Surprise, surprise: I watched a ton of movies that came out this year. What stuck out most to me about 2014 was how above-average a year it was for Hollywood specifically, which excelled in almost every field with many noteworthy action blockbusters, animated movies, comedies and dramas. This is reflected on my Top 10 list for this year, with many picks being more conventional choices than my number one film from last year, Spring Breakers (still no regrets about that one, guys). I’ve been waiting all year to compile this list, so let’s get right to it.
I should quickly mention that I was unable to see four films that I was very much anticipating and that I feel may have wound up on this list. Those movies are Selma, A Most Violent Year, Leviathan, and Force Majeure. Regardless, here are ten movies that I feel everyone should check out and I’d love to hear your opinions on these movies, or any movies I left off that you consider one of your favorite movies of 2014.
10. Big Hero 6
Despite the seismic success Frozen has had since it came out last year, I decided I would wait a bit before proclaiming that Disney Animation Studios had truly entered a new Renaissance period. With this year’s addition, I feel like I can safely make that proclamation. The studio still isn’t operating at the same level as Aladdin, Mulan or Beauty and the Beast, maybe they never will, and maybe they don’t need to. They’re slowly but surely charting a course for new territory, bringing along only the most essential elements that have kept Disney animation such a timeless brand.
Frozen, for all of its progressive values, still held tightly to the studio’s traditional story structure and art style. But Big Hero 6 goes one step further, with a unique look that blends American and Japanese styles to great effect. These distinctive visuals also highlight the very modern themes of the film; namely, the idea that technology can either be used to bring together or tear apart people, be it a small group or entire nations. Ultimately, though, the movie offers a hopeful, positive and refreshingly contemporary view of technology rather than an easier, cynical one. This affirming, forward-thinking position shares a lot in common with one of the year’s biggest movies, Interstellar.
What Disney still clings to (and I won’t complain) is their refusal to deliver anything but the most artfully-crafted and immaculately detailed animation work in the business. They also remembered to hold onto their knack for cuteness, and that’s where Baymax comes in. If I had a list for the year’s best characters, Baymax would probably be number one with a bullet. He alone turns Big Hero 6 into not just one of the most interesting action movie of the year, but also one of 2014’s funniest films. Sure, his antics are later sidelined for typical Marvel movie plot cliches, but he nonetheless embodies the film’s perfect combination of heart, humor, and technological prowess.
9. Gone Girl
As a well-documented perfectionist, I’m baffled that director David Fincher let a performance as out-of-place as Neil Patrick Harris’ slip through the cracks of his otherwise immensely well-made, exciting, and surprising (more so for those who haven’t read the book) mystery. A few missteps do little to stop this movie from gripping audiences from first frame to (identical) last frame. Fincher’s eye for bleak beauty and his ear for bitingly witty dialogue comes across in full force thanks to an adapted script from the novel’s author Gillian Flynn, which gets better and better as the movie goes along.
Though many who were familiar with the book were skeptical, Ben Affleck turned out the perfect choice as aloof husband Nick. But it’s Rosamund Pike, not previously an A-list star in the least, who comes out of nowhere to steal the show as ‘the amazing’ Amy. Somehow, though, Tyler Perry of all people also ends up being one of the best things about the movie. When these types “stunt” casting decisions (also think Justin Timberlake in The Social Network) work out so well, it makes it easier to forgive Fincher when someone like NPH doesn’t quite hit the mark. You can’t win them all.
But Fincher gets pretty close. The two leads sell the eerie, ominous tone that seeps its way into every moment of what is ultimately an oddball relationship drama and a metaphor for the dark side of marriage we rarely see in film. It also perfectly complements Fincher’s last film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in that it demonstrates his ability to turn guilty pleasure stories into something transcendentally haunting and memorable. And even with the film’s major twist out of the way fairly early, Fincher still finds a way to sneak in one of the year’s most shocking moments anyways.
8. Dear White People
The smartest comedy of the year sure didn’t come from Hollywood. While they were busy shoveling out the likes of Tammy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ride Along, Sex Tape, Horrible Bosses 2, Dumb and Dumber To, Think Like a Man Too, That Awkward Moment and admittedly better but still lacking titles like Neighbors and 22 Jump Street, the real star of the genre came fresh off the film festival circuit in the form of Dear White People.
