Last week, it was very refreshing to let off some steam against movies that I absolutely detested, but today, it’s time to look at those that I had nothing but high admiration for. As I’ve said before, 2014 wasn’t full of much variety due to countless sequels and the like having been released, but films of immeasurable quality and genuine originality shone through the cracks. Even though the sequels were overloaded, that still didn’t mean we didn’t get fantastic experiences out of them, for though some of these films were based on previous material, they still put their own creative spin on what they were given to work with.
That led to a big problem for me, though. Choosing what I ultimately wanted to be my pick for the best film of 2014 was agonizing, because it was such a dead heat between my top three, as I could see any of them being my pick, and any of them would make sense. Well, after a long time mulling it over, I’m as confident as I’ll ever be in this list.
First up are some honorable mentions. The hardest movie to leave off this list was The Lego Movie, a clever satire of ongoing pop culture trends and corporate perfectionism, but above all was the funniest film that I saw all year. Two Days, One Night was both a gorgeous and gloomy film, creating a disturbingly accurate portrait of deep-rooted depression, and featured a stunning Marion Cotillard in the leading role. Foxcatcher felt a lot like watching a disturbing documentary, its analysis of American patriotism and the fight for global relevance and fame deeply unsettling, and its trio of lead actors all turning in performances that stand among their greatest. The Babadook was practically the film that saved modern horror for me, boasting genuinely excellent storytelling and allegories to depression and suicidal contemplation, and knew how to scare audiences without resorting to ten million jump scares. While I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic for Whiplash as others, there’s no denying that it’s a psychologically invasive film, mainly thanks to a passionate but utterly venomous J.K. Simmons.
And without further ado, here’s the list.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Dir. James Gunn
Hands down the most fun I had with any movie this year, Guardians initially appeared to be a huge gamble for Marvel Studios, but one that proved worth it, standing with The Avengers as the studio’s best film. In an age where action movies try to be dark and gritty, shoving in morals to prove how serious they are, a movie like Guardians is such a refreshing change in that it embraces what gleeful popcorn fun it is. No big morals, no heavy-handed themes, it’s a simplistic space adventure, and that’s where its charm is. It certainly helps that the film is incredibly well-acted and character driven across the board, with each member of its ensemble (from Chris Pratt to Benecio del Toro) each fun to watch in their own way, and to see the five main characters banter with such laid-back ease leads to some of the biggest laughs of the year. The action’s great, the soundtrack is killer, and no matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old.
A Most Violent Year
Dir. J.C. Chandor
Painting New York City in a very bleak light, A Most Violent Year likens its violent nature to a snake pit where business competitors fight to the last man standing. It’s a dog eat dog world in this film, and despite that everlasting search for the American dream, even the best of men can easily stray from the path of honesty, using deception to cut corners and get ahead in life. It’s actually still as relevant an issue today as it is in this film’s setting of 1981, where honesty can sadly be ravaged, and only the vicious survive.
Oscar Isaac plays the lead role of Abel Morales, pushed to his limits by trying to set an honest example, but finds himself often tempted to easy outs for a more fulfilling life. Abel sees himself as a good man pushed to do terrible things, and that conflict of which side he eventually sees himself landing on is given stellar vulnerability by Isaac. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, but through Anna Morales, played by Jessica Chastain, this pushes that statement to a disturbing new level. Often dressed in the most stylish and costly clothing, this all acts as a front to hide her truly violent and corruptive nature. She often looks and acts the part of supportive wife to Abel’s choices, but this eventually gives way to reveal her ultimate influence on the situation, that she feels like the one slyly pulling all of the strings. It’s no surprise then that this character commands every second that she is on screen, thanks mainly to Chastain’s reliably fiery presence.
Dir. Christopher Nolan
By far one of the hardest films for me to digest nevertheless turned out to be one of my absolute favorites. I’ve yet to see how it will hold up on a second viewing, but for an epic IMAX experience, it’s unparalleled in many ways. It’s one of Nolan’s most technically well accomplished films, and one with some of the strongest acting his films have ever had. However, where the film will either make or break itself for most viewers is in the writing. Nolan’s direction is unquestionably strong, but his writing features many of his usual tendencies to a fault. The film is very exposition heavy, but also fascinating in its thematic idealism, including a semi-religious sense of guidance from higher powers, especially during one late sequence that will be a leap of faith for those sticking through with it. Regardless of how well the writing stands, it’s still a fascinating film with weighty issues, and shouldn't be discarded altogether.
Dir. Richard Linklater
My opinion on this film has cooled down considerably since I first saw it, but that doesn’t change just what a great experience it is. Richard Linklater’s nearly three hour experimental epic rose above its gimmicks to deliver one of the most genuine portrayals of adolescence in cinematic history. Shot over the course of twelve years, the fact that the film even exists at all is a stellar achievement, but the storytelling is what especially makes this film so powerful.
