The Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself (not on my list, although I did like it) opens with a quote from the great critic, saying that “Movies have the power to enrich our lives, rather than simply helping us get through them.”
That sentiment was ever-present in my mind throughout 2014, which was a horrible year for the world at large, but was a spectacular year for movies. I’ve said that about the last couple years, specifically singing the praises of 2013. Last year did give us an abundance of quality films to enjoy, but it took a while to get to them. I remember the first half of 2013 feeling like a wasteland with few bright spots; 2014 delivered throughout. I could have split the year in half and done two separate top 10 lists, and those two lists would have been comparable to each other.
Some of these films commented on our culture in a way that allowed me to reflect and consider many of the year’s terrible events in an interesting context; some of them were merely excellent pieces of craftsmanship. The one thing that applies to all of them is that they all feel “alive” in a way that I found invigorating. It’s hard to really explain what that means, but I’ll just say that there were multiple times this year that I felt a sense of depression for the country as a whole, and without fail, I would see a movie that would not just make me feel better, but actually make me feel overwhelmingly optimistic and excited about life in general.
This is a long list, a top 15 rather than a top 10, and each pick is accompanied by one or two honorable mentions that were just as great. Of course, there’s always more to see. I couldn’t catch up on everything I wanted to, and there is an unusually high number of buzzed-about films that have yet to get a wide release. The highlights of those are Inherent Vice, Selma, Mr. Turner, and A Most Violent Year. It’s always a bit frustrating writing these lists and knowing they may be outdated within a week of their publication, but it doesn’t change the fact that I feel very strongly about all of these movies. This is a list of movies that meant something to me, and the fact that there are so many good films, including some that missed the cut, is worth celebrating.
1. 20,000 Days on Earth (Drafthouse Films)
I went into this documentary as a casual fan of Nick Cave. I wasn’t an expert who could cite every album, but I liked what I’d heard and found the man himself intriguing. After seeing this film, I am completely in awe of him, as well as directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who have produced a movie unlike any music documentary I’ve ever seen. I tend to like documentaries about individual artists, but they rarely feel cinematic; 20,000 Days on Earth is one of the most cinematic films I saw all year. From its abrasive opening credits, to its dreamlike, stylized “interviews” (for lack of a better word), to seeing a single song go from words on a page to a performance at the Sydney Opera House, I found this movie absolutely thrilling. Like Exit Through the Gift Shop (one of the best films of the decade so far), this film is less about telling a completely true narrative than it is about saying something about art, and in both cases I came away feeling like I understood what these artists were about, even if I didn’t necessarily know any new facts about them.
(Related honorable mentions: Jodorowsky’s Dune, Harmontown)
2. The Guest (Picturehouse)
This film has steadily risen in my estimation since the first time I saw it. It began as an honorable mention, but the more I thought about it, the more it crept up the list. Adam Wingard made one of my favorite horror films in years with You’re Next, which subverted aspects of an admittedly tired genre. The Guest steps up the subversion by leaping from one genre to another, never allowing you to peg down exactly what it is or where it is going. It’s a bit hectic, but it’s all held together by the central performance of Dan Stevens. I haven’t watched Downton Abbey, so I went in with no expectations for this guy, and I walked out a huge fan. This movie wasn’t big enough to make him a movie star, but it will get him the role that does. He’s exceptionally charismatic and able to turn on a dime, from charming to scary to charmingly scary. He’s great, and this movie is a blast for anyone who loves and respects genre filmmaking.
(Related honorable mentions: The only movie with more wildly broad tonal shifts and enthusiastic love for cinema is Sion Sono’s wonderfully bonkers Why Don’t You Play in Hell?)
3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox)
This year, more than any other, I expect the end of year awards shows to ignore the films that were my personal favorites. I’m sure Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will get some technical awards (it features possibly the greatest CGI I’ve ever seen), but I would like to hear a reasonable argument for why it couldn’t be a contender for Best Picture. It’s as acclaimed as just about any other movie on this list. Everyone acknowledges that it features two incredible performances by Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, and that their characters are exceptionally deep and interesting. It’s not even an easily dismissible comic fantasy, but a heavy drama that actually says something about real-world conflicts between cultures and the human tendency to turn to violence as a way of dealing with problems. On a technical level, it is close to flawless, and it takes some serious risks as a blockbuster, such as focusing on characters who communicate mostly through sign language. And, true to its series origins, there is a palpable sense of tragedy that hangs over the whole movie, and the ending is quite a bummer. I think the only thing wrong with it is that the title is pretty much the same as the last one. Other than that, it’s a marvel.
(Related honorable mentions: Snowpiercer, the other great sci-fi parable of the year, which could easily take the Apes’ spot depending on the day of the week)
4. Cold in July (IFC Films)
Horror fans have had their eyes on Jim Mickle for a while. His first three films all showed the promise of a good director who would one day be great. That day has arrived. Cold in July is much more of a thriller than a horror film, although it does feature the single most disturbing scene of the year. This is also a departure for Mickle in terms of pacing. His earlier work was mostly a slow burn, with Stakeland being positively Malickian; this film literally opens with a bang and never lets up. There are at least four masterful suspense sequences, and a twisty plot that goes against all of your expectations. But the most surprising thing about this film is how largely ignored it has been by the film community. Personally, I think it was overshadowed by the also excellent Blue Ruin, which came out around the same time. I loved that movie, too, but Cold in July hits more of my genre sweet spots. Between Mickle and Adam Wingard, the spirit of old-school John Carpenter was alive and well in 2014.
