My Favorite Movies of 2014Posted: January 1, 2015
Happy New Year, folks! But before we dive into the deep pool of film in 2015, it’s time for me to browbeat you one last time with my opinions about 2014’s cinematic offerings. I can’t imagine that anyone being disappointed in this year’s film slate, and if you were then you either didn’t watch enough movies or you need to lighten the hell up. As far as I was concerned, this year was great from top to bottom. From big blockbusters to stylish arthouse films to indie comedies to boundary-breaking genre fare, 2014 had something for everyone. Even with some big-ticket items missing from my list, I’m still incredibly happy with this collection of films, and any year that produced them (and many other great movies besides) is a year I can be happy with.
Having said all of that, it is somewhat frustrating for so many favorite filmmakers of mine to miss the cut. At the beginning of the year, I would have bet good money on Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Bong Joon-ho, Bennett Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg making it to this list, and it’s a little shocking to me that they ultimately did not. It raises the question of why? Did they all just collectively have an off year? Were the films listed below just that much better? Or, most worryingly, am I just past the point of absolute enthusiasm for their work? This is particularly true for Interstellar and Snowpiercer, which are exactly the sort of films that I would expect to love on paper, and yet I found myself at a bit of a remove from them. But I really don’t think that I’m over Nolan or Bong; I still greatly enjoy many of their films and I’m excited to see what they’re doing next.
So what then? In the case of Snowpiercer I would be hard-pressed to find issues with it, and yet I just didn’t feel as connected to it as other movies this year. As for Interstellar, while I like a lot of what Nolan did I do think it is a very flawed movie, and those flaws ultimately held it back from the same level as the movies on this list. Ultimately, as I attempt to get away from an auteur-first perspective on films I need to accept the fact that sometimes filmmakers don’t connect, or have missteps, and it’s not the end of the world. The brighter side of this is that of almost all of the films listed below were made by filmmakers with 3 films or fewer to their name, which means that I’ve got a whole new class of storytellers to keep an eye on and be enthusiastic about.
ANYWAY. Without further ado, here (in alphabetical order, save my #1) are my Favorite Movies of 2014:
Boyhood: I could say that 2014 was a very transitional year for me, but the truth is that every year- every moment really- is transitional, and this is what Boyhood captures perfectly from beginning to end. Saying so much about childhood, parenthood, and the passage of time, Richard Linklater’s latest opus on regular ol’ life is nothing short of breathtaking. But even as the film illuminates the hidden beauty of life, it stays completely grounded and relatable to the audience, and that is Boyhood’s true power. In completing that high-wire act, Linklater and company are able to demonstrate to us the beauty of our own lives and that is why the film is ultimately so transcendent. This is a movie that people will relate to and embrace for generations, and there may be no greater accomplishment in the world of art.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Would anyone have guessed that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would provide us one of the great microcosms of post-9/11 America? Probably not, but that didn’t stop them from giving us Winter Soldier anyway. This is a movie about the compromises that a great nation has made for its own security, and the disillusionment of those who fought to defend that nation only to return home and see it become something rotten. Oh, and it also happens to involve people in goofy costumes and flying aircraft carriers and a computerized Nazi scientist. Winter Soldier juggles both sides of this equation brilliantly, spliced through with just the right amount of humor to glue it all together. Way more human and intelligent than any blockbuster needs to be, but then again Marvel’s getting good at exceeding expectations, aren’t they?
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Anytime a big-budget blockbuster featuring talking apes can become a white-knuckle treatise on the senselessness of war, we should be grateful. So let us all give proper credit to Matt Reeves and his collaborators for what they accomplished with Dawn, which may not be my favorite movie of the year anymore but has been a lock for this list since the lights first came up in that theater in July. Andy Serkis’ Caesar might just be the most recent of many great characters of his, but he’s also my favorite. And Koba, played with aplomb by Toby Kebbell, is another great villain in what has been a banner year for them. The conflict between the two of them (and with the humans) is thrilling and tragic in equal measure, and the heaviness of the proceedings is fully earned throughout. An impactful, serious sci-fi film is something I will always appreciate on one level or another, and for Dawn it is on a very high level indeed.
Guardians of the Galaxy: I’ve been a space opera fan for as long as I can remember, and the scarcity of options in that genre during my lifetime is a total crime. Of course, leave it to Marvel to find another way to satisfy me, not just by putting out a space opera in their universe but by letting a director as distinctive as James Gunn take the reins. The end result is not just a fun adventure film, not just a funny blockbuster, but both of those things built atop a very real, honest look at facing death and opening your heart to other people. The five wounded misfits that eventually become the titular superteam are each so beautifully drawn, and so perfectly balanced against each other; it’s a masterclass in character interaction. I’ve watched this film more than any other this year, and I’ve yet to regret the time I’ve spent with it. And DAMN that soundtrack is fantastic.
The Guest: I’m adding this to the list on 1/2 because I’m an idiot, much as I’ve included You’re Next on my 2013 list a year after the fact. The directing/writing duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have become very adept at creating these under-the-radar gems, and I’m somewhat disappointed in myself for not recognizing their abilities in a more timely manner. But regardless of my own pig-headedness, The Guest has stuck with me, through a great sense of style, sly humor and a committed (and bizarre) lead turn from Dan Stevens. And that’s not even accounting for the clever commentary on the War on Terror, which gives the proceedings additional depth to go with the off-the-wall mashup genre elements. Of all the ’80s-style throwback movies to come out this year, The Guest was certainly my favorite, one that serves as another confirmation of the talents of Wingard & Barrett.
