Now that 2015 is officially here, it’s time to look back on the films that made a lasting impression this past year. I must say, I thought 2014 was a damn good year for movies. You had to look for some of them but the search was well worth it. In fact, I liked the year so much and had so many flicks to talk about that I expanded my list of the best from 10 to 15. There were just too many movies I didn’t want to leave off.
A couple notes before we begin. This is a list of the best movies of 2014 that I have seen. I obviously didn’t see everything so if you look at the list and feel the urge to howl, ‘but where’s such and such’ chances are I missed it. In order to prevent that, here is a brief list of flicks that I didn’t manage to get to this year: Inherent Vice, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, The Immigrant, Leviathan, Boyhood (I know, I know, I have to see it, shut up), Unbroken, Selma, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Frank. There are probably others too that I’m just not thinking of.
Also, as stated above, there were a lot of good movies this year so here are a few that almost but didn’t quite make the cut:
Tusk: Truthfully, this wasn’t even close to making the list but I thought it was weird enough to warrant mentioning. Pop Chomp’s fearless leader, Mike Staub, said it best, “I don’t know if it was good but it was something.”
The One I Love: Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star as a troubled married couple in this entertaining and thoughtful genre mashup.
Enemy: Jake Gyllenhaal had a kickass year and this surreal nightmare of a movie is well worth your time.
The Lego Movie: What could have been a cynical cash grab turned out to be one of the warmest, funniest movies of the year.
Cold in July: Great Texas thriller with Michael C. Hall and a hilarious supporting performance by Don Johnson.
Allright, that’s it for the honorable mentions. On with my arbitrary rankings!
A low budget Sci-fi thriller with a bunch of no name actors (except Xander from Buffy, WTF), Coherence took me by surprise. It doesn’t rely on special effects to get its point across, just well-written dialogue, believable characters, and shocking revelations. It starts with a group of affluent LA friends having a dinner party. We become familiar with their rivalries and romantic entanglements as they talk and complain about their lives. They also mention a comet passing overhead and soon the lights go out. They come back on within moments but no other house on the block does. Except one across the street. The characters venture over to it to see what’s going on and discover the house is filled with their dopplegangers. Somehow, two realities are existing at once and what follows this realization is a taut, intelligent thriller that allows its characters to discuss big ideas such as relativity, quantum mechanics, and probability without ever talking down to the audience or feeling like a lecture. It’s impressive how much the movie does with so little. It doesn’t quite stick the landing with the conclusion but is different and smart enough to more than earn its place on this list.
14. Guardians of the Galaxy
Look, who didn’t love Marvel’s joyous, imaginative take on the space opera? Even people I know who hate comic book movies had a good time with this romp. You just can’t help yourself. Nearly everything about it works even if the plot and villain are somewhat pedestrian. Writer director James Gunn managed to make a slightly subversive studio movie that appealed to mainstream audiences and weirdoes like me in equal measure. The characters were wonderful, with Drax being the highlight for me. I could watch him struggle to understand metaphors all day and still find it funny. Most importantly though, Guardians brought fun back to the comic book genre. In an age where so many of our heroes are brooding, self important blowhards, Guardians presented us with a crew who understand the value of having a few laughs before saving the world.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Leo Bloom joins the rank of the great movie psychopaths in Nightcrawler, right up there with Hannibal Lectar, Travis Bickle, and Patrick Bateman. He’s a thoroughly reprehensible character who we are nonetheless facinated by. The movie itself is not on the same level of something like Taxi Driver but it’s still a terrifically engaging, morbidly entertaining, and darkly comedic film elevated by Gyllehaal’s performance. His Leo Bloom is a parasite, trolling the LA streets after midnight so he can film grisly car accidents and brutal murders in order to sell the footage to the morning news stations. You can’t take your eyes of him, even when he starts manipulating crimes scenes to get better footage. He’s a product of the internet era, a nutball raised on business models and new age wisdom culled from various websites. “If you want to win the lottery, you have to have the money to buy a ticket,” he says as one of his many mantras. What’s best about Nightcrawler is that it doesn’t blame us for creating monsters like Bloom. It just presents him as he is and lets you draw your own conclusions. That it does this while making sure you’re laughing your head off even as your shaking it in revulsion is an added bonus.
