The Best of 2014: A Year in Film

2014 Year in Film Header
Another Oscar ceremony arrives this weekend, another look back at the last year in film. 2014 was full of a lot great films and I’m here to share my favorites.

I know I am always “late” in the game with my look back at the previous year in film, but I like to think about my picks, rewatch stuff, all while seeing as many titles as possible before writing this up. This was a light year for me seeing movies compared to the last few. I moved, had a new job, made it to less screenings, but I still saw over 110 new releases from 2014. Not too shabby. Even though I saw less, I still think there a ton of great movies to talk about (insert “You like too many movies, Zac!”)

So, without further ado, let’s get into some awards.

The Best Thing I Saw in Theaters that Wasn’t a Feature: Feast
This Disney Animation short had me in tears at its perfection. Sweet and hilarious, yet a painfully honest and true look at life and relationships, this couldn’t have been any better than it was. It was easily in the top 3 of movies I saw this year if I had the feelings I had towards Feast spread out over the course of a feature runtime. You can watch it on the Big Hero 6 Blu if you missed out, and maybe it is online somewhere, but if you love dogs, hell, if you love life, then I think you will appreciate this mini-masterpiece.

The Babadook
Best Movie That Lost Me In The Third Act: The Babadook
For the first two-thirds of The Babadook I was enthralled. Babadook was a fantastic take on the horror genre that left everything up to interpretation, all while examining a mother’s psyche when dealing with a mentally disturbed son. The Babadook was so brave and fearless to show the darkest corners of being a parent and then it betrays all of that by making everything with The Babadook literal. Yes, the Babadook fits very nicely into those themes, but it excuses the child and makes the mother a monster all while erasing the nuance the film had going for it. I would still recommend The Babadook in a heartbeat, the third act stuff is good on its own, but I just wish they never made it all real. It could have been one of the very best films of the year.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Desplat)
Score of the Year: Alexandre Desplat’s The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s film is bright and full of energy all on its own, but Desplat’s score puts it over the top. The score helps propel and bounce The Grand Budapest Hotel forward with an extra bound in its step. Desplat and Anderson have collaborated on three films now and it is a partnership I hope we don’t see end anytime soon. The end credits suite in particular locks you into your seat as you enjoy the fun and silly eastern European vibe of the score that makes you want to dance like the little guy that pops up in the bottom of the screen near the end of the credits. This score has got a lot of play on my computer as I write and I can only imagine it will continue to find its way on to playlists of mine for years to come.

Just Missing Out: Mica Levi’s Under the Skin, the perfectly unique score for a perfectly unique film.

Interstellar Endurance
Scene of the Year: Docking with “Endurance” in Interstellar
This is a fairly long and intense sequence right before the final push of Interstellar and, up there on an IMAX screen, this sequence was just incredible. Everything is working here. The score, McConaughey’s cowboy attitude, the inherent tension of the scene based on the stakes, but it’s the visuals themselves that put the thing over the top. The rotating docking sequence is perfectly realized and clearly photographed by Nolan and his team, building the tension to its absolute height. It’s moments like this that make us wait in anticipation for everything he does.

Runner Ups:
Captain America takes over a boat, Grand Budapest Prison Break; Watchers Defend the Ark (Noah), Taking apart Robocop to his core, The three lovers concerto (Nymphomaniac), The Black Room (Under the Skin), Breaking up the Bromance (Neighbors), Godzilla vs. MUTOs, Quicksilver to the rescue (X-Men: Days of Future Past), “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” lip sync (Skeleton Twins), Final Scene of A Most Wanted Man, Prison Break (Guardians of the Galaxy), The band gets back together (Frank), Amazing Amy gets bloody (Gone Girl), David crashes “the dance” (The Guest), John Wick vs. The Club, Mike and Riggan workshop (Birdman), Lou Bloom’s final plan (Nightcrawler), Princess Kaguya runs from home, Baymax’s low battery (Big Hero 6), Ashley Kane’s Segment (Listen up Philip), The Carnegie Hall battle (Whiplash), “Agony” (Into the Woods), Jerry Seinfeld at the club (Top Five), Escaping North Korea (The Interview), Burning down the house (The Homesman), Shasta comes back (Inherent Vice), Bigfoot’s last visit (Inherent Vice), Chance to keep her job (Two Days, One Night), Grieving for a grandson (Selma)