John Wick: There were plenty of great blockbusters this year (see the previous three entries on this list), but there was no better Action Movie than John Wick. This is the sort of straightforward shoot-em-up that Hollywood seems incapable of making well anymore, one that combines kick-ass stunts with a simple-but-powerful emotional arc. It also has more personality than most of its brethren could even hope to have, thanks to the great collection of character actors and the zany-fun underworld that’s been constructed in the background of all the ultraviolence. John Wick is just a fun ride through and through, and eminently rewatchable… as any good Action Movie should be.
The Lego Movie: It probably goes without saying that creativity means the world to me, which is why I loved the infinite possibilies of Legos when I was a kid. What makes The Lego Movie so great is that it not only captures that open-ended feeling of playing with Legos, but that it takes that concept of limitless creativity and explores it in heartwarming and exciting ways. In doing so, it also de-and-re-constructs the Hero’s Journey archetypes and presents a metric ton of cheeky pop-culture references, all wrapped in some drop-dead gorgeous animation and fueled by some great voice acting. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are definitive movie miracle workers, and it should be clear by now that they are the first guys to talk to anytime you have a tough idea to crack. The Lego Movie is, in my mind, their greatest achievement, and it will be a hard one to top for many years to come.
Noah: Faith is a difficult and infuriating thing, particularly in the modern world. I don’t know if anyone in the present day can possibly have their faith challenged the way our titular prophet does in this film, but the story that Darren Aronofsky tells should be a gut check for anyone that still retains some sort of belief in the divine. For me, I think that Aronofsky’s perspective jives relatively close to my own: that God may exist, and He may occasionally intercede for the sake of the world at large (moreso in the distant past, clearly), but that in the end he relies on the judgment of Man to steer the course of this world. Of course, there is nothing more blinding and potentially destructive to Man than his faith in God (except maybe his own entitlement and greed), and therein lies the dramatic conflict of Noah. It’s big, broad and unafraid of its own perspective, and I love it for that.
Obvious Child: Sometimes the best cure for pain is laughter, and nothing exemplifies that quite like Obvious Child. Gillian Robespierre’s film perfectly captures the feeling I have right now, that everything in my life is a mess and there’s no clear way to fix any of it. And much as I might take solace in films and film criticism, our protagonist Donna takes solace in her comedy, much to the chagrin of her paramour and family and the delight of her friends. It’s a story that’s empowering without being schmaltzy, and reassuring without being phony. It says that things will be okay, and that the people in our lives can make all the difference in the world, but that ultimately it’s up to you to nut up and deal with your problems head on. Everyone my age needs to be sent this message every now and then, and Obvious Child is the perfect messenger.
Selma: The one regret I have about my Selma review is that I highlighted the word “sad” right in the title. And don’t get me wrong, there is certainly something heartbreaking about the battle the film depicts, both in the past and the present. But describing the film that way does it a disservice, as Selma is ultimately a hopeful depiction of activism and an encouragement that real change can really come about from grassroots. For all of the focus on MLK in the film, its true strength is with the everyday people who marched with King, and a reminder that it takes many to make a difference; it’s not just on the one man at the front of the line, but all the people behind him as well. That is the truly uplifting core of the film, that while there is plenty of tragedy to be found in fights like this, there can and will always be others to carry the banner forward. Because forward is really the only direction worth going in (my 2013 Favorites revisions notwithstanding).
Top Five: Honesty is the key to comedy and relationships and sobriety, and it’s at the center of this particular triangle that Top Five thrives. Chris Rock’s brutal examination of celebrity and love pulls absolutely no punches, as any movie built on honesty should, and works on so many different levels that there’s no question that everyone can find something to like in it. In the end, it feels like a deeply personal story for Rock, but unlike many navel-gaze-y movies about the nature of celebrity it is able to stay grounded in a way that even ordinary schlubs like you and me can relate to it. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s the absolute funniest thing I saw this year, and I can’t wait to experience those laughs over and over again, and soon.
And finally, my absolute Favorite Movie of 2014 is…
Whiplash: Wow. I mean, WOW. I’m still thinking it three months later, after only one viewing (and admittedly, multiple listens to the soundtrack). Whiplash is a two-hour shot of adrenaline directly into your gut, a furious and intense piece of drama driven by an incredibly relatable protagonist and the most magnetic villain of the year. Andrew represents everything I want to be as an artist, driven and uncompromising, while Fletcher represents everything I fear: not being good enough, ever. The music gives goosebumps, and the editing and imagery it’s combined with are impeccable. Whiplash takes the most straightforward premise and turns it into the most exciting movie of the year, while painting an emotional, gut-wrenching picture of the cost of great art. Everything culminates in what was hands-down the best finale of the year, a thrilling battle of wills set over a jazz performance. It’s no coincidence how many times I used the word “best” in this little paragraph, because as I think of this movie I can’t think of anything that succeeds more wholly and completely like Whiplash does. That is why it is my Favorite Movie of 2014.
So there you have it, the cream of the crop of 2014, as I see it. I hope to get some great lists in the comments as well (and not just on Facebook guys, come on!); in a year like this one, everyone will have something different to love. It’s been a great year, but now it’s time to get psyched about the new one. Onward to 2015!