2014 Yearbook: Sean’s Top 10 Films

Sean Knight counts down his favorite films of last year.

There is a myth going around that 2014 was a weak year for film. It’s something you hear tired critics and bloggers lament about a lot lately (every new year seems to get labeled as “weak”), but I always have a hard time believing it. If you couldn’t find things to love in 2014 than you just weren’t looking hard enough, or really looking at all. Indeed, making my top 10 list this year was a laborious process with many films under consideration falling in and out of favor. There were several others I could have included like Birdman, The Skeleton Twins, Chef, Jodorowsky’s Dune, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 just to name a few.  And then there are the films I didn’t even get to see in time for this list, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and J.C. Chander’s A Most Violent Year. Every year is filled with almost limitless possibilites and 2014 was no different. I’m reasonably happy with how this list turned out, but give me another month and I could have something very different to present. For the sake of finality let’s consider this official. Here are my Top 10 Films of 2014 with a few honorable mentions thrown in for good measure.

Honorable Mentions


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves

This tremendous sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was securely locked in at number 8 on my list — up until a recent re-watch about a month ago. It is the human element that knocks Apes off of its pedestal, with underdeveloped characters, genre cliches, and questionable motivations. I noted these issues in my initial review, but the flaws are more glaring when revisited. Still, where Apes shines is with its simian leads, which are given beautifully nuanced portraits. Andy Serkis and Toby Kebell give brilliant, fully-invested motion capture performances, while the film’s depiction of community and its lofty ideals soar on the back of director Matt Reeves’s sensitive, yet dynamic direction. And then there is the handsome crafts work by a dedicated team of artists (Michael Seresin’s cinematography and James Chinlund’s production design are among the best of the year), only topped by the magic of WETA’s so-real-it’s-scary digital creations. With every outing this series gets stronger and more ambitious. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter has in store. (MY REVIEW)


Edge of Tomorrow
Director: Doug Liman

I’m not entirely sure why this Tom Cruise action vehicle didn’t find an audience, but they definitely missed out. Edge of Tomorrow has a cheeky sense of fun that isn’t of the “Wink wink, nudge nudge” one-liner variety plaguing most Hollywood blockbusters these days (thanks for that, Marvel), but instead relies on character and narrative with a little meta Tom Cruise roasting on the side. It’s a film that relishes in having a female be the badass action star (Emily Blunt’s “Full Metal Bitch” is a sight to behold), while quirkily subverting Cruise’s star image. Speaking of Cruise, he’s the loosest and most fun he has been in a decade, playing a smarmy coward-turned-soldier of fortune reminding us all why he was such a box office draw to begin with. Doug Liman juggles the film’s “Groundhog Day with a body count” theme effortlessly with propulsive, clever editing by James Herbert and Laura Jennings lending narrative support. This was perhaps the most fun I had watching a movie all year. (DAVID’S REVIEW)


Director: Christopher Nolan

Is Interstellar Nolan’s folly or his masterpiece? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it is certainly Nolan’s most ambitious and divisive film to date. It is filed with awe-inspiring imagery, reasonably sound science, heartfelt emotion, half-baked ideas, and thin characters. You can almost feel Nolan reaching with this one, grasping for greatness. But for every eye-rolling moment or head-scratching motivation, there is an equal number of beautifully realized set-pieces and heart-wrenching scenes. Indeed, when I saw Interstellar in the theater I saw/heard more people break down in tears than in any film in recent memory. Grown women and men alike were openly sobbing, clearly invested in the film’s emotional and very human storytelling. Interstellar holds great power underneath its space odyssey guise, speaking to mankind’s better nature and our once unquenchable thirst for exploration and the search for the great unknown. Future viewings will dictate the film’s place in cinematic history, but Interstellar is a work that deserves far more consideration than it was initially given. Christopher Nolan remains a cinematic maverick, the kind of ridiculously ambitious filmmaker Hollywood and the public are lucky to have. (DAVID’S REVIEW)


X-Men: Days of Future Past
Director: Bryan Singer

The damage done to the X-Men franchise after director Bryan Singer’s departure seemed irreversible. The Last Stand was a hodgepodge of ideas mixed into a blender and shot out with little thought or development, the less said about X-Men: Origins the better, and though the semi-reboot First Class had impeccable casting it felt a bit stilted as an origin story. Enter Bryan Singer a decade later to mesh together the reboot with his own former take on the material in order to make one of the best superhero films since The Dark Knight. No, Days of Future Past can’t fix the series’s downright indecipherable timeline, but instead Singer jettisons much of what didn’t work and has a ball playing with the film’s time travel story line. He dazzles with action sequences that are irresistibly fun (Quicksilver’s Pentagon kitchen run could qualify as the best scene of the year) and gets the most out of his sterling cast with a script that is just ludicrous enough to work. It’s surprisingly confident big-budget filmmaking with enough pathos to take it seriously.  Kudos to Singer for giving the X-Men their mojo back, and raising the bar just high enough to present a challenge to other tent-pole projects of a similar vein. (RACHEL’S REVIEW)

