2014 has been a good year for film. While it’s certainly not a 1999 or even a 2012, we’ve been privy to a nice array of storytelling from a variety of different filmmakers. There may not have been too many movies that I flat-out loved this year, but there were plenty that I liked a whole lot. And it was also a swell year for studio tentpole pictures as a handful of filmmakers found ways to turn multi-million dollar corporate investments into somewhat personal and slightly subversive pieces of entertainment. My own Top 10 list runs the gamut from big studio films to very small, contained dramas, but if there’s a throughline that can be drawn across all ten (something I didn’t pick up on until the list was complete, I should add), it’s that they tell stories that feel relevant to the world we live in today.
Check out my full Top 10 of 2014 list after the jump.
If you had told me six months ago that Wild would be making my Top 10 list, I wouldn’t have believed you. What looked to be a generic, “uptown problems” type of film actually turned out to be a thoughtful, cathartic look at one woman’s path to finding some sort of inner peace. Reese Witherspoon has never been better, and Nick Hornby’s script offers up a sadly rare portrayal of a genuine, three-dimensional female character. Moreover, director Jean-Marc Vallee chronicles the female experience from a distinct point of view, as the audience follows Cheryl’s interactions through her eyes. What a refreshing movie.
9. The LEGO Movie
It’s been said that Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made a career out of turning bad ideas into great movies, and while it’s true that they have a knack for finding interesting takes on seemingly benign material, I think the reason their movies are so good is because they dare to be different. The LEGO Movie is not only big and hilarious and colorful and fun, it’s also thoughtful and thematically ambitious. It’s a film that’s not content just to be wildly entertaining, it’s actually about something, and it’s all the better for it. Too often these days blockbusters either talk down to the audience or just give them exactly what they want (or think they want), straight up. The LEGO Movie posits that human beings are smart and capable of thinking about larger ideas while still laughing their heads off—a novel concept, I know. This isn’t just a great summer studio movie, it’s a great movie period, and this should be the standard for tentpole filmmaking. Everything is, indeed, awesome.
8. Edge of Tomorrow
Speaking of smart commercial pictures, director Doug Liman’s sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow also dared to offer up something distinct from your standard blockbuster fare. Movie star Tom Cruise plays a coward? Emily Blunt is the hero? Gritty sci-fi is allowed to be funny? This was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had in a theater this year. Every time you think you have a handle on the film’s structure or where it’s going next, Liman throws a delightful curveball. Again, this is a movie that refuses to follow the standard formula of those that came before it as Liman opts to tackle the time travel story like a World War II picture with truly thrilling, memorable battle sequences and a genuinely unique-looking alien foe (that’s almost a miracle in and of itself). And Cruise reminds us once again why he’s one of the best, hardest working actors today. Above all, though, Edge of Tomorrow is extremely satisfying. It’s funny, surprising, and even emotional, and it’s one of the best films of the year.
The comparisons between Nightcrawler and both Taxi Driver and Network are perfectly apt. It’s a disturbing story that gives us an anti-hero character for the ages, and it’s also a searing indictment of the media and our culture’s thirst for the grotesque. Jake Gyllenhaal is tremendous as Lou Bloom, the creep to end all creeps. When I first saw the film I was flabbergasted by the things that were coming out of his mouth, my jaw literally hanging open, but Gyllenhaal sells the character’s insane ambition and twisted ethics completely—I actually found myself being charmed by this disgusting character at times. Writer/director Dan Gilroy expertly executes this character arc in increments, and just when we think Lou can’t get any crazier or lower, Gilroy takes things to the next level. You may think this is satire or a heightened version of reality, but I’d urge you to look closer. Nightcrawler is more documentary than fantasy.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
There are some filmmakers that are like chameleons, constantly changing and altering their style. And then there’s Wes Anderson. He’s been honing a very specific, unique kind of filmmaking for eight films now, and with The Grand Budapest Hotel he’s crafted quite possibly the most Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson film yet. It’s spectacular, really, to see a filmmaker so absolutely focused on what he wants to accomplish, and the results are stunning. The movie is, of course, positively delightful, but there’s also an undercurrent of darkness that sets Grand Budapest apart from the rest of Anderson’s filmography. It’s a film about staying true to one’s own standards no matter the changing circumstances, and its Russian nesting doll structure is a brilliant way to convey the effect of time. I’m a fan of Anderson’s work so I expected to enjoy Grand Budapest going in, but man, I was grinning ear to ear throughout the entire thing.
