2014 was a very good year for movies. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t a watershed. It was a year where I found plenty of movies I liked, but few I loved. Two of my favorite films this year I saw last year at TIFF, but didn’t put them on my 2013 list because they hadn’t been given a theatrical release yet. But 2014 also offered its fair share of surprises. There were terrific films from unknown directors. There were fascinating films with odd premises. In a marketplace where entertainment casts as wide a net as possible to meet a global audience, there were still films that took big risks, and for these ten pictures those risks paid off.
I didn’t love as many movies this year as I have in the past, but the following is a list of ones that left a lasting impact. Hit the jump for my Top 10 Films of 2014.
[A Brief Note on Year-End Lists: Lists of favorite movies are snapshots and they are personal.
There is no scientific formula for a movie review let alone a list of favorite movies. All of these choices are personal to me. Moreover, opinions on movies change over time. There were movies I gave an “A” or an “A-” in my initial review, but never thought about the picture again. By the same token, there are movies on this list that received a lower grade when I first reviewed them, but grew on me over time. And in an ideal world, I would have seen every possible contender for this list more than once.
But the purpose of a year-end list shouldn’t be to celebrate how many films the author saw, and while it may be nice to highlight all of the films that the author liked, the reader should be kept in mind. I know many of you love watching movies, but I also know it’s difficult it can be to find the time to do so.
Hopefully, this list spurs healthy discussion. But more than that, I hope it encourages people to seek out the movies they haven’t seen.]
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Calvary, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
In hindsight, this movie is only a risk by current blockbuster standards. At its core, it’s a movie that appeals to everyone who isn’t dead inside—it’s funny, bright, carries a spirit of adventure, features has lovable characters, and takes the audience to new and exciting places. Guardians of the Galaxy makes the argument that audiences aren’t against these movies, but rather, they haven’t received this kind of sci-fi film in a long time. Yes, it’s a show of power for the Marvel brand, but the previous Marvel movies barely mattered to the plot. What mattered is making people care about a talking raccoon and a tree, going inside the skull of a space god, and rocking out to some classic tunes.
Locke grew on me over the course of the year, and it wasn’t just in changing the way I say “concrete.” Steven Knight‘s movie illustrates the difference between a gimmick and thoughtful narrative choice. The pitch of a single actor driving in a car in real-time may be a hook, but the situation perfectly mirrors the inner conflict of protagonist Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy giving yet another incredible performance). Locke is a man out of options, and his only choice is to drive forward. The drama comes not from trying to see him get off the path or change his fate, but to create a controlled demolition of his life; a carefully crafted life destroyed by one mistake.
Even if it wasn’t a harsh reminder of recent events, Selma would still be an immediate, striking portrait of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Director Ava DuVernay brought history to life, but more than that, she showed how we are actively living with that history. Rotten institutions that perpetuate racial discrimination cannot be torn up with good intentions and nice speeches, and Selma has the maturity to show the complexities of affecting change. This is not The Martin Luther King Jr. Story and how he saved America from racism. This is a story with Martin Luther King Jr. in it, and it’s a story we’re all still living in. Selma is an important movie, but it’s never self-conscious or precious. It’s mature, thoughtful, and a powerful depiction of our past and a reflection of our present.
Until The Interview came along, getting Snowpiercer properly released was the biggest challenge of 2014. Director Bong Joon-ho and The Weinstein Company wrestled with what audiences should see, and Bong won the fight because even though his movie may not have opened on thousands of screens, it will last long past a friendly release date. Cloaked in the guise of an action sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer is a brutal film that never shies away from the stakes of a revolution and tearing down the system. Snowpiercer may be packed with exciting set pieces and dark comedy, but it’s an unapologetic warning about maintaining a status quo that preys on the powerless.
Some people are changed by major events, but many lives aren’t comprised of highlight reels. We’re average but we’re also unique, and Boyhood is a testament to the little moments that signify a life. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) may be a bit passive, but Boyhood is more than his story. It also belongs to his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) and everyone else who can look over the course of the their life and see how they and the world changed. Boyhood watched life develop in real time, and that reality is what makes it relatable to everyone even if your circumstances don’t mirror Mason’s. We live in the little moments of fleeting memories, and whether it’s in a song, a video game, a casual conversation, or a rite of passage, we grow and change without even realizing it. Boyhood is a unique coming of age story, but it’s also a life story.
