I’m late to the party, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t post my twenty favorite films of 2014.
Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dean DeBlois’s How to Train Your Dragon 2, David Gordon Green’s Joe, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Gareth Evans’s The Raid 2, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice, Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, and Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? are ten great films that sadly missed the cut. The following twenty did not.
Note: I wrote the outline of this list prior to seeing Inherent Vice, which definitely would’ve made my top twenty had I seen it beforehand or remembered to add it to my outline.
Race dramas are a staple of the awards season for multiple reasons. The Academy loves real-life stories, especially ones about conflict; race dramas are rife with conflict that essentially writes itself. In addition, in the white-dominated landscape of Hollywood, race dramas exist to fill a quota, so that the abnormal lack of Black actors and actresses in Oscar-contending roles can be written off by the mere mention of these films. Your typical race drama tends to emphasize white involvement and, by the end, close the book on racism (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, for example, ends with the election of Barack Obama, an event that, as we all know, marked the end of racism forever). Selma is not your typical race drama. It does not lionize Martin Luther King, Jr., for as great a man as he was, he was also a man full of fear and doubt, not to mention an adulterer. The film’s greatest strength is in its intimacy, a direct contrast to the large, epic scope of most Hollywood race dramas. David Oyelowo does more than just imitate MLK; he embodies him. It’s a performance completely deserving of Academy Award consideration, one that was frustratingly ignored.
- The Babadook
The brilliance of The Babadook lies in its understanding of horror conventions and its willingness to subvert and twist them. The audience expects certain conventions in horror films, and The Babadook takes advantage of those expectations to create a truly engrossing work of terror. I wrote an entire piece about The Babadook, going into more depth, but to summarize, it’s one of the smartest horror films of the century with one of the breakout roles of the year.
The action genre is hardly known for being the most socially-conscious category of cinema, but Snowpiercer seeks to demolish that stereotype. Bong Joon-ho’s slam-bang action film has a simple plot reminiscent of a video game (subdue antagonists, move to the next room, rinse, repeat), but serves as an excellent metaphor for the frustrations of economic reform. Chris Evans’s Curtis Everett fights his way to the front of a train on behalf of the downtrodden lower class living in the back of the train after mankind destroys the planet, and the question arises: can society be changed, or must it be destroyed and rebuilt anew? Snowpiercer tackles these questions without providing a clear answer, but even if you’re just looking for a solid piece of entertainment, Snowpiercer has you covered and then some.
If I were the kind of misinformed “critic” who tries to objectively analyze a film, perhaps Interstellar would fall somewhere in the middle of the year for me. It’s a film with numerous problems, from the overabundance of expositional dialogue to the blunt and corny emotional elements of the screenplay to the horrendous sound design that drowns out much of the dialogue with Hans Zimmer’s admittedly excellent original score. Having said all that, it’s also possibly the most breathtaking visual experience of 2014. Every planet visited, no matter how harsh and uninhabitable, is gorgeous to view; even more impressive is the fact that much of the film was shot on location, and not on any sort of constructed set (the ice planet, for example, is actually the Svinafellsjokull glacier in Iceland), so if anything, Interstellar can help you appreciate the beauty of our own planet. Christopher Nolan crafts some incredible set pieces here, reaffirming that, while he’s certainly not the next Stanley Kubrick, he’s one damn fine technical filmmaker.
- The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby manages to be emotional without being melodramatic. Many filmmakers have to discover that balance after numerous trials and errors, but first-time feature filmmaker Ned Benson nails it on the first try. Jessica Chastain is remarkable in the lead role, fully fleshing out a part that may have felt less genuine in the hands of a weaker actress. In the hands of the single best new actress working today, however, the part of Eleanor Rigby feels as real and human as some of the best characters of 2014. James McAvoy is strong as her husband, Connor Ludlow, though he ultimately takes a back seat to Chastain; this is her show. The film has been released in three cuts: Her, Him, and Them. Her and Him tell the story from the perspective of Rigby and Ludlow, respectively, while Them is a single film cut together from the most important parts of Her and Him. It may be longer, but watching Her and Him as a double feature is the recommended path if one is to truly understand Benson’s full vision.
Boyhood is a popular film with critics, being one of the highest-rated narrative films of 2014 and poised to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but there’s a distinct charm to Boyhood that can only be recognized by people who are in their late teens to mid-twenties. Older viewers may appreciate reminiscing on some of the more pivotal American moments of the twenty-first century (such as the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and his subsequent appointment in 2009), but the events of Boyhood encompass the entire life of people my age; they are all we know. If the film can be faulted for anything, it’s that it’s perhaps a bit too relatable, lacking any sort of specificity, but that could very well have been intentional, allowing the viewer to project their childhood self onto the film. As a result, Boyhood may very well end up being one of the defining films of the 2010s and a future classic.
- Under the Skin
Under the Skin is a film of many contradictions. It has a chilly exterior surrounding an underlying warmth. It is uncanny and disturbing, yet weirdly erotic. It exhibits a strict focus on its protagonist while also having universality to its themes. It is slow-moving, but enthralling for every second of its run time. Scarlett Johansson’s biggest role in 2013 was a voice-only performance in Her as a computer operating system, and in Under the Skin, she goes for the antithesis; this is a minimalistic role that was perfectly tailored for her, as she is an actress whose strongest roles tend to be quite understated, perhaps even icy. She plays an alien who takes the form of Scarlett Johansson and roams the Scottish countryside in a van, using the fact that she looks like Scarlett Johansson to lure in men that she then feasts upon, all the while exploring her own humanity in spite of the fact that biologically, she isn’t human. It’s Starman meets The Thing, as directed by Stanley Kubrick, and it’s something that must be seen to be believed. If anything, it’s a lesson that “stranger danger” applies even if the person in the van looks like Esquire’s twice-named Sexiest Woman Alive.
As much as Wild is about one woman’s journey through guilt and regret on the way to self-healing, it’s also an incredibly feministic look at the dangers of being a woman in a society that normalizes rape. The threat of rape quite literally looms over the entire film, though thankfully the film never uses that as a way of building suspense. The threat exists because Cheryl Strayed is a woman, and perhaps the flashbacks depicting her sexual promiscuity and drug use are ways of showing that, in a rape culture society, previous sexual activity is almost always brought up when it need not be. Wild is deeply personal, but Strayed can also represent every woman in the world who has ever had to fear for her safety more often than not. Reese Witherspoon’s incredibly nuanced performance accompanies an equally nuanced screenplay by Nick Hornby. Having been disillusioned with Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club as of late, Wild was a remarkable surprise.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s career-best performance in Nightcrawler is, quite appropriately, being compared to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. He reportedly based his look on that of a coyote, but his gaunt and angular face coupled with his large, unblinking eyes makes him look far more like an owl, which perfectly fits the nocturnal setting of the film. Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut depicts a seedy Los Angeles very much like the seedy New York City of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece, most alive at night. Nightcrawler is dark and thrilling, and a very pleasant surprise from the screenwriter of cinematic classics such as Freejack and Two for the Money.
- Winter Sleep
The Palme d’Or-winning Turkish film Winter Sleep clocks in at 196 minutes and feels more like a play than anything else; fitting, since it’s based on two short stories by famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Haluk Bilginer gives one of the best non-English performances of the decade so far as Aydin, an actor-turned-hotelier who operates like the feudal lord of a town in Cappadocia and is hated by just about everyone living there. Winter Sleep is very dialogue-heavy, illustrating most of its plot points through spoken word, but it also has a gorgeous and intelligent aesthetic to it, courtesy of cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki; the harsh white winters of the outdoors are contrasted with the warm and homey interior, illustrating further just how detached the wealthy and educated Aydin is from the rest of the people in his town are (many of whom rent property that he owns). The film’s run time may prove to be too intimidating for some, but for those with the patience to follow through, Winter Sleep is one of the most rewarding experiences of 2014.
Not unlike Miller’s narrative feature debut Capote, Foxcatcher is a dark, engrossing, and eerie depiction of human darkness. What could have easily been a standard biopic about John du Pont’s Team Foxcatcher is instead more of a slow-burn thriller than anything else, with a special focus on warped human psychology. The film boasts three remarkable performances by Steve Carell as unstable wrestling patron John du Pont, Channing Tatum as Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz; what makes these performances so noteworthy is the physicality of them. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the film in which Dave and Mark Schultz are doing wrestling warm-ups, and the competitive tension between the brothers is illustrated through their body language alone. It’s an example of dedicated actors embodying their roles in every single cell of their bodies. Foxcatcher is a terrific achievement in casting, with a thick, chilly, gloomy atmosphere looming over the entire film.
- The LEGO Movie
It seems like the career of comedy filmmaking duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller consists of them taking on a project seemingly incapable of working on film (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, to name two) and proving wrong all of the doubters. They even did it twice in 2014, most recently with 22 Jump Street (a sequel to a pseudo-reboot/pseudo-spin-off), and even earlier with The LEGO Movie. To call The LEGO Movie a toy commercial, though not entirely incorrect, is doing it a huge disservice. This is a smart, heartfelt, and creative work of animation. Using CGI to emulate the aesthetic of a stop-motion film made with LEGOs, The LEGO Movie tasks Chris Pratt’s Emmett with stopping the instructions-obsessed Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from gluing the world together and preventing any sort of mobility and creativity. Is this a metaphor for decreasing class mobility in a downtrodden economy? Probably not, but it doesn’t need to be; The LEGO Movie stands as a film that’s colorful, joyous, heartfelt, and uproariously funny.
Locke sees Tom Hardy take on his biggest acting challenging yet. Many of his acclaimed roles, from Bronson to Warrior to The Dark Knight Rises, rely on his raw physicality, but Locke has Hardy in a car the entire time. The premise of the film revolves around a man, Ivan Locke, driving to an unknown location to solve a personal dilemma that gradually becomes known to the audience over the course of the film. No one else is seen; some are heard over the speakerphone in Ivan’s car. Hardy carries the entire film on his shoulders, and he can’t even use those shoulders in his performance. It’s a minimalist performance in a cinematic experiment in minimalism, and the end result is nothing short of astoundingly good.
- A Most Violent Year
A Most Violent Year is a crime thriller, or perhaps “anti-crime” thriller, with an aesthetic and atmosphere akin to a 1970s Lumet/Pacino project like Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac in a career highlight) is the owner of an oil and heating company in 1981, alleged by the film to be the most violent year in the history of New York City. Constantly sabotaged by his competitors, Morales is torn between remaining somewhat clean and going to his Mafioso father-in-law for help. Special mention goes to Jessica Chastain, again on this list, who plays Morales’s wife and manages to stay grounded in a role that a lesser actress would play over the top; this is one of Chastain’s greatest performances, and not only did it deserve an Academy Award nomination (which it unfortunately did not receive), it flat-out deserves an Academy Award.
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Isao Takahata has always been somewhat of an underdog at Studio Ghibli. Despite directing undisputed animated classics like Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbors the Yamadas, he doesn’t have the same name recognition as the far more prolific and famous Hayao Miyazaki. Hopefully The Tale of the Princess Kaguya changes all of that, because this film is an absolute powerhouse of beauty and emotion. Miyazaki hasn’t made a film on this level since Princess Mononoke. Princess Kaguya, like much of Ghibli’s work, is infused with traditional Japanese culture and aesthetic, not just in what is being shown, but how it’s being shown. The entire film looks like it was sketched on parchment with coal, showing that expensive budgets and flashy, detailed CGI aren’t necessarily indicative of true visual beauty.