On To The Lists:
That’s right, lists. Before I get into my own favorite films of the year, my main lady Amy is going to throw in her own two cents on the year in film.
The Grand Budapest Hotel Amy
Amy’s Top 20 of 2014:
20. St. Vincent
19. Neighbors
18. Muppets Most Wanted
17. Guardians of the Galaxy
16. The Boxtrolls
15. Obvious Child
14. The Theory of Everything
13. God Help the Girl
12. Only Lovers Left Alive
11. Gone Girl
10. 22 Jump Street
9. The Skeleton Twins
8. Edge of Tomorrow
7. Two Days, One Night
6. Wild
5. Ida
4. Captain America: Winter Solider
3. Chef
2. Big Hero 6
1. Grand Budapest Hotel

Biggest Disappointments:
1. Lucy- High expectations, but an interesting idea doesn’t add up in the end.
2. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies- my opinion may change upon viewing sequentially with the 2nd movie. Felt abbreviated and was disconnected from emotion.
3. A Most Violent Year- With great actors staring had high expectations, but the story didn’t manage to capture me.
4. Inherent Vice- What?
5. Selma- Over hyped in my opinion

Thank you, Amy. I wonder how much we will cross over?

The Ones I Missed:
Mr. Turner, Why Don’t You Play in Hell, Starred Up, Mommy, Unbroken, Citizen Four, The Overnighters, Song of the Sea, Stranger by the Lake, Land Ho, Goodbye to Language, Leviathan, Winter Sleep, Mood Indigo, Kill the Messenger, Big Eyes, Rosewater, Laggies, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Venus in Fur

Honorable Mentions: I could talk plenty about all of the things I like in these films and they are well worth your time if you ask me. Some of these have amazing moments, some are good from start to finish, I don’t really know how a couple of these they ended up here and not on the big list. Maybe it was just too strong a competition.

Foxcatcher, Frank, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, The Boxtrolls, Joe, 22 Jump Street, Pride, The Interview, The Imitation Game, Obvious Child, The Babadook, A Most Violent Year, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, What If?, Noah, Snowpiercer, Locke, The Double, Happy Christmas, Coherence, Night Moves, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her, Palo Alto, Top Five, God Help the Girl, John Wick, The One I Love.

Click on titles for links back to full reviews and breakdowns for more in depth thoughts; when available.

The Also Rans:
American Sniper
American Sniper
Clint Eastwood’s film has become quite the decisive one, but I found myself on the edge of my seat and very enamored with Bradley Cooper’s performance. I think American Sniper works best though if you are viewing this as a work of fiction. Chris Kyle was real, his death was tragic and he racked up a record number of kills in Iraq, but I have a hard time believing he would have enjoyed this film all that much. I did enjoy American Sniper though, and my opinion of it has only grown stronger as time’s gone on and I’ve read more and more takes on the film. I will say this, if you walk away from American Sniper with a jingoistic slant, thinking those Iraqis got what they deserved, you watched a different film than me.

Beyond the Lights
Beyond the Lights
This romance centered around a rising pop-musician hits a lot of familiar notes, but nails every one. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a star to watch after this film and I can’t imagine people aren’t lining her up, trying to put her in anything they can. Raw literally does it all in this film, she plays sexy, crazy, sweet, heartfelt, strong, she is just so damn good here I can’t wait to see more from her. Her co-star, Nate Parker, is someone else I like a lot as well, and while he doesn’t quite have the charisma of his female counterpart the two have a wonderful chemistry that we never doubt for a moment. It’s so good, the obligatory third act wedge comes off incredibly weak and out of left field. Still, Beyond the Lights brings you back and sticks the landing. This is one of many under seen gems on this list, and probably could have been higher had I not just seen it the night before posting this.

Skeleton Twins
The Skeleton Twins
SNL alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star in this dramedy about a pair of siblings dealing with the “shit hits the fan” portion of their lives and both actors show their range beyond the comedy. That doesn’t mean The Skeleton Twins doesn’t have laughs, it might have the funniest couple of scenes of the year, but the film tells a serious story dealing with some interesting situations for these siblings. Wiig has done dramatic work to great effect in the past, but Hader really impresses with his first dramatic role. The Skeleton Twins sort of got lost this fall, don’t miss it after this second chance reminder. The lip sync scene is worth the price of admission alone.

