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Two film critics take a look at 2014’s best movies

What movies are likely to be remembered long after 2014 ends? From a cinematic meditation on growing up, to a stirring portrait of the civil rights movement, film critics Dana Stevens of Slate and Mike Sargent of Pacifica Radio join Jeffrey Brown to discuss their personal picks for the best films of the year.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We close tonight with a look back, this time at the year at the movies.

    Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Dana Stevens & Mike Sargent's 2014 picks – "Boyhood," directed by Richard Linklater – "Selma," directed by Ava DuVernay – "Mr. Turner," directed by Mike Leigh – "Still Alice," directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer – "The Babadook," directed by Jennifer Kent – "Get On Up," directed by Tate Taylor And we talk favorite films, best performances and more with film critics Dana Stevens of Slate and Mike Sargent of Pacifica Radio.

    And let's just jump right in. We asked each of you ahead of time first to pick one top film you want to recommend to people. I know it was hard to whittle.

    But, Dana, you chose the film "Boyhood." Tell us briefly why.

  • DANA STEVENS, Slate:

    That's right.

    For the purposes of this conversation, I chose "Boyhood," although I never like to rank my favorite movies, because I like to choose a favorite every day sometimes. But "Boyhood" I think is one of the outstanding movies of this year or of many recent years.

    If you haven't seen it or don't know the story behind it, it's Richard Linklater's sort of opus about a Texas family that takes place over the course of 12 years. And it was filmed over the course of 12 years, so it tracks this one boy and all the actors playing his family from — I guess he's 6 or so at the beginning until — up until he leaves for college at age 18.

    So more than any film I can think of this year, it's just an extremely ambitious experimental project, and one that really, really works.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, I want to show you a little clip from that.

    This is the dad, Ethan Hawke. He's with the two children. He's divorced at this point. I think this is about four years into the film. Let's look at that.

  • ACTRESS:

    These questions are kind of hard to answer.

  • ETHAN HAWKE, Actor:

    What is so hard to answer about, what sculpture are you making?

  • ACTRESS:

    It's abstract.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    OK. OK. That's good. See, that's — I didn't know — I didn't know that. I didn't know you were even interested in abstract art.

  • ACTRESS:

    I'm not. They make us do it.

  • ACTOR:

    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? What have you been up to?

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    I see your point.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, so that's a film shot over 12 years.

    Now, Mike Sargent, your top choice was looking back at a very important moment in history, civil rights history, right?

  • MIKE SARGENT, Pacifica Radio:

    Yes, it was. It was the movie "Selma," which I chose," and similar to you, Dana, in that it's hard to choose a favorite film. I can usually choose a top five.

    But I chose it because it's significant in many, many ways. It's the story of Dr. Martin Luther King's historic march from Selma to Memphis to really secure voting rights for all of America. And it's directed by an African-American female writer/director named Ava DuVernay.

    And it's very significant that, A, it's the first time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has ever been portrayed on screen. B, it's by — there aren't that many women making movies. And there definitely aren't that many women of color.

    And one of the things that she did that I really found powerful, not just in that it's moving and it couldn't be more timely with what's going on in America, is that she really cast a light on the people who were also part of the movie, not just Martin Luther King, but also the women who were involved, some of the other people involved.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, here's a short clip from that one. This is Martin Luther King in a Selma church.

  • DAVID OYELOWO, Actor:

    Those that have gone before us say no more.

  • ACTORS:

    No more!

  • DAVID OYELOWO:

    No more!

  • ACTORS:

    No more!

  • DAVID OYELOWO:

    That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jails. That means risk.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • DAVID OYELOWO:

    And that is hard.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That is David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King Jr. And he came up for both of you when we asked about some great performances of the year.

    Dana, another one that you mentioned was Timothy Spall playing the artist Joseph Turner in "Mr. Turner."

    Let's just look at a short clip of that first and then you can tell us about it.

  • TIMOTHY SPALL, Actor:

    Mrs. Booth, would you be so kind as to look out of the window?