12. Gone Girl
David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel is many things: a darkly lurid piece of pop culture entertainment, an examination of our obsession with domestic crimes stories and how the media exploits that, a well-written mystery, and, most importantly, a damning look at misogyny. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT: “Amazing” Amy is a product of the way society treats women and though that doesn’t excuse her actions, it damn sure explains them. There’s been a lot of backlash thrown in Gone Girl’s direction since it came out and I understand all of the criticisms but I still think we should celebrate the film for bringing an important conversation the the table and getting us all talking. Far too few movies, mainstream or independent, make you think so when one does I’m a happy man despite whatever flaws may be present.
11. The Drop
I expected a hell of a lot more people to take notice of The Drop, if only for the reason that it features James Gandolfini’s last screen performance. He’s wonderful but the movie, a surprisingly human crime drama, is even better. Tom Hardy stars as a slow-talking but quick witted bartender in a performance that recalls Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Hardy and Gandolfini run a ‘drop bar’, a place where the mob stashes all of its money on certain nights for safekeeping. When they get robbed, they find themselves facing angry mobsters and skeptical police officers. But the film isn’t really about the crime elements. It’s more of an intimate character study. Hardy appears to be a bit of a brute but shows great tenderness when he finds himself taking care of a stray dog with the assistance of a kindly neighbor (Noomi Rapace). It’s as if he is trying to prove than he can care for something without hurting it. He’s not a particularly violent man but his past holds dark secrets that he would prefer to stay buried. The way he cares for the dog allows him to connect with the neighbor and Hardy and Rapace do an excellent job of portraying people who have been hurt before and are struggling to move on. The Brooklyn neighborhood they inhabit feels very lived in, rich with history, and as they cross paths with people from both of their pasts a sense of dread begins to develop in the pits of our stomachs. This builds to a terrific and cathartic moment of violence, coupled with an incredible monologue by Hardy that explains exactly who he is and why he does what he does. And in the midst of all this there’s Gandolfini, playing a man who knows his best days are behind him but determined to prove they meant something. It’s a fitting final performance from the great actor. But this is Hardy’s show and he owns every scene he’s in. Give this overlooked gem a shot. I mean come on, who doesn’t want to watch Tom Hardy hang out with a puppy for two hours?
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s pop up storybook of a movie–his best film since Rushmore–works as a screwball comedy and a melancholy meditation on the past. Ralph Fiennes delivers one of his best performances as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel. He’s a man who believes that the world is losing its dignity and he’s going to hang onto his own for as long as he can. He soon finds himself entangled in a murder plot and seeks to clear his name with the help of his assistant Zero (a terrific Tony Revolori). The cast is wonderful and the film is absolutely gorgeous. Anderson never fails to create a completely unique and fully realized world and he outdoes himself here. The framing device is also wonderful, using multiple narratives to create the same sensation Russian nesting dolls do; you pull one out only to find another hidden inside. It’s a gimmick but one that serves to highlight the movie’s deep fascination with the past. What happened fifty years ago may have been important then but may only be remembered now by a schoolgirl who walks past a statue one day. Still, it is remembered by someone and that’s the important thing. It’s bittersweet and hopeful, like all of Anderson’s best work.