This film has stayed with me and only grown in my appreciation since I saw it in the theater. I enjoy it even more than I did Jean-Marc Vallée’s film from last year, Dallas Buyer’s Club. Reese Witherspoon is fantastic in the lead, based off the real life Cheryl Strayed, who decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail to try to get her life back together. Vallée balances a jumping timeline with ease and the imagery along the trail is beautifully brought to the screen. But Witherspoon is the real draw, and she probably has never been better. She gives everything to the performance, doing things you’ve never seen from the actress, and she bounces off everyone she encounters with ease along the trail. Witherspoon is tough, funny, sexy, vulnerable, throw an adjective out there, she shows it. Wild was another under looked gem this fall, see it when you can.

Muppets Most Wanted
Muppets Most Wanted
I love me some Muppets, but I was a tad disappointed with the previous film from a couple of years back. The songs were good, it was fun to see everyone, but it played things a little too safe if you ask me. Most Wanted has none of these issues, as it embraces the wacky side of Muppets and never looks back. The songs are, again, great from Bret McKenzie and I loved everything about Constantine, Kermit’s evil Russian doppelgänger. Constantine’s attempt at doing the opening of The Muppet Show was one of the funniest bits of the year. Also, Animal gets to be Animal again, and we are all the better for it. It’s the Muppets being the Muppets and I hope we get more of it.

X-Men Days of Future Past
X-Men: Days of Future Past
I was a big fan of the sort of X-Men reboot First Class. Fassbender, McAvoy, Hoult and Lawrence are great as the younger version of the X-Men and I really liked what they did in the time jumping storyline of Days of Future Past. Bringing Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine into the mix is always a good move, and Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise balances the two timelines with ease. The Quicksilver action scene is also one of the best of the year, in a film that is full of solid set pieces that also incorporates characters’ emotions into the action. I know Fox wants these X-Men to be as big as those Avengers, and while they aren’t quite at that level, they aren’t too far behind.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Another sequel on this list, but the follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes is just as compelling as its predecessor. The effects are, again, phenomenal and Matt Reeves direction allows for some incredible set pieces throughout Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Koba is the wildcard of the picture and he steals the show from Cesar on a number of occasions. Toby Kebbell disappears into the role. Koba’s tank ride is another contender for set piece of the year and is also one of the year’s best single shots. Caesar’s story is as compelling as any other franchise out there right now and I can’t wait to see more from these characters.

Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow was an original sci-fi blockbuster that too many of you ignored this summer. A lot of people are averse to Tom Cruise because of their supposed knowledge of his personal life, but as a movie star the guy is always pretty great. That’s no different here and he brings along a kick-ass Emily Blunt for good measure. The Groundhog Day gimmick isn’t just a gimmick, as Edge of Tomorrow uses the premise to tell an engaging and compelling story that finds humor, tension and relationships through it. Again, too many of you missed out on Edge of Tomorrow, most of you probably didn’t even give it a chance, but this is some of the best original (none of you read the japanese comic it’s based on) sci-fi we have seen in the theater in some time.

This is another doppelgänger film on the list, as Jake Gyllenhaal stars as an actor and a professor who cross paths and then play a dangerous game with their relationships as they get to know each other better. Full of weird imagery, confounding clues and a twisted perspective, Enemy will keep you guessing and wondering what the F just happened long after the credits roll. I hate to talk too much about this one, but if you are up for something weird and a great Gyllenhaal performance, than Enemy will certainly fit the bill.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an incredible idea realized, but I have a hard time connecting to the dramatic weight many people are feeling as they anoint it one of the best films of all time. Part of this has to do with the wet blanket performance by Ellar Coltrane once he hits puberty. He’s fine, but a great actor could have taken this film to true greatness. Still, the idea is amazing, and the fact they pulled it off is even more so. Arquette and Hawke both make up for any of Coltrane’s shortcomings and Lorelei Linklater is great until she stops being in the film. I appreciate Linklater’s comfort in just taking us through the mundane elements of life and not forcing drama on the story, if I just had that emotional connection this film would be much higher on my list.