5. Inherent Vice
I love this movie. It’s clear that Paul Thomas Anderson is perfectly content doing his own thing, and while I admired The Master more than I actively liked it, I really fell hard for Inherent Vice. The film is masterful on many levels, as Anderson crafts a purposefully muddled structure that mirrors the state of mind of our hero, Joaquin Phoenix’s loveable Doc Sportello. We follow this bumbling P.I. as he attempts to investigate a disappearance, and while the ensuing adventures range from hilarious to spooky, there’s a strong sense of melancholy throughout the film. The 1970 setting is not arbitrary, as we’re confronted with characters that are either stubbornly grasping onto the past or lovingly embracing the future, at odds with each other, and it’s all told through Anderson’s hazy, longing gaze.
4. Gone Girl
I expected Gone Girl to be good, but I’m not sure I was prepared for it to be so damn funny. This is as close to a big commercial, wide-audience film as David Fincher has ever made, and he’s unsurprisingly fantastic at it. It’s a wildly entertaining feature filled with wit and biting humor, all the while also serving as a sharp critique of gender roles and the degree of honesty involved in romantic relationships. It might also be the best-cast film of the year, as it’s full of standout performances from the entire ensemble, with Rosamund Pike pulling off a phenomenally daring high-wire act as the titular Amy Dunne. More than any other movie this year, this is the one I wanted to see again immediately after my first viewing.
This was the most surprising film I saw in 2014. The story of a man talking on his cell phone while driving a car should not be a movie. But with Locke, writer/director Steven Knight and star Tom Hardy create an unbelievably captivating, emotional, and poignant drama out of this very simple setup with no bells and whistles—there’s no bomb threat or life that needs saving; the story is more personal than that. It’s a film about how your past never really leaves you, how it informs your approach to the world. It’s about what it means to be a man, a father, a son. Hardy carries the film with a dynamic, tour-de-force performance that conveys everything you need to know about the character from the driver’s seat of a car, resulting in a film that’s immensely more compelling than most of these multi-million dollar franchises that flood cineplexes. Now that’s good filmmaking.
There are so many ways that Boyhood could’ve gone wrong. Opting to make a film over the course of 12 years opens it up to plenty of risk, and I truly believe that Richard Linklater was one of a handful of directors (if not the only one) who could have pulled this thing off. But he did it, and the result is a film that is truly unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. What’s so ambitious about Boyhood and why it works so well is it’s a movie made up of small moments. There’s no major twist, no devastating emotional turn; the parents are divorced before the film even begins. The most memorable points in our lives aren’t always marked by major incidents, but by times in which we have a genuine emotional response to some person, event, or thing that could be totally unremarkable in the moment. Linklater made a film about time, and how it’s the little things that shape us, mold us, and make us into who we are as a person. It’s a magnificent accomplishment, one that I connected with deeply, and one that I think we’ll be talking about for many, many years to come.
This is what the power of cinema is all about. It would have been easy to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s extraordinary life, to cover all the major points in a way that’s not particularly compelling but results in a “how interesting” response. But that’s not what director Ava DuVernay did with Selma. Instead, she focused on one specific, pivotal moment in Dr. King’s life, one that had far-reaching implications. The result is a film that’s both of its time and of our time. It’s no coincidence that the events depicted in Selma—the restriction of voting rights, disgusting racism, and violence towards protests—feels especially timely right now. But even if Selma had been released months ago, before these sad current events took place, it would still have felt relevant.
DuVernay shows incredible confidence as a director as she boldly paints this historical event in a modern context, refusing to let it feel like a piece of history. This happened. This is happening. David Oyelowo channels Dr. King’s presence in a spectacular onscreen portrayal, but ultimately this isn’t a movie about Dr. King. It’s a film about how change occurs. Things don’t magically get better. It takes process, compromise, and intensely difficult trials to affect true change, and the real heroes are those who refuse to sit idly by. The heroes are those willing to stand up to the legions saying “No” and declare, “Yes.” Selma is the intensely emotional, audacious, impactful story of these heroes, and it’s the best film of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Foxcatcher, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Only Lovers Left Alive
For more of our Best of 2014 coverage, peruse the links below:
- 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