"This is a very, very depressing year for film," critic David Edelstein tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "because none of the great material came from Hollywood studios."
Studios, he says, direct their financial resources into sequels and comic-book movies, which leaves little room for "creative expression, and for doing something weird and potentially boundary-moving."
However, Edelstein says, in an era in which some 1,000 films may be released in the U.S. each year, the law of averages dictates that there will be some great movies. Edelstein says it was a wonderful year for indie films.
Here are his favorite movies this year:
Boyhood: Richard Linklater's film is about a boy in Texas whose parents have separated. Filmed over 12 years, audiences watch him grow up — and his worldview evolve. The movie catches the passing of time like no other movie, because it's literal.
Selma: Ava DuVernay's epic is about Martin Luther King Jr., played by the great David Oyelowo. It takes a deep look at the civil rights movement, from King's relationship with President Lyndon Johnson to the battle for voting rights for black Americans — and the incident on March 7, 1965, when state police beat peaceful protesters trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
The Babadook: In this Australian chiller by Jennifer Kent, a bogeyman announces himself in a rhyming, pop-up book on a 7-year-old's shelf. But the real horror is that the boy's mom, a grieving widow, is battling psychic demons. It's a phenomenally scary pop-out storybook of a movie.
Whiplash: Director Damien Chazelle's film centers on the agony of a drummer in a high-powered music school. The movie ties you into knots: The fear of failure is omnipresent. So is the jazz vibe.
Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch's film is about vampires Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, who are deadpan, undead hipsters in a dying world.
Mr. Turner: Mike Leigh's marvelous J.M.W. Turner biopic stars that great grunter Timothy Spall, who adds a dollop of the grotesque. Spall depicts a man whose mind is barely engaged by anything other than his work. He's a mystery, and his art is magically indefinite — just like the movie.
Two Days, One Night: The Belgian Dardenne brothers' latest triumph stars Marion Cotillard as a desperate woman begging co-workers to forgo a big bonus so she can keep her job.
The Immigrant: Marion Cotillard plays a Polish woman trying to free her sister from the island's infirmary in this moody period drama. Joaquin Phoenix co-stars as a shady businessman.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper: Nick Broomfield's documentary will come to HBO in 2015. It's an incendiary look at a South Central Los Angeles serial killer who murdered as many as 100 women, and Broomfield finds out more about the case in a few weeks than the Los Angeles Police Department did in 25 years.
Citizenfour: Laura Poitras' avant garde paranoid conspiracy thriller is the real story of Edward Snowden and the technological infrastructure that can monitor everyone in the world. It will make you look both ways when you're on the street.
The Overnighters: Director Jesse Moss tells the story of a North Dakota pastor who provides shelter for economically desperate temporary workers — and discovers that no good deed goes unpunished.
On why Boyhood was his favorite of the year
There are all sorts of ways on film to denote the passing of time, and Richard Linklater has done that by setting a lot of films in real time and using time as a kind of marker, [like in] Before Midnight. ... But, you know, time is really important to him, and here, when he follows over 12 years this one boy aging, we get to see the changes on a kind of molecular level. ... Since the movie is about things that are lost that can't be recovered, you can't go back in time. Once you see him age, you can't bring the little boy back. ... That, to me, makes the movie so poignant and so profound. It gives a kind of documentary element, but it kind of transcends documentary.
On the best performances of the year
Julianne Moore gives a performance in a film called Still Alice: She plays the victim of early onset Alzheimer's disease; she's 50 when the diagnosis comes in. ... Moore gives an extraordinary performance. She plays a character who has always defined herself by her intellect, and so for most, if not all of the movie, you're just riveted on her face. You're just watching her think. There's more and more distance between her thinking the thought and being able to articulate it, being able to chase it down — it becomes heartbreaking in a kind of visceral way that I've really never seen.
The other major performance of the year is by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King [in Selma]. How do you play Martin Luther King convincingly? Well, for one thing, he's a British-trained actor, he's got this marvelous voice, and when you can take Martin Luther King's words, many of which we know already, and you can make it sound like they're coming out of your head and, more important, your diaphragm, then you've gone a long way. He's a spectacular actor.
On Into the Woods
Into the Woods is an extraordinary case, because early in the movie, I was jumping out of my seat I was so happy. We know it's the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical, which farcically mixes up a bunch of Brothers Grimm fairytales. And ... they've said they wrote it to explode the sugary Walt Disney treatment of fairy tales, and here it is, opening on Christmas Day, a big-budget Disney movie and working amazingly well. ...
But, as most people know, the musical takes a turn into the apocalyptic in the second half, really the last third, and man, it doesn't work in this context. I didn't much care for it when I saw the show on Broadway in 1987, but I respected it. But in a Disney movie opening Christmas Day — and pitched to the whole family — this sudden wave of awful things, it seems like child abuse. I say see it, and I say leave at what's clearly the end of Act 1. I'm actually not being facetious. You get all the enchantment and even some of ambiguities and the ... doom, but you won't come out thinking the Big Bad Wolf directed the ending.