Love is Strange
Love is Strange
Ira Sachs’ film is a beautiful look at life, love and everything that goes on in between it. When a gay couple finally gets married after 39 years together, the one who is still working gets fired from his job at a catholic school, forcing them to sell their apartment. Love is Strange unfolds from there as the two are forced to live with separate friends and relatives as the POV of the film mostly switches to the couples’ observations of their new lives they inhabit. Love is Strange glides along between the two, sometimes meeting for occasional moments together, but the whole thing plays as a slice of life more than anything, barely driven by plot or circumstance. It is about as pleasant a film as you could hope for and quite the showcase for John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in the starring roles. A wonderful little film that fills your heart with every pleasant emotion.

The Rover
The Rover
One the latest entries on to this list, David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic road movie had me enthralled from nearly start to finish. Small and simple, Guy Pearce wants his car back, The Rover’s story is mostly a two-man show as Pearce and Robert Pattinson traverse the Australian desert looking for Scoot McNairy and the men who stole Pearce’s car. The car may seem trivial, but it all pays off in the end, as The Rover is full of moments that demand a second viewing. Sneakily full of set-pieces, Michôd fills the film with tension then never really gives you a release. I often found myself mesmerized and you can add this to the list of films you probably didn’t even hear of that you now should probably see.

Christopher Nolan’s latest, when at its best, is awe-inspiring. The sequence from the second planet all the way through to eventual docking, I will put up against any set piece this year; made all the more magical in beautiful IMAX. I am a bit worried about seeing this again and it not on the giant screen because Nolan makes the absolute most out of the IMAX moments. Will it play the same at home, certainly not, but I wonder if the emotional stuff might play even better away from the spectacle of IMAX. The twenty year catch up scene was the only moment that really punched me in the gut, and I’m not really sure about that 5th dimensional tesseract, but knowing Nolan’s game plan might let a lot of these moments play better a second time around. Still, Interstellar is technical perfection, with McConaughey owning his role and TARS & CASE being some of the most imaginative things thrown up on the screen this year. Keep giving us original ideas like this Mr. Nolan.

Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron are all great in this high concept comedy that holds up remarkably well on repeat viewings. I have seen this multiple times and find myself laughing just as hard every time out. Rogen has perfected his man-child schtick here by showing that he can be a decent enough father at the same time. Efron goes toe to toe comedy wise with everyone they throw at him, and his puppy dog eyes of sadness & betrayal will never not get me laughing. Byrne steals the show though, as she firmly plants her flag as one of the funniest women in film. She is great in everything she does, but between the milking and her matchmaking betrayal, she has rarely been funnier than she is in Neighbors. Anyone that bowed out on this due to Rogen fatigue or lack of faith in Efron, come for Byrne and be impressed how funny both of those boys can be.

The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie
Everything is Awesome! Who would have thought this little movie would end up being so damn good? Lord and Miller had two solid comedies this year, but I never thought this animated one would end up being the stronger runner for one of the best of the year. Full of imagination, homages, pop culture skewering and a silly sense of humor you can get behind, everything was pretty awesome in The Lego Movie. The voice cast was great from top to bottom, Batman has never been so enjoyable and the hit TV show in The Lego Movie gave me a great catch phrase around the house, “Honey, where are my pants!”

This look at the historic civil rights march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama is a harrowing and unsettling film at times, filled with great performances and some impeccable direction by Ava DuVernay. No movie made me cry as hard as this film did this year and its portrayal of the events was an unflinching take on a dark time in our nation’s history. Sadly, Selma is still incredibly relevant to today’s socio-political climate and everything these people worked for has technically been stripped away by the Supreme Court last year. David Oyelowo is marvelous as Dr. King and you have to appreciate the film showing the human side of the man and not just propping him up with his great speeches. Selma is powerful filmmaking about a subject matter that isn’t going away in our country any time soon. Can’t wait for what DuVernay does next.

The Drop
The Drop
This American debut by Michaël R. Roskam is a small, crime film classic that will go criminally under seen by way too many people. You can set it right alongside films like Killing Them Softly & Out of the Furnace from the past couple of years that slowly ratchet up their drama and tension before culminating in a powerful conclusion delivered by a bunch of skilled actors. In this case it is Tom Hardy in another transformative role that is almost all in the eyes. You don’t screw around with Hardy’s character in The Drop and as he is squeezed in tighter and tighter you can see the guy becoming more and more dangerous. Noomi Rapace and Matthias Schoenaerts continue to make strong transitions to English language film and James Gandolfini delivers another great performance that proves we lost him way too soon. Everyone I know that has watched The Drop on my recommendation has loved it, so take their word for it if not mine.