This is the kind of film that launches not just one, but several careers. First of all is writer-director Justin Simien, whose shrewd satire, deadpan wit and frank dialogue borrows just as much from Wes Anderson as it does from Spike Lee. It’s this eclectic range of influences that marks Simien as a knowledgable young talent eager to find a voice of his own. Tyler James Williams (who starred in Everyone Hates Chris as a kid) seems poised for greater things after playing Lionel, the movie’s heart and soul whose struggles with his own self-identity strongly echoes the works of James Baldwin. Finally, Tessa Thompson is an indisputable star from her first moment onscreen as Sam, the enraged through-line behind all of the film’s many interconnected plot threads.
Not a moment in this movie doesn’t serve a purpose, either in carrying the plot forward or making a bluntly honest and well-delivered point on the country’s continued racial issues. The film’s characters are archetypes, and though Simien doesn’t shy away from acknowledging this, he nevertheless presents the majority of them with just enough unique quirks that you buy them as real human beings deserving of sympathy. The world presented may feel cartoonish and closed-off from our own at times, but the truths Simien gets at couldn’t be more in touch with reality.
It’s a black and white Polish movie. I’m sorry, but you can’t expect something like this to not show up somewhere on my list! In all seriousness, there are a handful of shots in this movie that are far and away the most staggeringly gorgeous images I have seen this year. In fact, Ida is one of the best looking movies I’ve ever seen and it does so with — and probably because of — a shrunken, old-fashioned aspect ratio and a lack of color. A bold, distinctive framing style helps it stand out further from the pack.
Agata Kulesza plays Ida, a young woman who is on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun when she learns surprising news about her deceased parents. What follows is a slow, quiet road movie that is haunting in its simplicity but vast in its emotional and spiritual depth. As Ida grapples with knowledge that makes her question her identity and faith, Kulesza plays the character with a perpetual mute stare that is just impenetrable enough to keep audiences wondering what she must be thinking and feeling.
In the end, though, not all questions are answered. This is because, as director Pawel Pawlikowski suggests, ultimately not all questions can be answered, especially when it comes to such topics as dark family secrets and spirituality. This isn’t the most exciting movie on this list, but it’s an immersive and tantalizingly enigmatic journey with extraordinary cumulative power that would be easy to underestimate at first glance. Ida is also the shortest movie on this list, as well as one of easiest to watch, as it is available on Netflix as I write.
6. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
2014 was a banner year for animation, even with the noteworthy absence of Pixar. Disney Animation Studios delivered one of their best since the ’90s with Big Hero 6, Dreamworks gave us the grittier, visually-improved How To Train Your Dragon 2, and Warner Bros harnessed two of the best comedy directors around with The Lego Movie. It would be easy to forget among such great choices that Japan’s studio Ghibli released not one, but two films in America this year: Hiyao Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Both are accomplished works, but the latter is one of the most emotionally impactful animated movies I have ever seen.
As was the case with Ida, it is the outward simplicity of Kaguya which lead me to be taken completely by surprise once the story becomes a combination of heartfelt, tragic, life-affirming and awe-inspiring. I’m not sure there are even names for all of the things this movie made me feel. Based on an age-old Japanese folklore, the story feels like just that; yet somehow, those old fairytale tropes are mined to appeal to primal human emotions, making this film a timeless adaptation of a timeless tale that the Western world may be largely unaware of.
The real showstopper here is the animation style itself. At first I found the simplified, picture-book quality to be off-putting, but over the film’s two-and-a-quarter-hour runtime, it became like watching magic. Paired with an incredible soundtrack, by the end I was so drawn into the film I had forgotten that life doesn’t look like this. And that made me kind of sad. Anybody who misses the glory days of 2D animation should seek this movie out immediately, because it is at once a nostalgic throwback and a cutting-edge innovation.
