10. LIFE ITSELF
“For me, movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Roger Ebert said. “It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Many people may know Ebert merely as one half of the critiquing duo that bolstered or sank many a film with the turn of a thumb, but documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams) shows us a three-dimensional person who changed the world in ways he never got enough credit for. Yes, Ebert was a famous reviewer, but James steps further back in scope to show you the first person to ever be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism (and at 33 years old); the man who loved to argue with his reviewing partner Gene Siskel for nearly a quarter-century of genre-creating television; and the brave soul who soldiered through repeated bouts with cancer and wouldn’t even let his loss of the ability to speak silence his voice. James’ unfiltered access through the highs and lows of Ebert’s life give a brilliant, complete look at a man who was so much more than his thumb.
Fresh off his Oscar win, Matthew McConaughey returned to the big screen as Coop, a former NASA test pilot in the near future, chosen to join a last-ditch space mission to save humanity. The Earth is doomed, but a wormhole has been discovered with three life-supporting planets on the other side, which would save humanity (and Coop’s children, otherwise destined to die in their 50s). It’s only fitting for a movie about travelling through space and time to need an incredibly large canvas, and despite having made The Dark Knight and Inception already, Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s biggest movie yet. Moreover, it’s an unforgettable thrill ride with visuals on par with Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan envisages worlds with an artist’s eye and frames many of his shots as stunning photographs. Some of the most intense action sequences to take place in a sci-fi movie are within these 169 minutes and they’re truly a sight to behold.
Boyhood, the picture that has went from a small indie film to one of the most talked-about movies of last summer to a frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars, was filmed over the span of 12 years. Between the ages of 6 and 18, star Ellar Coltrane filmed scenes for the movie as Mason, aging a dozen years over the running time of the film. Linklater’s direction is focussed by unobtrusive, giving many shots and scenes a realistic, honest feel like that of the family scenes in The Tree of Life. His screenplay is excellent, less worried about each individual scene’s success than about the big picture. By its premise alone, Boyhood could very easily have just been a well-made gimmick movie, but Linklater’s talent and vision resulted in the creation of a one-of-a-kind, cinematic wonder.
7. CAPTAIN AMERICA:
THE WINTER SOLDIER
Following the intergalactic climax of The Avengers, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) set off to unravel a conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D., having to stay one step ahead of their hunters at every turn, including the unstoppable, titular foe. The Winter Soldier barely takes a single wrong step, from its thrilling opening sequence to its surprising ending. It moves at a really brisk pace, never feeling like it’s actually over two hours long, and every scene that seems hard to top is dwarfed by the turns of the subsequent plot and immense action sequences. Even predictable turns in the plot actually serve to just blind audiences toward later twists. The first Captain America movie, with its ridiculous villain, rushed CGI, and pervasive Americanism, is the worst movie Marvel Studios has made since launching with 2008’s Iron Man. Conversely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the very best Marvel movie yet — and the greatest action film of the year.
Sometimes the simplest premises can make for the richest movies. Whiplash could almost function as a two-person play, with how central and personal the relationship is between aspiring drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and torturous instructor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). There isn’t a scene without Teller in it, and every second Simmons in on-screen he nearly burns through the screen with Oscar-winning intensity. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is a sizzling fuse of a film that keeps you on the edge of your seat. You root for the struggling Andrew to receive the fatherly approval from Fletcher that will never come, all the while relishing every bilious rant that rages from the man’s mouth. The sound and editing is top-notch and the simplicity of the plot is streamlined into a gripping narrative that feels more intimate than almost any movie from last year.