making. Why? Well, it stays with one actor-character for more than a decade, filming him as he grows up from childhood to college. That sounds like many documentaries you’ve probably heard of or seen, but Boyhood is fiction, a feature film that took 12 or 14 years (I forget which) to make. Linklater picked one boy actor and cast a family around him, scripted a story around his life, and came back every few years to film more of the story. Both the actor and the character grow up before our very eyes as the movie progresses!

CitizenFour
The documentary we’ve all been waiting for, finally revealing the story of Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald that unspools like a top notch paranoia thriller. You feel as if you are there in the room with Snowden as he sneaks in pages and pages of classified information to the journalist.

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