2014 took us from a claustrophobic theater on Broadway all the way through a wormhole and back. We watched a woman hike 1,000 miles and we saw a boy grow into a man before our eyes. A talking raccoon opened a can of whoop-ass on the galaxy and Tyler Perry was, somehow, great in Gone Girl. All of this and I’ve barely scratched the surface of amazing experiences in cinema this past year. Disclaimer: Seeing as filmwriting isn’t a full-time gig for me, I obviously was unable to see every movie that came through theaters in 2014. This is simply the best of what I saw.
Without further ado, I present my picks for the 20 best movies of 2014.
20. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Though it may be riveting due to the fantastic performances and smart script, Foxcatcher is presently quite forgettable for me. I sat in my seat, was thoroughly impressed by the time the credits rolled, and hadn’t thought about it again until it was time to make this list. It’s well-made on a technical level and there’s some real meat for the cast to chew on, but these themes have been tackled to death (American dream, obsession, etc.) and Foxcatcher just isn’t an interesting enough story to resonate with me beyond an inital viewing and land higher on this list.
19. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell)
The hot trend in independent filmmaking lately seems to be small, intimate character dramas with a sci-fi twist. The One I Love is the cream of that crop. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll just say a couple with their marriage on the rocks spend a weekend at a gorgeous vacation home, and then things get…weird. Filmed with basically one location and only “two” characters, it carves its own path by being a clever, well-acted and fairly pessimistic examination of love and relationships.
18. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Blue Ruin puts an awesome spin on the familiar violent revenge thriller. We’re so used to seeing cold, calculated badass protagonists exacting methodical and merciless retribution on their enemies, which is why this amateurish, kind of clueless average joe main character feels so fresh. It’s much more grounded in reality than I expected, which isn’t to say it loses suspense in the process. Far from it. You can find some of the most intense, grim scenes of the year in this low-budget indie production. Partially funded by a kickstarter campaign, director Jeremy Saulnier made the most of his limited resources to create a slow-burning, impactful and atmospheric genre flick.
17. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
Honestly, my expectations were pretty low going into this one. It seemed like uninteresting Oscar bait to me from the previews, but I decided to give it a real shot. I’m very glad to have done so. As someone who knew very little about the life story of Alan Turing, I thought the movie was beautifully written and unexpectedly poignant. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the afore-mentioned Turing is stirring; he’s emotionally complex and sympathetic, while never coming across as cloying. The Imitation Game, much like another 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything, is well-made and moving, but ultimately too formulaic to make that next step into extraordinary territory.
16. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Under the Skin is a film which, after an initial viewing, I appreciated what it was trying to do but didn’t particularly like it beyond its obvious aesthetic appeal. But months have since passed, and I find myself growing more and more fond of it. The pace is glacial, but it lends itself well to the gradual humanizing of Scarlett Johansson’s predatory alien character. Also, how good is the score? Using a minimalist approach, the music is haunting and wholly original. Under the Skin‘s themes are heady and may prove impenetrable for impatient viewers, but the film fulfills the promise of its name and digs through the surface level to explore what makes us human.
15. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Easily the best horror movie since The Orphanage, hands down. The Babadook shies away from outright scares most of the time in favor of building tension, both of the horror and the dramatic flavor. But with that caveat often comes uneven pacing. Not the case here. Newcomer Jennifer Kent already feels like a master behind the camera, knowing exactly how to establish a mood, how to build characters, when to look away and when to go for broke and scare us silly. I’m still a bit sour on the ending, but I admire the decision to try and break convention. The Babadook is right up my alley, and an absolute must-see for horror aficianados and casual moviegoers alike.
14. The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson)
The Skeleton Twins was one of my surprise finds of the year. It screened at the Seattle International Film Festival and Sundance before that, and garnered tons of acclaim. When it finally released a couple months later I went in not expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised when it became one of my favorites of the year. Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig have perfect chemistry together, with both getting the chance to break expectations and showcase some dramatic chops. The brother-sister dynamic is not one we see portrayed in-depth very often in movies, and their characters might be the most honest and true-to-life I’ve ever seen, subject matter aside. Just a real gem of a character drama, and I look forward to what director Craig Johnson has planned next.