The Top 20
20. Whiplash
One of the most visceral films you will watch this year, the filmmaking on display here is an impressive technical feat that propels forward a story that might be a bit too over the top without it. Everything about this story teeters on the edge of tipping over into the absurd, in fact, one sequence in the middle actually probably does, but Damien Chazelle never lets you go. He keeps you entertained and engaged with Andrew’s drive for greatness. J.K. Simmons’ sadistic and abusive teacher has us feeling like masochists as we want to keep coming back for more, but there we are, asking to be punished again and again. That final scene is an insane set piece, with all the thrills and excitement of a comic book movie fight, only we get to see both the good guy and the bad guy decide to team up together half way through the battle, ready to take on all challengers. Can’t wait to revisit this movie again.

A Most Wanted Man
19. A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film as a lead actor sees him deliver another knockout performance as he and the film slowly boil over towards its conclusion. The third film by Anton Corbijn proves he is one of the best working directors around, and while there is less style in A Most Wanted Man (compared to Control and The American), Corbijn’s ensemble cast brings a deliberate espionage tale by John le Carré together for a compelling “cold war” thriller set in today’s political climate. Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe all contribute wonderfully to A Most Wanted Man, but Hoffman is the real show here. It really is upsetting that we aren’t going to get more performances like this out of him. His crescendo that builds up to the end explodes wonderfully in a fit of rage, it is great stuff. Another under seen gem on this list, don’t miss out on this great little spy thriller that features one of the best performances from this generation’s greatest actor.

18. Godzilla
Gareth Edwards’ reboot of Godzilla was able to take all of the great things you love about Godzilla as a kid, remove almost all of the cheesiness, and roll it all together into a film that was truly awe-inspiring with its sense of scale and direction. Edwards is grifting heavily on Spielberg throughout this film, but I don’t care because he is actually pretty good at. This is only Edwards second film and I can’t even imagine what his movies might look like after a couple more under his belt (He is heading to helm next year’s Star Wars spinoff, color me excited). But as someone who loved watching Godzilla movies growing up, this film did a great job of building up towards that climatic brawl in San Francisco when all hell breaks loose. The MUTO’s were great creatures that I actually kind of cared about (when the eggs burn, their reaction, lots of feels), but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t giddy as hell when Godzilla started pulling off fatalities on them. This, like Interstellar, demands to be seen on the big screen, but the ride and awe Edwards brings to this film is something few filmmakers can do today.

17. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Michael Keaton is great in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s farce centered around the world of actors, and it doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as its detractors would like to think. Keaton’s supporting cast is fantastic from top to bottom, Norton, Riseborough and Stone especially, and everyone brings their A games to the series of single takes that are strung together to seem like one long uninterrupted shot. Iñárritu’s insistence on not cutting the camera really helped these scenes come alive and breath, in a setting that could have felt dull and claustrophobic without it. Birdman is also one of the funnier films of the year to go along with it being one of the year’s most technically impressive. Birdman has a little something for everyone in it and this is a film I appreciated even more so on a second viewing, can’t wait for the third. But seriously, Edward Norton, do more comedy please.

Only Lovers Left Alive
16. Only Lovers Left Alive
Best vampire movie ever? I don’t know if Let the Right One In is ready to give up that mantle in my head, but this laid back look at what happens when vampires get bored and sick of humanity was a delightful time at the theater. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are great as a pair of long time lovers dealing with the depression of being hundreds of years old, while the script is just full of great bits of subtle humor and observations that feel exactly like something a centuries old vampire would feel. Mia Wasikowska is a ball of energy when she steps into this film, and while you will wish there was more of her, she is absolutely perfect from start to finish in the screen time we do get. The music is also some of the best you’ll find in a film this year as the soundtrack is a great little ambient piece to throw in the background when you are writing thousands of words on the year in film. Jim Jarmusch’s work can be a bit opaque for some people, and has been for me, but this is my favorite film from him in some time. More Swinton!

Big Hero 6
15. Big Hero 6
Disney Animation has been on quite a roll as of late, and this Marvel adaptation might be my favorite film yet from the John Lasseter era of the studio. Big Hero 6 might hit a lot of familiar comic book tropes, but it hits them all so perfectly, with humor, heart and thrills to spare, that one can’t be all that upset about it. This cast of characters is a whole lot of fun to run around with and the fact that this film is so pro-science, the super hero team is literally a team of scientists, it gives me hope that Big Hero 6 will inspire a generation of kids to embrace the awesomeness of that field. But beyond all that, Big Hero 6 makes you feel for a giant white pillow named Baymax. He is the funniest and most heartfelt animated character to come along since Wall-e. Yeah, I cried a bit at this movie, and that is a testament to how great these characters and their relationships were built up on that screen. Also, Baymax’s fistbump noise is one of my favorite things ever.

