Not since 2006 have I done a “Best Of” list, and for good reason. This is the first time since then I have felt truly qualified. Juggling a full-time job (not this one – I wish), life’s obligations, and trips to the theater doesn’t always go as swimmingly as I hope. Still, 2014 has been a great year in film and there are plenty of contenders for the honor of the year’s best. I hope you enjoy my list of the top 12 films of 2014. Why 12? Because I care that much more than 10. Let’s get started!
12. Edge of Tomorrow
Completely mis-marketed as “Tom Cruise versus the aliens!!!”, Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live, Die, Repeat aka whatever they’re calling it this week) is an engaging and exciting sci-fi film that has a lot of fun with its premise. It feels like a throwback summer film, complete with a functioning brain and awareness of the comedic possibilities of such a ludicrous plot. It was the summer’s best film. Read the full review.
11. A Most Violent Year
Writer/director J.C. Chandor is immensely skilled at taking otherwise mundane topics (the stock market in Margin Call, a disastrous solo sailing adventure in All Is Lost, and the oh-so-glamorous heating oil industry here) and making tense dramas surrounding them. Featuring first-rate performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year is a compelling exercise in minimalist intensity, drawing power from characterization and well-paced plotting. Read the full review.
It could easily be said that 2014 was the year of the cinematic sociopath. Look no further than Jake Gyllenhaal’s chillingly effective performance as ambulance chaser Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler for evidence of that. Writer/director Dan Gilroy has crafted a darkly effective and satirical look at the bloodbath that fuels local news ratings. It’s social commentary done right with the perfect balance of macabre events and biting comedic edge. Read the full review.
9. Force Majeure
This Swedish export takes the crown for the most uncomfortable and socially awkward film of the year. Force Majeure tells the story of a family ski vacation gone terrible awry after a father abandons his family during what was thought to be an avalanche. The ramifications are swift as his wife begins to question the fabric of their relationship and his commitment to his children. Beautifully photographed and exquisitely acted, the film is well worth seeking out. Read the full review.
8. The Babadook
The year’s most effective psychological thriller is also its most effective horror film. Not a coincidence. The Babadook is a relentlessly fierce story about the travails of being a single mother to an out-of-control child. Made for figurative pennies compared to Hollywood fare (this was filmed in Australia), writer/director Jennifer Kent is an absolute master of foreboding atmosphere and less-is-more chills. Essie Davis is brilliant as Amelia, the mother at the center of the story. If this were any other genre, she’d be in the Best Actress conversation. Time to wise up, Academy! A tense, nerve-frying experience that’s one of the best horror films of the past decade. Read the full review.
Normally when someone ages in the movies it’s done with splotchy makeup and a few extra pounds. Not so in Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. The film chronicles a boy’s life from age five to eighteen. This could have easily been a gimmick film, but Linklater and his team touch upon so many small moments in life that it becomes a sobering, highly-relatable experience. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke both turn in career-best work in this ambitious project. I wonder how many films were started and de-funded during the span in which Boyhood was filmed. Read the full review.
6. The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie is, without question, the surprise of the year. Not only is the advertising in the title, I was expecting a loose story in service of a real long commercial. What we ended up with is a high-energy, smart, and surprisingly touching family film. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring a whole lot of creativity, heart, and style to the year’s best animated film. Read the full review.
5. Life Itself
In Life Itself, director Steve James has created a deep, poignant tribute to a man that most people only know as a movie critic. A viewing of this film will change that. Rather than idolize Ebert for 115 minutes, James shows his life, warts and all. Ebert allowed the final months of his life to be filmed (he died in 2013 of thyroid and salivary gland cancer) and the footage is heartbreaking, yet inspirational. Ebert lived an upbeat, empathy-filled life until the end. There’s something for everyone to take away from Life Itself, the year’s best documentary. Read the full review.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma is one of the great emotional experiences of the year. Chronicling a three-month period during 1965 in which Martin Luther King Jr. led a campaign to secure equal voting rights for African Americans, each scene emanates power and haunting similarities to current events. David Oleyowo, as King, turns in the best leading actor performance of the year. Selma will be shown in history classes for years to come and should be required viewing for all. Read the full review.
In what is certainly the tensest drama of the year, Whiplash tells the story of Andrew, a young jazz drummer who yearns to be “one of the greats.” He’s pushed to his breaking point by Fletcher, a demanding, verbally and physically abusive instructor that always demands more. Writer/director Damien Chazelle builds tension with ease, leading up the best final fifteen minutes of the year. Is greatness something we are born with or must it be shaken out of us? Whiplash asks that question, among others. It’s an exhilarating experience featuring first-rate work from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Read the full review.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
By now you probably have a pretty good idea of whether or not writer/director Wes Anderson’s style is for you. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a celebration of all things filmmaking; a tight, hilarious script, captivating performances, and truly wondrous and creative set designs. This story within a story about a heist and the ensuing adventures of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, dry and hilarious as ever) and his Lobby Boy is a wonderful breath of fresh air, and a true original. Read the full review.
1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
No other movie this year had me glued to the screen like Birdman. This story of an aging actor looking to make a comeback on Broadway not only features the performance of Michael Keaton’s career, but also some of the most virtuoso filmmaking ever put to the medium. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has always been a prodigy behind the lens, but here he outdoes himself with a “single take” style that never feels like a gimmick thanks to the immersive story and loaded supporting cast. Emma Stone, Edward Norton, and Naomi Watts are all phenomenal in this funny, heartbreaking, and intoxicating dramedy. Birdman is 2014’s finest film. Read the full review.