ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Hollywood would just as soon forget 2014 when it comes to box office numbers. Despite the success of "Guardians Of The Galaxy" and the arrival of the final "Hobbit" sequel, movie grosses are off about half a billion dollars from last year. And as for quality, well, when movie critic Bob Mondello sat down to compile his 10 best list, he says the films are quirkier than usual, but his cup still runneth over.
BOB MONDELLO: Usually I'm conflicted when picking a favorite film of the year. This year, it's no sweat. I have flat-out never seen a movie that took bigger chances for more intriguing rewards than Richard Linklater's "Boyhood." Shooting over a dozen years, just a day or two each year, he captured his leading child, actor Ellar Coltrane, growing from a precocious 6-year-old giving his father a hard time...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYHOOD")
ELLAR COLTRANE: (As Mason) But dad, I mean, why is it all on us, though? You know, what about you? How was your week? You know, who do you hang out with? Do you have a girlfriend?
MONDELLO: ...To a young man of 18, still giving his father hard time.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYHOOD")
COLTRANE: (As Mason) You said that was going to be my car when I turned 16.
ETHAN HAWKE: (As Dad) What?
COLTRANE: (As Mason) I remember. I was in third grade, and you were taking me over to Anthony's Nadar's (ph) house for his birthday. You were like, oh, this is going be Mason's when he turns 16.
HAWKE: (As Dad) I would never say that - never.
COLTRANE: (As Mason) Well, you did, though.
MONDELLO: It's hard to overstate the emotional impact of watching someone literally grow up before your eyes. Is "Boyhood" stunt film making? Well, if so, it had some very classy competition. Director Alejandro Inarritu's "Birdman" was always flying into meta-territory just by casting Michael Keaton, a former superhero making a comeback, to play a former superhero making a comeback.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")
MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan) Let's go back one more time and show them what we're capable of.
MONDELLO: But the director also upped the ante by shooting almost all of "Birdman," including leaps out windows and fantasy sequences, to look as if the film were one continuous shot.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Hey, is this for real, or are you shooting a film?
KEATON: (As Riggan) A film.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) You people are full of crap.
KEATON: (As Riggan) Music.
MONDELLO: For pure directorial bravura, it would be hard to top "Birdman," but other directors sure made a stab at it - Wes Anderson, for instance, in his delirious spoof of 1930s melodramas, "The Grand Budapest Hotel." It stars Ralph Fiennes as an easily distracted concierge who romances dowagers in a resort that looks like a pink wedding cake perched atop a Swiss Alp.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL")
TILDA SWINTON: (As Madame D.) I fear this may be the last time we ever see each other.
RALPH FIENNES: (As M. Gustave) You're always inches before you travel. I admit, you appear to be suffering a more acute attack on this occasion, but truly and honestly - oh, dear God. What have you done to your fingernails?
SWINTON: (As Madame D.) I beg your pardon?
FIENNES: (As M. Gustave) This diabolical varnish - the color is completely wrong.
SWINTON: (As Madame D.) Oh, really? Don't you like it?
FIENNES: (As M. Gustave) It's not that I don't like it...
MONDELLO: The film is at least as easily distracted as its concierge with flashbacks inside flashbacks, each with its own aspect ratio from widescreen to basically square. Yes, Anderson's films are an acquired taste but "Grand Budapest Hotel" makes clear that it's a taste worth acquiring.
Mike Leigh's exquisitely earthy biopic, "Mr. Turner" could hardly be more different - a muscular, artful portrait of an artist. Actor Tim Spall grunts and snorts his way through the film as J.M.W. Turner, spitting on his canvases, stabbing them with brushes, attacking them in ways that make painting look almost like combat. But the results are incandescent. Every frame of "Mr. Turner" is worthy of framing.
That's four. Other real-life figures in the year's best films include two who practiced civil disobedience while advocating for governmental change. Laura Poitras begins her scintillating documentary "Citizenfour" by reading one of the emails Edward Snowden sent her when he was first preparing to go public with his revelations of widespread government surveillance.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZENFOUR")
LAURA POITRAS: (Reading) Laura, I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand the contacting you is extremely high-risk and you are willing to agree to the following precautions before I share more. This will not be a waste of your time.
