This has been a good year for film in my eyes. We’ve been privy to what I believe was a nice array of storytelling from a major variety of different filmmakers. Now there may not have been too many movies that I flat-out loved this year (if I did this would’ve been a way longer list), but there were plenty that I liked a whole lot and deserved to at least be mentioned for attempting to take a tired premise and revamp it into a refresher on its particular genre. And it was also a swell year for studio tentpole pictures as there were a handful of filmmakers that found ways to turn multi-million dollar corporate investments into somewhat personal and slightly subversive pieces of entertainment. My own Top 16 list runs the gamut from big studio films to very small, contained dramas. If your favorite film wasn’t found on this list, there might be a chance I didn’t get around to seeing it. But if I did, let me reiterate that this is only my opinion, and if there was a favorite of yours that I may have overlooked, please post in the comment section below. I would love to hear what your top 10, 16, heck 35 movies of the year were.
16. Edge Of Tomorrow AKA LIVE DIE REPEAT (better title)
(See what I did with the poster there, haha.) Doug Liman’s sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow dared to offer up something distinct from your standard blockbuster fare. Tom Cruise playing a coward? Emily Blunt the hero? Gritty sci-fi is allowed to be funny? This was a way more enjoyable experience than I thought I would have 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). If only Liman was able to land this movie with a more solid ending that didn’t contradict everything up to that point, this would’ve been much higher on my list.
15. The Babadook
The Babadook is ending up on a lot of “Best Of” lists and for good reason. It’s expertly crafted, delightfully eerie, and manages to utilize the whole “less is more” approach that so many films these days set aside for flash, gore, and the in-your-face “scares” that seem to come up ever so often.
Bennett Miller’s drama about a real-life murder case is a taut psychological portrait of two indelible personalities: The naive Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) — whose inarticulate desperation makes him a too-easy mark — and the creepy, insinuating heir John du Pont (Steve Carell), who has decided to dabble in wrestlers the way his old-money mother breeds horses. Mark Ruffalo provides the only glimmers of warmth as Mark’s older brother Dave, but the movie that emerges is still a chilling look at what happens as Du Pont gradually unravels, seemingly hell-bent on taking the Schultz brothers with him.
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 actually taken aback at the the things that were coming out of his mouth. My jaw was literally hanging open, but it is Gyllenhaal that 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.
No, Interstellar is not the second coming of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it is a rousing space adventure in its own right - one that manages to both blast past questionable plot points and stilted, expository dialogue with an epic scope and a charismatic star turn by Matthew McConaughey. This is being championed hard for awards this season, but I sadly must digress that this is not the best work of Nolan that I have seen. I feel he was so committed at trying to emulate Kubrick that it came off more as cut and paste than as honoring his hero. He may not be the next Kubrick, but Christopher Nolan definitely has the right stuff to be the next Philip Kaufman.
11. Guardians Of The Galaxy
I admit it: I was very skeptical going to a movie based on a minor, largely forgotten comic series. But Marvel’s whiz-bang mashup of Star Wars and The Avengers had me hooked from the get-go. With a perfect cast — led by Chris Pratt’s goofball rogue and the CGI comedy styling’s of Rocket and Groot (spin-off, please) — a guilty-pleasure soundtrack, and fan-appeasing cameos for any 80’s kid (Howard the Duck!), Guardians proved to be the ultimate summer popcorn-cruncher and a welcome addition to Marvel’s expanding cinematic universe.
10. American Sniper (+mini review)
Clint Eastwood’s harrowing biopic of expert marksman Chris Kyle services the man’s legend, but shortchanges the family he frequently left home so he could protect his brothers-in-arms. The movie is pro-military but anti-war, and it does an outstanding job portraying the contradictions of military service and the strains that a commitment to the military can have on the individual, his immediate family, his colleagues, and total strangers who simply are moved by the patriotic decision to serve our country. There’s no question American Sniper is Clint Eastwood’s best film in years – though it should be noted that we can claim this because recent films like Jersey Boys, J. Edgar, Hereafter, Invictus and Gran Torino have been mediocre disappointments. Bradley Cooper is nearly unrecognizable on multiple levels as Chris Kyle, bulking up and basically swallowing his natural charisma to play a bear of a man who Eastwood immediately establishes as a protector, a blunt force programmed to stand up to wrongdoings.
Grimy, exhausted, and war-weary soldiers crack insensitive jokes about Adolf Hitler as a column of battered tanks make their way across the German countryside. The movie is far too mean, impatient, heartless, grueling and cynical to ever embrace (or even recommend). But I begrudgingly admire the director’s intense commitment to the misery of combat, and the atrocities of war. Technically speaking, Fury is a work of combat art. It adopts the intensity, the brutality, and the futility of either Platoon or Saving Private Ryan. Tanks are cinematic challenges, and the graceful obstacle of maneuvering them around battlefields always kept me invested in Fury. It had to be a bitch of a movie to film, and the toll of the shoot clouds the faces of the trained actors who brave these punishing physical and psychological conditions to satisfy their director. Good job Mr. Ayer, I look forward to your work on Suicide Squad with intense anticipation!
8. Good Night Mommy (+mini review)
In an isolated house in the countryside, nine-year-old twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live with their mother (Susanne Wuest), who is recovering from recent cosmetic surgery. With her face puffy and grotesque under a swath of bandages, the mother requires absolute peace and quiet in order to recuperate, and this quickly begins to grate on the two restless boys. As she becomes more and more strict, the brothers retreat ever-further into their own private, aggressively anti-social world, their anger and suspicion mounting and their imaginations running wild — even to the extent of doubting that the person beneath the bandages is actually their mother at all.
The first fiction feature from the writing-directing team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, Goodnight Mommy was produced by acclaimed Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl (who previously collaborated with Franz on the screenplays for several of his own films), and it is not hard to see the affinities with Seidl's work in its combination of psychological acuity, borderline body horror, and rigorous, nearly architectural sense of space. A starkly modernist glass structure set against an incongruous backdrop of cornfields and lush forests, the family's home resembles a monumental tomb — a chillingly perfect setting for the film's story of familial disintegration. No less powerful, the mother's hidden face functions as an evocative metaphor for the love the boys feel she is withholding from them, and her inability to realize how much her physical changes are contributing to the strained atmosphere at home ultimately proves tragic.
A haunting, elegiac portrait of a family in crisis, Goodnight Mommy brilliantly creates a quietly unnerving atmosphere that becomes increasingly terrifying as the boys' antagonism toward their mother spirals out of control and the maternal bonds are severed.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
What might have been a tricky film becomes a valentine in the hands of Wes Anderson. The director brings his distinctive visual style and sense of character to this bittersweet comedy about a central European hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is framed for murder during the ominous political upheaval of the 1930s.
6. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
The first sequel in the rebooted Apes franchise finds humanity decimated in the wake of the flu pandemic, and apes mostly ruling the earth. This is a total drag for humanity, but terrific for us moviegoers: That means we get extended scenes with the complex ape society, led by our wise simian hero, Caesar (Andy Serkis in marvelous motion-capture form). The seamless special effects only deepen the movie’s majesty, as we watch both humans and beasts fumbling toward an uncertain future and fighting for survival.
Aside from one other film (which I will get to in a minute), no other 2014 movie effectively messed with my mind more than this micro-budget thriller about a series of strange occurrences that take place at a dinner party after a comet passes overheard. James Ward Byrkit’s imaginative directorial debut proves that science-fiction doesn’t require big-budget effects to get spine-tingling results.
Bong Joon-ho’s white-knuckle, post-apocalyptic thrill ride aboard the last train on Earth ranks as one of the year’s criminally unseen films. The titular Snowpiercer transports the planet’s survivors on an endless loop through a wintry wasteland — and serves as a crucible of culture and class, kept in delicate, if disturbing, balance at the behest of its near-omnipotent engineer (Ed Harris). Chris “Captain America” Evans leads a revolt through the train, uncovering truths about the Snowpiercer and himself one car at a time.
3. Gone Girl
David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn expertly capture the twisted tone of Flynn’s best-selling novel about a feckless man who may or may not have killed his wife. Helped by standout performances from Ben Affleck, Carrie Coon, and Rosmund Pike, Flynn and Fincher weave Amazing Amy’s manipulations with Nick’s nasty awfulness and bring it all to a suitably creepy conclusion, elevating this thriller from pop pulp to Oscar contender.
If I had it my way, this would be the film Jake Gyllenhal would receive all the award attention for and not for Nightcrawler. This movie is a simultaneous unsettling, exasperating, and incredibly confusing work of speculative fiction different enough in subject, pacing, and tone from everything else out there, that it succeeded in finding an audience by virtue of sheer oddity alone. Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered history professor who is shocked to discover he has a doppelganger… That’s about all I have to say on this little indy treasure that I saw this year. The less you know going in, the better. Villeneuve delivers a solid sophomore effort for his second film. His first being last year’s “Prisoners” (which made top 5 last year). “Enemy” is mysterious enough that many viewers I showed it to will insist on seeing it twice. Jake Gylenhal has been on a role these past two years in my eyes turning in one solid layered performance after another - so much so that it makes me think that Prince Of Persia was just a bad fever dream to me. Keep 'em coming Donnie Darko.
Here’s the best superhero movie of 2014. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s spellbinding black comedy about Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up former cinematic crime fighter pouring his soul and money into a Broadway play, is like nothing you’ve ever seen, appearing to unfold in one dazzling, continuous shot. It’s not just the cinematography that’s incredible though. Keaton gives a shattering, career-best performance, as does the fierce Emma Stone as Riggan’s troubled daughter.
That’s my end of the year list, readers. See you all in the new year and Happy Holidays!
Here are a few honorable mentions that, while I did enjoy, didn’t make my list:
The Lego Movie, Whiplash, Boyhood, A Most Violent Year, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Raid 2, Dead Sno: Red VS Dead, Inherent Vice, Locke