5. Guardians of The Galaxy
A year ago I put Iron Man 3 on my list of most overrated movies of 2013, lamenting how Marvel was setting a bland precedent for the superhero genre with predictable, repetitive storytelling. Even this April, Captain America: The Winter Soldier disappointed me for the same reason, even while critics praised it. So I was pretty skeptical when reviews started pouring in for Guardians of the Galaxy, and most of them were positive. But it only took one Marvel movie to completely change my opinion on the brand. And Guardians is that movie. This is a blockbuster that is just as tired of lazy blockbuster trends as audiences are. So why not try something different?
What we end up with is one of the most fun experiences I had at a theater this year. It’s an incredibly colorful movie, which makes all of the difference among a crowded field of very good but also noticeably grittier summer movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Edge of Tomorrow. The movie is just as much a comedy as it is an action movie. Whereas it bothered me in the past how Marvel movies swing so rapidly between humor and self-seriousness, Guardians is so over the top and off the deep end that its constant laughs kept me absorbed instead of taking me out of the experience. It also has more heart than many movies this year, throwing out sudden bursts of heartfelt emotion at the most delightfully unexpected times
Disney took a huge chance on James Gunn, when all signs pointed to him being anything but a mainstream director. But the success of the film, not to mention how good it is, is a good sign for the entire industry. Offbeat can sell. Small indie filmmakers can prove beneficial to breathing new life into the machinery of big corporations. And now Disney definitely gets the message: audiences want to be constantly surprised rather than fed the status quo. They want something that they can engage with on an emotional level, not just something they can passively look at. Here’s hoping the rest of Hollywood follows along.
There’s a momentum to Whiplash that outclasses any other movie I’ve seen this year. Once it starts — as soon as the screen fades from black, really — it rarely pauses for a moment of silent reflection. That’s because protagonist Andrew Neyman, played admirably by Miles Teller, doesn’t give himself a moment to sit back on his path to become the greatest jazz drummer in the world. He knows what he wants, and he won’t stop until he gets it. Similarly, writer/director Damien Chazelle knows exactly what he wants to accomplish with the film, and he goes for it full stop.
This is a perfect example of a film’s story being embodied by the film itself. Fast-paced, brutal and uncompromising, maybe even a little too manipulative. But all of the edge of your seat cringe moments this movie throws at you, and even the slightly dissatisfying ending, is worth it when you get to this moment’s several show-stopping surprise moments, by which point I was so invested in Neyman’s trials that I felt every emotion he did with immense clarity. This is the work of a filmmaker with an uncommonly singular sense of purpose.
But it’s really the performances that seal the deal, and it’s J.K. Simmons who gives the year’s greatest performance as Neyman’s vicious, ruthless, diabolical instructor Terence Fletcher. Like Neyman, Fletcher too won’t let anything keep him from what he wants, and Simmons makes this attitude into something that pulses constantly between evil and enchanting. You never want to meet someone like him, but you also want to know everything about him. Like most great characters, it’s the internal paradox Simmons and Chazelle work together to create that helps solidify Whiplash as an irresistible experience.
3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
This movie is more than I could have ever asked for in a summer blockbuster, especially after a few summers of unspectacular offerings. This is, first and foremost, exactly how you make a sequel. Everything seems organically heightened, both the external stakes facing both human and ape populations, and the internal turmoil going on within main character Caeser. Though we still never leave San Francisco, the conflict becomes increasingly more epic in both tone and scope, especially by the time we hit battle scenes with gun-toting monkeys on horseback. I am still startled by how adeptly director Matt Reeves presents such an insane world (did I mention the horse-riding monkeys with weapons?) as if it couldn’t be a more natural set of circumstances.
But it would all still feel much more weightless if not for the way in which the film demonstrates the complex factors create and perpetuate schisms between groups. Like the best science fiction, through a presently inconceivable future we are allegorically presented with truths about our own world. There are movies that take place within actual real-world conflicts that don’t get anywhere near such a detailed, truthful understanding of the nature of conflict. But what we also get with this movie is a ton of eye-popping spectacle and well-choreographed action sequences.