There’s no sugar coating or demonizing, no intense stakes, just a boy continually aging into his adulthood… and that’s all you really need. Though deceptively mundane, Boyhood’s representation of life is spot on. Not many spectacular things happen throughout, but as in life itself, even the most mundane, simple, apathetic experiences make the biggest impact on who we are, and who we’re going to become. This is where lead actor Ellar Coltrane excels at, blending seamlessly with the character of Mason, and consistently keeping his core identity as the year’s progress. All of the actors are excellent at this, particularly Ethan Hawke as his father. These aren’t simply characters in Linklater’s film, but wholly realized, genuinely real people in realistic situations. This makes Linklater’s documentarian style approach absolutely refreshing, and while I hesitate to call it the masterpiece so many others have, for my money, it’s the best film the man’s directed.
Dir. David Fincher
David Fincher has frequently shown himself to be a master of grisly filmmaking, and Gone Girl is no exception. At once a scathing and satirical examination of media feeding into what audiences want to hear rather than actual facts, as well as an examination of the cold decay of relationships, this film is at its strongest when focusing on a duel of wits and psychology between two horrible people. Gillian Flynn adapted all of her core themes from her book without a hitch, retaining all the heated treachery and bias that made the novel so compelling, but surprisingly also made the transition from page to screen as if it were always meant for the cinema. Above all that, the acting is always spectacular, featuring a career best Ben Affleck in a fittingly passive and spoiled role, Carrie Coon as his deadpan and critical sister, and Rosamund Pike playing a glorious femme fatale. Her performance drips with venom and seething vengeance, and her manipulation of every situation is always very unsettling, especially during the film’s ultimate conclusion that commentates on the scarring effects of mutually abusive relationships.
The Imitation Game
Dir. Morten Tyldum
Far more earnest and less stuffy than Oscar bait of this caliber usually turns out to be, The Imitation Game is an incredibly meaningful and superbly written drama. A tale about secrets and wars fought both outside one’s own environment and within their own heads and alliances, the film treats the core subject of Alan Turing with much respect and sensitivity without ignoring all his prickly quirks and frustrating sense of superiority over others, almost to the point that he operates like a machine himself. Whereas he feels more at home in the crossword puzzles of rules and logic, human DNA is much harder to grasp, and vastly unpredictable. Set in an age and under a government where to be gay was to practically be given a death sentence, knowledge is power, and too much of that information falling into enemy hands can be utterly fatal. While the central group of characters may be far away from the actual battles of World War 2, director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore still never let us forget what a truly life and death race against time their mission is, but one that may also require the need of questionable moral suspensions. It’s a very timely and elegant film, featuring fantastic acting from Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, and features some of the strongest writing I’ve seen all year.
Dir. Ava DuVernay
Very much in the same vein of something like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, while Selma puts much focus on the central character of King, the screenplay wisely and methodically gives more attention to the march and its general effects, looking in great detail at the central figures involved with the movement, and the attitudes of both racial divides. The whole film is uncompromisingly brutal in its approach, with Ava DuVernay not shying away from the grisly repercussions and necessary evils of the movement, and in spite of the current modern movie age where characters are gunned down and beaten without us batting an eye during mindless action flicks, the violence of this film is much more meaningful and disturbing, especially during the raid on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Of course, that’s not to say that Dr. King plays second fiddle, as David Oyelowo gives a tremendous and commanding central performance. Recreating King’s mannerisms and speeches to flawless effect, Oyelowo also avoids portraying him as a two-dimensional cardboard cutout, and that while he may be an inspirational figure, he is still human, and flawed. With so many potential risks at play, this movie is smart to analyze all of the moral questions that come with a movement of this scale, and the expectations of carrying it on one’s shoulders. King wishes to keep the protest non-violent, but this is easier said than done, as the tensions teeter over the edge, with some of those involved in the march almost succumbing to the same violent nature of the abusive county lawmen. It takes true strength to rise above that anger and hatred, and it’s accomplished here and appropriately showcased through Oyelowo without feeling the need to dumb it down.
Selma’s timeliness is also a great virtue to it, and actually makes it an essential historical representation, analyzing how far we still stand from living up to King’s virtues and teachings, something that will get worse if future generations fall victim to the same misguided mentalities.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Dir. Dean DeBlois
For the longest time, I was convinced this would top the list. It simply goes to show you how tough my choice was that such a spectacular film ultimately wound up running in third.
Darkening up the original film’s tone in a fashion akin to The Empire Strikes Back, the film is not a dreaded “More, more, more” rehash that regresses its characters, but an intelligent, proper continuation that moves it characters forward. Lead character Hiccup is continuing to learn more as a dragon rider, and the issues he finds himself having to come to grips with are genuinely relatable. His interactions with family and friends are the strongest aspect present in this film, though the dragons are such scene stealers, developing their personalities in complete silence and body language (which is the purpose of animation), and they are among the most charming things you’ll see all year.
The film also deals with heavy issues of loss (one so intense that you’ll beg for a Deus Ex Machina), as well as of animal cruelty, the latter of which will stick with a kid longer than any Sarah McLachlan commercial. That’s another reason I love this movie so much, in that it takes its child audience just as seriously as its adult audiences. Kids are much smarter than many pandering cartoons give them credit for, and deserve movies this rich and complex in presentation. It refuses to pull its punches when it wants to be serious, and doesn’t betray its own ethics. On top of that, the visuals are spectacular, the sound and music are exquisite, and the quality of voice acting is just exceptional.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
When I initially saw the film, I didn’t know how much staying power it was going to have. I assumed that everyone would forget about it since it had opened all the way back in March, but ten months later, not only is everyone still talking about it, it’s a potential threat to win the Best Picture Oscar.
One thing that gives it such longevity is its incredible amount of detail, and its satisfying rewatchability. Wes Anderson has always been a very nostalgic director in style and substance, and here is no exception. However, I frankly don’t think he’s ever nailed this same unique style of filmmaking better than he does here. If one assumes it to be a style over substance exercise, it truly isn’t. The film’s writing is actually quite clever in how it subverts Anderson’s usual quirks and charms. The film is based in a very madcap and zany world, but is all done so in a very romanticized fashion, taking place in the nostalgic viewpoint of a storyteller, when in actuality that past is much more bleak than they care to admit, and that way of remembering things effectively translates well as a yearning for those simpler times that have practically become the stuff of legend. Wes Anderson also makes fantastic use of a massive ensemble cast, including a deadpan and elegant Ralph Fiennes. The film is gorgeous from beginning to end, I’ve watched it many times, and I look forward to enjoying every new detail the more I watch it.
Like I said, it’s been incredibly hard to narrow my choices down, but through the process of elimination, you’ve now probably figured out that my pick for the best film of 2014 is…
Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
Not exactly a surprise. Proclaiming it to possibly be the best movie you’ve seen all year almost two months in advance usually tends to be a dead giveaway. In many ways, even if it weren’t my number one, it can easily be called the most well crafted film of the year. Truly one of the most original and ambitious films in years, Birdman is a rare instance when I can call a film “masterpiece.”
Establishing a hybrid world that mixes the fantastical escapism of cinema with the grounded realism of the stage, Birdman resides in a hyper-realistic existence, wherein every frame and action works to serve a higher thematic purpose. The film is a character study, analyzing its main character in disturbing, but also interesting ways. Michael Keaton gives the single best performance of 2014 in this film as Riggan Thomson, fully realizing a depressing, but all too accurate portrayal of lost glory and the desire to be loved and remembered again. He creates an understandable fear of harsh scrutiny of his work, with the pressure of every escalating issue in the film running his anxiety and schizophrenic episodes to boiling heat. Afraid of failing to do a dream project meaningful justice, and also of getting lost in the shuffle of those fighting for relevance every day (sparking thematic ties to social media’s wide stretch, as well as fresher faces taking attention away from veterans), he also finds himself tempted back to the idea of a safe and prosperous, but also lazy and less fulfilling existence. It’s that clash of internal personalities that gives the performance such a meat to it, but it also lets us in to the fact that, successful or not, some dreams may ultimately push your sanity off the edge.
Truly Riggan is fighting an impossible battle of reality vs. expectations, because by focusing so much on these pipe dreams to the point of trauma, he begins to strain those necessary ties to his closest friends and family, all of which he usually stands in the same room with, but on a level of communication, he couldn’t feel any further from them. In fact, DP Emanuel Lubezki (with his seamless one-take trick photography) further emphasizes this by using mirrors in the backgrounds of some scenes, showing the amount of emotional disconnect between those dearest to us. The ensemble players he especially works well with come in the form of Edward Norton (poking fun at his own persona of being a difficult actor to work with), and Emma Stone (playing the inverse of Riggan’s own arc, visibly bitter at the beginning of this film, but slowly growing more mellow and forgiving by its finale). To call it merely an actor’s piece, however, would be a disservice to mastermind Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, who brings every element together without a hitch. Every scene of this movie is loaded with an incredible amount of detail and thematic texture, such as Antonio Sanchez’s drum score working its way into the background like a musician tuning up before a big performance, and Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione making completely invisible edits with not even the slightest hint of boredom or repetition.
Frankly, even with as much praise as I’m giving it, I still feel like I’m not doing this movie enough justice. It could honestly stand among my favorite movies of all time. The film has so much merit in every single frame, wasting none of its running time and sparing no expense. I wouldn’t change *anything* in this movie. It’s simply a gem, a singular work of art, and thoroughly, genuinely unlike anything you’ve ever seen, or will ever see.
I’ve gushed over it long enough, so I’ll simply leave it at that and move on.
And with that, my coverage of 2014 has come to its last moments. I hope you’ve enjoyed following me on this long journey, and I can’t wait to see what the New Year will bring us. I mean, it has to get better than Mortdecai, right? Right?!
Oh well, until then, here’s looking at you, kid…