Top 10 Films of 2014


10. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Director: Peter Jackson

For a time I considered putting this under honorable mention, but that wouldn’t be true to myself either as a fan or a critic. I recently wrote about how much this series means to me, so objectivity is clearly difficult for me when it comes to The Hobbit. And yet, this film is filled with stunning artistry, thrilling combat, committed performances, a great love of the world and source material, astonishing special effects, and an emotional final 45 minutes that brings closure for fans the world over. At the end of the day you have to ask whether or not Jackson did what he set out to do, and if he satisfied his target audience? The answer to both of those questions is an emphatic YES. Jackson made his prequel to The Lord of the Rings on his own terms, and considering this film alone has made $800 million dollars and counting (it is projected to end its theatrical run at close to a billion dollars), the target audience is flocking to it in droves (many seeing it several times). As I watched the film for the third time only a week ago, I was struck by how ambitious and uncompromising Jackson’s vision for Middle-Earth has remained after all these long years. The Hobbit films have their flaws much like their predecessors did, and yet they serve as a warm companion to The Lord of the Rings. I predict that in time the two series will seem inseparable from the other, painting a complete portrait of this astonishing cinematic world. Cynicism, snarkiness, and condescension played a large role  in these films’ initial critical assessment. Hopefully time will right that wrong. We are unlikely to see fantasy filmmaking taken this seriously on this scale again for a very long time. (DAVID’S REVIEW)


9. Pride
Director: Mathew Warchus

Pride is a film that I almost missed. It came and went here in Chicago without much press or fanfare. It wasn’t until it started popping up with various awards bodies that it piqued my interest, and I just had to see what exactly the film was about. I’m so glad I did. Pride is a heartfelt blast, telling the true story of two disparate communities fighting together for a common cause. The film gets a lot of mileage out of its fish-out-of-water-setting, with a group of gay activists helping a small mining town in Wales. It’s perhaps a little too earnest, but it commits splendidly to its premise, providing plenty of laughs with absolutely no shame in wearing its heart right on its sleeve. The performances are tender and thoughtful (Bill Nighy is particularly good as a reserved miner with a secret). It mixes just the right amount of camp with sincerity and isn’t condescending towards either group it portrays. By the time it reaches its beautiful coda, you’ll be hard pressed not to become a puddle of tears. In a time where politics are bitterly partisan and communities of all stripes seem more segregated than ever, a film like Pride is a reminder of the inherent goodness in people and that, at the end of the day, we are all human. Perhaps that’s a little sappy, but maybe it’s time to embrace some sap.


8. The Immigrant
Director: James Gray

Director James Gray delivered the best film of his career with the gorgeous melodrama The Immigrant. Featuring a gut-wrenching turn from Marion Cotillard and evocative cinematography reminiscent of The Godfather by Darius Khondji, The Immigrant is a work of melancholy beauty. The film speaks to the dream that is America and gives voice to the thousands that flocked to its shores in search of a better life near the turn of the 20th century.  This is a very old-school approach to filmmaking that evokes the golden age of the 40’s and 50’s, and recalls the stories of courageous women who defined that era of storytelling. The Immigrant was never given the proper wide release it deserved, but luckily you can find this gem streaming on Netflix. (MY REVIEW)


7. Life Itself
Director: Steve James

A documentary on the life and importance of renowned film critic Roger Ebert could have easily turned into a sentimental hagiography, but Steve James’s film transcends traditional biographical reverence and delivers a moving, warts-and-all account of the end of an extraordinary life well lived. Roger Ebert isn’t presented as a saint but as a man with many faults and talents. The film covers his career thoroughly and gets many points of view on his legacy in film criticism, but when the film hits hardest is when it presents Roger facing death head on. There are images of Roger’s struggle with cancer that will be tough to shake, but ultimately the film is a celebration of life, movies, and love. The film is now being broadcast on CNN. Catch it while you can. (MY REVIEW)

The Grand Budapest Hotel

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson

It has taken me a long time to come around on Wes Anderson. His films have always struck me as painfully self-aware, pretentious, stuffy, overly precious, and more concerned with the color of the wallpaper than with presenting characters that feel like real people.  I think all of these things still apply to The Grand Budapest Hotel to a certain extent, but there is something central here has been absent in almost every one of his films before now – a  performance that feels like a flesh and blood character instead of a cartoon sketch. Ralph Fiennes is an absolute delight as Gustave, the flamboyant and stylish concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a performance littered with delicate touches that compliment the absurdity of the madcap caper plot. Suddenly Anderson’s previously self-serving style has ammunition to spare. The design and execution are impeccable and completely held together by Fiennes’s soft, yet confident confection of a man. There is a synergy at work here that I hope Anderson can replicate in his next directorial outing. If that means calling on Fiennes again, I’m all for it. (DAVID’S REVIEW)