  • ACTRESS:

    What am I looking at?

  • TIMOTHY SPALL:

    From the tip of your nose to the bridge, to the curve of your brow, you put me in mind of a Greek sculpture I'm familiar with of Aphrodite, goddess of love.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Dana, I saw that one, that film. That is full of grunts and groans, kind of strange character, an artist walking through life. What did you love about that performance?

  • DANA STEVENS:

    Well, yes.

    I was going to say that the clip that you chose to show was probably one of the most verbal scenes Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner has in the entire movie.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, exactly.

  • DANA STEVENS:

    He essentially sort of grunts his way through life and is this very inarticulate at times, but also extremely intelligent and sensitive and well-spoken artist, when he wants to be.

    It's such a complex character. And unlike most artist biopics, unlike nearly every artist biopic I can think of, it really maintains the mystery of the distance between the artist and the creation of his art. You never quite understand this character, Turner, that he plays. And yet you become so close to him over the course of the 25 years or so of his life that the movie covers. It's an extraordinary performance by Timothy Spall.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mike, one of the performances you cited was the one by Julianne Moore. She is playing a woman who recently finds that she has Alzheimer's. The film is "Still Alice."

    Let's take a quick look at a clip from that.

  • JULIANNE MOORE, ACTRESS:

    I have always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation. And now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me, and I can't reach them, and I don't know who I am, and I don't know what I'm going to lose next.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Tell us why that performance stood out for you, Mike.

  • MIKE SARGENT:

    Well, I think the performance stood out because I think it's a very powerful subject, and I thought she handled it very well.

    There could easily be the tendency to overdo it and be overly dramatic. And I thought that there are a lot of moments of restraint and a lot of moments of emotion that she conveys very well. There's so much going on within her. There are a lot of things that she does, I guess similar to Timothy Spall, where — towards the end of the film where she's not really speaking that much, but you really get what she's going through.

    And I think in a year where there weren't as many strong female performances as I had — in previous years, I thought this was a very moving performance.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You both said how hard it is to pick a top film, top performance. Let me make it open it up a little bit for you and make it a little easier, starting with you, Dana Stevens.

    You can talk about some other films, but especially what I want to ask you about, perhaps some hidden gems, things that we didn't get a chance to read about or to see.

  • DANA STEVENS:

    Yes, in the name of advocacy, especially because "Boyhood," the film that I named as my favorite, is — has been so popular, and beloved, and almost everyone I know has seen it, I want to recommend "The Babadook," which is this Australian horror film that not a lot of people have seen, I think.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    An Australian horror film, huh?

  • DANA STEVENS:

    An Australian horror film.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    OK.

  • DANA STEVENS:

    It's the debut film of a woman named Jennifer Kent, who previously was an actress in Australian TV and movies.

    And it's a really astonishing debut. Even if you're not a horror movie person, if you just admire, for example, "Rosemary's Baby" or a really, really artfully done horror movie that's about more than just is the monster going to get somebody, right, one that has got some sort of allegorical richness and depth to it, I really recommended "The Babadook," which is both a monster movie, a home invasion thriller, and a kind of parable about motherhood.

    It's just extraordinary.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, Mike Sargent, can you top that?

  • MIKE SARGENT:

    I don't know if I can top that, but I definitely have to say there's a film that's pretty much gotten forgotten by this time of the year because it came out so early in the year.

    And that's "Get On Up." And that is the film that stars Chadwick Boseman playing James Brown. And it starts from him being very young up until the point where maybe most people our age remember him, where he wasn't quite the man he once was.

    But I have to say, I thought Chadwick Boseman gave a phenomenal performance. And, for a while, you completely forget you're watching an actor. You're just watching James Brown do his thing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    OK.

    Well, that's our short look at 2014, the films.

    Mike Sargent of Pacifica Radio and Dana Stevens of Slate, thank you both very much. And happy viewing in 2015.

  • DANA STEVENS:

    Same to you.

  • MIKE SARGENT:

    Thank you for having us.

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