While many year-end lists simply focus on either the best or the worst, this feels like a good opportunity to take a look at a year-end aspect that seems to go overlooked: the things that we didn’t see coming. There’s an expectation that the new Christopher Nolan film is going to be eye-popping, that Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t going to be particularly great, and that the latest effort from Wes Anderson will probably be immaculately crafted. But what about discovering that a loveable TV actor makes a seamless transition to becoming a movie star? Or that shameless, toy-centric studio cash-grab is actually a great movie? There were plenty of pleasant discoveries over these past 12 months, and after the jump, I run down the 10 best surprises of 2014.
Emily Blunt Is a Badass
Director Doug Liman’s sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow is so good because it gives us something different. The end of the world is at stake but we only see it from the point of view of a fixed location in London. Tom Cruise plays the coward not the hero. And Emily Blunt gets to be the badass. It’s the latter that was one of the most pleasant surprises of the film, as Blunt proved that, given the opportunity, she could go toe-to-toe with any of these other male-driven superhero franchises—and win! Seriously, she’s great in this movie not only because she can wield a sword and throw a proper mech-suit-enhanced punch, but also because she brings a nuanced vulnerability and dimensionality to the role that makes the character human. And yes, she can kick Tom Cruise’s ass.
The LEGO Movie Doesn’t Suck
Okay so maybe if you were familiar with the work of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller you had faith that The LEGO Movie would be good, but man did it have the possibility of being very, very bad. Instead of a shameless 90-minute commercial for toys, Lord and Miller gave us a hilarious, thoughtful, and ballsy movie about the nature of individuality and creativity, with social commentary so sharp it had people passionately arguing that it was both pro and anti-capitalist. Yes, I’m still talking about that animated “kids movie” about brick toys.
Bill Hader Can Do Drama
Many performers from Saturday Night Live have gone on to have great success beyond the show, but even if they make the transition to the big screen, it’s not easy for a comedian to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. You can count Bill Hader as one of the few that absolutely nails the shift, though, as he proved himself to be an immensely talented actor period in the Sundance indie The Skeleton Twins. Hader imbued a character that could easily have veered into either mopey or flamboyant territory with honesty and subtle insecurity, giving us one of the better performances of the entire year. We knew the guy was one of the funniest actors working today, but in The Skeleton Twins Hader proved that he can do drama just as well.
Gone Girl Is a Box Office Smash
David Fincher makes incredible movies. This much is certain. But throughout his career, he’s yet to make the kind of box office juggernaut that takes the world by storm. That was the plan with his 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but the picture ended up underperforming. When Fincher opted to tackle yet another adaptation of an immensely popular bestseller for his follow-up, box office expectations were somewhat tempered. That turned out to be quite unnecessary, though, as Gone Girl has now gone on to become the highest grossing film of the director’s career, standing at a worldwide gross of $344.7 million—$10 million more than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Add in fact Gone Girl proved to be one of the most entertaining films of the year, complete with biting satire and stellar performances, and this is one of those rare times that the enthusiasm of critics and audiences aligned. For Fincher, this kind of box office success was long overdue and very much deserved.
Chris Pratt Is a Movie Star
When you think of likeable actors, Chris Pratt is one of the first names that comes to mind. Whether you’ve been a fan of his work since The WB drama Everwood or just enjoy his affable (and hilarious) personality on Parks and Recreation, it’s clear that the guy is super charming. But few could have predicted that Pratt would become one of the year’s breakout movie stars—and as a superhero no less. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was one of the biggest hits of the year, and a hefty amount of the film’s success is due to Pratt’s wonderfully playful (and ever-so-slightly dickish) performance as Star-Lord. The guy not only holds his own in a massive Marvel movie, but he’s one of the standouts in a film full of scene-stealing characters. With a leading role in Jurassic World on the way in 2015, Chris Pratt’s movie star status isn’t likely to fade anytime soon.
Wild Is Actually Pretty Great
Reading the initial premise for Wild—a story about a woman who sets out to attempt the three-month hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in the spirit of finding some inner peace—the film sounds incredibly generic and boring. Even the trailer wasn’t particularly thrilling. But man, this movie is kind of great. Reese Witherspoon gives quite possibly the best performance of her career in a film that turns out to be incredibly surprising, brutally honest, and unabashedly feminist. It’s a refreshingly genuine portrayal of a woman, which is sadly something that is lacking in the major movie marketplace these days. Wild is the perfect example of why it’s unwise to judge any film by its cover.
Jake Gyllenhaal Takes Crazy to Another Level
Since his breakout turn in Donnie Darko, it’s always been clear that Jake Gyllenhaal is a very talented actor. But in 2014 he took things even further, giving us three fantastic performances in two insane films. The first is Enemy, in which Gyllenhaal plays a man who stumbles across his doppelganger. It’s a twisted, cerebral, thrilling film that reunites Gyllenhaal with his Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve and gave us quite possibly the most terrifying scene of the year. The second is Nightcrawler, a searing indictment of our culture’s thirst for the obscene that is anchored by a tremendous performance from Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom. It’s an iconic turn in the vein of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, and Gyllenhaal introduces us to a psychopath we’ll never forget.
Tom Hardy Driving a Car Is Super Compelling
Given the advances in technology, audiences have been trained to expect the biggest, most extravagant set pieces from Hollywood’s highest profile releases. However, a movie about Tom Hardy driving a car, with zero CGI and only one actor on screen, proved to be one of the most compelling films of the year—more so than many of the studio blockbusters that flooded the marketplace. In Locke, writer/director Steven Knight brilliantly tells the story of one man’s life unraveling over the course of a single car ride. There are no bomb threats or car chases or life-threatening emergencies. We simply watch a man’s personal and professional life crumble while he’s on the road, and it’s one of the most engrossing experiences of the year. Hardy delivers a stellar one-man-show performance that provides a genuine character arc over the course of the film’s runtime, resulting in an emotional and surprising finale. Locke proves that storytelling, when done well, doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of a giant franchise.
Yes, Hans Zimmer Can Get Louder
Hans Zimmer is one of the most popular composers working today, and for good reason. The guy is incredibly talented, crafting wonderful scores for films as wide-ranging as The Thin Red Line, The Holiday, and Pirates of the Caribbean. In recent years, though, Zimmer’s collaborations with filmmaker Christopher Nolan have resulted in some very memorable, very loud scores. With this year’s Interstellar, Zimmer hit a new plane entirely. The organ-heavy score for Nolan’s space-set sci-fi epic is appropriately large, but when it swells, the sound fills the entire theater like no other film in recent memory—especially in IMAX. It’s a fantastic piece of work that goes hand-in-hand with the massive scope of the film, and it proves that there’s no ceiling when it comes to a Hans Zimmer/Christopher Nolan collaboration.
For more of our Best of 2014 coverage, peruse the links below:
- 5 Great Film and Music Moments From 2014
- 10 Great Films of 2014 You May Have Missed and You Should Absolutely Watch
- Allison’s Other TV Bests of 2014
- Allison’s Top 12 Returning TV Series of 2014
- Allison’s Top 12 New TV Series of 2014