Welcome to the annual, arbitrary exercise of summing up a year in movies! 2014 was a fantastic year for movies, but on the other hand, every year is pretty good. You just have to be willing to dig deep through the catalog of obscure releases. I did, and managed to cobble together a pretty interesting list. For reference, previous top 10s: [2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
There are a few really interesting things about the year in movies. First is that, to put it bluntly, Hollywood really pulled their shit together. They often manage to sneak one or two great blockbusters into the mix, but this year, even trite-sounding cash-ins like, say, The Lego Movie turned out to be among the best of the year. Second (related to the first), is that this is the year I finally fell for Marvel studios movies. Sure, I’d always enjoyed them, but not a one has ever made it onto a top 10 list (indeed, looking back, only two comic book movies have ever made it onto my top 10s – The Dark Knight and Kick-Ass). Well that changes this year. The third interesting thing about the year is how top heavy it was. Normally the back end of the year is where all the great movies are, but this year spread things out a bit.
Thematically, things are a bit more muddled. There’s definitely a trend towards fictionalized non-fiction that has inspired a lot of debate. Films like Selma, The Imitation Game, American Sniper, and The Theory of Everything all purport to tell a “true” story, but due to the nature of film, must rely on simplifications and fictionalized devices to make the narrative work. Ironically, I think the most successful of these, Selma, has come under the most fire for its historical inaccuracies (which are tiny in comparison to the other films listed). However, any time I watch one of these movies, I can’t help but wonder why a documentary focusing on the same subject wouldn’t be much, much better.
As of this writing, I have seen 83 movies that could be considered a 2014 release. This is a strong rebound from the past few years, where I’ve struggled to hit 70 movies. Then again, while I’ve watched a lot more than your typical moviegoer, I’m also way behind your typical film critic. Speaking of which, my vision for a top 10 list has been evolving over the years, moving away from critical consensus on “best” to a more personal reflection on “favorite”. I tend to value entertainment and story more than your typical critic, and am less likely to enjoy “important” movies these days. There are certainly some movies on my list (and more in the Honorable Mentions) that are critical darlings, but there are also more than a few that aren’t really showing up on anyone’s lists. And that’s great, because how boring would my list be if they were all the same movies as everyone else? I suppose this represents a disclaimer of sorts, but again, the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things for the same reasons. So without further ado:
Top 10 Movies of 2014
* In roughly reverse order
- John Wick – In a strong year for action movies, this one ranks near the top. But while the intricate gun-based action is fantastic, what makes this movie special is that it’s a puppy revenge movie. Yes, Keanu Reeves takes on a bunch of gangsters because they killed his puppy. Park Chan-wook would be proud. Along the way, we visit the coolest hotel ever and are treated to the best gunplay action sequences of the year.
- Edge of Tomorrow – Of the long list of movies that ape the Groundhog Day schtick, this may be the most fun (though none comes close to the original). Tom Cruise relives a disastrous alien invasion over and over again, and with the help of the awesomely badass Emily Blunt, they find a way to win. The big achievement here is one of editing, which this movie absolutely nails. It’s a lot of fun too.
- Guardians of the Galaxy – You know that Marvel’s firing on all cylinders when they can introduce these obscure characters, including a talking raccoon and tree, and make it work. I think much of this is due to James Gunn, whose goofy sensibility comes through strong. Like all the Marvel movies, the best bits are the little interpersonal touches, and this story of how five misfits come together and connect with one another makes for great fun.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Another great action movie here, Marvel switching gears again, channeling paranoid 70s thrillers (and even casting Robert Redford to underline that point) and throwing a giant monkey wrench into the works. What strikes me about the action set pieces is how varied they are, but the highlight is the elevator sequence, a claustrophobic but clearly shot and exciting fight. Again, the interpersonal touches, particularly Black Widow’s relationship with Captain America, are what really seal the deal with this one though.
- The Raid 2 – Did I mention this was a good year for action movies? John Wick might have the title for best gun-based action, but this movie is hands down, the best martial arts movie since… the first Raid! The story is a little hard to follow and hits some cliched undercover cop tropes pretty hard, but that’s not why you watch a movie like this. You watch a movie like this for the breathtaking action set pieces, such as a mud-filled prison fight or the final boss fights in the restaurant.
- Coherence – This micro-budget film about strange happenings at a dinner party is the best Science Fiction film of the year. Few SF films manage to capture the sense of conceptual breakthrough and sense of wonder that is so common in SF literature, but this film does so consistently (especially in the second half). This might be the most obscure film on my list, but it is highly recommended (and the less you know going in, the better).
- The One I Love – Another low-budget, quasi-SF film, this time channeling a more Twilight Zone feel. Again, the less you know about this going in the better, but I will say that this did not seem like my kind of movie at the outset, but as the film progresses and starts to put its premise through its paces (and it goes further than I’d have thought), I fell in love with it.
- The Lego Movie – Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a career out of making movies out of seemingly stupid premises, and this movie may be their crowning achievement. This sounded so much like a cynical cash-grab by Hollywood, but I found myself immediately charmed by the film’s fast paced humor and wit. Great visuals, voice acting, and even some weird third act twists that work really well. One of the things I really love about this movie is that it doesn’t fall into the typical anti-conformity trap. It acknowledges the importance of creativity, to be sure, but it also manages a subtle balance in the bland hero of Emmit, whose conformity is key to the group’s success. In addition, this is the best Batman movie since The Dark Knight. So much fun!
- Tim’s Vermeer – Utterly fascinating account of one man’s attempt to recreate Johannes Vermeer’s distinctive, photo-realistic method of painting. Directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame, the guy who doesn’t talk), this film is mostly portraying inventor Tim Jenison as he attempts to suss out how Vermeer accomplished his paintings with the use of various optics and mirrors, then his painstaking attempt to recreate one painting by hand (the overall process took years, the painting itself took months). This is exactly my kind of documentary, a deep dive into a subject I didn’t even know needed that sort of treatment. Highly recommended.
- Gone Girl – The talent involved in this film is impressive: David Fincher, Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, an incredible supporting cast… but it’s Gillian Flynn’s script that sets this apart. The best thriller of the year, complete with unexpected twists and turns. Great dissection of media representation and bias, but all in service of the greater narrative, which is gripping and tense.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson’s particular brand of weaponized quirk is deployed to perfection here, his best film since Fantastic Mr. Fox and probably amongst his top 2 or 3 movies. A complex narrative structure (and matching visual strategy) all anchored by Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant, funny, and utterly charming performance at the center of the film. Perhaps not your typical comedy, but I find myself thinking it’s the funniest movie of the year. Not that there are not other, deeper thematic aspects to the film, but the playful, adventurous filmmaking at its core is what makes this so great.
* In alphabetical order
- 22 Jump Street – Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do it again. Everyone thought it was a bad idea to revive 21 Jump Street, but Lord and Miller made that work well enough that a sequel was greenlit. Then everyone thought it was a bad idea to do the sequel, and Lord and Miller shut them up too. Perhaps not quite as seemless as The Lego Movie, this still has much to recommend it for. At the very least, the ending title sequence is the funnies thing I’ve seen all year.
- Birdman – One of the most impressive achievements of the year, if my list was more “best” than “favorite”, it would certainly be high on the list. Alas, while I found this quite entertaining, it also seemed a bit muddled in what it was trying to say and was a little on the acerbic side of things. Exceptional performances all around, and the cinematography is spectacular – it’s filmed to appear as one long, continuous take, and that is truly spectacular to behold.
- Blue Ruin – An interesting, small scale take on revenge that mostly focuses on the aftermath. I mean, nothing as eye-opening as the puppy revenge in John Wick, but this is less of an action film, more of a slow burning character piece. Well worth checking out.
- Chef – An agreeable tale of the fall and rise of a chef who has no idea how Twitter works. It’s funny, everything I’ve heard about this movie is from people who found it disappointing and claimed that they didn’t get why everyone was so high on the movie. I apparently don’t follow any of those people because I felt like this was a really fun little movie. That being said, it’s pretty textbook Honorable Mention material. It’s perfectly cromulent and worth checking out.
- Cold in July – Based on a Joe R. Lansdale novel, this is a solid little Texas thriller (at which, Lansdale excels). The source material is what makes this work, but the execution is on point as well, with solid direction from Jim Mickle and lead performances by Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and yes, Don Johnson. Nothing plays out quite like you expect from the beginning, and this is certainly worth a look for fans of this sort of thing.
- The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – I genuinely disliked the first of the Apes reboot films and had no idea why it had garnered so much positive response, even from picky critics. However, this sequel represents a dramatic improvement on all fronts. It boasts the best villain of the year, some great visual flourishes (that tank shot!), and like its predecessor, perfectly executed CGI motion captured apes. This very nearly made the top 10 and now that I’m writing this, I’m wondering why I didn’t find a way to make that happen. Lists are hard.
- The Guest – Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s follow up to the most excellent and fun You’re Next (a top 10 choice last year). Alas, while this is quite fun and takes some unexpected turns, it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. That being said, it’s well worth a watch and seems like the sort of thing that would grow on me with repeated viewings.
- The Imitation Game – I have an affinity for the subject matter here, and I suppose the film comports itself well enough on that front. It’s all well executed, but perhaps a few too many liberties were taken with the true story aspect of it. I mean, I get that things need to be changed in order to fit everything into a 2 hour narrative, and many of the changes work just fine. But there are several changes that just go a bit too far (notably the idea that the one dude’s brother was on a boat about to be sunk, etc…) Still, it’s nice to see Turing and cryptography on screen (even if I’d rather folks read Cryptonomicon instead!)
- Inherent Vice – I loved Thomas Pynchon’s novel, so I was really excited that someone of Paul Thomas Anderson’s caliber was adapting it for the screen. And yes, the film works really well for me, though I feel like Anderson gave short shrift to the plotting and emphasized a bunch of other aspects of the story instead. Which is an interesting approach, to be sure, but it never really garnered the energy of the text (or, honestly, of the trailer). Still a really good film, and honestly a contender for the top 10, but just enough was holding it back for me.
- Interstellar – Christopher Nolan’s latest has a lot going for it, but it never quite congealed into something as cohesive as most of his previous efforts. Certainly gets points for ambition, but the film is a little clunky in its execution. It all fits together, and there are great ideas and emotional moments at its core, but perhaps could use some smoothing over some of the rougher edges (of which there are, sadly, many). Definitely a worthy effort, but not quite as great as it could have been…
More Info: [IMDB]
- Jodorowsky’s Dune – This documentary tells the tale of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed but profoundly influential production (er, pre-production) of an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. It’s a fascinating story, if only for the sheer amount of talent Jodorowsky managed to assemble before the production fell apart. The documentary gets a little repetitive in that respect, and there are no voices of dissent (as curious as I am about Jodorowsky’s take on Dune, I’d also be surprised if it was a really great movie…), but it’s all very fascinating charting how the demise of this movie lead to the success of others (notably Star Wars and Alien, amongst dozens of others). Definitely worth checking out.
- Moebius – One of the most profoundly weird movies I’ve ever seen, I find it very difficult to write about this because of its subject matter. Infidelity, castration, rape, auto-erotic self mutilation, and incest. That doesn’t really sound like my thing, but the thing that works about this movie is that all that weird shit is conveyed in a purely visual manner. There is no dialogue in this film, yet you have a pretty clear idea of what is going on, despite the batshit insanity of all that stuff. And it’s kinda funny in that respect too. It’s one of those movies that will leave you confused about what you think. I almost actually put this on my top 10 because it is so well done despite all its baggage. That being said, I find it hard to recommend to all but the most adventurous of moviegoers.
- Nightcrawler – This very much feels like a 70s movie. It’s got that dark, cynical tone down pat and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is fantastically terrifying. Unfortunately, the whole media critique aspect of the film also feels like it belongs in the 70s (it would be one thing if it was a period piece, but it is set in present day LA). Local news isn’t exactly a booming business these days and we don’t immediately recognize the sort of stuff this movie goes over (in the way that, for example, Gone Girl was immediately recognizable). That being said, this is a much better done movie than I was expecting, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it works.
- Selma – Very strong biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., focusing on one particular battleground for civil rights. It’s a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes machinations that King and compatriots employed in their fight, and how change can happen. Director Ava DuVernay does an excellent job balancing the story. Alas, like a lot of stories based on historical fact, I often find myself wishing for a really good documentary. Still, among the large quantity of such films this year, Selma was the best.
- Stage Fright – I’m not a big musical guy, but when you combine musical with old-school slasher film? I’m totally on board. The film is not perfect, but it hits several high points and this deserves more recognition than it generally gets…
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Grand Piano
- Cheap Thrills
- Big Hero 6
- Journey to the West
- American Sniper
- Draft Day
- They Came Together
- The Unknown Known
Critical consensus has anointed these movies among the best of the year. For the most part, I get why, I just don’t happen to agree.
- Boyhood – Look, I get it, it took 12 years to make, and that passage of time as played out on screen is pretty interesting. Unfortunately, that’s about it. Everything else about the film is trite, boring, or totally cliched, making it a bit of a slog to get through. I admire that this film exists and thought it was fine, I guess, but the sheer amount of critical praise this is getting baffles me.
- Snowpiercer – Man, this movie is stupid. You know how I said that Coherence really gets at the sense of conceptual breakthrough and sense of wonder that is so great in SF literature? Yeah, Snowpiercer does not. There are some interesting tidbits (Tilda Swinton’s shoe speech being pretty great on its own) here and there, and it’s a pretty movie, but I really kinda hated watching it. Most people acknowledge this movies faults, it’s just a matter of how much a given critic is willing to forgive. I come down on the unforgiving side, while most critics seem to love it.
- Only Lovers Left Alive – Sounds great on paper, two vampires played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston hang out and do vampire stuff. Alas, it’s one of those movies that sorta wallows in depression and misery, which is pretty emphatically not my thing. Great soundtrack though.
- Under the Skin – Of the movies on this list, I like this one the best. I think. I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one, and I think I ultimately come down on liking it rather much. It’s gorgeous and Scarlett Johansson is great in it, and it goes to some interesting thematic places, but it is too long, repetitive, and slow by far. Probably deserves to be an Honorable Mention, and I think it’s telling that of the films on this Conspicuously Absent list, this is the one I’m most likely to revisit.
Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen 83 of this year’s movies (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Regardless, there are several movies here that I really want to catch up with:
- What We Do in the Shadows
- We Are the Best!
- Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
- The Tale of The Princess Kaguya
- Force Majeure
- The Theory of Everything
- Starred Up
Phew! That’s a pretty good year in movies right there. Stay tuned for more 2014 ponderings next week for the annual Oscars live blogging/tweeting (predictions should be up in the morning and my Twitter feed will suddenly have more than just links to the blog!)