5. Whiplash
Director: Damien Chazelle

It’s no secret that we are big fans of Damien Chazelle’s breakout feature Whiplash around these parts. It’s a live wire of a film, as intense as any thriller of the past few years. And who knew that a film about music could function that way? Featuring two snarling head-to-head performances from the young Miles Teller (one of the finest actors of his generation — he is going to be a huge star) and veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, Whiplash pulses with real creative spark. Blood flows on screen and behind the scenes so evidently here; this is a film filled with passion. And that editing… My god, that editing! The final 20 minutes are a dazzling display of craft, music, and character-driven execution that will leave you breathless. (DAVID’S REVIEW)


4. Noah
Director: Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s passion project Noah created a new type of biblical epic, deeply entrenched in fantasy but colliding with science and faith. This strange film delves deeper and darker than the biblical films of yore, producing a nuanced, thought-provoking spectacle. The cast is uniformly excellent with Russell Crowe giving a quiet, tortured performance as the title character, while Frank Langella and Nick Nolte deliver affecting vocal performances as fallen rock angels known as “the Watchers.” Aronofsky’s vision moves from visual effects-driven art film, to bombastic Hollywood action, to moody and atmospheric philosophical pondering within mere minutes. It’s a marvel that any studio would fund something this experimental and remarkably expensive, which is part of the reason it should be celebrated. We need more challenging films like this being supported by major studios that can deliver them to the widest possible audience. If Noah turns out to be Aronofsky’s only foray into big budget filmmaking, at least we can be comforted knowing he delivered a film that represented his values as an artist without compromising his integrity. Noah also represents a challenge to other filmmakers who wish to travel down a well-worn genre as it proves that even the oldest stories can be made new again. (DAVID’S REVIEW)

Brad Pitt;Logan Lerman

3. Fury
Director: David Ayer

David Ayer’s Fury is a brutal war film, filled with disturbing imagery, unshakeable violence, potent performances, and a firm anti-war message while acknowledging its unfortunate necessity. The film’s tank combat is unlike anything depicted on screen before, with the claustrophobic setting of the battles providing almost unbearable tension. But the film’s strongest asset is its cohesive ensemble, many of whom turn in the best work of their careers — and that includes Brad Pitt (providing a more sober, realistic version of his Lt. Aldo Raine with “Wardaddy”) and a very surprising turn by Shia LaBeouf. But it is young rising star Logan Lerman that provides Fury with its soul, acting as a sort of audience surrogate experiencing every moment of war-torn hell with tactile immediacy. Easily the greatest war film since Saving Private Ryan, Fury displays the cost of war with unflinching realism and harrowing directorial panache. (MY REVIEW)


2. Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater

Rachel has been singing its praises since SXSW, and pretty much every critic in America has declared it a mini-maspterpiece. Boyhood may seem quaint and decidedly indie at first glance, but Richard Linklater has crafted one of the most ambitious and profoundly honest films ever made. Boyhood isn’t about plot, but instead about life itself – the good, the bad, the boring, the events that shape us, the people who inadvertantly change the course of our lives, first loves, family, art, creativity, and the struggle to make it all worthwhile. Shot over 12 years with a micro budget and the commitment of four extraordinary lead actors, Boyhood is something close to a filmmaking miracle – an instant classic that redefines the way we look at movies. (RACHEL’S REVIEW)


1. Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay

If only Selma had come out sooner, or perhaps later, then maybe it would be getting the recognition and audience attendance it so richly deserves. We need a film like Selma, perhaps now more than ever. I’ve already gone on record about how and why this film is the best of 2014, so instead of finding a new way of saying what I already wrote I’ll leave you with this quote from my official review:

Selma is a film so visceral and immediate it cannot help but stir up suppressed, deep-rooted emotions in this modern age of violence, strained race relations, and societal uncertainty. It serves as a reminder of where we come from, where we are, and how much further we have to go. But the film is not force-fed brutality and grimness — instead, it’s a celebration of the human spirit and the people who gave their blood, and often their lives, for the promise of equality. Selma is the rare historical feature with blood pumping through its cinematic veins, providing a window into the very souls of its depicted leaders, showing not just their deified saintliness, but their characteristically human flaws as well. It is written and directed with precision, heart, and a genuine flair for true mastery of the craft. It is a film without equal, and undeniably the best film of 2014.

For more of our Best of 2014 lists, click here!

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