The year’s best Sci-fi film is a high concept hybrid of cultural sensibilities, sharp satire, and unrelenting action. It’s another movie I’m baffled didn’t reach a wider audience. Snowpiercer takes place in a apocalyptic ice age where the last survivors of humanity live on a train that circles the globe on a 365 day loop. The wealthy live in luxury at the front of the train while the poor are regulated to the back. Chris Evans leads the downtrodden on a quest to overtake the train. It’s a video-game premise (they must get from the front to the back, with each car serving as a new level) that works tremendously well thanks to South Korean director Boon Jong-ho’s taut direction. The first half of the movie is all action, terrifically choreographed fight scenes tied with crucial plans that depend on split second timing. As our heroes get closer to the front of the train, things become surreal. This is highlighted in a chilling and satirical sequence with Alison Pill as the teacher to all the wealthy children who live in the front cars. As they get closer to the front, ideas about class systems and why they are necessary for survival are brought up in a way that darkly mirrors the divide between the rich and the poor in our own world. All the actors are excellent but Tilda Swinton stands out as the demented spokesperson for the wealthy. The whole movie could have been about her and I wouldn’t have minded one bit.
8. Blue Ruin
Deconstruction of a genre is one of my favorite things. Blue Ruin takes the typical revenge movie and rips it to shreds. We have a hero who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow, a motivation for revenge that may be somewhat misguided, and an unwillingness to let the audience in on exactly what’s going on until the final scene. Our hero is a gentle homeless man who learns that a figure from his past is about to get out of prison. He takes matter into his own hands and manages to kill the man very early on, but doesn’t think about the repercussions he will face. The rest of the film consists of his struggle to survive and protect his own family as he gradually accepts that he has started something he cannot stop. As the hero, Macon Blair creates an unassuming and likable character while also being a bumbling fool. Watch him try to figure out how to shoot a gun. It’s hilarious and tragic. In fact, the whole thing has the feel of a tragic comedy as all the various players become victims due to practically ancient crimes. Writer director Jeremy Saulnier also gives the movie a distinct 80’s sensibility (there were a lot of 80’s throwbacks this year) that adds a wicked sense of fun to the grim proceedings.
The second Tom Hardy movie to appear on this list. What can I say? Guy is just a force to be reckoned with. On paper, Locke shouldn’t work at all. It’s 80 minutes of Tom Hardy driving in a car and talking to people on the phone. That’s it. There’s no other location, we see no one else besides him, and somehow it’s one of the most riveting films of the year. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a successful construction manager and family man who finds his life unraveling. He had an affair a little less than a year ago and as the film begins, he’s just received a phone call from the woman. She’s in the hospital and is going to give birth to his baby tonight. He makes a decision to be there for her and his child for reasons that will become clear as the film progresses. He gets in the car and sets about the task of destroying everything he’s worked for. He calls his angry wife and struggles to explain his choices, he calls his superior and explains why he won’t be there the next day, he coaches the young man who will have to pick up his slack at work, and he consoles the mother of his child, never telling her that he loves here but promising that he will be there. Hardy commands the screen, drawing us into this troubled man’s world so that we understand and empathize with him. Locke work best as an unflattering yet compelling portrait of a man who is determined to do the right thing no matter the cost. “I have made a decision,” he keeps telling the people in his life and while they may not understand it, we certainly do and we can’t help but admire him for it.
6. The Guest
The most purely entertaining film of the year, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barret’s loving throwback to the thrillers of the 80’s succeeds on so many different levels. It is a tribute to films they grew up with but one that never winks at the camera. It’s also a tremendous thriller in it’s own right, a gleefully violent action picture, and a hilarious spoof. It juggles all of these elements with the skill of a professional and uses them to create something completely new. As the title character, Dan Stevens is a revelation, brimming with malice and mirth. He’s a delight to watch no matter what he’s doing, be it beating people up in a bar, offering up sage advice, or starting menacingly into the night. Maika Monroe is equally impressive as the teenage daughter who slowly begins to suspect there may be something wrong with this man who has so graciously let himself into her family life. The films uses a pulsing synth score to keep us on the edge of our seats and builds to a suspenseful and ingenious climax set in a high school gymnasium decked out for Halloween. It’s a real shame this picture didn’t cross over to the mainstream. The audience I saw it with was howling and gasping from beginning to end. I think most people will have the same reaction.
