The Best Films of 2014

While there are still a few flicks from this year that I need to see (such as Inherent Vice, Birdman, Gone Girl, The Interview, Foxcatcher, The Babadook, and a handful of others), I still managed to see enough of 2014 releases to put together a “best of” list (because I know you’re all dying to read it). So presented here, in no particular order, are my 10 favorite movies of 2014. Let me know if you agree/disagree, and feel free to share your own lists.

Grand Budapest Hotel

People have referred to this as the most Wes Anderson movie ever made, and viewers will either like it or hate it depending on how they feel about Anderson’s body of work overall. Personally, I love his particular brand of quirk, and find his stories of longing, loneliness, and lost souls just looking to make some sort of connection touching and wonderful in a variety of ways. This one continues that tradition, while also functioning as quite possibly the most hilarious comedy of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Anderson’s darkly funny dollhouse hotel, and look forward to checking back in again soon.

Boyhood

This simplistic yet powerful coming-of-age story manages to transcend its central gimmick and in the process offers an intimate yet epic portrait of life in the early part of the 21st century. While the title focuses attention on the central figure of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the film nevertheless turns its attention equally to his mother (Patricia Arquette, in a career-best performance, not to mention one of the best of 2014) and to the rapidly changing world they inhabit. By allowing the same actors to inhabit their characters throughout the entire 12-year span of the story, director Richard Linklater’s magnum opus manages to reflect and convey the simultaneously mundane and tumultuous nature of real life.

The Zero Theorem

Yes, in many ways, this functions as little more than a Terry Gilliam highlight reel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when Gilliam riffs on his own best movies, which are better (not to mention infinitely more imaginative) than most. Equal parts Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and 12 Monkeys, Gilliam’s latest film once again tackles themes of bureaucracy, individualism vs. collectivism, technology, and the nature of dreams, all while carving out its own identity by addressing concerns unique to the 21st century. Granted, Mélanie Thierry’s role is a bit underwritten, and the romance subplot feels more than a little rushed, but overall the film’s chaotic energy manages to carry it past these relatively minor missteps.

Under the Skin

This creepy, hypnotic film gets the award for the most aptly named film of 2014, as it managed to get under my skin and linger there long after I saw it. Scarlett Johansson delivers a brilliant performance as an emotionally detached, otherworldly femme fatale who literally preys on men to satisfy her mysterious urges. While the first half of the film is superior to the somewhat more formulaic second half, the ending nevertheless manages to be unforgettable and powerful, leaving the viewer both satisfied and profoundly unsettled. Additionally, the film features one of the best soundtracks of the year, not to mention one of the most disturbing sequences ever put to film.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, a pair of eternally cool and disaffected vampires in writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s latest ode to his own pet obsessions, which features a profoundly hip score and bleakly beautiful cinematography that captures the decaying majesty of modern Detroit. In addition to stark imagery, the film offers depressingly accurate insights into the short-sighted and seemingly self-destructive nature of the human race, and plenty of dark humor about how frustrating it would be for an immortal to be surrounded by people who cannot conceive of anything beyond their own immediate gratification. This is easily one of the best vampire movies in years, and a perfect antidote to stories about sparkly teen bloodsuckers consumed by their own angst.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

As with the best science fiction, the latest entry in the long-running Planet of the Apes saga lends itself to a variety of different readings, and can be viewed an allegory for everything from gun violence in general to the Israel/Palestine conflict in particular. At the same time, however, in addition to the biting commentary and a script that doesn’t pander to the audience or insult the viewer’s intelligence, I think it also functions perfectly well as a smart, satisfying blockbuster that delivers rip-roaring action, powerful thrills, and impressive special effects. That this is a sequel to a reboot renders this accomplishment all the more impressive, especially when compared to the dismal efforts of other updated franchises. (*coughStarTrekcough*) It remains to be seen if the series can maintain this level of quality in subsequent entries, but I for one am excited to find out.

Snowpiercer

Much like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this is another science fiction film that uses thrilling action to deliver pointed satire and smart social commentary. In a propulsive story that mirrors the forward motion of the titular train, writer/director Bong joon-ho and screenwriter Kelly Masterson tackle income inequality head-on, crafting a film that is smart, exciting, thought-provoking, gloomy, and hopeful in equal measure. Credit for the film’s success also goes to the folks in front of the camera, as hunky Chris Evans delivers one of the best performances of his career as the downtrodden leader of an ill-fated rebellion, and Tilda Swinton (seriously, she had one hell of a year in 2014) camps it up as one of the most memorable villains of the last decade. I admit that the film occasionally requires a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, but those who choose to nitpick the film to death run the risk of missing out on one of the best blockbusters in recent memory.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Featuring better kaiju on kaiju action than this year’s dull and disappointing Godzilla reboot, Dreamworks Animation‘s latest installment of their best franchise offers more excitement, laughs, and heartfelt emotion than most of the live-action blockbusters released in 2014. More importantly, it manages to do so without sacrificing the wit and intelligence that made the first film in the series such an unexpected delight. I do think an argument could be made that the main female role is a bit underwritten, but even that doesn’t stop this from being a satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age story that boasts gorgeous animation, charming humor, and heart-pounding action.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