The human characters may be weak here — at least as weak as in Rise of the Planet of the Apes — but if anything, this highlights even further how incredible it is that a bunch of motion capture/CGI monkeys are able to elicit enough emotional reactions to carry the film to profound levels. Andy Serkis as Caeser gives another performance that would likely be deemed Oscar worthy if this weren’t ostensibly an action movie and he wasn’t covered in computer-generated hair. Toby Kebbell as Caeser’s political adversary Koba is just as formidable in his role, and together they perhaps pave the way for the future of acting in a cinema increasingly (but not necessarily detrimentally) dependent on special effects.
Is there really much more anybody can say about this movie? At this point, it seems that any new insights critics have on are attempts at pointing out the movie’s issues, simply to avoid continuing the endless chain of utter praise that has been dumped on the film. I can go along with that — as I said in my review, I don’t believe this is the best-made film of the year by a long shot, nor do I think this is the best film by my favorite director, Richard Linklater. The structure sometimes drags in the middle, and the younger actors at times fail to keep up with the kind of sophisticated material that Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette handle with ease.
But here’s the thing: I am so, so glad that I could be alive to see this movie and to see the talk that has gone on surrounding it. There are people who died before they could watch it, and there are people a hundred years from now who will learn about this movie and will only be able to imagine the buzz it caused back when it released. Because, while I may not consider this one of the greatest movies ever made (not close, in fact), there can’t be any denying that this is one of the most remarkable, ambitious filmic accomplishment ever made. I had to see it twice in theaters because there is no other movie you can watch that has the same effect.
There could be a lot less going on over the course of this movie and it wouldn’t take away from the fact that seeing a group of actors age by twelve years over a simple three hours is an intrinsically powerful experience. There’s nothing like it. It helps that the one who took on this project isn’t just some hack, but in my opinion one of the most talented filmmakers who has ever lived. His natural dialogue and ability to subvert coming-of-age expectations makes this movie stand out without even taking into account how its simple temporal collapse impacts our brains on such a deep level. For many in the film world, 2014 may just end up being ‘the year Boyhood came out’, and I might be one of them.
1. The Lego Movie
This is, of course, not my attempt at objectively telling you what the best movie of the year was. It’s a list of my personal favorites, and in the end, there’s no movie I adored more this year than The Lego Movie, a masterpiece of both comedy and animation that I was so enthralled by that I had to see it twice the weekend it came out. Like the big vats of Legos still sitting in my parents’ basement, this movie is so densely packed. Not with little, colorful plastic bricks but with an endless stream of hilarious jokes, plenty of emotional weight and unexpected philosophical depth. In other words, everything is very, very awesome.
Like the best kids movies (think Toy Story 3 or Where the Wild Things Are), this is not really a kids movie. Instead, it’s a movie that celebrates the ingenuity and flexibility of childhood, but also the many ways adults can still hold onto those qualities as they grow. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller certainly know this, as the act of watching the film (and likely the act of making it) is sort of like it was playing with Legos as a kid. Like starting with that huge box of seemingly infinite bricks, it at first kind of feels like they’re making the movie up as they go along, throwing out random jokes and piling on new worlds to explore.
Like winding up with a cool-looking Lego creation you couldn’t possibly have imagined from the start, by the end it all felt remarkably like everything the movie did and said before had a purpose, despite how random it all seemed in the moment. The ending caught me by surprise not only because of what actually happens, but because the sentiment it delivers is so universal, ageless and timeless, I almost couldn’t believe it was coming from a computer animated movie (albeit a beautifully inventive one) starring Chris Pratt as a bumbling Lego idiot. But I never doubted Lord and Miller, directors who I am convinced can make just about anything into gold. The Lego Movie is the pinnacle of 3D animation and in my opinion, the best of what movies had to offer this year.
There are several films that just barely missed making this list. All of these ‘runner-ups’ are still incredibly good movies that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone: Blue Ruin by Jeremy Saulnier, Birdman by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Locke by Steven Knight, The Drop by Michael R. Roskam, Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-ho, Chef by Jon Favreau, Life Itself by Steve James, The Babadook by Jennifer Kent, Jodorowsky’s Dune by Frank Pavich, Interstellar by Christopher Nolan, and The Double by Richard Ayoade.
Thanks for your support throughout 2013, and I look forward to another year of surprises!