Posted in: Commentary

The Top 10 Movies of 2014

This year we had robot aliens, raccoon aliens, tentacled aliens, and hot chick aliens. We had fever dreams, snowbound train trips, and long walks of self-discovery. We had a kid growing up and two aging adults dumbing it down for a second time. We had movies about movies. We had movies about LEGO.

There was plenty of good material to find in 2014 if you put in the effort to dig through an inordinate amount of schlock. Fortunately, our staff has done the hard work for you. Here are our top ten lists assaying our top ten movies (and single worst movie) from the year we just closed the books on.

Christopher Null, Editor in Chief

_AF_6405.CR21. Birdman – The only movie of the year I can say with total honesty that I enjoyed completely and unreservedly from beginning to end. Redemption stories are hardly a new genre in Hollywood, but this scorching tale of a faded action star clawing for one last shot at glory (and a connection with his wayward daughter) grabs you by the lapels and simply never lets go. Alejandro González Iñárritu and Michael Keaton both deserve Oscars.

2. Boyhood – Much has been said of Richard Linklater’s ambitious experiment filming the same actors over a 12 year span, watching the titular boyhood blossom – and then evolve into adulthood. It’s a quiet film that nonetheless assays a tough life that no child should have to experience, but which many unfortunately do. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel – After years of daffy, obtuse, and aimless movies – you can finally admit that Moonrise Kingdom was nearly unwatchable, no one will judge you – Wes Anderson is back in the groove with his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums. Quirky without being kitschy, it’s both madcap and heartwarming – and full of little visual delights.

4. Blue Ruin – To say this film was underseen would be an understatement. This rural revenge story follows the cycle of violence that is set off when a man seeks outside-the-law retribution against the man who killed his parents decades earlier. When the killer gets out of prison, our hero (as close as we have to one) snuffs him out. The killer’s family responds. Things get uglier and uglier. When will it end? If this isn’t an apt metaphor for the world at large, I don’t know what is.

5. Edge of Tomorrow – I don’t care much for Tom Cruise and I don’t particularly like Emily Blunt, either. Somehow, they work perfectly well together in this fun-as-all-get-out actioner that blends together aliens, military invasions, and time travel into one swirly adventure. The story is engaging without being mindbending on, say, a Primer level. Renaming the film for home video was a huge mistake.

6. They Came Together – The best satire since Top Secret! Today’s comedy superstars roll right over the rom-com archetypes in this madcap exploration of how one couple met-cute, hated each other, then (of course) eventually hooked up. Sort of. The fun of the film is in the little details. Ed Helms mindlessly coming out of the bathroom during a party while still zipping up his pants is probably the funniest single moment I experienced in 2014 at the movies, and here it’s just a casual throwaway gag. A future cult classic.

7. Big Eyes – 2014’s most powerful statement on feminism. Director Tim Burton’s characteristic style is dialed so far back that it fades into the background, just like Margaret Keane did in the face of a tyrannical husband. Amy Adams is just perfect in this role.

8. Under the Skin – One of the most alluring yet most cryptic examples of existentialism on film since 2001: A Space Odyssey.

9. The Skeleton Twins – The dysfunctional family comedy, kicked up to 11. I’ve probably watched the lip sync scene a half-dozen times already.

10. Big Bad Wolves – Torture porn as a genre petered out a few years back. Big Bad Wolves is something else, revenge fantasy filtered through the lens of modern-day Israeli paranoia. How far will people go for “closure” when citizens capture a suspected child killer? Big Bad Wolves ponders the limits of vigilantism. It isn’t pretty.

Worst Film of the Year: Winter’s Tale – Like a two-hour Nicholas Sparks dry heave captured on film.