While Guardians of the Galaxy takes the title of most fun Marvel movie yet released, this one stands as by far the best, offering an updated riff on the paranoid thriller genre of the 1970s in the guise of a modern superhero blockbuster. More importantly, unlike the dour Dark Knight movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier manages to be a taut, exciting thriller without sacrificing the lighthearted fun that at this point has become Marvel Studios’ signature. Of course, the script is not nearly on the same level as stuff like The French Connection or All the President’s Men, but it does manage to feel substantive and engrossing, and presents a powerful (albeit simplistic) critique of the modern surveillance state. At the same time, the film offers exhilarating action and stunning special effects, all while juggling a multitude of characters both new and old. I realize that cineplexes have become somewhat crowded with superhero movies over the last few years, but this film indicates that Marvel has cracked the code to making sure the genre as a whole remains fresh, exciting, and innovative for a long time to come.

Guardians of the Galaxy

While plenty of movies released this year were more impressive, no movie this year was nearly as joyful as this one. I should admit up front that I’m not the biggest James Gunn fan (I like Tromeo and Juliet well enough, but Slither bored me and I got about 20 minutes into Dawn of the Dead before turning it off), but even I realize that his distinct sensibilities are probably the main reason for this movie’s phenomenal success. By emphasizing the humor without sacrificing the darker aspects of this particular corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Gunn delivers a charming, exciting, and altogether fun flick that feels like a throwback to the sort of big, goofy science fiction films that littered movie theaters in the wake of Star Wars. Throw in a cast of misfit (not to mention highly marketable) characters played by a cast of terrifically game actors, and you have the formula for a crossover hit that plays well to the young and the young at heart. Also, curmudgeons be damned…dancing baby Groot is adorable!

THE NEXT FIVE

The Raid 2: Berandal

While a bit bloated and self-indulgent at times, this nevertheless stands as one of the best action movies of the last 20 years. The film’s biggest problem is that it’s reach sometimes exceeds it’s grasp, as it strives to deepen it’s mythology and establish itself as a crime epic on par with films like Heat or The Godfather. Ultimately, The Raid 2 never quite hits that mark, but it’s difficult to fault the film for its lofty ambition, while simultaneously lamenting the loss of the straightforward simplicity offered by the first film. Still, in terms of visceral action, it’s hard to beat this hard-hitting flick.

The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome in this delightful animated film that manages to buck expectations and be more than just a cynical cash grab or a soulless brand extension. Co-directors and co-screenwriters Christopher Lord and Phil Miller bring their golden tough to the film, injecting it with a sense of humor and heart that allows it to transcend its origins as a feature-length commercial for Denmark’s most well-known export. Of course, one could argue that the central female character leaves a lot to be desired (I’m noticing a trend here), but that doesn’t stop The Lego Movie from taking its place as one of the most enjoyable films of 2014

Noah

The Bible gets the high fantasy treatment in what is perhaps the most interesting (not to mention weird) blockbuster of the year. Director Darren Aronofsky brings his signature style to this big-budget, action-packed special effects extravaganza, and in the process he delivers one of the most unique and breathtaking spectacles of the 21st century. While the film loses some steam following the flood sequence, it more than makes up for any deficiencies thanks to impressive effects, powerful performances, and unforgettable imagery (the “Story of Creation” sequence in particular is a stand-out). Take it from me…even non-believers will find something to appreciate here.

Edge of Tomorrow

A film that deserved a much better marketing campaign, Edge of Tomorrow draws upon the language of video games to distinguish itself as a thoroughly 21st century blockbuster. Tom Cruise plays somewhat against type (at least at first, anyway…he definitely plays to type by the end of the film) as a cowardly military PR man thrust into a battle against vicious alien invaders intent on conquering the planet Earth. At that point, the film becomes a cross between Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day (with just a dash of Source Code), but while that description is completely accurate, it doesn’t convey the sense of fun and sheer inventiveness contained within Edge of Tomorrow.

22 Jump Street

Lord and Miller strike again, delivering one of the funniest films of the year, and one of the best comedy sequels of all time. By rehashing the plot of the previous film in the franchise, the duo offer a pointed satire of sequels that functions as a perfect satire of the franchise mentality currently dominating Hollywood cinema. It helps that the film is hysterically funny, delivering hilarious gags at a rapid fire pace that leaves the audience laughing so hard they barely have enough time to catch their breath. Currently a third Jump Street movie is in development, and while I’m excited by the possibilities offered by the rumored storyline, the fact that Lord and Miller may not be in the director’s chair(s) this time around does give me pause. Either way, 22 Jump Street stands as one of my favorite comedies of the year.

UPDATE: I just realized that Blue Ruin was originally released in 2013, but didn’t get a wide release until the following, meaning that it was technically a 2014 release. Had I remembered that, it would have certainly made the list, as it is a tense, visceral, and altogether fantastic film that brilliantly subverts and deconstructs the cinematic revenge genre as a whole. As it stands, I’m not going to alter the list, but I will add Blue Ruin as an addendum.

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