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.