In accordance with the cinematic drought commonly known as February, these are some of my favorite 2014 releases that were generally neglected by the Oscars—and are well worth a first—or second—look.
1. Chef – Jon Favreau’s charming, amusing tale about a frustrated chef at a career crossroads who reinvents himself via a food truck sometimes resembles a wish-fulfillment fantasy (what with Scarlet Johansson and Sofia Vergara as his prospective love interests!), but what an enjoyable, compassionate film it turns out to be. Well worth a second helping.
2. The Trip to Italy – Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take another beautifully realized trip, this time in search of fine cuisine amidst the splendors of Italy. Fine cuisine, gorgeous scenery, some extremely funny moments (both Coogan and Brydon are gifted mimics)–and a poignant meditation on aging and mortality.
3. Magic in the Moonlight – Colin Firth’s jaded magician and Emma Stone’s lovely young psychic share a winning rapport in Woody Allen’s underrated romantic comedy that is as much a pleasure to look at (what with that gorgeous French Riviera as a backdrop) as it is to listen to, with some sharp dialogue and a bouncy score. Allen’s most enjoyable writing-directing effort in years.
4. Fading Gigolo –Speaking of Allen, his best acting work in a long time is in this affecting comedy-drama written and directed by John Turturro—who also stars as a New Yorker trying to make ends meet, and is encouraged by Allen to become a “fancy man” for some attractive women (including the ubiquitous but talented Sofia Vergara) of various means and needs. Wistful, funny, moving—it’s a lovely film.
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Part superhero film, part spy thriller, and marked by a twisty plot (more so than your run-of-the-mill action epic) and some convincing turns by a game cast, including Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie, and Robert Redford as the agency chief with some secrets. Exciting and intelligent—a rare bird indeed.
6. Love is Strange – John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are both Oscar-worthy in this touching drama as a newly married couple who are forced to do rely on the kindness of friends and relatives after they are forced to sell their apartment after Molina is fired from his position in a Catholic school (because of their marriage). It’s a heartbreaking tale and the most believable love story of the year.
7. A Walk Among the Tombstones – This atmospheric adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel wasn’t a hit but this dark thriller about an alcoholic private detective caught up in a disturbing case involving kidnapping and murder is taut, compelling—and features Liam Neeson’s best performance in a while as the brooding private eye Matthew Scudder.
8. A Most Violent Year – It’s New York City 1981, and an honest but beleaguered owner of a heating oil business does battle not only with some ruthless competitors, but also possibly his own supportive but seething wife. Oscar Isaac is superb—reminiscent of a young Pacino–as the owner trying to maintain his integrity, while Jessica Chastain excels as his wife, who is not content to stand by idly. It’s a terrific movie, unfairly overlooked—but that’s the nature of the Hollywood beast.