An absurdist comedy disguised as an art-house drama, Birdman is an example of filmmaking at it’s most exhilarating. As a washed up, sort of similar version of himself, Michael Keaton creates a character who is relatable, hilarious, and occasionally repellent. Edward Norton has even more fun spoofing himself as a pompous actor who can only feel alive when he’s on stage. Many critics got bogged down in trying to figure out what Birdman meant and forgot to just sit back and enjoy the wild ride. If you want to though, you can sit down and analyze every shot and character moment but that would be missing the point. Birdman is uniquely its own thing, meant to be viewed as a whole and not something made up of the sum of its parts. Why else would the movie be made to look like a single continuous shot? Just let it all wash over you; take hold of the images and drink them in, laugh at the surrealism, cry at the character revelations, and let the final shot mean whatever you need it be.
Noah already wrote a great, thoughtful, detailed piece on why Calvary is a masterpiece so I don’t feel I need to say much more. I’ll just agree with him that John Michael McDonaugh’s sophomore feature is a huge leap forward for him as a director and this is the performance of Brendan Gleeson’s career. As a good priest in a town filled with sinners, he struggles to bear their weight while being a father to his troubled daughter. It’s refreshing to see a movie about a good priest but McDonaugh doesn’t turn Calvary into a reverse criticism of the way people perceive the Catholic Church these days. He acknowledges the institution’s faults in both humorous and disturbing ways while also reminding us that “forgiveness is underrated.” That’s the movie’s main theme and while it may seem like a simple idea, it isn’t. Forgiveness is hard, especially when it comes to deep, personal loss. But it’s also the only way many of us can ever truly move on and while the film suggests that many of its characters will never learn this lesson, the last shot gives us hope that some of them will. It may be a small victory but that’s what life is made up of isn’t it? Tiny acts of kindness and redemption that can reverberate throughout our lives.
They say that you must suffer for your art but few people suffer the way Miles Tellar does in writer director Damian Chazelle’s dazzling Whiplash. As a jazz drummer at a prestigious music conservatory, Tellar is at first elated when the school’s head professor (JK Simmons) chooses him for his studio band. He soon discovers though that Simmons is something of an abusive monster, hurling insults and physical objects at his students whenever they make the slightest mistake. Does this deter Tellar? Hardly. He practices harder, pushing his body to the absolute limit. It still isn’t enough for Simmons though. That is, until the film’s explosive finale, a sequence as riveting and thrilling as the best battle sequences from great war movies. You can take away a lot of themes from Whiplash: there’s the drive to succeed and how that can destroy every aspect of your personal life, there’s the way it sort of feels like a sports drama or war move but in a music school, there’s the way it knocks down our obsession with building up people’s self esteem (“the most dangerous words in the enlgish language”, says Simmons, “are good job.”), and, of course, there’s the way it feels like an extended Jazz riff itself, jumping around and changing directions when you least expect. But I believe the movie succeeds mostly because of the relationship between Tellar and Simmons. It could work as a two character play. It has real clarity of vision in the way it portrays these town men, one struggling to please and the other looking for someone who will finally stand up to him. Their relationship is why the climax is so effective and strangely celebratory. You may be disturbed and saddened by what Simmons puts Tellar through but at the end, you still want to stand up and cheer.
