2014 has been marked by a wide variety of successful films. Major studios have released excellent films like Gone Girl, Godzilla, and Interstellar, while the independents have pushed forward efforts like Foxcatcher, Calvary, and The Homesman. Small triumphs like Pride and Snowpiercer came and went without much hoopla, but they were remarkable films that deserved audiences. Powerful, melancholic documentaries like Rich Hill and Virunga left me floored and speechless. And how can I forget Guardians of the Galaxy, a funny, nostalgic, and heartfelt effort that became the biggest success of the year?
Those are amongst the honorable mentions I’ll list at the end of my top 10 list, for they deserve to be mentioned and praised for their power. Without further adieu, after watching over 150 films in this calendar year, here are the ten best films of 2014:
Richard Linklater’s exploration of a young boy maturing into an adult is the most deeply personal, emotionally pure film I have seen in 2014. My subjectivity is undeniable, and I feel that many my age can connect with Mason and his growth over the film. Yet it’s not defined by tunnel vision, but rather of time, place, and permanence, another of Linklater’s bold efforts that uses time as a means of developing character and substance. His Before trilogy remains the greatest series in cinema, and here he expounds upon that idea of telling a story in real time by opting for a 12-year narrative over 165 minutes. It’s a bold, visionary effort that captures social change, the turmoil of growing up in a divorced home, and the essence of growing up in a constantly evolving 21st century. The performances from Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke form the finest trio all year, and the film is unforgettable.
My top two films are ones largely built on technical conceits, with Birdman using the impression that it all exists within a single take. Legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men and Gravity) and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu craft a narrative surrounding a washed-up actor, played by Michael Keaton, best known for his roles in superhero films. In an attempt to change his path, he aims to direct and star in his own Broadway play, battling his hubris and former self in hopes of finding his true identity. Keaton is extraordinary in a self-reflexive turn and Edward Norton and Emma Stone own their supporting roles. The film uses nuanced visual technique with awe-inspiring prowess. It’s beyond captivating, narratively astute, and delightfully confident, a tour-de-force built on the ambiguity of an actor’s personal and professional life. The line, more often than not, blurs.
The civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama led by Martin Luther King Jr. make for one of the strongest visions of 2014, led by director Ava DuVernay’s uncompromising camera. She presents the story through multiple lenses, either viewing the marchers themselves, the civil rights opposition, or the quasi-neutral president of the time, Lyndon B. Johnson. David Oyelowo delivers an impressively subdued performance as the man with a dream, allowing the story to navigate his murky personal life to inform his professional decisions. The supporting performances are equally sublime, particularly from Carmen Ejogo and Tom Wilkinson. A church bombing in the film’s opening moments is shocking and permanently etched in my brain, a true signifier of great filmmaking. Yet the film holds extraordinary significance due to its testament that change has not fully come. It’s a socially cognizant, timeless film.
J.K. Simmons delivers the fiercest, loudest, and scariest performance all year as a jazz music teacher in Whiplash. The story of a young man, played by Miles Teller, rising in the ranks as a drummer at a music school with aspirations to make a career out of his passion is riveting and impeccably filmed. Damien Chazelle’s direction (and, perhaps more impressively, Tom Cross’s editing) is staunchly aware of how a scene can be manipulated for maximum effect, particularly when music is involved. The film feels orchestrated much like the music the central characters spend their lives sweating over. Simmons infuses his teacher with horrible qualities that are backed by purpose; the story eventually shines a light on his motivation and I was sold. Teachers want their students to reach perfection, so it’s only fitting that the final moments of the film are exciting, perfect filmmaking that filled me with glee.
A nun discovers her Jewish heritage in Ida, a tremendously captivating feature that is both visually gorgeous and thematically thoughtful. Taking place after World War II, the story navigates the path of Anna, who finds out that her parents were killed in the Holocaust and she has unknowingly assumed a Catholic identity for most of her life. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is captured in beautiful black-and-white cinematography, using space and darkness to tell a story far grander than the seemingly straight-forward tale. Agatha Kulesza has won multiple supporting actress awards from various critics’ groups for her turn as Anna’s aunt, a complex, heartfelt woman that strikes at the core of the film’s message. The last scene is haunting and powerful. Ida is a quiet film that only last 82 minutes, but its examination of religion will last much longer in the viewer’s mind.
6. Obvious Child
Ever since being a cast member on Saturday Night Live (and being forced off after an accidental slip-up on live TV), Jenny Slate has proven herself to be an astute, no-holds-barred comedian. She plays Donna Stern, a stand-up comic who, after being dumped by her boyfriend, hooks up with a man and ends up getting pregnant. Far from a traditional romcom, the story tackles the issue of abortion in today’s culture and uses the eyes of a twenty-something to demonstrate that, for many, it’s a means of learning from one’s mistakes and getting one’s life in check. But the film is deeply moving and honest, using humor to demonstrate these characters’ insecurities and allow Slate and her co-stars to shine with the hilarious set-ups they are given. Gillian Robespierre’s film is a subtly subversive romantic comedy that has kept me laughing after multiple viewings, and its shocking approach infuses excitement into a well-worn genre.
Nightcrawler gnaws at the underbelly of media journalism before swallowing it whole and spewing out a demented form of citizen journalism. Jake Gyllenhaal, in one of his most infectiously sociopathic and chilling roles, plays Lou Bloom, a young man with drive who wants to find a career that fits him; he stumbles upon a cameraman filming a car burning on the freeway and thinks, “I could do that.” He begins to film crime scenes and sell them to local news outlets, with his main contact being Nina (played wonderfully by Rene Russo), a veteran reporter who will do whatever it takes to get her network back on top. The story goes down a deliriously exciting path, pushing farther and farther until Lou’s grasp far exceeds his reach. Yet the ending is brutal and uncompromising, and Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut is defiantly confident and biting.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson remains one of the best visual storytellers in the business, so it’s only fitting that he has continued to expand his emotional depth while his artistic splendor runs rampant. He tells one of his most affectionate stories to date, looking at Gustave H. (in a great performance from the always capable Ralph Fiennes) and his work as a concierge in the titular mainstay. The heist narrative surrounding a stolen piece of artwork from a recently deceased guest of the hotel allows for the story to become one of love and longing. This is one of Anderson’s biggest ensembles to date, with great performances coming from F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, and newcomer Tony Revolori. As a director, Anderson’s film always have a unique storybook look that are undeniably his own vision; as a writer, he crafts characters as eccentric and vivid as any other in the business. He succeeds again with Grand Budapest, a heartfelt, hilarious, and impressively moving feature.
9. The Imitation Game
What begins to as a twisty-turny hunt to stop the Germans from winning World War II turns into a tale of tragedy and persecution in the wake of a backwards-thinking world. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers his best performance to date (and one of the year’s best) as Alan Turing, one of the mathematicians responsible for decoding the Enigma code, a line of communication that the Germans reset every 24 hours and used to communicate. It’s a tense film built on the impact of its supporting roles: the quietness of Matthew Goode and Keira Knightley bring tension and compassion to scenes that feel thematically familiar. Yet the decision to have the story center on Turing’s persecution as a homosexual in a post-war England is heartbreaking and necessary. The acceptance of all is a tragic undertone still prevalent in modern culture.
10. A Most Violent Year
J.C. Chandor has established himself as one of the most talented writer-directors in Hollywood. After making two polar opposites in cinema (the talkative Margin Call and almost wordless All is Lost), he’s created a meticulous, slow-burn thriller in A Most Violent Year. He also employs the two hottest actors in the business: Oscar Isaac in another tremendous performance and Jessica Chastain, the endlessly talented powerhouse. The film focuses on a man building a gas business in 1980s New York and plays out like a heist film mixed with a thematically resonant message about the American Dream. Two scenes linger heavily after viewing: Isaac selling his employees on their business model and a car chase that starts light and rivals a great actioner. A Most Violent Year is tremendously skilled filmmaking, and promises a long-lasting, bright career for Chandor.
And the honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: The Babadook, Calvary, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Foxcatcher, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Homesman, Interstellar, The Lego Movie, Pride, Rich Hill, Snowpiercer, Two Days, One Night, and Virunga.