- Two Days, One Night
Two Days, One Night is very reminiscent of Italian neorealist works like De Sica’s masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., mainly in its portrayal of a working class individual desperate to find (or in this case, keep) economic stability through work. The premise is simple: Sandra (Marion Cotillard) works at a solar panel factory, but takes time off of work to deal with a deep depression. During that time, the company heads realize that sixteen people can do the same amount of work as seventeen, opting to fire Sandra and give each of the remaining sixteen employees a thousand-euro bonus. Sandra learns of this on a Friday, and convinces her boss to allow the employees to vote on whether or not Sandra should remain employed (if Sandra stays on, they lose their bonus); the vote is the following Monday, and Sandra must go visit each of the sixteen employees, all struggling and in need of the thousand euros themselves, and convince them sacrifice their bonus in order for her to keep her job. What unfolds is absolutely riveting, as the impending vote always hangs over the audience’s heads, and even when Sandra convinces a co-worker to support her, one can never be certain if their vote will stay that way.
- Gone Girl
Gone Girl is the result of blending a classic film noir with a trashy true crime television series like Wicked Attraction or Blood Relatives (I’m going to refrain from listing any more lest I be judged for knowing them). At times it’s got the white knuckle intensity of some of cinema’s greatest whodunits; other times, it’s darkly hilarious and over the top. At the center of this piece is Rosamund Pike as the titular gone girl, giving a remarkable performance that seemed to floor just about everyone, though special mention should be given to Ben Affleck and Tyler Perry, two not-so-great actors who turn in absolutely-so-great performances here, as well as newcomers Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens. The less known about Gone Girl prior to first viewing, the better.
After a decade of making films about human misery, Mexican-born filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu decided to change things up by making yet another film about human misery . . . except this one is a comedy. For a guy whose main body of work includes three films known together as the Trilogy of Death, he made the transition to comedy relatively well. Again, this is a film about human misery, but this may be the first time his characters haven’t felt like pawns. Amores Perros and Babel are the two best films of their respective years, but the gigantic scope of the intertwining stories made those films appear to value situation over character. Birdman is all about character, bringing together great performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and more to create a film that’s about a play and feels just as much like a play, but still has grand ideas about the nature of Hollywood.
Whiplash is shot and edited with the rapidity and ferocity of a freeform jazz piece, and it may be the most technically-impressive film of the year. Beyond that audiovisual achievement exists a typical story told with an atypical level of nuance as jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) endures the psychological abuse of jazz conductor Terrence Fletcher (soon-to-be Oscar winner J.K. Simmons) in an attempt to be “one of the greats,” as he puts it. He wants to be the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, but completely ignores the kind of passion that makes a great jazz musician, instead opting for a technical mastery that leaves him bloodied and beaten-down. Imagine if The Karate Kid was less corny and Mr. Miyagi was a walking aneurism; that’s Whiplash, a film that made my heart jump out of my chest on numerous occasions and made me want that stressful experience all over again.
- Life Itself
Of course, I wouldn’t have even known that I had a heart in the first place were it not for Steve James’s profound and beautiful documentary. Never before has a documentary earned a top spot on my yearly list, but Life Itself achieved one feat that no film in the past has ever accomplished: it made me cry. Like many, I was greatly influenced by Roger Ebert, a man whom I respected in spades, and whose death left me with a sense of sadness that I’d never felt for a passing celebrity before. Perhaps this colored my reaction to the film, as I began sobbing the minute I saw one of my heroes having his throat suctioned out. Steve James doesn’t shy away from filming the less flattering aspects of Roger Ebert’s day-to-day life after the removal of his cancerous jaw bone in 2006. When you view someone as a giant the way I viewed Roger Ebert, seeing them cut down by afflictions is incredibly disheartening, but it works to achieve what I believe to be the main point of this documentary: it humanizes Roger Ebert. I viewed this film when it first came out in July of 2014, but I viewed it again in a college class last fall. I wondered if the film was really as powerful as I remembered, or if I had just been particularly emotional that day. Having seen the film a second time with a group of about thirty people, I can honestly say that the film really is just that powerful. It took every ounce of strength (and the fear of public humiliation) not to cry in front of an entire classroom of people, but I didn’t, because I’m a big boy. Whether you are a fan of Roger Ebert or not, there’s a lot to love about this documentary, because it’s not just about the man; it’s about life itself.