14. Calvary
Another late watch to get on this list, this film opens with a priest being told he is going to be killed, the killer sets the date and where to meet and we watch the next week unfold in the said priest’s life. Calvary is a pitch black comedy that takes shots at everything around it, as this small Irish town is full of potential suspects for the priest to try to figure out who wants him dead. The script and direction from John Michael McDonagh tops his work on The Guard and brings him to the level of his brother’s work on In Bruges. Both films star the great Brendan Gleeson and are comedies with such black hearts that you can’t help but question yourself why you are laughing at some of the jokes. Calvary is so well crafted and put together I almost immediately wanted to watch it again. It’s a film I will revisit soon enough and one that might have been higher on this list had I had more time to let it stew in my brain a bit. Also, I always appreciate a good skewering of the hypocrisy of the church. Can’t wait for McDonagh’s next film, both of them.

Two Days One Night
13. Two Days, One Night
This was my first Dardenne brothers film, and I have to say that I look forward to watching more from them. Following a depressed woman’s last ditch attempt to save her job, she must convince all of her co-workers to choose her keeping her job over their bonus which will go away if she is kept on. Marion Cotillard is phenomenal in the role, playing a woman so beat down, vulnerable and struggling to keep herself together as she tries to save her job, it’s an often harrowing performance to watch. Cotillard is slowly proving she might be the best actress working today. This film will have you on the edge of your seat every step of the way with Sandra as the simple premise of Two Days, One Night is one of my favorite character studies of the year.

The Guest 2
12. The Guest
Here is another film none of you saw that almost all of you will enjoy, as this action throwback (inspired by a double feature of Halloween and The Terminator) is some of the most fun I had in a theater all year. When a discharged veteran, David, shows up on the doorstep of his slain brother in arms’ family’s front door, the family embraces him with mostly open arms until some interesting developments begin to unfold around them. I hate to spoil the twists and turns of this film as it is quite a ride, but Dan Stevens is fantastic in the lead role of David as he goes toe to toe with many outside forces that could endanger his and his adoptive family’s way of life. The Guest’s soundtrack is also one of the year’s best and the way it is integrated into the film is as clever as I’ve seen in some time. Adam Wingard is a director to watch and Dan Stevens’ leap out of Downton Abbey couldn’t have landed more smoothly, the dude is a star in waiting, don’t miss his first great performance and have fun with The Guest.

The Homesman
11. The Homesman
Tommy Lee Jones’ western is a brutal look at life in the west, all while finding heart and humor along the way. Following the transfer of three women who have gone crazy in their lives out in the middle of nowhere, a woman who was never able to find a man, Mary Bee Cuddy agrees to take the trio back to Iowa with the hopes of rehabilitating them. Cuddy stumbles across Jones’ George Briggs, who is a bit of a local outlaw, and she forces him to come along for the ride in return for saving his life. Jones is fantastic as the grizzled and foul-mouthed Briggs, but Cuddy is played just as compellingly by Hilary Swank. The Homesman’s tone bounces between light and humorous to unflinchingly dark, never hiding from the harshness of the frontier world, as we pass through almost a series of vignettes of life out on the plains. The ending of The Homesman really smacked me over the head though, showing how insignificant we all are paired against some more of the beautiful photography that the film is full of. The Homesman continues to prove that the western is a genre that is ripe for great films, if only more people cared to see them nowadays.

The Top 10:
We Are the Best!
10. We Are The Best!
Lukas Moodysson’s import from Sweden is a look at friendship among three young teenage girls who all decide to make a rock band together. Set in the early 80’s We Are The Best! is divorced of modern technology, but the ups and downs of these girls’ friendship feels as authentic and modern as any representation I’ve seen on film in years. The film has heart, is very funny and you will find yourself wanting to spend more time with these girls as they grow up. I’ve heard a few people say that they wish Boyhood could have followed these girls for the next twelve years instead and I couldn’t agree more. The dynamic that these three actresses (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin & Liv LeMoyne) have is so rich, and so well acted, I want to watch them navigate their teenage years and actually, maybe, become a good band. Still, for as wishful I am for more, I cherish what we got, We Are The Best! is one of the most joyful films of the year. You will be hard pressed to find many better films about girl’s friendships.

