As I write this, a disclaimer that there are a few films that I have not yet seen that I expect might well bump a couple of titles from this list had I seen them in time. Because I’ve not yet seen Interstellar, The Imitation Game or Gone Girl, I have no opinion and cannot include them as part of my annual top-ten list. Additionally, I have not included any documentary films which I defaulted to last year as I felt that last years’ docs largely outweighed the overall quality of the feature length films. This year, I’ve created two separate best-of lists – this one and my Favorite Documentaries of 2014.
For the record, I am not with the pack regarding The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think it’s the best thing that Wes Anderson has done in (over) a decade, was a visual delight, but still suffered from his trademark self-aware/self-congratulatory preciousness that has been my issue with his work for much of his career. Throw all the eggs you want: I am impervious.
So with that said, this is my list of favorite films (so far) from 2014 from numero uno to numero diez:
Already intrigued by the concept of a film being shot over a dozen years using the same actors throughout as they age over those dozen years, and equally already a fan of Richard Linklater’s work in general, I was very keen to see Boyhood. What I expected might be little more than a curious experiment in film making turned out to be a magnificent—albeit understated—piece of work that speaks so poignantly about the simple struggles of life, that the film often felt more like a window into these people’s lives than a “movie.”
There is such simple and honest purity to the story and to the character’s lives that Boyhood delivers a film that speaks with a truth that is so often missing in narrative film. There is a texture and rhythm to Boyhood that just feels …real. It is intimate and delicate, and ultimately is a triumphant, almost zen-like study in character. The passage of time is seamless and when the film was over, I felt grateful to have been allowed the chance to get to know these people. My favorite film of 2014.
#2 – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)
I believe that Birdman will likely win the Oscar for best film, and although my personal choice would still be Boyhood, Birdman—while flawed—is a super fun ride, delivering a remarkable acting performance from the film’s star, Michael Keaton.
Ever since his directorial debut with Amores Perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu has consistently delivered thoughtful, powerful and distinctive films (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful). Birdman is a stylistic tour-de-force, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, although its impact on me was not dissimilar to the first time I watched the similarly unique Brazil. Keaton plays a largely washed up actor whose glory days were playing a superhero character, BatBirdman. Wanting to be taken seriously, he risks everything on a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Throughout, there is a blurry lack of definition between reality and what we think might be hallucination. Keaton’s character is slowly crumbling under the weight of the project, and is largely at odds with his foil played by Ed Norton, his daughter played by Emma Stone and his girlfriend of three years played by Andrea Riseborough. As the film progresses, thing slowly spin further and further out of control, with Keaton barely hanging on as everything descends upon him.
I genuinely hope that Birdman wins the prize for best Cinematography for this stunning work by Emmanuel Lubezki whose previous achievements include Sleep Hollow, Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, The Tree of Life and Gravity. The film feels like a continual tracking shot, and some of the close-ups are so intimate that we feel as if we are intruders. Birdman is unsettling and manic at times, but equally edgy and dazzling. By the end of the film we are not left 100% certain as to where reality ends and imagination begins. I’m not sure if I found that satisfying or annoying. Perhaps a little of both.
#3 – Still Alice
There is no way that the Academy can ignore Julianne Moore on this one. She will win for best actress and she should. Still Alice is without any doubt the most heart-wrenching film of the year, with Moore playing a celebrated and accomplished academic who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. We are carried along her tumultuous and frightening journey as the disease progressively takes her further and further away from her memories and her sense of herself. She records a video to her future self with instructions as what to do in the event that she reaches a certain point of disorientation.
While Still Alice is often emotionally difficult, it is also deeply sympathetic and indelibly honest. This is arguably the strongest single performance of the year, one that ultimately casts a shadow on the rest of the film’s ensemble. If you’re feeling fragile, watch it another time.
#4 – Whiplash
I enjoyed this film immensely, though I doubt that I’ll be compelled to watch it a second time. A fascinating look into the world of competition ensemble jazz, Whiplash is a film that pits ambition and drive against the ruthless desire to win. The main character Andres (played by Miles Teller) is a talented young drummer wanting to be the best that there is, and his way to that goal is through the top band-leader Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) in the prestigious music academy that Andrew is attending. Fletcher’s reputation as an iron-fisted tyrant precedes him, a reputation that does not even come close to the lengths that he is willing to crush the spirits of his students in his pursuit of perfection.
I have little doubt that J.K. Simmons will win the prize for best supporting actor, as his performance is brutal and ferocious. I don’t know that a better portrayal of abuse of power has ever been committed to film as Whiplash succeeds in doing. It can be difficult to watch at times, but in the end, it is an uplifting triumph of the will after a physical and emotional game of cat and mouse.
#5 – Under the Skin
Sleeper of the year? It sure seemed like it. Or maybe Under the Skin is just too heady and weird for most American audiences to fully appreciate. Jonathan Glazer first made big screen waves with his 2000 full-length debut, Sexy Beast with Sir Ben Kingsley. I suppose Under the Skin is a science fiction film, but to try to compartmentalize it into an easy genre is to dismiss and diminish it. The central character of the film, played by the always stunning and alluring Scarlett Johansson, is some sort of alien life form (though we never get to understand anything about where she’s from or what her purpose is) who drives around Glasgow picking up men who appear to have few if any connections with people who might notice their disappearance. What she does to them is best seen rather than be explained, but for lack of a better word, can best be described as “harvesting.”
There is an emotional air to the film that—along with the genius special effects—might bring to mind aspects of Chris Cunningham’s work and could bring to mind elements of Spike Jonze’s Her from 2013. Under the Skin is perhaps the most difficult film to try to describe and capture in a brief review as it certainly the most uniquely moody film reviewed here.
#6 – The Lego Movie
Everybody’s already read it, and most that I’ve spoken to are in full agreement: Second only to Ava DuVernay’s snub in not receiving a nomination for her direction of Selma, The Lego Movie not being nominated for best animated feature was one of the biggest snubs this year, and a rather perplexing one to say the least.
There’s not a lot to say other than this film was totally ingenious, funny and massively entertaining, the story was clever and smart, the in-jokes were a mile-a-minutes, and the animation completely top-notch. It’s a playful ride for kids of all ages, one that never once feels once like it’s pitching a product. It’s hard to win a prize that you’re not even nominated for. Innovative, imaginative, refreshing and fun.
#7 – Only Lovers Left Alive
Perhaps it is because of my ‘80s obsession with Bauhaus that I’ve always felt that vampire movies should be somehow connected to the underground of popular culture, and as a result belong to the world of music and art more than any of the other ‘monster’ movie genres, but in my mind the best vampire movies of my generation are very few and far between. Other than Nadja and the classic The Hunger, I don’t know that I’ve seen any other movies that struck the right balance or contained the right flavor (pun intended)… until now. It would make perfect sense that Jim Jaramusch would be the right director to finally bring us a vampire film worthy of being included along with those other two.
Only Lovers Left Alive is the perfect parable of two aging punk/goth rockers (Adam and Eve) in love across an ocean (seemingly) for eternity. I was able to identify with the entire reality that Lovers manages to create as a rumination on my history in punk and grunge during the heyday of the Seattle scene. Looking back at those days while watching the new crop entering and creating a new scene, I invariably wonder how and if my contribution has any actual relevance to the kids of today. Romantic and sensuous, Only Lovers Left Alive is strangely contemporary while managing to ring a nostalgic bell for decades and days gone past. Dark and delicious.
#8 – Chef
This one came and went with a flurry of adoration and then sadly fell off the face of the planet. Chef was for me, the feel-good movie of the year, and it’s always nice to watch something during the year that fills you with warmth and sweetness, even if it does feel mildly manipulative at times. Chef tells the story of a hot shot Los Angeles chef who unwittingly gets into a Twitter war with one of the leading food reviewers in the city. He ends up quitting the restaurant, and buys a food truck in Miami. With the help of his chef-buddy played by John Leguizamo, and his son—with whom he is semi disconnected with—they drive across country stopping in cities along the way, creating a social media foodie sensation during their travels. Chef is a road movie, is a buddy movie, is the perfect father-son movie and is ultimately one of those “finding-yourself” movies that you cannot help but to enjoy if you don’t mind just taking the ride and enjoying the trip.
#9 – The Theory of Everything
This well-crafted, well-acted movie about Stephen Hawking has Oscar written all over it. A biopic of a famous person as they’re falling prey to a debilitating diagnosis (in this case, ALS); It is ostensibly a love story against impossible odds; it is reasonably slick; Eddie Redmayne’s performance, particularly his physical transformation is quite remarkable – so much so, that you find yourself thinking that he is indeed Hawking as opposed to an actor playing a role.
The Academy has a history of celebrating these kinds of performance (My Left Foot, A Beautiful Mind, Ray), but somehow, while I thoroughly enjoyed The Theory of Everything while watching it, I found it rather tame. I never felt the chemistry between Hawking and his wife, I never fully recognized the pure brilliance of Hawking’s genius mind in the film, and in the end the movie cannot seem to decide if it wants to be a biopic or a love story. It does a good job at both, but a stellar job at neither. Rent it.
#10 – Locke
A rather understated but pleasant surprise. Locke is for the most part a one-man performance by Tom Hardy who during the duration of a trip in his car from Birmingham to London, we watch everything in his life slowly unravel between his wife when he admits that he is making the trip to a woman who he had impregnated during a one night stand nine months earlier as she’s in the hospital going in labor. His intents have nothing to with love, but instead, because he feels it’s the “right thing to do.” The films is claustrophobic, not just because is takes place inside of a car, but on an emotional level as you palpably feel the struggle and tension of everything Locke is dealing with through a series of conversations with his wife, his children, the foreman at his work, and the woman who he’s going to be with for the birth of her/their child. It is a compelling performance, surprisingly layered and tautly on-edge for the full hour and a half.
For last year’s picks, check out The Best Documentaries of 2013 – My 2014 List of Favorites
For the year before, check out The Best Films of 2012 – My 2013 List of Favorites