It's a cliché of the season to list award favorites, but it is also a thrill to be able to recommend so many good films: at this moment the pundit's favorites are Boyhood, Birdman and Selma, with additional mention of Unbroken and The Theory of Everything. In a rich year, many films deserve our attention:
American Sniper: Clint Eastwood at the top of his career, with a movie based on the true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) that effectively takes you into the world of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the serious battle to come home.
A Most Violent Year: Some may think of this period movie as Sidney Lumet-light, but with an excellent Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, J. C. Chandor's third feature, about a decent man doing business, is as much about a marriage, and '80's big shoulder couture. A twist at the end challenges the notion of how ethical anyone in business can really be.
Foxcatcher: Steve Carell may be the Nicole Kidman of nose prostheses this year. We know him as mild, handsome and funny and here in Bennett Miller's film, he is rich, scary and tragic. This startling true story also features Channing Tatum as we've never seen him, and Mark Ruffalo, so sweetly good as he is in this year's Begin Again and The Normal Heart. Director Bennett Miller makes movies about men that women love to watch.
Ida: Poland's entry into the Oscar race is frame by frame a work of art. The post Holocaust story of a nun who learns about her past may be emblematic of ones known to historians by now, but this film distills its essence.
Mr. Turner: Timothy Spall is well known as a character actor. As the painter J. M. W. Turner in Mike Leigh's epic length bio-pic, he brings his talent to evoke character through a vast array of tics, grunts and peculiarities to carry this beautiful movie.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: A Wes Anderson movie with all the quirks and wonderful eccentrics is worth seeing again and again. This one, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, features an extraordinary ensemble, starting with Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman who is also very cool in Tim Burton's Big Eyes, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan and Willem Dafoe. The movie is so richly populated, I may have forgotten a few.
The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch will be nominated for Best Actor for his role as Alan Turing, a British genius who helped break the Nazi code, but who ended his life sadly, brought to suicide for being a homosexual. The film also offers a glimpse of women of the war era in the person of Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a smart mathematician who falls for him. Knightley does good work in Begin Again this year as well.
Timbuktu: This film from Mauritania quietly seeps into your gut, showing with heart-wrenching effect what happens in a desert village when repressive Taliban-like militant Islamic rebels take over.
Whiplash: J. K. Simmons is a demanding music teacher, or is he simply a sadist, in Damien Chazelle's debut film inspired by his own experience. Miles Teller is the student who literally bleeds as a jazz drummer in a school from hell; of course, he also triumphs playing "Whiplash."
Wild: I loved both Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern so much in this story about a mother-daughter. Based on Cheryl Strayed's bestseller, Witherspoon's Cheryl is reminiscent of young women in the 1970's with little if no guidance, despite her loving yet kooky mom. The arduous determined hike into the wild lifts her from drugs and self-abuse -- seen in flashbacks -- after her mom dies. I empathized. I cried.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.