Chris Barsanti

boyhood1. Boyhood – The aspect of Richard Linklater’s sublime epic that received the most attention (filmed in quasi-real time over 12 years) is ultimately not what makes it memorable. The patient accretion of detail and refusal to nod to all the usual adolescent film tropes leaves the film free to show a life blossoming at its own speed into a world whose randomness doesn’t detract from its beauty.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Ralph Fiennes plays an impossibly well-mannered Eastern European hotel concierge, and possibly the last bastion of civilization, in Wes Anderson’s bittersweet absurdist dollhouse of a film about the rejuvenating power of ritual and style amidst the savage cycle of history.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy – Forget the Avengers; the ragtag team of misfits (genetically enhanced raccoons and walking, talking trees among their number) featured in James Gunn’s absurdly entertaining space opera comedy are who Marvel should really be building their film franchise around. What more summer blockbusters should be like.

4. Life Itself – Steve James (Hoop Dreams) was one of the many filmmakers whose work Roger Ebert championed over the years. It’s fitting then that James was able to return the favor in this powerfully emotional and thoughtful documentary about the writer’s life and work. James goes beyond a simple recounting of Ebert’s career and considers the broader range of what it meant, from his keen ambition and inexhaustible curiosity to the stoic nature of his battle with cancer, captured here by James with a bracing and ultimately hopeful honesty.

5. 20,000 Days on Earth – One of the year’s other striking films about creativity and the life of the mind, this fanciful bit of imagineering about post-goth rocker Nick Cave recasts the making-of-the-album documentary as a soulful meditation on the purpose of art.

6. Omar – A taut and tangled thriller about a young Palestinian man whose romantic soul contends with his militancy, which wrestles with his problematic love for his best friend’s sister; all of it is further complicated when he is recruited as a source by Israeli intelligence. Breathlessly brilliant.

7. Into the Woods – Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical threw fairytale characters together into an all-purpose metaphorical forest where tinkling, catchy melodies meshed with ironic lyrics. Rob Marshall’s beautiful, hummable adaptation is both lavishly produced and straightforward about its dark materials.

8. Selma – Instigated a few years back by Lee Daniels but taken over by the far subtler Ava DuVernay, this impressionistic call-to-arms drama about the 1964 civil rights march from Selma to Birmingham recasts Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) as less saint than flawed but brilliant tactician marshaling his forces for maximum outrage to force the hand of a reluctant President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

9. Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh’s grumbling, explosively unpredictable film about painter J.M.W. Turner is rude, baffling, grotesque, and staggeringly beautiful all at the same time.

10. Calvary – John Martin McDonagh’s caustic comedy follows an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) targeted for assassination by a man who was molested by a different man of the cloth; the man only wants to kill priest. A brutally funny and embittered film that finds a stirring grace in its bleak conclusion.

Worst Film of the Year: The Monuments Men – A cast of fine actors (George Clooney, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin) slap on fatigues and bomb around the European Theater saving priceless works of art from the pillaging Nazis. Even top-list talent and a gripping true story can’t save director Clooney’s self-satisfied turkey from terminal sloth and boredom.

Norm Schrager

blue ruin1. Blue Ruin – In the hands of filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, the classic American revenge tale has never been better. A man avenges the murder of his parents with practically no plan or survival skills, triggering a seemingly endless cycle of pain. Saulnier and creative partner/lead actor Macon Blair create an incredibly suspenseful thriller by keeping tight reins on Blue Ruin‘s dynamics, punctuating the damning calm with shocking violence. The film channels the Coens and Sam Peckinpah, among others, while making it very clear that “an eye for an eye” indeed leaves everybody blind.

2. We Are the Best! – Three pre-teen girls in early-1980s Stockholm start their own punk band with nothing but desire and each other, in this infectious celebration of friendship from director Lukas Moodysson.

3. Two Days, One Night – Marion Cotillard gives the best performance of 2014 as a woman with just one weekend to convince her co-workers to help save her job. Astounding acting that fits perfectly into the Dardenne brothers’ documentary style.

4. Force Majeure – Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund puts a family of four in the midst of a “controlled” avalanche at a ski resort, and then examines the crazy emotional fallout after dad loses his nerve. Sharp and perfectly uncomfortable.