13. The Immigrant (James Gray)
It’s a real shame James Gray’s period drama hasn’t gotten much attention outside of film critic circles, because The Immigrant is an incredible movie. Marion Cotillard delivers one of the best performances of the year as an immigrant escaping war-torn Poland with her sister in search of a better life in America. Visually the film is stunning and demonstrates admirable restraint. The narrative effectly channels the melodramatic tendencies of a bygone era while staying true to its characters, constantly messing with our perception of the men in the story. Coming from someone who tends not to love period dramas set before the 1940’s, I cannot recommend this one enough.
12. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Dare I say I enjoyed the movie more than the book? That may be sacrilegious to some, but a razor-sharp adaptation of her own source material by Gillian Flynn, coupled with the style of acclaimed director David Fincher and you’ve got a winning combination. Gone Girl is just as much of a critique of American media as it is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, and it works on both fronts. Hearing audible gasps at every twist and turn of the plot was one of my favorite theater-going experiences of the year. It’s not often that a movie can make you laugh and cringe in horror at multiple points (maybe even both at once), but this one does exactly that. It may be a middle-of-the-pack effort from Fincher, but I’ll take an average Fincher flick over most other movies.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
I went into the theater in August suffering from Marvel fatigue, expecting next to nothing from this comic property I was unfamiliar with from a director whom I admired but didn’t love. Two hours later and I had laughed, cried and completely fallen in love with this group of misfits. I don’t even have to hestitate when I say Guardians of the Galaxy is by far the best film so far in the Marvel Universe, and that means quite a lot to some people. Guardians has reignited my anticipation for the next phase of movies from the comics powerhouse. Plain and simple, it’s the most fun I had all year at the movies.
10. The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
If you had told me 12 months ago that The LEGO Movie would end up on my top 10 movies of the year list, I would have laughed in your face. Instead, here I am sitting at my keyboard still laughing at the image of Batman chucking a bunch of batarangs at a button, declaring, “First try!” upon finally hitting it. Not only is it the most laugh-out-loud funny and clever movie of the year, it has a ton of heart and some of the most impressive visuals we’ve seen from a CGI-animated movie. This was the first year since 2002 without a new feature film from animation powerhouse Pixar, and you know what? Between this and How to Train Your Dragon 2, I can’t say I missed them all that much.
9. The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans)
I kind of enjoy this movie. So much so that I even placed it on my best action movies of all-time list last year. Yeah, it’s that good. The Raid 2 improves upon its predecessor where it counts, delivering a well-paced and riveting crime story in addition to some of the best action sequences ever put to film. Every fight is masterfully choreographed, and filmed in such a way that every punch, kick, slam and stab feels gruesomely authentic. The pacing may be a bit relentless for some given how frequently these scenes occur, but how can you complain when the action is this ridiculously awesome? Out of all the movies on this list I’ll probably end up rewatching this one the most, just to stare mouth agape at the insanity taking place on the screen.
8. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu)
My feelings on Birdman run the spectrum from awe to contempt. On the one hand, I feel that some of the more surreal sequences fail to fit in tonally with the rest of the film, and may even be a disservice to the overall narrative. The ending is still a bit of an enigma for me, though that may change on a repeat viewing. But the complaints I have, in the grand scheme of my appreciation for the film, do little to put a damper on my love for the story Innaritu has told and the characters he created. I’ve always been a huge fan of his work, and while Birdman may not be his best, it’s a darkly funny and moving examination of the artistic process. Watching Riggan wrestle with balancing his previous profitability as an actor with his own yearning for personal gratification speaks to my own struggles with creating art, and I believe to anyone that has ever tried to create something they can call their own.
7. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
I’ll be honest. At this point, I have no idea what really happened in this movie or what themes it attempts to explore. But unlike a lot of people (including the two I saw it with), that didn’t stop me from loving it. While on first watch it didn’t leave as much of an impression on me as his previous film, The Master, I know Paul Thomas Anderson has again made a movie I will return to for a second, third, fourth watch and beyond, and my appreciation will grow with each viewing. There’s just a colossal amount of material to unpack here, and Anderson uses so much narrative misdirection that it’s going to take me multiple watches to even figure out which scenes don’t take place in Doc Sportello’s head. It’s a dope-fueled romp through sun-soaked Southern California with some of my favorite laughs of the year, and I was onboard for every minute of it.
6. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
The McDonagh brothers may not make movies very often, but between the two of them they’ve made some of my favorite movies of the past 10 years. Calvary continues that trend. It’s a rich, dark character drama with a ton humor that permeates through the often grim subject matter. Brendan Gleeson as the main character, a Catholic priest who is told during a confession that the confessor is going to kill him the following Sunday, is masterful. It’s a shame his performance has been largely neglected by the awards circuit this year, because he absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. The ending in particular hit me hard, and has stuck with me indefinitely. If there’s one neglected film from 2014 I want to champion, it’s this one.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
At first glance it may seem strange, but The Grand Budapest Hotel actually has a lot in common with Inherent Vice. Both were directed by incredibly talented auteur filmmakers with the last name Anderson. Both feature an ensemble cast of quirky characters. Both have complicated plots with many threads to weave together. However, the real difference is that comprehension of the plot is integral to the enjoyment of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and while there is a lot going on, Anderson does a masterful job constructing his narrative in such a way that it’s easy to follow without too much exposition. In addition to being what I think is his most laugh-out-loud funny movie, it’s also his most ambitious. Looking at each frame, it’s obvious how much time and effort went into the visual composition of this movie, from the symmetry of the shots to the intricate set pieces and period decoration. The Grand Budapest Hotel may very well be Wes Anderson’s best movie so far, and I look forward to revisiting it as soon as possible.
4. Nightcrawler (Tony Gilroy)
It’s not very often that a character comes along in cinema who demands your rapt attention every second he/she is on the screen. For me, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is the only such one this year; an immediate classic performance that people will cite as a favorite/influence for years to come. I couldn’t look away from his sunken, gaunt face and piercing stare, which made watching the deplorable acts he commits that much harder to stomach. To make things even better, the film that surrounds him is pretty damn good, too. I’ll keep this short since you can read my review here, but I will say that Nightcrawler is sharp, dark, and riveting from beginning to end. Watch this if you haven’t already.
3. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
Is Interstellar this century’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey? Nope. Is it a perfect movie? Not even close. But no matter how much I dwell on the annoying plot holes, weak supporting characters and the excessive exposition, I can’t deny my initial reaction, which was, “This is the reason I go to the movies.” Interstellar is an example of a spectacle for the ages, and despite the grand scale it still feels like Christopher Nolan’s most personal film to me. As incredible as the set pieces may be (and boy, are they spectacular), the most memorable scene in the film and perhaps my favorite of the entire year comes when Cooper returns to the ship to learn that because of time dilation, 20 years have passed on Earth in what seemed like a matter of minutes from his perspective. Seeing him sob uncontrollably while watching footage sent from Earth moved me to tears, and it’s that emotional thru-line which elevated Interstellar for me. Admiration for this film will only grow with time.
2. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
There’s really nothing I can say about Boyhood that I haven’t already said, so I’ll just dive into what it means to me personally. When I left the theater after seeing this film, I was honestly at a loss for words. I walked in silence back to my apartment while the people I was with chatted away about the movie, and it wasn’t until they addressed me personally after noticing my absence from the conversation that I snapped out of my stupor. “So, what’d you think?” The only words I could muster at first were, “That might be the best movie I’ve ever seen.” And it very well may be. For the first time in a narrative film, instead of seeing people move through time, we can experience time move through people. Boyhood is a truly special film; that once-in-a-lifetime event that comes around and changes everyone’s expectations and perception of movies and what the artform is able to accomplish.
1. Enemy (Dennis Villenueve)
Enemy is not the most technically impressive film on this list, the characters are vague at best, and the plot isn’t even comprehensible by conventional standards. So why then does it top this list? There are many things I can say about it, but to make a long answer short: I haven’t been able to shake the feeling it instilled in me. There’s a combination of dread, paranoia and obsession that has just been stewing in the pit of my stomach in the time since I saw it. It’s rare that a film does that for me, and when it does I take note.
Enemy is a film that I think will grow in popularity over the years as more and more people digest and study it. Part of the fun is just figuring out what the hell even happened. When it ended (THAT ENDING OH MY GOD KILL ME), my girlfriend and I immediately started it over from the beginning and spent another 90 minutes revisiting scenes we thought were important or might answer questions we had. By the end of that we still had more questions than answers, but in the best possible way. It’s just so rich that I can see myself watching this ten more times and still find bits that shed new light on the story and its themes. When I make these lists, I look for the movies that latch on to me and don’t let go. You only have to look at the movies that topped my previous lists (2012’s The Master and 2013’s Her) for other examples that have since become a permanent part of my psyche; films that I admire and appreciate more every time I watch them. Enemy does that for me like no other movie in 2014.
There you have it. Post your feedback and personal lists in the comments!