Chase reveals his picks for the top films of 2014.
Earlier in the year I wasn’t sure that 2014 was going to be a great year for film. Summer came and went without much notice, and I was worried that my 2014 list would end up being a jumble of fall “prestige” films again. It’s not that I don’t like the typical Oscar fare (my #1 film this year is a best picture nominee, after all), it’s just that there’s a soft spot in my heart for genre films too. I love a great sci-fi film or crime caper as much as anybody.
That’s why it was such a struggle to make a Top 10 list this year. 2014 turned out to be a great year, and I found myself constantly rearranging to keep some of the under-appreciated films that I love in the mix. Like every year, this is a Top-films list. I don’t believe that there’s a “best” film of 2014. Every award show functions as a voters’ populist election. Was Crash really better than Brokeback Mountain, or was that just how the political maneuvering of 2005 settled? For what it’s worth, I’m always caught between Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana for my favorite film of 2005. Maybe that tells you something about me.
When 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, it was met with divided critical opinion. Some loved it. Others thought it was a pretentious mess. The most recent iteration of the AFI Top 100 films list named it the fifteenth best film ever made, but it wasn’t even nominated for best picture in 1968. Carol Reed’s Oliver! took home the top prize that year, and now film historians would prefer that you ignore such an event ever happened. Personally, 2001 is my second favorite film of all time. I love it. I love all that mythology, all those hard to place symbols; how it strives for greatness. Again, maybe that tells you something about me.
The jackass critic would argue that the world just wasn’t ready for the greatness of 2001, and that lesser minds settled for Oliver! all those years ago. Hopefully, I’m not that kind of person. My point is simply this: great films come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes that’s a biopic. Sometimes it’s an animated film. Sometimes it’s a science fiction odyssey.
First and foremost, I appreciate films that try. I love films that want to be great. Last year I named Gravity the top film of 2013. Was it perfect? No. Absolutely not. But it strove to be great. I think a sense of wonder is something incredibly devalued in today’s world. I’m a staunch believer that we still go to the movies to be amazed, to have our jaws hit the floor. Nothing hits my sweet spots like an “acclaimed” film that reaches for wonder. Again, maybe that tells you something about me.
Maybe that isn’t what you appreciate. I’m certainly not a populist. Only two of the following films were a bonafide worldwide hit. Many of them are art-house films. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, they’re all worth a look. Was the world not ready for 2001? Was it above the general public’s head? Or was it just that we need to appreciate that greatness comes in many shapes and sizes, even if that means a “kids film” or a “sci-fi epic?”
Note: Like every year, it’s worth noting that we aren’t professionals at Screen Fellows. We pay for all the films we see, and we have full-time jobs. It’s impossible to see everything. I didn’t see Ðawn of the Planet of the Apes, Wild, American Sniper, Into the Woods, The Hunger Game: Mockingjay, or a hundred other movies this year, but I saw over 35 films. This list represents the best of them.
Honorable Mentions (Or, how I sneak in a few more films):
Only Lovers Left Alive
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s best film in a decade. Vampires have been done to death (heh) by now, but the acclaimed director offers a fresh take, framing vampires as cultural vessels. Imagine vampires existing in a modern-day cultural sludge, bemoaning the loss of Chet Atkins and Nikola Tesla, secreting their life force away from blood banks in the depths of the night. That’s Jarmusch’s film. A surprisingly sexy, knowing film, Lovers is a love note to culture lost across time. Modern Detroit is a stand-in for decay in the face of an electronic, soulless future. Both Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton wholly commit to this high concept project, enabling it’s swansong to lost time. Enrapturingly conversational and timeless, this is a vampire film for adults. My full review HERE.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Brendan Gleeson gives the forgotten great performance of the year. In a culture that frequently casts priests as evil secret-hiders, Calvary aims to explore the idea of a good man struggling against a world gone wrong. Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is the good priest, a weary man still pursuing the righteous path despite a congregation that openly mocks him and his faith. Father James’s faith isn’t a cover he’s hiding behind. It’s a light that turns back the darkness. Gleeson’s priest isn’t a perfect man, but he’s a good one, soldiering on because he knows that some men will still find comfort in the gospel, and that’s an effort worth making even as he stares down his own mortality. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s often a powerful one. My full review HERE.
A Most Wanted Man
Director: Anton Corbijn
What was the last great spy film that wasn’t a John le Carré adaptation? Set in a post-9/11 Hamburg, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a German intelligence officer gathering information on the local Muslim community. If you’re expecting a frantic cloak-and-dagger spy film, this isn’t it. This is a smart slow-burn examination of the increasingly slippery nature of intelligence work. This is murky territory. Is it even a mission with a clear end point? Is this a fight we can ever really win? It’s also the last chance to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in a starring role, and the old master is still in full control of his incredible gift. David’s full review HERE.
The Top 10
- A Most Violent Year
Director: J.C. Chandor
J.C. Chandor’s third film is the best of his short career. Set in New York in 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in city history, Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, an immigrant business owner in the oil and gas industry. It’s an industry filled with questionable figures, many of whom have close ties to the mafia, but A Most Violent Year is NOT a mafia film. Nor is it a film about violence. Rather, it’s a film about the threat of violence, and how a straight arrow in a crooked business exercises restraint as things unravel around him. Jessica Chastain is fabulous as Abel’s wife, the vampy, thick-accented daughter of a mob boss. Together she and Abel attempt to expand their business while their competition preys on their trucks and drivers. It’s a film about restraint, in plot, theme, and execution. Maybe too slow for some, this stylish slow-burn is The Godfather of the 1980s oil and gas business. Just watch. You’ll see. My full review HERE.
- Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
All hail Rosamund Pike! One of only two bonafide hits on this list, Gone Girl is a masterful inversion of the typical murder mystery. The film has a lot of good things going for it: David Fincher’s expert direction, a great story, and excellent turns from Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris, and Tyler Perry. But none of this works without Rosamund Pike. She gives an effortless throwback performance to the greatest days of film noir. If nothing else, her deep sultry voice is deserves a slew of awards. It’s like a taste of dark, warm honey. What starts out as a straightforward missing woman mystery (complete with a withering critique of tabloid journalism) soon turns into something much darker and more twisted. Despite the subject matter, Gone Girl is a fabulous date movie. You’ll have a lot to talk about after you leave the theater, and you’ll have a lot to consider before you turn out the lights that night. Rachel’s full review HERE.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson
Director Wes Anderson has been using the same template for years: a core of great actors, a quirky oddball story, and a palette of candied pastel colors. Now he gets a chance to bring them all together in the best way possible. The story of a legendary concierge at a luxury hotel, Grand Budapest makes the claim that manners still matter. They’re the glue that holds a civilized world together. But if you’re thinking of a Downton Abbey-style story of pomp and circumstance, you’re completely wrong. It’s a madcap caper across a fictionalized 1920s Europe with a string of great cameos from Anderson’s regulars – faces you’ll know! – Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Defoe, and many more. Ralph Fiennes is the glue that holds it all together in a career performance as the proper, hilarious concierge. Perhaps Wes Anderson’s most mature work, it’s also his best in at least a decade. David’s full review HERE.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film. This is one of the two great sci-fi films of the year. Set around an attempt to cure global warming that goes horribly wrong, turning the earth into a frozen wasteland, the last remnants of humanity live on a train as it circles the earth. A metaphor for the 99% dressed up as a sci-fi epic, Chris Evans leads a revolt against the privileged class, surging from the back of the train to the front. It’s a video game of train cars as the rebels move forward. Open the door, fight the enemies, move on, and repeat. Each new car is visual treat: aquarium car, school car, party car, and many more. It’s a small thrill to see each door opened, getting to see what’s waiting inside. It’s a stylish work with a great story to match. A battle by torchlight in a dark train car is one of the best scenes of the year. If only every sci-fi film were this creative and well-crafted. David’s full review HERE.
Director: Richard Linklater
Here is your likely Best Picture winner, and it’s not hard to see why. The sheer audacity of Boyhood is staggering. Shooting for two weeks every summer for twelve years, Boyhood tells the story of Ellar Coltrane’s Mason as he ages from a first grader into young manhood (surely, you’ve heard this all by now). It’s a miracle that Richard Linklater was even able to keep the project together, much less make something great. Despite the film’s fractured production, the tone remains uniformly perfect throughout. Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke all give pitch-perfect performances in a film that, above all else, feels unabashedly honest. Boyhood is a film that I respect a lot more than I love, but you cannot deny the achievement. Enormous praise to everyone involved who committed twelve years of their lives to this. I tip my hat to you all. This is life, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Rachel’s full review HERE.