5. Snowpiercer – A thrilling mix of genres, styles and performances drive Bong Joon-Ho’s grim, grimy future tale about a class revolution aboard a train full of the planet’s last survivors.

6. The Lunchbox – In one of the most overlooked films of 2014, first-time director Ritesh Batra crafts a lovely friendship between an unhappy wife and the man who’s mistakenly receiving her delicious lunch deliveries. It skillfully conveys solitude, even loneliness, amidst the throng of humanity in Mumbai.

7. Boyhood – Perhaps most impressive about Richard Linklater’s much-discussed achievement is that the director never uses the film’s amazing timeline as a gimmick. The years just sort of glide by. Like life.

8. Birdman – Actors play actors, performing a play within a movie, in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s exciting study of ego, of the merger of fantasy and reality, and the battle between art and cash.

9. Ida – One of the most carefully, beautifully photographed films of the year, this Polish period drama is as stark, crisp, and, occasionally, cold as its black-and-white visuals.

10. Gone Girl – David Fincher brings a ridiculous tabloid narrative to life, crafting an unusually creative film that feeds off its own lies and cultural biases with incredible bite. A real howl.

Mike McGranaghan

boyhood 21. Boyhood – Richard Linklater’s already terrific coming-of-age tale achieved a deeply profound impact thanks to his decision to film it over the course of twelve years so that we could see the main character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), grow and change. There’s no overarching plot here; Boyhood is simply a series of scenes showing some of the events that shaped Mason and turned him into the adult he’s about to become when the film ends. That’s more than enough. If you could plug into a teenager’s mind and download all his memories of childhood, you’d get something akin to this elegant, beautiful, sincere, and compassionate movie.

2. Selma – Ava DuVernay’s film about how Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a civil rights march to protest unjust regulations preventing African-Americans from voting in the South is more than just a cinematic history lesson. It’s a stirring and inspiring example of history coming alive through dramatization. David Oyelowo gives the performance of the year as MLK.

3. The LEGO Movie – What could have been a crass two-hour toy commercial is instead an inventive, hilariously funny ode to the power of imagination and creativity.

4. The Imitation Game – Benedict Cumberbatch is superb in this (mostly) true story about how Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code during WWII. It’s an intriguing examination of secrets and how difficult it can be to keep them.

5. American Sniper – Chris Kyle was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, and Clint Eastwood tells his story with conviction, while also exploring the many ways killing from afar affects the soul of the person pulling the trigger.

6. A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor proves himself to be the genuine article with his third film, an insightful morality tale about an oil trucking company owner (Oscar Isaac) trying to stay honest in an increasingly corrupt business.

7. Whiplash – J.K. Simmons plays a verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive music teacher who torments desperate-to-be-great-at-all-costs pupil Miles Teller in this darkly funny tale. The film suggests, uncomfortably but correctly, that sometimes a dysfunctional approach to motivation is just as effective as a functional one.

8. Foxcatcher – The bizarre, twisted tale of millionaire John du Pont and how he murdered an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler is told in Bennett Miller’s astute, unsettling psychological drama.

9. Snowpiercer – Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi adventure uses rousing action sequences to emphasize its themes of socioeconomic imbalance and the resentment it creates. Here’s a picture that excites you and stimulates thought simultaneously.

10. Begin Again – Mark Ruffalo is a washed-up record label exec and Keira Knightley is a heartbroken singer/songwriter in this sweet, uplifting story about the transformative power of music.

Worst Film of the Year: A Haunted House 2 – Allegedly a spoof of recent horror hits like The Conjuring and The Possession, this is really just a flimsy excuse for star/co-writer Marlon Wayans to indulge in offensive homophobic, misogynist, and misanthropic humor.

