2014 was a great year for movies! Not only was there a wealth of offerings in the multiplexes, but VOD had some impressive stuff too. Although I wasn’t able to get as big a sample of foreign films as it’d like (looking at you, We Are the Best! and Snowpiercer), I was nonetheless pleased. To give you an idea of this year’s high quality, I went through the 60-ish movies I saw and assigned them a numerical value of 1 to 10 (10 being perfect). The average was a very respectable 7.2 out of 10. If you assume that a 7 warrants a rental, then the ‘year’ was worth watching. Without further ado, here are my 10 favorites along with a few honorable mentions and random comments.
10. Edge of Tomorrow
Concept: Groundhog’s Day meets Full Metal Jacket. Result: Whew! Much has been said about Edge of Tomorrow‘s brand of blockbuster fun. It’s thrilling, funny, and extremely fast on it’s feet. The editing is a feast for our Vine-trained brains, and ultimately it packs in more action than most movies in under two hours. Tom Cruise goes from camera slick propagandist Cruise to, well, action star Cruise and that’s only the first two acts! Admittedly, I’m a sucker for his work, but Doug Liman at the helm and Emily Blunt (stepping in Sigourney Weaver’s shoes) on supporting duties deserve as much credit. I eagerly await Mission: Impossible 5!
9. The Lego Movie
Phil Lord and Chris Miller keep their hot streak alive with two monstrous hits. 22 Jump Street was a barn-storming romp, but The Lego Movie is destined for true greatness. The density of the jokes and visual detail gives it a massive re-watch value. Pair that with the emotional stakes of the third act and you’ve got a classic. While Toy Story also used toys to get to the heart serious matters, The Lego Movie actually examines what makes a Lego a Lego. The conflict at it’s soul – order vs chaos, productivity vs fun – has kept the Lego a beloved part of our toy chests for years.
8. The Grand Budapest
Although I’m a devoted fan of the Anderson aesthetic, I admit I thought his previous film, Moonrise Kingdom, was merely good. Thus, I had high hopes for his next work. After viewing only Budapest’s first trailer many months ago, I knew I was hooked. The film takes place in a thinly fictionalized middle Europe akin to the Tintin graphic novels and has an equally zany plot about stolen paintings and prison escapes. Like Anderson’s best work, he weaves sadness with whimsy, this time a generational mourning of lost values and unattainable fantasy. Not only is the film a beautiful commentary on change and war, it’s an insight into Anderson’s own psyche. Perhaps Anderson’s next project will take place in our own era. Either way, I’ll be there.
7. The Guest
Following the bloody good You’re Next is no easy task, but Adam Wingard topped his previous effort with a throwback hit. The plot is deceptively simple. A mysterious ex-soldier named David visits the family of a deceased fellow soldier and soon thing start going poorly in the small town. Ostensibly a horror movie, the best moments are it’s darkly comic character beats. In addition, the movie is carried by not one but two risings stars in the form of Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe. Stevens is known for Downtown Abbey (I imagine big things are coming) and Monroe has a role in the huge YA adaptation of The 5th Wave. Not many people had the chance to catch this blazing, smart flick so it’s often my first recommendation for those who like their movies in the genre department. Next Halloween, put in The Guest, wontcha?
6. Begin Again
Pleasant seems like a limp compliment for a movie. Make no mistake, Begin Again is very pleasant and also very good. Director John Carney (of the equally musical Once), tells the tales a fading music exec who partners with a young songwriter to make compelling, genuine music. The songwriter in question is Keira Knightley, who was recently dumped by her rising rock star boyfriend. Knightley brings pathos to a role that could have been sappy and is matched by Mark Ruffalo as the scruffy exec. It’s a role that he could have slept walked through, as roguish charm is his forte – shame he’s not Han Solo’s son in the new Star Wars films. Above all else, the movie delivers on the actual songs, never feeling contrived in its goal to bring unfiltered music to the audience. Soundtrack of the year, my friends.
5. Top Five
Some have compared Top Five to a top tier Woody Allen output. It’s hard to not see the same mixture of wit and vulnerability in Rock’s latest film, though I also liken it to a pseudo-documentary. At times it feels like Rock is speaking candidly through the camera to the audience. Of course, we should have some separate between Rock as director/comedian and the character as director/comedian. Ultimately, comic interludes and a satisfying cap to the narrative push this one firmly in the fiction direction, but it’s Rock’s charisma which makes it worth remembering. Top Five is about many things, including how to spend one’s creative capital. I’m glad that Rock chose to spend his effort on Top Five.
4. Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Take a washed-up film star and throw him into the tumultuous world of Broadway! With that hammy concept, the movie practically writes itself, so it’s good that Alexander Innaritu and his fellow scribes labored to make Birdman more than just another backstage dramedy. In a worse year, this would be the defacto wet dream for film nerd’s everywhere. It’s got a meta-plot, technical wizardry, flawless direction, a darkly comic script, an ambiguous ending and profound thoughts on just about everything. Supposedly, a second viewing elucidates and improves this movie. I haven’t have the opportunity to see it twice, but Birdman has the most mojo of any movie I’ve seen this year. That’s enough to land it on this prestigious list, yo!
Did Jake Gyllenhaal just become my working favorite actor? Prisoners was my favorite film of 2013, in no small part because of Gyllenhaal’s labyrinth performance. To paraphrase Empire magazine, the young thesp has excelled at playing slightly off-kilter characters – Donnie Darko, anyone? Obsession whether it be in finding a serial killer in Zodiac or a kidnapped child in Prisoners is a reoccurring theme in his oeuvre. Par for the course, in Gyllenhaal brings the sociopath Lou Bloom to life with precision and electric fury. As an opportunistic prowler, Lou takes to ‘nightcrawling’ or the practice of filming nighttime crimes for the morning news with great enthusiasm. The movie chronicles his path of moral destruction, all the while showing the audience how Lou was not a monster that was born, but one that was made by our success-obsessed society. With the Internet and million self-help books on his side, Lou can wear the ‘human suit’ of an industrious entrepreneur. Too bad he’s crazy. Nightcrawler fearlessly takes it’s gut clenching premise for all that it’s worth. See it, and bring a change of underwear.
I suggest bringing two pairs of underwear when you watch Whiplash. In another year, this would take the cake. No doubt. Whiplash is a deceptively simple tale of ambition and the dark paths we take to follow it. Andrew wants to be the best jazz drummer ever. Fletcher, his fearsome band leader, will either help him get there or kill him first. Their co-dependent, sadistic relationship is more thrilling than a horror movie. While Nightcrawler tempers it’s cringe-worthy moments with bouts of humor, Whiplash is a nail-biting ride through and through. It’s got an outside chance of swinging a Best Picture Nomination in the Oscars, so join me in crossing fingers and hoping that it gets the recognition that it deserves.
Not only the best movie in years, the first to give my generation a bout of nostalgia. You’ve heard the hype: a 12 year-long shoot to chronicle a full childhood. There are many people who aren’t as impressed with the end result; they are free to their opinions. In contrast, I cannot emphasize the astounding artistry of this film enough. Beyond the gimmicky method, director Richard Linklater has captured the small moments that build on each other to form a person’s spirit. We’re given access to Mason’s life as well as his sister’s, his mother’s, his father’s. It takes a village, huh? The acting contains an honesty that most movies would kill for, the cinematography an unpretentious beauty, and the prod design a treasure trove of detail. It’s an added bonus that the protagonist’s youth intersects with my own childhood. Universal coming of age moments are matched with a brilliant, specific soundtrack that manages to evoke each year without overshadowing the action. I can’t wait to watch this gem in 20, 30, 40 years as a time capsule and example of extraordinary filmmaking.
The Skeleton Twins – Great performances and among comedy gods it’s Luke Wilson who brings the laughs.
The Imitation Game – Riveting war movie/biopic hybrid with another classic Cumberbatch performance.
Neighbors – In a year a little low on straight comedies, this one easily takes the cake.
The Theory of Everything – Yet another biopic, this one buoyed by brave choices and braver performances.
Gone Girl – Fincher brings another taught, provocative thriller. Don’t fret the pulpy, misguided ending.
Final thought – my list is extremely male centered. Only one film, Begin Again, had a female as a co-lead, Knightley sharing the spotlight with Ruffalo. Nearly every other one had brilliant and admirable women in supporting roles, but it’s still a sad, if unsurprising trend that leads and complex stories are hard to come by. In part it reflects my viewing. I didn’t see films like Still Alice, Big Eyes, or We Are the Best! which may have landed a spot in the top 10. There were others such as The Fault in Our Stars which I greatly enjoyed but didn’t make it in the end. Regardless, I hope that next year’s list reflects positive change in the direction of gender equality. Plus, I’ll see Star Wars! 2015, here I come.