- Edge of Tomorrow
Director: Doug Liman
The best surprise of the year. That Edge of Tomorrow was not a huge hit can be boiled down to two things: the worst marketing campaign on Earth and that people have decided that they hate Tom Cruise. The first is unfortunate. The second is just wrong. For all his faults, Cruise commits more than any other summer movie actor. The film might be junk (not this one!), but he never phones it in. The second great sci-fi film of the year, Edge of Tomorrow is way funnier and clever than any preview has led you to believe. Cruise is great as an Army PR coward forced into the battlefield. He’s smart enough to play off your own expectations of his action hero image. Emily Blunt is equally great as the “Full Metal Bitch” war hero who has to whip him into shape along the way. Sometimes we celebrate originality: other times we just celebrate perfect execution. This is the latter. Don’t write it off as an uninspired “Groundhog Day with aliens.” You’d be missing out. David’s full review HERE.
- The LEGO Movie
Directors: Chris Miller & Phil Lord
Lovingly crafted brick by CGI brick, The LEGO Movie is undoubtedly (except to Oscar voters) the best animated film of the year. Chris Pratt is perfect as loveable blockhead Emmet Brickowski, a construction worker who just wants to assemble things by the directions. Everything is upset when he stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, a mythical weapon that can stop the LEGO world from being locked down forever by the evil President Business (Will Ferrell). It’s a lovingly sweet and funny adventure that the entire family will enjoy. Pratt, Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, and many more do terrific voice work in a film that’s all about being yourself and the joys of playing beyond the instruction booklet. Kids will love it, and a late twist will leave adults drying their eyes. David’s full review HERE.
Director: Ava DuVernay
I wonder if director Ava DuVernay had any idea about the modern resonance of her film while she was making it. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and across the nation make Selma not just a historical biopic, but a film for today’s America. Following the format recently used by Lincoln, Selma aims to show an American icon at a legacy-making moment in his life – the struggle for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. David Oyelowo stars as the civil rights leader, and he possesses an incredible gift for King’s fiery, powerful speechmaking. Selma is not a hagiography. It refuses to turn a blind eye to the darker aspects of King’s journey and character, but the film is so much fuller for it. Oyelowo’s King is a real man, not a paper cut-out of a saint. How is it that a film about Martin Luther King has never been made? Maybe we were just waiting for talents as big as these. Sean’s full review HERE.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Director Damien Chazelle claims his goal with Whiplash was to make a war movie set at a music school. That’s undoubtedly true if the war movie he wanted to make was Full Metal Jacket. Whiplash is psychological warfare as music teacher/drill sergeant Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) beats promising jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) into submission to form his musical talent. Simmons and Teller are both great (Simmons is probably going to win an Oscar) in a film built around their tense relationship. Whiplash is so intense – huge credit goes to editor Tom Cross – that I left the theater with muscles that physically ached from being wound so tight. You will jump out of your seat cheering at the film’s climax, but later you’ll wonder why you did. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” Fletcher says. Is this really what it takes to be great? David’s full review HERE.
- Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
And, finally, there’s Birdman. I am deeply in love with almost every part of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s hilarious film. From Michael Keaton’s knowing portrayal of a washed-up former superhero actor trying to reclaim his artistic reputation to Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s dazzling “single shot” camera work, I love this film. González Iñárritu’s previous films are dour, depressing affairs, but he’s finally lightened up and made a film that’s so full of energy that I think it’s impossible to resist. It’s not just that Keaton once starred in a popular superhero franchise before walking away into relative obscurity. It’s that González Iñárritu knows you know that. He expects you to be on the inside of the story. His film is impossibly smart. Every actor in Birdman gives one of the best performances of their career. Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts and everyone else in the cast are great, but Keaton’s work is staggering. He gives us a chance to remember that he is one of our great American actors, and he turns what could have been a gimmick into a performance for the ages. Maybe Birdman tries to do a little too much. Who cares? It does so much right. Like I said, I love films that are willing to strive for greatness, and Birdman is exactly that. Best film of the year. My full review HERE.