An absurdly great year for film leads to me throwing out my usual system.
Look, as the creator of this site, I owe you guys my honest opinion. I also owe you a heads-up when that honest opinion is crazy and likely wrong. When I was putting my personal Top 10 together, which never happens until early-to-mid January (because San Antonio always gets a few Oscar contenders late), one thought kept jumping to the top of my brain and threatened to derail the entire process: I just love the Hobbit films too much. Which, again, is crazy and wrong, because the Hobbit films are thoroughly outclassed by Peter Jackson’s previous trilogy, and as a hobbyist film critic with at least an ounce of self-respect, I have no business putting it in a Top 10. I did it last year and it felt right at the time, but that was my bias talking. So I won’t do that to you guys again.
Also, my Top 10 can never be a true/accurate Top 10 because no one pays me to see everything that comes out; no one sends me screeners at awards time; generally I’m fortunate to see about 30 films a year. So I’m already picking and choosing what I pay to see based on how likely it is it will make my Top 10. I never do a “Worst Films” list because I only watch films I expect or hope to like. Am I an insane person? Perhaps. Am I a total snob, but not so snobby to have seen Mr. Turner or Two Days, One Night or Inherent Vice or Force Majeure? Absolutely.
While there are going to be a couple oddball choices here, I can defend them much better than I could The Battle of The Five Armies, or Into the Woods. (Contrary to Sean Knight, I found much to love about Into the Woods. That does not mean it makes this article.) Yet there are still truly excellent films that I did see that did not make the list: Darren Aronofsky’s Bible epic Noah, which is big and weird and great and probably my #11; Snowpiercer, which is even weirder and more great; Captain America: The Winter Soldier, because let’s face it, there’s room for only one Marvel film.
So this year, I’m not following my head (like a conventional critic); I’m not following my heart (putting The Hobbit in the top three); I’m following my gut instinct. These are the ten films that, at the end of the day, I am most wildly evangelistic about — imagine me grabbing you, dear reader, by the arm and shouting “Oh man, you have to see these,” and badgering you until you do, in order. These are the films that surprised me, moved me, and rocked me the hardest in 2014.
10. Edge of Tomorrow
Director: Doug Liman
Why didn’t people go see Edge of Tomorrow? Was it Tom Cruise? Was it the marketing, which presented an underwhelming, dumb action movie instead of the extremely clever and funny film that it is? Was it the uninspiring title? Whatever the reasons, they missed out. Perhaps you missed out, but you can remedy that now. (Look for it under its new, weird title, Live/Die/Repeat.) Tom Cruise has a lot of fun skewering his action hero image as a craven talking head forced onto the battlefield, where a freak accident has him reliving the same massive beach invasion over and over again; Emily Blunt is even better as the tough-as-nails soldier who drags him along. The whole film, with its high concept and higher degree of difficulty, is just crazy enough to work — and it does. (MY REVIEW)
9. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
2014 saw no greater magic trick than Birdman. Not only does it (appear to) unfold in a single, extraordinary take — a true feat of cinematography and engineering — it completely resurrects Michael Keaton’s career. The meta-effect of Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up former superhero actor attempting to make the first true artistic statement of his life, is too delicious to pass up; performances from Edward Norton and Emma Stone are equally strong. Iñárritu’s directorial vision is ridiculously risky, the highest of high wire walks, but it’s a blast to watch them pull it off. It even manages to have something to say about creativity and art (even if I don’t quite know what it is), but what you’ll remember most are the unhinged performances. (CHASE’S REVIEW)
8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Believe it or not, and you should, the apes of Apes gave us some of the strongest character work of the year. There was more compelling story in the opening 20 minutes of this film than most summer movies, and it just kept going, with a Shakespearean heft and deep, resonant allegory that, yes, totally applies to today’s world. Andy Serkis — the god of motion-capture — still demands awards recognition; his Ceasar is a multi-dimensional creature, and with the help of the wizards at WETA Digital, the pathos is painfully real. Serkis is even matched move for move by Toby Kebbell as Koba, his scarred brother-in-arms. Director Matt Reeves has taken a burned-out franchise and elevated it to actual art, and I can’t wait to see where Ceasar’s story goes next. (SEAN’S REVIEW)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Months later, the memories of Interstellar‘s crazy plotting, polarizing third-act choices, and use of Matt Damon have begun to fade, but its on-its-sleeve emotion — and its images — live on. However flawed the end result, big, ambitious filmmaking like this is to be cherished; there’s nothing safe about a Christopher Nolan project, and Interstellar‘s operatic sweep holds your eyeballs to the screen while its storytelling takes duel shots at your brain and your solar plexus. Matthew McConaughey continues his improbable ride to the top of the A-list with an earthy, raw performance, with more than one moment of quiet devastation. Nolan also brought us some of the most gorgeous images of the cinematic year, a singular work of practical and computer effects magic. (MY REVIEW)
6. The LEGO Movie
Directors: Chris Miller & Phil Lord
What a surprise this was! Not content to merely be a 90-minute toy commerical, Miller & Lord’s mini-fig epic is not only brilliantly designed, but for my money the funniest movie of 2014. It turns the well-trod “Hero’s Journey” narrative on its head, as Chris Pratt’s (in his first of two appearances on this list) effortlessly lunkheaded line readings strike gold over and over again, as do the voice work from Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett as a gravel-scraping Batman, and many, many, many more. With an adorable herky-jerky animation style, a genuinely clever (and moving!) twist, and an insidiously catchy theme song, everything about The LEGO Movie is awesome. Delightful, hysterical, and undeniably awesome. (MY REVIEW)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Selma is a biopic in miniature; it smartly doesn’t attempt to tell the full story of Martin Luther King, but of one brief period in his life and leadership: the push for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it’s a powerful story, often blisteringly told, presenting an on-the-ground portrait of King at a political and personal tipping point – and its images of injustice will rattle you, forcing you to see recent events in a new light. It truly is a film for right now. English actor David Oyelowo is magnificent – the year’s best performance, truth be told — his command of King’s fiery oratory is soul-stirring, and the film builds to a coda that left me in tears on the first viewing. I don’t know where director Ava DuVernay has been, but she is a force to be reckoned with. (SEAN’S REVIEW)
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson
I’ve written more than my fair share of words about how much I love Wes Anderson’s latest, but I suppose I can write a few more. In short, it’s sublime, and the meticulous director’s most layered and mature work yet — but also perhaps his most entertaining. Ralph Fiennes, as the concierge of the Grand Budapest, is a riot: louche and effervescent, his joyful spirit matching the film’s pastel color palette. But even though it’s a great deal of fun, down to the witty, sing-song dialogue and parade of cameos from Anderson regulars, there’s a hidden current of melancholy that finally, heartbreakingly, bubbles to the surface in the final reel. Grand Budapest is in a sense about nostalgia, good manners, and the power of storytelling itself. Truly marvelous. (MY REVIEW)
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Where to begin with Marvel’s latest, and best? It was the studio’s biggest gamble to date — a true test of their brand to put a walking tree, a space raccoon, and the shlubby guy from Parks and Rec on screen and trust that people would show up. But show up they did, and did again, because James Gunn delivered a wildly entertaining ensemble film. And oh man, that cast — Dave Bautista and Bradley Cooper, in particular, are shockingly good — each character has his or her own arc, and his or her own choices; the comedy comes out of the characterization, not one-liners. It may still be a cog in Marvel’s ever-expanding multiverse, but proved that they can make just about any insane property work on film if they hire talented people and let them do what they do best. (CALEB’S REVIEW)
Director: Richard Linklater
While it’s true that many of the films on this list were creative gambles, none were bigger than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Filmed over a twelve-year period with the same cast and an unflagging dedication, it tells the story of a young man’s coming-of-age in a hyper-specific Texas: from first grade to his first day of college, as everyone involved ages in real time. It’s an unprecedented, stunning, monumental, staggering (I’m running out of adjectives) achievement — and the more I think about it, the more I can’t believe Linklater made the thing at all, let alone how wonderful it is. As Mason, Ellar Coltrane ages into a fine young actor with languid grace; as his parents, Patricia Arquette & Ethan Hawke do the best work of their careers. It really must be seen to be believed. (RACHEL’S REVIEW)
Director: Damien Chazelle
And finally, my favorite film of 2014 has had this position on lock since the moment its credits began to roll. The final scene — which I described as a more thrilling climax than most action movies — had me feeling like I could run straight through a wall, and Whiplash‘s rhythms (the editing!), music, and messages have been bouncing through my mind ever since. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it, and about getting everyone I know to see it. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, as a young jazz drummer and his tyrannical teacher, give us one of cinema’s great face-offs; it’s a searing, often troubling look at what it might take to be great, and the film doesn’t leave you with any certain answers. Damien Chazelle has swiftly placed himself on my list of writer/directors to track obsessively. (MY REVIEW)