5. Jodorowsky’s Dune
I’m not particularly eager to read Frank Herbert‘s Dune. I don’t like Alejandro Jodorowky‘s El Topo and have no desire to see his other movies. Neither of those facts matter because Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t about a book or a filmography; it’s about the power of creativity, especially as it relates to the collaborative nature of filmmaking. Countless times over the course of my career, I write about the “development process” and “filming”, and I admit those words are cold and can’t really do justice to the artistic process, especially the one we see here. Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune may be an extreme example of attempting to realize a vision, and while that realization never came to fruition in its intended form, true creativity cannot be constrained. It becomes an organism that lives, breathes, prospers, and multiplies. Jodorowsky’s Dune lives on, and Jodorowsky’s Dune will live on as one of the best documentaries about the power of unbridled creativity.
4. The Double
I don’t see many darkly comic paranoid-thrillers, so to be fair I don’t have much basis for comparison when it comes to Richard Ayoade‘s The Double. But even if this were somehow a vibrant and expanding sub-genre, it’s difficult to imagine that The Double wouldn’t be the gold standard. While I’ve cited The Double as a cousin to Brazil, that’s also slightly unfair to the unique world Ayoade crafted and the themes he explores through the power of juxtaposition, whether it be visually (iron doors on a wood paneled elevator), tonally (jokes about suicide), or narratively (lead characters Simon James and James Simon). At its core, the movie is a parable about finding inner strength, but what makes The Double so powerful—aside from the stunning design and Jesse Eisenberg‘s terrific dual performances—is that it shows what happens when our doubts, insecurities, and shortcomings manifest and tear away at us.
Every year, there are plenty of horror films with monsters, but 2014’s most memorable creature was Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal giving my favorite lead male performance of the year), who was both predator and a twisted reflection of ambition. The best horror movies show us darkness beyond a single entity or a single situation. The Babadook is about a mother’s guilt over resenting her child; Whiplash is about the soul-sucking quest for perfection; but Nightcrawler taps into something insidious that covers a wide swath of our culture—the desire to get ahead and our craving for gruesome entertainment. Lou Bloom is a repulsive figure, and yet we’re utterly captivated by him. We can’t hate him. We can’t escape him. And whether it’s in the harsh daylight or the haunting night, we know that there’s a little bit of that insatiable monster in all of us.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson‘s bright, cheery, dollhouse aesthetic has never belied a sadder, harsher, and wistful story. The depth and emotion of The Grand Budapest Hotel is what separates Anderson from emulators and those who parody him. He has a distinct visual style, but what makes him a singular filmmaker is he’s able to use that style to tell a thoughtful story. The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with quick-witted dialogue, memorable characters, and colorful backdrops, but it’s also a surprisingly melancholy picture about fascism, cruel fates, and stories near-forgotten.
1. The LEGO Movie
It’s not a drama. It’s not a small indie with a big voice. It’s a movie I’ve watched five times this year and will continue to watch again and again. While repeat viewings aren’t necessarily the mark of a great film, The LEGO Movie has nestled its way into my heart like few others. Never mind that it’s an amazing film based on a toy. Never mind that directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller already had my full faith after their two previous movies I also love, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. Never mind that I was already a fan of LEGO before seeing this movie.
The LEGO Movie is consistently clever (e.g. “The Old West” hanging in the sky), hilarious (“SPACESHIP!”), weird (“Do you think zeppelins are a bad investment?”), subversive (“Everything Is Awesome” is the catchiest dystopian anthem every written), and gorgeous (one of my favorite shots of the year are the LEGO waves when the characters are on the sea). It’s also an imaginative story about the power of imagination. It acknowledges that “Everyone is special and should believe in him or herself” is something “that sounds like it’s on a cat poster,” but The LEGO Movie showed what that means in practice. You don’t get a medal just for showing up. You have to build something and do something that you didn’t expect of yourself. Your creativity is your individuality, and what you build makes your life richer.
Everything about The LEGO Movie brings me immeasurable joy, and that’s why it’s my favorite film of 2014.
For more of our Best of 2014 coverage, browse the links below:
- Best Performances, Directing, Kills, and More of 2014
- Haleigh’s Top 10 Films of 2014
- Top 10 Trailers of 2014
- Best Popcorn Movies of 2014
- Best Worst Movies of 2014
- Perri’s Top 10 Horror Films of 2014
- Best Cinematography of 2014
- Adam’s Top 10 Films of 2014
- The Top 10 Scores of 2014
- 10 Best Surprises of 2014, From Emily Blunt as an Action Star to THE LEGO MOVIE Not Sucking
- 5 Great Film and Music Moments From 2014
- 10 Great Films of 2014 You May Have Missed and You Should Absolutely Watch
- Oscar Beat: For Your Consideration – Overlooked Films, Performances, and Directors from 2014 That Warrant Recognition
- Comicbook Countdown: The Best Comic Book Shows of 2014 Including ARROW, THE FLASH, CONSTANTINE, GOTHAM, S.H.I.E.L.D., and THE WALKING DEAD
- 10 Best TV Episodes of the Season Thus Far
- 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