Gone Girl
9. Gone Girl
David Fincher is pretty much a lock to make my top ten whenever he pumps out a new film, and Gone Girl is no exception. The crazy thing is that this might be my least favorite, non-Alien 3, Fincher film and it is still better than the majority of the films I saw this year. A second viewing really cemented its place in the top 10 as GOne Girl’s black humor really hits you the second time around. Rosamund Pike has been on my radar for years, but this is her best performance to date if you ask me. She is so coldly and calculatingly crazy, yet you kind of want to root for her as things go along. Affleck’s Nick Dunne is also quite the son of a bitch himself, but somehow we find ourselves rooting for him too. There isn’t really a bad guy in Gone Girl, in that they both kind of are ones, and the way your opinion sways back and forth about the two is a credit to Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s script from her own book. Also, more Carrie Coon in everything please.

8. Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in this film is just incredible. So weird, creepy and hilarious, Lou Bloom is a demented look at the American dream that I couldn’t resist. Taking the ambulance chasing news reporting by storm, Bloom will do anything to rise the ranks and yet I couldn’t stop rooting for him as he does despicable thing after despicable thing. The final set piece in this film has one of the best “oh shit” reveals of the year in it and that moment is probably where I finally turned my back on enjoying Bloom’s games. Still, you have to give the guy some credit, he is a hell of a documentarian, even if he is manipulating his work. Nightcrawler is a great little thriller with one of the year’s best performances, and I see myself revisiting this one a lot over the years.

Guardians of the Galaxy
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
I love me some Chris Pratt on Parks & Rec (the weeks full Johnny Karate episode was, incredible), so I was eagerly anticipating his shot at a starring role in this big budget Marvel space opera and I wasn’t disappointed. Walking and “Groot”ing tree, check! Gun toting maniac racoon, check! Epic space adventure full of tons of weird and inventive worlds and creature, check! What isn’t to like? Plus, Guardians of the Galaxy’s script and direction by James Gunn is hilarious, featuring many of the best one liners of the year. “Looks like a Jackson Pollock painting in here.” And Pratt, he’s a star. The guy will charm the pants of anyone, and Star Lord tries to do so at just about every turn. Can’t wait for more adventures with these guys, and I really can’t wait till they, hopefully, meet the Avengers in 2018.

6. Nymphomaniac
Lars von Trier’s nearly five and a half hour epic (still haven’t made it through that directors cut, but getting there) is a matter of fact and often hilarious character study of a girl discovering her sexuality and what that means to her. It stares social norms in the face and tells them to f-off, all while showing it is ok for a woman to feel and act like this. It makes her no different from a man and they certainly aren’t ashamed of that behavior. The social/political undertones aren’t all the movie is about though, at its core it is just a fascinating examination of one woman’s life and the slightly heightened world she lives in. Trier’s craft is impeccable, as always, delivering some of the most fantastic shots and sequences on a screen this year. Nymphomaniac might seem like “too much” for some people, but that is sort of the point isn’t it? The “pornographic” imagery, the sexual liberation of a woman, all of this is seen as “too much” in our American society, but Nymphomaniac makes a very convincing case that this is all just a part of life; while still devilishly playing with why so many people are afraid of it. Uma Thurman for the winner of best one scene performance, maybe ever?

Captain America - The Winter Soldier
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Yes, two Marvel movies in my top 10, and this shouldn’t be a surprise as the studio is becoming the best at producing blockbuster entertainment. Winter Soldier might be my favorite action movie of the last few years. Every beat feels fresh and different, it feels grounded in reality even as Steve Rogers does superhuman feats and it is all made believable by a fantastic lead performance from Chris Evans. Evans turn as Cap is severely underappreciated, and the actor as a whole has been neglected time and time again for great work. The guy is always good, and getting to see him as Captain America so much over the last few years, and the next couple too, has been a real treat. Winter Soldier also spins the Marvel framework with a cold war spy story to great effect here and I like that the studio seems to be playing with genres while sort of sticking to their superhero roots. I’m all in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as I love blockbuster filmmaking done right, and Winter Soldier is exactly that.