MONDELLO: Call that the understatement of the year. The documentary "Citizenfour" unreels with the intensity of a thriller.
Ava Duverney crafted a no less passionate film, the historical epic "Selma," in which Martin Luther King Jr. organizes the Alabama protests that would lead to the passage of the Boting Rights Act of 1965.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")
DAVID OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) Those that have gone before us say no more, no more. That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jai. That means risk, and that is hard.
MONDELLO: And that is six of my top 10. The next three hail from overseas - Russia's "Leviathan," a gorgeously shot tragedy about a little guy battling a corrupt state to save his home; Belgium's corporate-downsizing drama "Two Days, One Night," which follows Marion Cotillard as she struggles to save her job; and Sweden's "Force Majeure," about a young father on a skiing vacation who screws up and is suddenly trying to save his marriage. The catalyst in his case is one of the ski resort's controlled avalanches that starts to seem not very controlled. It comes down the mountain straight at the family and at the camera. And well, there's no other way to say it - mom grads the kids; dad grabs his cell phone and runs. When the powder settles, no one was hurt, but the family dynamic has been forever altered.
Another marital drama, "Love Is Strange," rounds out my 10 favorite films. It's an intimate story about a gay couple - an artist and a choir director - who have been together for 39 years. When the choir director's church gets wind of the fact that they've had a wedding ceremony, it fires him at which point their finances come apart and they have to turn to friends.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE IS STRANGE")
ALFRED MOLINA: (As George) Now, it won't be long before I get another job and shouldn't be long before we find another apartment, but in the meantime...
JOHN LITHGOW: (As Ben) It's just a transition phase, probably just a week or two.
MOLINA: (As George) We need a place to stay.
MONDELLO: What looked like a new beginning in "Love Is Strange" instead starts to seem the beginning of the end. That's 10. It's an arbitrary number, and I'm not out of time. So I'm going keep going. Two provocative war movies celebrated real-life war heroes - Clint Eastwood's wrenching "American Sniper" set in Iraq and the World War II-era "Imitation Game" about the math genius who cracks the Germans' Enigma code.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMITATION GAME")
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) I like solving problems, and Enigma is the most difficult problem the world.
CHARLES DANCE: (As Commander Denniston) No, Enigma isn't difficult. It's impossible. Everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Good. Let me try, and we'll know for sure, won't we?
MONDELLO: Leave it to Benedict Cumberbatch to make the impossible sound elementary. The East Indian comedy "The Lunchbox" struck me as the year's most savory romance, "Edge Of Tomorrow" as its most underrated sci-fi flick and "Calvary" its most intriguing tale about the search for redemption - a corrosive one, mind you - that gets underway in an Irish chapel's confessional.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CALVARY")
BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Father James) I'm here to listen to whatever you have to say.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm going to kill you, Father.
GLEESON: (As Father James) Certainly a startling opening line.
MONDELLO: What follows that opening line in "Calvary" is an existential detective story. A trio of terrific low-budget films were centered on gay characters this year - the documentary "Dog," about the real guy that Al Pacino played in "Dog Day Afternoon," the Hitchcock-like thriller "Stranger By The Lake," and the hugely engaging labor union comedy, "Pride." And speaking of engaging, you can have your animated Legos - give me "Big Hero 6" and the inflatable health care robot Baymax.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG HERO 6")
SCOTT ADSIT: (As Baymax) I will scan you for injuries.
RYAN POTTER: (As Hiro) Don't scan me.
ADSIT: (As Baymax) Scan complete.
POTTER: (As Hiro) Unbelievable.
ADSIT: (As Baymax) You have sustained no injuries. However, your hormone and neurotransmitter levels indicate that you are expensing mood swings common in adolescence. Diagnosis - puberty.
POTTER: (As Hiro) Whoa. What?
MONDELLO: That's nearly a second 10 to savor as we head into the barren cinematic dumping ground the studios always make of January. Look forward to horror sequels, misbegotten comedies and with luck, an occasional gem. I can vouch for Jennifer Aniston in "Cake." Here's hoping there are others. I'm Bob Mondello.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.