On indie films
This year was a wonderful year for indie films. I mean, I actually consider Selma an indie film; I consider The Babadook an indie film; I consider Whiplash an indie film, even though they were released by a major studio, in some cases the smaller divisions. ... Kids are coming out of film schools; the cost of making a movie has plummeted in terms of your equipment; you can always find a lot of out-of-work actors; people are creating really meaningful movies from nothing. It's just the gap has been widening every year between indies and studio pictures — and it has never been wider.
Although it wasn't a great year for the shows themselves, it was a good year for programming, says TV critic David Bianculli.
"In terms of what was happening on television, in terms of new and old formats and new, exciting players coming into the mix – [it was] another good year," Bianculli tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I'm actually kind of encouraged."
Bianculli reflects on how far TV has come.
"When I started as a TV critic, it was a box in the living room," he says. "Now, you know, it's anything that comes in visually regardless of where it comes in, it's sort of crazy."
Here's Bianculli's top-10 TV list for 2014:
9. Homeland (Showtime). "I think it bounced back this year after a bad previous season."
8. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central). "Always, I think, indispensable."
7. For the last time on my list, The Colbert Report (Comedy Central).
6. True Detective (HBO). "It brought a new concentrated type of programming form that I'm very excited about."
5. Fargo (FX). "The self-contained stories leave you in suspense because the characters don't have to live, and you don't have to know what's going to happen. It goes all the way back to the old golden age of television where it was anthology shows — and that suspense was built-in."
4. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS). "I think it was the best thing that Ken Burns has ever done and one of the trickier ones."
3. The Walking Dead (AMC). "I know it's a genre show, but they are so intelligent about what they're doing with this, that I really like that program."
2. Justified (FX), which is about to come back for its final season. "I think this is one of the most underrated shows on television, and it has one last chance to close its book and get some acclaim."
1. The Good Wife (CBS). "They have the deepest roster of really strong regulars and guest stars. ... What I love about the show is that everyone's motives are always suspect."
On The Colbert Report and The Daily Show
There are days where I watch those shows and I feel a little bit better for having seen them — not because they improve me as a person necessarily, it's just such a nice way to end the day. And it's what Carson was, you know, in the '70s. I remember that. It was nice to check in and see what Johnny Carson thought of the day in his monologue.
On Stephen Colbert leaving The Colbert Report to replace David Letterman
We've just said goodbye to Stephen Colbert and to Craig Ferguson, so we're going to see Stephen Colbert as Stephen Colbert, not playing Stephen Colbert, which is very confusing. That's unprecedented. It's not unprecedented to have somebody play a late night talk show host, because you have Martin Mull, you have Garry Shandling doing those things before, but they've never then gone on to do one as themselves. ... This has never been done. Some people are already speculating that Stephen Colbert is going to fail, and that it's foolish for him to walk away from his alter ego. My bet is that he's going to do great.
On the worst of TV of 2015
My two favorite worst from this year ... they're both from Fox and they're both reality shows. One of them is I Wanna Marry Harry, where they take women from the United States and send them over to England for like a dating reality show, but they get a look-a-like to Prince Harry and ... he tries to make them think that that's who he is. Then eventually there's supposed to come this reveal where they find out he's not really a prince but, will true love work out in the end? ... This was in the tradition of something like Joe Millionaire, where he wasn't a millionaire. There is a tradition [of deception]; it's just a sorry tradition.
[The other worst show] is a show called Utopia, and the idea here was to take, I think, 15 people from all different walks of life and put them in a place where they can create their own society. And, of course, Fox stacks the deck by making each one of these 15 people an uber-stereotype. So there's like a toothless hillbilly, and there's a religious zealot ... and someone they describe as a "polymorph." It's just — oh my. ...
[Utopia] was supposed to be a social experiment that lasted a year. It's so bad and I Wanna Marry Harry was so bad, both of these shows were canceled almost instantly.
On Transparent from Amazon Studios
Here you have this sensitive subject and if it were not treated properly, I think that Amazon would've been shot out of the water. But Jeffrey Tambor, his performance is so good, the writing is so interesting, and it takes several episodes to realize what's going on with the show. From the beginning, whenever you hear Jeffrey Tambor in his transitional phase, it's a remarkably good performance.
On what he's looking forward to in 2015
Neil Patrick Harris is going to do a variety show and it's based on a British show that I haven't seen, so I don't know the format, but I really have been saying for years that somebody ought to give this guy a variety show — and he's getting one and it's on NBC. And for variety shows, if they get to come back — we've just had anthologies come back with shows like Fargo and True Detective — so if the variety show comes back, I'll be a happy guy. I may be able to retire peacefully.
On how the standards of TV journalism/criticism have changed
There's more immediate writing, which is reflexive, like writing about a show while it's still being broadcast, like live tweeting. That to me isn't journalism; it's stenography, stenography with an opinion thrown in. ... I will do jokes and I'm very proud of how fast I can write a review if I'm writing something on deadline, especially of a live show, but it's still written as a full piece. I think there's less of that.
There seems to be two camps about TV journalism these days: One camp is doing it the way it was always done — and doing it like a professional journalist. And some, and I'm not saying it's a new breed, ... who feel like they're too cool for the room and don't want to ask any questions and just want to have opinions and be snarky. And I don't think that helps.