I can’t understate the amount of time that went into deciding this list.
One of the great things about my job is that I get to see a ton of films each year. It’s easy to deride Hollywood as churning out more and more product intended to not only make money, but help sell future films and other products. There may be some truth there, but between some excellent independent films and daring hires for larger studio-backed films, I believe we’re seeing some new signs of life in film.
So when it came to narrowing down the films I saw in 2014 for this list, I had my work cut out for me. Obviously, there were plenty of films not worth consideration, but I made a point of ranking every film to get a better sense of the year as a whole. When I hit near the Top 10, though, I encountered some ranking issues. For the last month, I debated what films should rank in the last few slots among several contenders, and while I believe my selections are among the Top 10 Films of 2014, I want to acknowledge the number of worthwhile films that almost made it. Check them out, along with the rest of what made up my Top 30, at the bottom of the list.
And now, my Top 10 Films of 2014:
In spite of a painfully generic name (seriously, the original title – All You Need Is Kill – is so much better, as is the tagline Live. Die. Repeat.), Edge of Tomorrow proved surprisingly fresh. Tom Cruise may be something of a punchline these days, but Edge of Tomorrow used his movie-star persona to tremendous effect, whether as the pretty-boy media star of a war; a weaselly, manipulative coward; or a burgeoning hero. And let’s be honest – there’s something just a little bit fun about seeing the various ways Tom Cruise dies in rapid succession that works to the film’s benefit.
Marvel movies take on a 70s political thriller vibe in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Captain America is a hard character to get right, but the Russo Brothers found a smart path for Cap this time: he’s the man out of his time who has a certain moral integrity to do what’s right. And with former enemies of Captain America rearing their ugly heads, his downright decency proves to be exactly what’s needed. That the film upends so many parts of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe makes the anticipation for the two follow-ups to this film – Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War – all the more eagerly anticipated.
At its core, Nightcrawler is a disturbing but brilliant look at the ways in which a man can work to achieve his dreams when left unchecked by basic decency, and how larger institutions can help foster these attitudes. Jake Gyllenhaal is both intense and detached in his actions, making him impossible to ignore for both the people he interacts with and the audience. What’s most chilling is the idea that he probably doesn’t see his behavior as abnormal.
Whiplash is not your standard-issue inspirational teacher drama. Not in the slightest. Sure, like in many films with inspirational teachers, Terence Fletcher may push his students in order to see them reach their full potential. But his methods are absolutely sadistic. Some people believe strongly in suffering for one’s art, and that logic pushes both Andrew Neyman and Fletcher into situations that go against what most people would consider acceptable, even if the results are potentially (possibly) worth the effort. The culmination of this film is an exercise in dramatic tension, and of all the films I saw this year, this was the only one to leave my stomach in knots as I left the theater. Bravo.
It’s a film that, on paper, shouldn’t work. At the very least, it sounds like the biggest commercial for a single brand ever. But with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who previously teamed for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, at the helm, The LEGO Movie is a frequently hilarious, surprisingly heartfelt film that transcends its ties to the toy bricks that populate the screen. The easiest comparison would be a hyperactive Toy Story, but I think that even sells it short. It’s a children’s film with a message that’s relevant to the toy-collecting adults of today. And for kicks, try getting “Everything is AWESOME!!!” out of your head now. I dare you.
Guardians of the Galaxy ends 2014 as the #1 film of the year at the domestic box office. Who would’ve thought that a film based on a Marvel property that most audiences aren’t aware of, that includes a gun-toting raccoon and a monosyllabic talking tree, would be the biggest hit of the year? The Marvel brand name certainly helped make Guardians a hit, but a smart story and inspired casting (welcome to the big leagues, Chris Pratt) helped make Guardians into a genuinely great film. Plus, Guardians provided (for me, at least) the single biggest unexpected laugh of the year with the Jackson Pollack line. Between this film and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel has owned the box office this year, and deservedly so.
Wes Anderson’s films may not be for everyone, but I’ve enjoyed the parts of his filmography I’ve seen to date. That didn’t prepare me for the thrills provided by his latest masterpiece, though. The Grand Budapest Hotel is as quirky as a Wes Anderson film can be, but paired with one of the strongest (and biggest) ensembles he’s ever drafted. At the center is a surprisingly hilarious turn from Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel (and a lover of older women) who finds himself wrongly accused of murder. Add in the very twee production design and the shifting aspect ratios, and you get a Wes Anderson film that is truly a product of its creator.
Arriving in the U.S. a year after it made its mark elsewhere around the world, Snowpiercer was shunted into a limited theatrical release prior to its arrival on VOD services. Fortunately, it arrived without edits from Harvey Weinstein, and American audiences can see this excellent film the way it was meant to be seen. This dystopian picture offers an exhilarating amount of action with humor, heart, and science fiction. Chris Evans has never been better, and Tilda Swinton creates one of the year’s most memorable characters in Minister Mason.
I can’t think of a more timely or necessary film to hit screens in recent memory than Selma. It’s easy to relegate Martin Luther King Jr. to being simply an historical figure, but if the last few months have proven anything, it’s that America as a country isn’t as far removed from 50 years ago as we’d like to believe. Not even close. Rather than going for the standard sweeping biopic, Selma provides a very specific look at a legendary figure during one specific part of his life: the three month period that marked the Selma to Montgomery march. Outside of a few opening scenes, the film stays there. It’s a method that works. Selma gets to dig deeper into the man and the movement.
1. Gone Girl
David Fincher’s no stranger to taking literary works and adapting them for the screen, but what he’s done with Gone Girl is something else entirely. At its core, Gone Girl is an examination of relationships, and how corrosive they can become. On the surface, Nick and Amy seem like the perfect couple. As we find out more about them, though, we see just how rotten things are in the relationship, and both Nick and Amy share the blame for the state of their marriage by the time they reach their fifth wedding anniversary. In short: Gone Girl is mesmerizing, disturbing, and marks career-best work from everyone involved. It’s also, for me, the obvious selection for my #1 film of 2014.
And as promised, the films that just missed the list: