These year-end intros tend to read pretty much the same, so let me get a few things out of the way. 2014 was a fantastic year at the movies, and particularly well suited to my taste, with so many wonderful stories about the freaks and far-out types that are near and dear to my heart. It was super extremely difficult choosing only ten films to make the cut. I could easily make a top twenty list, probably top thirty, and love each movie as much as the next, and I still haven’t seen a number of limited/year end releases including Selma, Love is Strange, and Wild. Naturally, this list is entirely subjective and shouldn’t be considered the “best” movies of the year (that list would have to have Boyhood on it), but a list of the films that touched me and best appealed to my tastes.
Note: The idea of ranking films as disparate as Cheap Thrills and Grand Budapest Hotel numerically is straight up bonkers to me, so these are listed alphabetically. Oddly enough, I kind of love the order they turned out in.
10. The Babadook
The first of three tremendous directorial debuts on this list, Jennifer Kent‘s The Babadook is the best horror film of the year, and a solid emotional drama even beyond it’s terrifying nature. Essie Davis delivers a superb performance as Amelia, a shattered woman struggling like hell to be a good mom in the wake of her husband’s untimely death. Davis leaves it all on the table, playing the large and small moments with equal skill, and if this performance were packaged in a non-genre film I have no doubt she would be swathed in awards buzz right now. The design elements are nothing short of excellent. Visually and aurally, The Babadook brings to life an instantly iconic monster, Mister Babadook, who I believe will haunt the dreams of viewers for generations to come.
I’ve never felt happier or sadder about quitting theater than I did watching Birdman. What a total nightmare, but man, what a rush. “Can I get one more take?” “What’s the line again?” “I need a touch-up.” File under: Things you hear on a movie set that you’ll never hear in theater. The theater is a strange beast, unrelenting and unforgiving. Sure there’s rehearsal, but once you’re on, you are on, and there’s not a moment to catch your breath. With illusion of a single take, Alejandro González Iñárritu beautifully captured that intensity and insanity on film. And the performances, my god. Actors acting about acting. It’s the goods. Michael Keaton is fearless as Riggan, approaching this meaty meta role with utter brass. Edward Norton is equal parts repulsive and alluring, Emma Stone thrives, finally getting to play against type, and the chemistry between the two is electric. Birdman is a movie about actors that feels like an actor; self-aware, a little try hard at times, but wholly dazzling.
8. Blue Ruin
I first saw Blue Ruin at AFI Fest last year and fell deeply in love. You can tell how deeply by the fact it still made the list after all the excellence 2014 had to offer. Blue Ruin is a simple, direct, and unwavering revenge film from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier. Revenge is messy business, and Blue Ruin roles around in the dirt of it. As the vengeance-seeking protagonist Dwight, Macon Blair is exceptional, with none of the steely composure we’ve come to expect in this genre. Just a regular, if slightly unhinged, guy who’s ready to do whatever it takes to get his revenge. No act comes easy, everything has it’s cost. Blue Ruin excels in its depiction of violence, mainly in that it’s hard and painful. The violence in the film hurts to watch, and it lasts. Blue Ruin lives in the real world where wounds take time to heal, if they can heal at all, and where life is tenuous and hard to hold onto.
7. Cheap Thrills
I heard a lot of buzz from the festival circuit about how Evan Katz‘s debut feature was a top-notch horror film, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be something entirely different. I’d say Cheap Thrills is more comedy than horror, but maybe that just show’s what a messed up person I am. In truth, it is its own bizarre genre hybrid, an intoxicating cocktail of comedy, drama, and horror, with a dash of that Fear Factor reality vibe. It’s what-would-you-do-for-a-Klondike-bar on crack, if that crack was cooked in hell and served up by the most charming guy in the room. With excellent casting choices all around, including wonderfully unexpected turns from David Koechner, Ethan Embry and Sara Paxton, it’s Pat Healy who steals the show as the beleaguered and desperate protagonist who’s willing to do horrible things if the prices is right, making the film’s outright insanity feel believable and maybe even a little relatable.
6. Gone Girl
This one’s going to get a little spoilery, so skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film. Having read the book before seeing the film, I thought I knew what I was in for with Gone Girl. I was wrong. It’s a perfect example of how the medium of film can reshape a story and fashion it into a one-of-a-kind-experience. When David Fincher applied his visionary lens to the pulpy pages of Gillian Flynn‘s novel he created something entirely new. As I like to call it – Trust no Bitch: The Movie. A scathing portrait about the perversions of marriage and media, Gone Girl is a horror story about intimacy…and Amazing Amy. Amazing fucking Amy. The scariest monster on a list that includes The Babadook. Rosamund Pike‘s performance as Amy is beyond reproach, a terrifying portrait what happens when you piss off that one person you really shouldn’t piss off. Unhinged, self-righteous, and utterly hellbent on getting her way; Amazing Amy will fuck you up.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like Wes Anderson‘s essence leapt onto the screen. All of Anderson’s trademarks are on full display: twee, heavily stylized, yet deeply emotional at its core. The nested story structure and changing aspect ratios are a delightful touch, giving Grand Budapest Hotel a sense of time passed, and making the love and loss in the film all the more resonant. As the dandy M. Gustave, Ralph Fiennes is at his most endearing, and his interactions with Tony Revolori‘s Lobby Boy are as charming as the film itself. As with all of Anderson’s films the supporting cast is an absurd wealth of riches, with Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, and Willem Dafoe delivering some of the film’s standout moments. There’s a unique experience I have every time with Anderson’s work: I watch with a smile on my face the entire time, until the final moments, when the film’s emotional undercurrent hits me like a ton of bricks and I watch the end credits roll with tears streaming down my face. The Grand Budapest Hotel is his greatest sucker punch yet.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy was intended to be #1 on my best popcorn movies list for a long time, but when it came time, I just couldn’t do it. Is it the best popcorn movie of the year? Yes. But it’s also one of my favorite films of the year, period. No qualifier needed. With Guardians James Gunn delivered the most delightful movie-going experience I had in 2014. Endlessly quotable with a soundtrack that just doesn’t quit, Guardians is my favorite space adventure since Serenity (and that’s mighty high praise coming from a Browncoat like me). It’s the movie I’ve re-watched the most this year and I still can’t decide who my favorite character is. Groot, of course. But then there’s Rocket. And how could you forget Drax? But then Gamora is fantastic too. And everybody loves Peter Quill – sorry, Star Lord. So goes my internal debate over and over. That’s the film’s greatest strength, it’s a perfect ensemble, and I’d like to spend many more hours of my life traversing the universe with this beautiful bunch of oddballs.
They say it’s all been done before, but while I was watching Nightcrawler I couldn’t stop thinking that this was something new. Sure, there are elements of style and structure that harken back to classic films, but this character, Louis Bloom, he’s one of a kind. He’s a monster born entirely out of the time we live in. The time of Kardashians and TED Talks and virality; shameless ambition and hustle, hustle, hustle. He’s the bastard son of capitalism, the American Dream gone sour in our time of economic desperation. What Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal created together in the character of Louis Bloom is one for the ages, our generations Frankenstein’s Monster. We made him, we deserve him, and the scariest part is knowing that some of us probably are him.
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
If there are two more perfect people in this world than Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, I’ve never seen them, so it’s only fitting that Jim Jarmusch would cast them as the elegant and ancient vampiric power couple at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive. There’s not a lot of plot to speak of, instead Jarmusch gives you a slice-of-life look at these exceptionally literate and cultured immortals, inviting you to soak up the atmospheric sensuality, which equal parts sophisticated and seedy. This is all highlighted by the brooding score, a collaboration between composer Jozef van Wizzem and Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. Tilda Swinton is at peak radiance, and it’s beyond belief that this same woman brought us Snowpiercer‘s deplorable despot Mason in the same year. What Swinton does is closer to sorcery than acting, and as Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive, Swinton unleashes her powers at full force.
If ever a film stuck the landing, that film is Whiplash. It’s one of those all-too-rare movies that moves forward with propulsive force, leading you to an ecstatic, breathless climax. Whiplash is a movie about the insanity of art and the personal cost inherent to the pursuit of perfection. You know that old saying “blood, sweat and tears”, this is a movie about that. It makes you confront the awful truth that in order to achieve greatness, you’ve got to be a bit of a prick, and if you’re not willing, sorry, you’re not going to be the best. J.K. Simmons is on fire as the deranged music coach spurring Miles Teller‘s ambitious young drummer on to greatness. Simmons is all muscle, veins, and tight black cloth, looking like a flexed bicep, ready to knock the shit out of you at any moment. Profanity flies out of his mouth with machine gun rapidity, but coming from Simmons it sounds like a canticle. I didn’t know you could make an action movie about music, but Damien Chazelle pulled it off, and it all builds up to the rapturous ending – pure payoff, exultant satisfaction.
Like I said, I loved a lot of films this year, so here are the movies that were thisclose to making the list: The Overnighters, The Skeleton Twins, We are the Best!, Obvious Child, Borgman, The Guest, Inherent Vice, Enemy.
For more of our Best of 2014 coverage, browse the links below:
- 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