(Related honorable mentions: Blue Ruin)
5. Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics)
Documentaries weren’t the only movies this year to deal with artists and the artistic process. There were also quite a few narrative examples, and the greatest of them all was Whiplash. You might not expect a movie about jazz drumming to be one of the most visceral, exciting movies of the year, but it certainly is. Director Damien Chazelle, cinematographer Sharone Meir, and editor Tom Cross work together to create some incredible set pieces that make the playing of music into a thrilling visual experience, and at the core of it all are two terrific performances. The always wonderful J.K. Simmons gets possibly his greatest character and tears up every scene of this movie, and I’ve always been a supporter of Miles Teller. In fact, I believe I predicted he would become a major star in my review of the Footloose remake on this very website. I was right about him, and this is a much better music movie than that one. It all culminates in one of the most debated endings of the year, with many critics questioning whether suffering for art is actually worth it. If suffering leads to art like this, then my answer is certainly yes.
(Related honorable mentions: Frank, Top Five, Birdman)
6. The LEGO Movie (Warner Bros. Pictures)
The first great film of the year is still sticking with me 11 months later. Phil Lord and Chris Miller continue to spin gold out of very dry straw, taking what could have been the most crassly commercial movie of the year and turning it into yet another unique ode to the creative spirit. This movie is so packed with verbal and visual wit that it demands multiple viewings to really soak in the details. It’s the funniest movie of the year, and it deserved every penny it made.
(Related honorable mentions: Lord and Miller also knocked it out of the park with 22 Jump Street)
7. Dear White People (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
If there’s one thing that defines America’s 2014, it’s the fact that we as a country have once again been forced to acknowledge the ongoing racial tension that is ever-present in our society. And right in the midst of all of this, we were treated to Justin Simien’s excellent directorial debut, Dear White People. I’m sure the title put off a lot of the people who really should see the movie, but it’s their loss, because they missed out on one of the smartest, funniest, most inventive films of the year. Having not yet seen Selma, I can’t comment on how much of that film reflects what is happening in the country right now, but Dear White People focuses more on subtle, everyday racism, which is debatably more insidious. Simien even takes things a step further by discussing what it’s like to be a gay black man, which got an audible reaction from the audience when I saw the film. He’s saying a lot here, and I think the way in which he’s most like Spike Lee (a pretty lazy comparison, which could even be seen as representative of the everyday racism on which the film comments) is that his message receives all the attention and overshadows the actual content of his film, which is confrontational and thought provoking, but its also really well made and just plain fun.
(Related honorable mention: Obvious Child is another great indie comedy that addresses some touchy subjects)
8. The Raid 2 (Sony Pictures Classics)
The thing I love about the action genre is that a great action scene is something that really only works in film. Other mediums can move and excite you, but the specific pleasure of seeing a beautifully choreographed, photographed, and edited action sequence is unique to cinema. To understand what I mean, one need look no further than Gareth Evans’ kinetic masterpiece, The Raid 2. Evans builds on what he did in the first film, and truly cements his reputation as the greatest action director on the planet right now. The Raid 2 is bloodier than most of the Saw movies, but for those who can handle it, there’s a real creative beauty to the way the carnage is presented on screen. When I talk about movies feeling “alive,” this is what I’m talking about.
(Related honorable mentions: John Wick)
9. The One I Love (Radius-TWC)
As you’ve probably gathered, I love being surprised by movies. The marketing and most of the reviews for The One I Love made a point of not revealing the unusual gimmick on which this movie plays. I succeeded in going in blind, but even if you know the basic concept, there are still plenty of unexpected twists and turns throughout the movie, and up until the very last one, I found the film to be a delight. It’s difficult to go into without spoilers, but I’ll just say that it makes the familiar drama of a marriage on the rocks feel fresh and fun. There’s plenty of room for debate on what the movie says about relationships and its gender politics, but there’s no denying the creativity with which it approaches the material.
(Related honorable mentions: For more marital conflict, we’ll always have Gone Girl)
10. Nightcrawler (Open Road Films)
Nightcrawler is a movie that feels very much of its time, and yet it also feels like a remnant of the ’70s when movies could be nasty and dark and reek of moral ambiguity. Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of the year as Louis Bloom, a nightmarish version of a driven millennial. He’s a product of today’s America in that he is hurt by the economy and finds success in exploiting the public’s fascination with violence and tragedy. He’s the kind of protagonist a young Robert De Niro would have played. Writer/director Dan Gilroy never shies away from the ugliness of the character, and even more impressively, constructs the film in a way that celebrates him. In some of his darkest moments, James Newton Howard’s score soars triumphantly, and Robert Elswit photographs his adventures with the same exciting panache as he did Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. It will definitely be too mean-spirited for some, but Nightcrawler is sure to develop a strong cult following in years to come.
