Film Feature: The 10 Best Films of 2014, By Nick Allen

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Star5. “Frank”

Photo credit: Magnolia

One of the year’s best films about art itself starred Michael Fassbender in a papier-mache head. Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” is a profound ode to how art feels, a quality more important than ratings or logic. Fassbender plays the songwriter and band leader (think early Flaming Lips) and earns singularity, as he indirectly exposes to wannabe indie pop star (played by Domhnall Gleeson) to the inherent purposes of art. An incredibly genuine odyssey, “Frank” becomes even better when discovering its source of inspiration, the real-life Frank Sidebottom, whose content is only a spiritual inspiration for Fassbender’s work. The performance of the film’s final song, “I Love You All,” which is written on the spot, is a year-best moment.

Star4. “Selma”

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Some very patriotic sawdust got in my eye for half of “Selma,” a crucial documentation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s effect on America after “I have a dream.” While I had the unique timing of seeing this film a day after the Michael Brown verdict, there is no doubt that the film has a timeless power, especially when watching the magnificent portrayal by David Oyelowo as Dr. King. Director Ava DuVernay treats this point of history with necessary contemplation, while writer Paul Webb expertly recreates the natural verbose brilliance of Dr. King, all without having the rights to his speeches. The completing feature to this incredible experience is the cinematography of Bradford Young (who also shot “A Most Violent Year”), whose wide angles capture the moment of his speeches, in which one man was able to invigorate the lives of so many.

Star3. “The Lego Movie”

The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie
Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Anyone worried about the restrictions within Hollywood adaptations need only watch “The Lego Movie” to see the potential of films based on previous products. Directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller inject the agile humor from their successful “21 Jump Street” reboot into this take on a creative toy, and a brand’s entire image is changed in the process. At the same time, “The Lego Movie” breaks the system, deconstructing the alienation in the beloved arc of “the special,” an effect that made following releases like “Divergent” look lifeless in comparison.

Star2. “Whiplash”

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The “Rocky” that musicians have long been owed, “Whiplash” is ambition as a drug. A jazz drumming thriller that goes bare bones to show a musician’s focus, “Whiplash” is the expression of a new fear from cinematically-inclined musician Damien Chazelle. Fittingly, the film is accelerated by two bold performances, from Miles Teller’s aspirational drummer Andrew, to the vicious embodiment of the voice telling him to give up, played by J.K. Simmons in one of the year’s most memorable turns.

Along with its pulsating denouement for a story about jazz band that could fire up a football team, “Whiplash” has a definitive zeal of its own. Defying the expected cinematic representations of musical physicality and basing its narrative solely on a drummer’s ambition, Chazelle’s film audaciously affirms that the voice of failure is only silenced by fearlessness.

Star1. “Life Itself”

Life Itself
Life Itself
Photo credit: Magnolia

No bias needed: Steve James’ documentary “Life Itself” is the best film of 2014. It’s a heartfelt tribute to a fellow film critic who I and many others shared endless amounts of meditative hours in the dark, the guru who could always write it best. As Ebert was famously a populist and more importantly a Chicagoan, “Life Itself” shares a grand existence with its feet planted on the ground. In a wondrous tribute to a person’s craft, critic Roger Ebert becomes unofficial co-director of his tale, while James harnesses the elements of friendship and love that can make even the most human tales cinematic.

There are numerous emotionally moving passages to be found in “Life Itself,” and one of them remains a dark confession from Martin Scorsese. It is an extremely rare moment in which the hyperactive motormouth is rarely silenced during his own reflection about Ebert’s influence on his career. He is brought to a point of humbled tears. This is one memory of a film that is built on a grand gesture about art regarding its fruition, and heralds as to how there will always be a need for critics even long after writers like Ebert have become archival posts. As much as artists like Scorsese may earn their prestige for the popular work they create, the conversation about their creations, or about those who may be due for Scorsese heights, is just as important. To have the power that Ebert did as a philosopher of film is no limited task. This is a documentary worthy of his work.

For “The 10 Best Films of 2014,” by Patrick McDonald of, click here. editor and staff writer Nick Allen

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