2. The Babadook
Fear is relative. What scares me may not scare you but I defy even the most hardened horror movie fan to sit through The Babadook without feeling at least one chill go up their spine. Jennifer Kent’s debut film is both an atmospheric, dread filled horror picture and a thoughtful, moving study of the relationship between a grieving single mother and her troubled son, never shying away from all the pain and resentment embedded in such a close relationship. Kent makes use of expressionism and muted colors to create a stark world for her two characters to inhabit. It’s like a black and white film in color. The horror begins right away with the boy’s discovery of a children’s story called ‘Mr. Babadook’, which states that once you let the title character into your life, you can never get rid of him. Typical horror movie things begin to happen like noises in the night and invisible phantoms but they all feel earned and are backed up by the solid relationship Kent presents us with. Like the movie itself, The Babadook is at once a frightening, otherworldly boogeyman and a metaphor for things like loss and hatred. Once you let emotions like that in, they never go away. All you can do is keep them at bay, a task easier said than done. The film builds to a suspenseful and terrifying climax that makes full use of the horror tropes and more complex themes present in the story. Like another horror masterpiece, Let the Right One in, the film’s final shot is both touching and profoundly disturbing. Kent isn’t interested in easy answers or deus ex machinas. She’s hunting bigger game and understands that the truly great horror films use fantastical elements to reflect on real life. And real life is always far more terrifying than any monster hiding under the bed.
Picking the best film of the year is never an easy task for me. I went back and forth a few times, placing The Babadook, Whiplash, and Calvary in the number one spot which shows that lists like these are really sort of silly. I’m just splitting hairs when deciding which one is better than the other. They’re all great, masterful films that could easily be considered the very best of the year. Nevertheless, I’m going with Ida as my number one pick simply because it has stayed with me a little more than the others have. I’ve thought about it every single day since I’ve seen it and my mind keeps peeling away different layers of it, not in a ‘what does it all mean’ way though. The film is very clear on its message. There’s just so much here to take in. It’s also one of the shortest movies on this list, clocking in at just over 80 minutes, which makes it all the more impressive. It says way more than most Oscar movies and does so in half the usual run time. We first meet the title character, a young nun on the verge of taking her vows, as she chisels away at a wooden statue of her lord and savior. Once finished, she and the other novices drag it through the barren Polish landscape and place it upright on a pedestal. They then kneel down and pray to it. I was fascinated by their actions: they work on this model like it’s any other average piece of wood, no different than a chair or a table, and yet when they stand it upright it immediately transforms into a figure of great power. Is this meant as a criticism of or tribute to their unwavering faith? Wait and see. Soon after, Ida is told by her superior that she must go visit with her family before taking her vows. Having been raised in the monastery and knowing no other life, Ida is reluctant to do so but goes because she is told she must. Her only living relative is Wanda, a hard drinking, chain smoking judge with a reputation for being something of a brutal hardass. She served under Stalin’s regime you see and that experience has left her both bitter and empowered. Wanda informs Ida that her parents were actually Jews who died during the holocaust. Now suffering a bit of an identity crisis, Ida tells Wanda she wants to find her parents’ bodies and put them to rest. Thus begins a revelatory and moving quest for these two women, one facing the beginning of her life and one facing the end. They clash along the way and while the film delves deep into both of them, we see most of the story through Ida’s eyes. She has no use for Wanda’s brutal way of extorting information from people and chooses to sit many scenes out, letting her aunt do the dirty work while her wide eyes take in this strange world for the first time. As Ida, first time actress Agata Trzebuchowska does not have a lot to say. Her eyes and face do most of the work and she is able to say more with a slight tip of the head or a subtle shift in her body language than with words. Her disdain for Wanda is great but the two woman slowly develop a mutual understanding as they accept that they have both been damaged by crimes of the past. All of this is portrayed through stark black and white imagery which makes the world as alien to us as it is to Ida. She eventually begins to embrace some aspects of the world around her and has to make a choice: does she stay in the monastery or seek out a more ‘normal’ life? Her decision may surprise you but not in a bad way. For all it’s brooding sequences, harsh realities, and scarred characters, Ida is ultimately an incredibly uplifting film. It contains the single most unadulterated moment of pure joy out of any film I saw this year. You’ll know it when you see it. And the final shot manages to reflect on the past, present, and future without seeming to do much of anything. It’s hard to make a film that feels so effortless and harder still to make one that resonates just as powerfully with you months after you’ve sat through it. It’s a stunning piece and one that walks the fine line between art and entertainment with incredible ease. That’s why it’s the best film of the year.