Inherent Vice
4. Inherent Vice
Don’t worry about the plot. I know that is a weird thing to request when watching a movie, but Inherent Vice doesn’t want you to try and solve anything. Hell, Inherent Vice’s lead, Doc Sportello, doesn’t even quite know if he figured it all out by the end; and that’s ok. Inherent Vice is all about atmosphere, mood, feelings, state of mind and Paul Thomas Anderson has no problem taking us on a journey that gives us plenty to chew on in those departments. Joaquin Phoenix is incredible, again, as Doc and it was a blast to ride along with him, taking in information and meeting a million interesting faces along the way. Josh Brolin’s turn as Bigfoot Bjornsen is also one of the year’s best performances and shouldn’t be missed. Inherent Vice is a film you should see at least twice, and after that second viewing you will want to just keep diving back in to this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel. It’s full of great humor, interesting characters and a fully realized world that Paul Thomas Anderson masterfully brings to the screen. Hell of a soundtrack too.

3. Ida
Pawel Pawlikowski’s look at 1960’s Poland through the eyes of soon to be nun, Anna, is in impeccably crafted film that balances tone as masterfully as anything else put out this year. How a film that deals with a woman and her aunt getting to the bottom of their family’s past during WWII could be so funny and full of life along side the inherent sadness and anger that comes with their search is a marvel, and this is all made possible by the performances of Ida’s two leads. Agata Trzebuchowska (Anna) and Agata Kulesza’s (Anna’s aunt Wanda) opposing demeanors work perfectly for this road film across the Polish countryside, that some how finds breaks for 60’s rock & roll and self discovery as Wanda questions Anna’s decision to join the church. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful black and white film in recent memory, while Kulesza’s performance is probably the best one given by an actress this year. Ida will surprise you, and at 80 something minutes you have no reason not to give it a shot. You will not be disappointed.

Under the Skin
2. Under the Skin
Like Upstream Color last year, Under the Skin is a quiet, yet sonically driven, film that is unlike just about anything you have ever seen. This story of an alien visitor who has come to earth for unmentioned reasons is a mesmerizing experience. Scarlett Johansson never lets you look away as she seduces and submerges men she randomly picks up on the street and takes them back to a room of nothingness that all of a sudden becomes something. The scene on the beach is one of the most haunting things I saw in a theater all year and it doesn’t even invoke any of the sci-fi elements that make Under the Skin so unique and special. Mica Levi’s score is abstract and unsettling, the perfect companion to the images Jonathan Glazer throws up on the screen. Under the Skin will haunt your memory, I thought about this film for weeks after seeing it, but it is also an experience unlike anything you’ve seen in a film before; that’s something truly special.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is, arguably (yes, with myself), my favorite director. Yes, I love PTA, Tarantino, Spielberg, Fincher and Scorsese as much as anyone else, but there is something about Anderson that just clicks with me. It’s films like Budapest and Fantastic Mr. Fox that so boldly convince me that he is my favorite director, they are both such pure and exact distillations of everything that makes Anderson so great. The beautiful and precise imagery, that slightly off-kilter world view, the tremendously effortless world building, moments of hilarity filled with melancholy, all played by eccentric and original casts that extended for as far as the eye can see. You can say that about all of his films starting at The Royal Tenenbaums, but the reason Fox and Budapest stand out the most is because they feel the most at Anderson’s absolute control.

The reason The Grand Budapest stands at the top of this year’s list is not just for all of the reasons mentioned above, but because of the incredible creation that is M. Gustave H., played by the irreplaceable Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes delivers maybe the best performance to date in an Anderson film and is one of the funniest, most original characters I’ve ever seen in a film. Fiennes is a force of nature in this film and Anderson surrounds him with a bevy of amazing talents we’ve come to know and love in Anderson’s work, as well as adding in a few new faces, as always. The Grand Budapest Hotel is pure cinematic joy, the film is perfection at every turn, and the underlying sadness of its ending is centered around the idea of what happens when things as joyful as this film are taken away. I don’t ever want Anderson to change, and if he keeps pumping out masterpieces like this, everyone else will be hard pressed not to feel the same.

2 thoughts on “The Best of 2014: A Year in Film

  1. Did we see the same Captain America? Because mine was quite average.

    Feast however, was awesome. An amazing amount of humor and emotion crammed into that short.

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