Was 2014 a great year for movies or what? There’s a few naysayers out there calling it a weak year for film, but I just don’t see it. Everything from big summer blockbusters to buzzworthy indies impressed, and I can think of very few movies I walked away from disappointed (keep in mind I try hard to avoid bad movies).
Critics often look for a movie “theme” to sum up a year, but art is unpredictable and can’t always be so easily categorized. This year, however, was easy: many films explored obsession; the way it drives us to greatness and, in some cases, the way it can ultimately destroy us. I saw many movies I liked this year, but kept a special eye out for the ones I loved. The ones that moved me the most, made me think the hardest or connected me most directly to this thing we call life are the ones that made their way here. Of course, it goes without saying that most of them are also entertaining. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place?
10. THE LEGO MOVIE
Although it didn’t feature a Pixar masterwork (we’re getting two hopefully great ones in 2015!), this year was actually an exceptional one for animated features. From Studio Ghibli’s bittersweet swansongs The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya to the magnificent How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Disney’s effortlessly entertaining Big Hero 6, we didn’t want for high-quality animated spectacle. The best of the bunch, however, was, to my great surprise, The Lego Movie. Funny, endlessly creative and visually spectacular, this movie is just a complete joy, and the voice acting is through-the-roof amazing. Beyond that, it features a potent message on the power of creativity and thinking outside the box, and features one of the best endings of the year. Kids and adults alike looking for something a little different are sure to find something to love in this original delight.
A sure sign of a great film is that it leaves you with complex emotions you can’t quite explain. That was true of Bennett Miller’s first two features, Capote and Moneyball, and it’s true again here, in what is perhaps the least inspirational sports movie ever made. Based on one of the strangest true stories of all time, I could never quite see where this disturbing film– which chronicles the bizarre relationship between billionaire John DuPont and Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and David Shultz– was headed next. Miller has always had a keen eye for actors, and Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carrell deliver some of the finest performances of the year. Carrell, in particular, is mesmerizing in a rare dramatic role; he commands an unexplainable but chilling presence every time he’s on screen. It’s a truly incredible thing to behold.
8. GONE GIRL
The year’s best thriller is also one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen. Gillian Flynn did a bang up job bringing her twisty, unwieldy novel to the screen, cutting out the extraneous material and sharpening the book’s essence to a fine-toothed edge. The results paid off, because Gone Girl cuts deep. Ben Affleck gives perhaps his best performance as a down-to-earth writer with a few things to hide. And Rosamund Pike, who I really hope snags a Best Actress Oscar, gives an arresting performance as “Amazing Amy,” who, in both appearance and feminine wiles, reminds me very much of a Hitchcock bombshell blonde. And then, of course, there’s David Fincher, who is one of the best directors in the business and can seem to do no wrong. His stable set of cinematographers, composers and editors all turn in stellar work here, making this one of the best looking films of 2014. Those who haven’t read the book will find much to be shocked about here, and those who have will find themselves grinning sadistically over just how good this extremely messed up movie turned out to be.
It was a killer year for comic-based films, including an incredible hot streak for Marvel (the sci-fi extravaganza Guardians of the Galaxy just missed this list). But my favorite is the one that seems to have gotten the least attention. Snowpiercer easily earns a spot as one of my new all-time favorite action films. Korean director Joon-ho Bong makes his English language debut here, and the result is as bonkers as anyone familiar with Korean cinema might expect. Although the entire film takes place on a high-speed train endlessly circling an uninhabitable earth, the filmmakers never run out of creative visual ideas. Each train car has a unique theme, and, as the oppressed masses make their way to the one percenters up front, the film does a great job of alternating between action-packed rooms and more contemplative moments (one gorgeous train car is a giant greenhouse). And look at this cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, John Hurt and Octavia Spencer. That list along should inspire you to check this one out, but the polished filmmaking, exhilarating action and potent political subtext are what pushed this far beyond other explosion-filled efforts I saw this year.
Make a movie about the physical and emotional turmoil of jazz drumming and you’ve got my attention. Turn it into a psychological horror film featuring world class acting and you’ve got one of the best movies of the year. Miles Teller gives one of the more physically grueling performances in recent memory as the ambitious and talented drummer Andrew Nieman, who comes under the tutelage of J.K. Simmons’ imposing conductor Terence Fletcher. This is one of the best films I’ve seen about modern musicians, perfectly portraying the drive many musicians have for greatness and how far they’re willing to take that feeling. In Nieman’s triumphs as well as his failures, we’re reminded of Fletcher’s words regarding Charlie Parker, widely regarded as the greatest musician of the 20th century. He was miserable, but he made some damn good music.
5. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
I readily admit I’ve never been much of a Wes Anderson fan, but that all changes here. This is the kind of movie I’ve always wished he would make. It’s smart, sophisticated and edgy, but still has that likeable laid-back charm that stamps all of Anderson’s efforts. This film does an incredible amount of genre flipping, from romantic comedy to coming-of-age tale to spy thriller to prison break drama, and it rocks at being all of them. Rarely is a movie that wears this many hats such a joy to watch. The plot is convoluted but never dull, the bright visuals are the best an Anderson film has ever achieved, and the central relationship between Ralph Finnes’ famed hotel concierge and his ward (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) is hilarious and heartfelt. This movie has a big, beating, infectious heart, and for once the Wes Anderson-isms actually help the story, rather than hurt it. Also, Jeff Goldblum is in this movie, and that’s something we can all get behind.
It’s a rather shocking fact that we’ve never gotten a true movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. from a major studio until now. It was definitely worth the wait, although Selma isn’t “about” MLK in a traditional biopic sense. Chronicling the charge MLK led in gaining equal voting rights for American blacks in 1965, Ava DuVernay’s impeccably crafted film avoids all of the tropes I’d expect a film like this to fall into. It’s harrowing and inspirational not because it beats the audience into submission with its emotions, but because it trades so well in subtlety. Similar to Steven Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln, I love the way this movie focuses on the practical and political aspects of its subject: in this case, the MLK-led march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama. How does one organize such an event and emphasize it for maximum publicity? These backstage dealings and intimate discussions are more interesting than any grand epic moments the film could have tried to force feed us. This is sobering, powerful stuff, as close to essential documentation as movies get, and it features one hell of a performance from David Oyelowo as Dr. King, who nails the troubled psyche of the famed civil rights leader as well as he does the moments of grand speeches. It’s the performance of the year.
Every year tends to feature one major movie that fell completely under the radar but I loved so much I can’t help but urge everyone to see. This year that movie was definitely Calvary. The highest compliment I can imagine paying a film is that it feels like a Flannery O’Connor story come to life. Like the best of that great writer’s work, Calvary features a startling mix of the sacred and the profane. Brendan Gleeson gives my personal favorite performance of the year as a troubled Catholic priest in a small Irish town. As Father James attempts to live a life of a higher calling, he is constantly distracted by a populace whose open debauchery and sinful living fly in the face of all the work he’s trying to do. Add in a suicidal daughter and a man threatening to kill him and you’ve got one troubled clergyman. What emerges from scene after scene of quiet desperation mixed with indescribable hope is one of the more potent meditations on faith in the midst of suffering I’ve ever seen. Gleeson maintains that balancing act between piety and insanity so perfectly it comes off like breathing. This is the kind of spiritually profound, challenging filmmaking Christians should be demanding more of, though the film’s raunchy language and bleak ending will turn away some. But Calvary’s grand spiritual themes combined with its lush Irish setting have me hoping this will at least be considered some kind of cult classic, if not an outright masterpiece in years to come.
There’s so much brilliance in Richard Linklater’s sprawling Texas-set portrait of adolescence that it’s hard to know where to begin. If you don’t know the background, Linklater filmed Boyhood over a 12-year period, as the actors grew up along with the central character. Ellar Coltrane gives a groundbreaking performance as he ages from age 5 to 18 along with his character Mason in the film. As I watched the film, I grew up with him. There have been few movies that have truly captured what it means to be an adolescent millennial in this country, and none anywhere near this ambitious. I especially love the little period details in the film; Harry Potter book launches, Halo gaming sessions and lengthy discussions about the Star Wars prequel trilogy were an integral part of my adolescent years as well. These moments also help to ground us in time; we can roughly tell in what year a certain scene was filmed when, say, Mason is playing a Game Boy SP.
The supporting performances are all pitch-perfect, especially Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s divorced parents and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Mason’s sister Samantha. But what stands out the most about Boyhood is the way it finds meaning in the small, sometimes mundane moments of life. It is truly these moments, Linklater argues, rather than life’s grand epiphanies, which define our existence. When the credits rolled, I felt I could keep watching Mason’s story forever, desiring to see him grow into a man and, eventually, old age. Boyhood is the closest art comes to approximating real life. There’s never been anything like it.
1. BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
There’s probably no such thing as a perfect film, but I can’t think of one thing I’d change about Birdman. I’ve only seen it once, but I remember it vividly, one long scene played repeatedly in my mind. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s drama, set almost entirely in a Broadway theater and filmed as if recorded in one long shot, is the kind of bold cinematic artistry we so rarely get in contemporary cinema. I was thrilled by the boldness of the filmmaking, but I was even more entertained by the cast of characters Inarritu and company have drawn up. Filling a building with eccentric, egotistical theater types and watching them try to make great art together is a blast, and the performances really seal the deal. Michael Keaton, as Riggan Thompson, an actor who once played a superhero grasping at his last chance for artistic relevancy, delivers one of the most insane yet somehow nuanced performances I’ve seen in ages. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifinakis deliver some of their best work ever, but the true revelation for me is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, fresh out of drug rehab. She truly holds the emotional center of the film, and her existential tirades about all of the artifice she sees around her are both wickedly funny and heartbreakingly tragic.
I loved every second of this darkly funny insider tale, and I think it has some valuable things to say about humanity’s innate desire to be remembered for doing something great, even if the road to greatness is paved with heartache and shattered lives. Watching this film, I couldn’t help but think of another movie that so perfectly balanced an epic scale and innovative filmmaking with intimate portraits of memorable-yet-relatable lowlifes: Pulp Fiction, which I often reference as my all-time favorite film. The fact that I would mention Birdman in the same breath as Tarantino’s masterpiece confirms what a rare and special treat it is. It is, in my book, and instant classic, and likely my favorite film of the decade thus far.