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Talking Movies: Best films of 2014 that you might have missed


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As Johnny Depp’s drunken tribute at the Hollywood Film Awards reminds us, the winter film awards season is underway. With tons of new releases, now is good time to look back at some of the films that will be recognized and some that might be overlooked in the upcoming slew of awards shows.


Ida

Maybe my favorite film of the year, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, tells the story of a cynical and depressed Communist Party apparatchik in Warsaw during the Cold War with only one living relative: a niece who is visiting prior to taking her final vows in a cloister. Visually gorgeous in lush black and white, the film is part road movie, part commentary about faith and part Holocaust drama. It is also Poland’s submission to the Academy’s Best Foreign Film category, so if you missed Ida this summer, you may have an opportunity to see this terrific film in wider release soon.


A Most Wanted Man

Though the life and career of Philip Seymour Hoffman seem to be continuing in post-production, A Most Wanted Man — Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the John la Carre novel — may well be the actor’s last great role. To me, Hoffman is at his best not playing bombastic or extroverted roles (like his depiction of Truman Capote or his recent appearances in the Hunger Games franchise), but rather in his quieter portrayals of schlubby, exasperated bureaucrats who specialize in arcane fields, insider knowledge and alcoholism. This is the Hoffman of Charlie Wilson’s War and most certainly the Hoffman playing Gunter Bachmann, the German intelligence agent of Corbijn’s film. Willem Dafoe also turns in a very strong performance as a German banker and reluctant accomplice.


Snowpiercer

2014 has been a good year for science fiction films and films that seem like science fiction films because they have a talking raccoon. Joon-ho Bongs’s dystopic Snowpiercer may be the best of the lot. Following an environmental catastrophe that caused the extinction of all life, the only survivors on Earth dwell on a train that constantly circles the globe. While the sheer existentialism of the set-up would seem to overwhelm any smaller plot concerns, the film’s characters — especially Tilda Swinton in yet another wonderfully bizarre role — manage to convince you that interpersonal politics and the struggle for power still matter, even in this frozen apocalypse of the near future.


The Drop

Another great actor that American cinema lost far too early gave us a solid performance in a film that saw limited time on Iowa City screens. The Drop is James Gandolfini’s last film and is an adaptation of a Dennis LeHane short story. It has the same focus on gritty, vengeful, under-lighted neighborhoods for which LeHane is famous, and it features Gandolfini as less of a crime boss and more of a come-from-behind, small-time criminal placed in an impossible situation. This film will receive no recognition by any of the awards shows, but it nonetheless stands as an example of how Gandolfini can breathe new life into a familiar role for him, and also how quality acting can bring mediocre crime writing to life on screen. It also seems somehow appropriate to see Tony Soprano go out with a role about organized crime and not with a romantic comedy as his last on-screen testament.


Life Itself

Life Itself, Steve James’s biography of Roger Ebert, may have lost to Citizen Four at the Gotham Independent Film Awards for best documentary, but it shouldn’t have. Life Itself does a stunning job of mixing just-the-facts biography, telling you stuff about Ebert’s life that you either didn’t know or forgot that you knew, with poignant description of the courageous way in which a cynical and selfish film critic faces his own mortality. The film will receive wide release later this winter — and it’s one you should see.


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