Blake Crane

under the skin1. Under the Skin – An alien patrols Glasgow and the surrounding countryside in a cargo van, seduces men, and captures them in a strange pool of viscous black liquid. Chilling, sure, but Jonathan Glazer’s very loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is also entrancing, a collection of abstract images and unscripted, secretly filmed interactions with non-actors. The alien in human disguise is played by Scarlett Johansson (herself somewhat camouflaged in a black wig and shabby fur coat), who subtly captures the being’s coldness turned curiosity, benevolence, and bewilderment. Her performance, Glazer’s assured direction, and Mica Levi’s hypnotic score combine to make Under the Skin hauntingly beautiful and tragic. It eschews traditional narrative and defies easy description in a stimulating way, which is something we need a lot more of.

2. Whiplash – J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are excellent in their portrayal of an abrasive music teacher-student relationship, the cacophony of contention and furious jazz drumming erupting in the most thrilling final scene of the year.

3. Boyhood – Crafting a coming of age tale over the course of 12 years is one thing; that Richard Linklater put it together and found universal truth without using transparent cultural signposts or relying on obvious life events is another thing entirely.

4. Gone Girl – Complete trash. Glorious, smart, fascinating, impeccably constructed trash.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, within different aspect ratios and told from various points of view – all navigated with aplomb by Wes Anderson. The signature whimsy is there, though this time it’s tinged with a bit more welcomed hostility.

6. Only Lovers Left Alive – Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston can make anything interesting; that here they get to play Jarmusch-created, centuries-old vampires who lament humanity is just a huge bonus.

7. Snowpiercer – A dystopian future crazy train full of morbid class warfare, extraordinary production design, intense characters, and the perfect blend of allegory with over-the-top action.

8. Two Days, One Night – A desperate time very well spent with an amazing Marion Cotillard in an understated masterwork from the Dardenne brothers.

9. The Babadook Suffocating atmosphere, a rare thing in horror movies of late, is used expertly by Jennifer Kent to communicate a tale of all-encompassing grief and despair wrapped up in an equally effective boogeyman feature.

10. Ida – I’ve always been a sucker for movies about a Polish orphan turned nun who learns of her Jewish heritage and past family tragedy, especially when they’re shot this exquisitely and are this quietly insightful.

Worst Film of the Year: Jersey Shore Massacre – It’s to competent slasher flicks what Jersey Shore is to Breaking Bad.

Paul Brenner

goodbye to language1. Goodbye To Language – Who would have ever thought a movie marquee would announce to the world “Godard in 3D?” But in these crazy times, why not? Luckily, this is not a stunt or a gag. In Goodbye to Language, Godard at 84, master cinematician, shows us once again to see things anew via 3D, while at the same time exploring relationships and politics in his own uniquely non-linear way. It’s also a bittersweet career summation directed with a deep sigh and an extended meditation on his dog. The Godard impishness is still there: At one point in the film one 3D layer pans left and the other pans right, rendering the audience cross-eyed.

2. The Tale of Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata’s moving and masterly valedictory film, based on a Japanese folk tale, was years in the making and well worth the wait, a prime example of why the old ways of animation are so much better than an impersonal Pixar computer program.

3. A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor’s tribute to Sidney Lumet, bringing Lumet’s dark tales of urban corruption to the equally violent year of 2014 as filtered through a 1981 story of New York City oil heating dealers, acting worse than the mob, and featuring a terrific star turn by Oscar Isaac, channeling Pacino’s gaze.

4. Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer’s Kubrickian art house sci-fi, with Scarlett Johansson as an alien to die for… literally.

5. Selma – Ava DuVernay’s vibrant and rich historical drama about the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. As Woodrow Wilson remarked about (of all films) The Birth of a Nation, “this is history written in lightning.”

6. Life Itself – The Steve James documentary tribute to film critic Roger Ebert, based on Ebert’s memoir, is a deeply honest work about a man of passion and strength who happens to be a passionate lover of film. This is film critic heaven.