(Related honorable mentions: Cheap Thrills)
11. Under the Skin (Studio Canal)
In addition to racial injustice, I feel like one of the major conversations in pop culture this year was about sexism and rape culture. Under the Skin is a movie that addresses this in a fascinating way. This is a story of a woman (or at least a being in the form of a woman) preying on men; in fact, she uses their sexual desires to entrap them. Women have made it clear they hate being catcalled and hit on by strange men in the street, but what man wouldn’t get in a car with someone who looked like Scarlett Johansson at the drop of a hat? It’s a reversal that says a lot about the different ways men and women experience the world. As a bonus, this movie enticed the type of person who would get excited about leaked celebrity nude pictures and rewarded them with a trippy, experimental, nonlinear movie that probably drove them crazy. This movie is not for them, but it was certainly for me.
(Related honorable mentions: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Babadook)
12. Only Lovers Left Alive (Sony Pictures Classics)
Just when you thought you were really done with vampires, Jim Jarmusch decided to take a swing at them, and the result is one of his best films. Of course, like most of his filmography, this is really a “hang-out” movie where we just spend time with these characters; the vampiric elements just add flavor to the hang-out. When Adam and Eve discuss the history of music and literature, they are speaking from a place of experience because they have been alive for hundreds of years. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfectly cast here, and it’s a joy to watch them together.
(Related honorable mentions: The Trip to Italy is another great hang-out movie)
13. The Interview (Columbia Pictures)
I want to be very clear about this: I genuinely liked The Interview and I’m not just including it on my list to make some kind of statement. It’s true that my enthusiasm may be heightened due to the insane, ongoing story of its release, but at its core, the movie does work, and its success can be boiled down to one thing: the performance of Randall Park as Kim Jong-un. A lot of critics have very cynically said people will be underwhelmed when they finally see what all of the fuss was about, but I couldn’t disagree more. This movie is brutal in its satire, and the fact that it’s buried in a “typical” Hollywood comedy is what makes it so subversive. The threat to Kim Jong-un is not showing him assassinated, but portraying him as a real person with real neuroses, and the idea that exposing him as a sad silly man is the best way to hurt him rings very true. Park deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, which walks a very fine line, resulting in a villain who is funny, scary, and even sympathetic. I think this is an autobiographical movie for Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. They’ve always taken certain risks in their films, and I think they genuinely wanted to move away from “mindless” gross-out comedy to do something important. And whether you like it or not, The Interview has proven to be an important film, and that alone warrants a place on this list.
(Related honorable mentions: David Wain’s criminally underappreciated They Came Together)
14. Wild (Fox Searchlight)
When Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club came out last year, I looked at the trailer and decided it wasn’t something that interested me. Once I finally saw it, out of a feeling of obligation, I ended up pleasantly surprised. So when his new film Wild came out and, again, looked like the kind of movie I tend to ignore, I decided to fight through my preconceived notions and give it a shot. And Wild not only surpassed my expectations, but blew Dallas Buyers Club out of the water. This is another feminist movie, and whereas it might look on the surface like one of those insufferable Eat, Pray, Love kind of things, it’s actually a genuinely emotional story about a broken woman. Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl carries the weight of the film on her shoulders (almost literally), but it would be wrong to ignore the fact that Laura Dern is doing some incredible work here. She’s been so great for so long, it’s nice to see her get a high-profile role like this. The structure of the film steadily reveals more and more about Cheryl’s past, and while I pretty much got what was going on faster than the movie told me about it, I still felt like the nonlinear telling of the story added to the impact. The greatest compliment I can give is that the movie made me believe in Cheryl’s journey to “find herself” (ugh, I know) and made me, one of the least athletic, outdoorsy people on the planet, want to take a long hike.
(Related honorable mentions: Another small, performance-driven drama about one character’s journey for self improvement is the Tom Hardy vehicle* Locke.)
15. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Walt Disney Studios)
In many ways, the last film on a best of the year list is the hardest to select. It makes things final, and it feels like whatever you pick is the one that beat out all of the other movies that didn’t make the cut. Can I give this spot to Captain America and leave off a movie like Boyhood? Obviously I can, and I am, because Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a movie I love, and it is representative of one of my favorite trends of 2014: Multiple times this year, small-time auteurs were able to invade the Hollywood system and make it work for them, rather than the other way around. The Russo Brothers were an inspired choice to direct this film, and they did such a great job that now Marvel wants them to stick around for as long as they can keep them. Not only does this movie have the most brutal and effective action of any Marvel Studios film, but it really sets itself apart by being about something real and topical. Captain America (the ultimate personification of patriotic heroism) is forced to acknowledge the country he loves is being corrupted, the government is going too far, and safety is worth nothing if it costs freedom. 2014 gave us great entertainment and great movies that asked questions and prompted us to think about the world we live in. And a few movies, like Captain America, did both.
(Related honorable mentions: Citizenfour, Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow, Godzilla) | Sean Lass
*no pun intended