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.