7. Jodorosky’s Dune – Alejandro Jodorosky’s failed 1970s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is explored painstakingly as Jodorosky howls in the wilderness to get the studio suits to greenlight his visionary take on Herbert’s class novel. Jodorosky’s Dune is a tribute to fanatical artistic creators everywhere.

8. American Sniper – Clint Eastwood, back in form, directing his best film in years and exploring his favorite theme of the meaning and ramifications of violence. Both a pro- and anti-war film at the same moment. With Eastwood, it couldn’t be any other way.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch and vampires. What more could you want? I always thought the Japanese couple in Mystery Train were part of the undead. Now I know.

10. Into the Woods – Finally Rob Marshall overcomes his glitzy efforts to bury the film musical (Chicago, Nine) and directs a film musical not afraid to be a film musical. Be careful how you direct; Sondheim will listen.

Worst Film of the Year: Annie – A film musical ashamed to be a film musical… so much so that the original Strouse/Charnin songs are abandoned halfway through and replaced by pseudo hip hop junk. A mess from start to finish and, except for Quvenzhané Wallis, an embarrassment for all (including the audience). A film so bad than I now appreciate the John Huston version.

Bill Gibron

selma1. Selma – No other film in 2014 was as historically important and contemporaneously relevant as this look back at the crucial Civil Rights March that ended up influencing the all-important Voting Rights Act. David Oyelowo delivers a definitive, dimensional take on the late, great, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and by focusing on a single event in the otherwise tumultuous time, director Ava DuVernay sums up the era’s personal and political complications flawlessly. A triumph, and considering our current social situations, all the more meaningful.

2. Boyhood – Literally 12 years in the making, Richard Linklater has created the ultimate coming of age drama. By focusing on the little things in life while implying the bigger events they impact, he creates a blank slate that allows viewers to contemplate their own youth.

3. Foxcatcher – John Du Pont’s murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz may seem like nothing more than another example of the rich living within their own isolated bubble, but Bennett Miller’s icy tone tricks us, offering up a multifaceted portrait of a wholly compelling story.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy – The most fun this critic had at the movies all year long. Former Troma team member James Gunn took a fringe Marvel title and turned it into the Star Wars for social media set. A triumph of imagination and cocky genre rebellion.

5. Interstellar – Earth is dying and science wants to find another planet to populate. Thus begins Christopher Nolan’s space epic. Part 2001, part Steven Spielberg, the result is the kind of open thinking effort which reconfirms the cinema’s ability to deal with big, bold ideas.

6. Gone Girl – Based on the pulpy book by Gillian Flynn, David Fincher’s fantastic adaptation focuses on marriage and the media, and has few kind things to say about each one. While Ben Affleck is fine as the unfairly accused husband, it’s Rosamund Pike’s ice queen spouse that’s truly chilling.

7. Snowpiercer – Bong Joon-ho had to battle Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein to get his take on the famed French comic seen by audiences. The latter wanted severe edits and narration “for the people in Peoria.” Instead, we got a slick sci-fi masterwork.

8. The Babadook – If horror is all about premise and tone, then newcomer Jennifer Kent has created one of the greatest fright flicks of the last decade. Her tale of a grieving mother and her equally upset son vs. a truly terrifying creature is a macabre revelation.

9. Birdman – A clever combination of 8 1/2 and All That Jazz, with just a smidgen of superhero satire. The single take gimmick never grows old, and the acting is amazing, especially Michael Keaton as a forgotten superstar desperate for redemption.

10. The Raid 2 – Gareth Evans goes Godfather with this amazing sequel to the 2011 action epic. The setpieces are now interrupted by the internal power struggles of the Asian crime families featured, but the sensational fisticuffs overwhelm the operatics.

Worst Film of the Year: The Identical – While it will probably end up a cult classic along the lines of Troll 2 or The Room, this weird “what if” functions on a level of lunatic lameness few films can even fathom. Using Elvis, his rumored twin brother, bad rock ‘n’ roll, and lots of Bible thumping, the result comes across like a screenwriting class assignment gone awry.

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