I really struggled to choose a single film from 2014 that stood above the others. A short list of about three kept shifting and wouldn’t settle. So, as the deadline approached, I decided the most honest thing to do was simply to provide an alphabetical list of films I thought were the best of the past 12 months.
But then, in the years since, I’ve been asked to provide my favourite films from the past decade, so I had to choose one. As a result I’ve gone back and, with the advantage of hindsight, listed the films in a more conventional way.
But one thing I left as is: I couldn’t restrict my list of excellent films to 10. So here are 13.
It’s great having a blog: You get to make the rules and change them as it suits you.
So here they are, the Best of 2014:
The tale of Robyn Davidson’s trek across the Australian outback was one of two solid entries in this self-actualization by extreme pedestrianism genre (of which Wild was another this year). It also stars the he-is-in-everything Adam Driver, who makes everything he is in better.
It’s been a long time since I was so moved by a historical drama. I think that’s because this one is not only very well made, but has plenty to tell us about how we live in 2015.
The latest in a long line of driving through Los Angeles at night movies, joining my favourites Drive, Collateral, and Into The Night. With the creepy Canadian indie Enemy and this satiric, funny and very dark thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal pulled a more covert McConaughey-revolution of his career in 2014. I hope the powers that be took notice.
Can aggression inspire greatness? Friends of mine have a real problem with that hypothesis, suggesting that even if it does prompt some kind of excellence, it isn’t sustainable. It feels to me like in microcosm Whiplash is taking a hard look at one of the real issues of our time: at what cost excellence? Maybe it is ugly, but in how many places in our culture do we see a focus on competition, on anger, as a way to get on top? Crush the other guy. Take no prisoners. That a movie about a drummer and his teacher (the stellar Miles Teller and JK Simmons) can make us think about these issues is a credit to the work. It’s so good.
A heartwarming dramedy done absolutely right, this British comedy about gay activists helping out striking miners shows that sentiment doesn’t have to be saccharine when it’s delivered with smarts and wit.
The biggest fantasy movie of the year to not get a splashy release, Snowpiercer is deservedly getting attention in these critical end-of-year lists. An allegorical science fiction about the last human revolution aboard a very class-conscious train, it’s not the only high octane action picture Chris Evans headlined in 2014, but it might be the best.
7. A Most Violent Year
JC Chandor’s picture is a powerful homage to New York dramas of the 1970s and early 1980s, set in 1981 in the corrupt business of heating oil, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as a power couple looking to take their company to the next level, but beset by competition at all sides, thugs who are not above stealing their inventory. This is a movie that threatens to explode in every scene, but manages to toe a line of suspense right to the very end. Isaac gives a solid slow-burn performance that’s all his own, but I couldn’t help but see a little of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in his character. Don’t miss this one.
When I wrote about this film the first time I said it made me want to smoke and drink, which was meant as a compliment. Furthermore, I should admit it made me want to listen to music on vinyl, wear black boots, and stay up all night. Jim Jarmusch proves there’s still mileage in vampire stories, especially when the bloodsuckers are terminally stylish art stars played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton—and more about her in my 2014 Honourable Mentions.
It’s hard to believe a film made about a man in a car driving between cities could be as compulsive and exciting as this is. Its magic trick is creating sets and characters in the audience’s head, thanks to the excellent sound design and voice performances.
Big kudos to actor Tom Hardy and writer-director Steven Knight, who more than anyone in 2014 reminded us of the versatility of storytelling in the movies.
The sheer deluge of big budget sequels and franchises made 2014 something of a tipping point for Hollywood. In the years to come we’re going to see less money spent on mid-budget and prestige films as more and more of the studios’ support going to sheer spectacle. For more on the franchise-heavy future, check out this doomy piece from Grantland, which includes a list of the 32 prospective Marvel and DC comic movies coming in the next five years, along with the another 67 franchise movies.
Part of me is OK with that, the nerdy part that enjoys a little escapism in the dark. Part of me is depressed.
As a film writer, I think the best thing I can do is seek out and trumpet the less well-known, less marketed films that may fly under people’s radar, while still acknowledging we’re in a golden age of big budget fantasy films, for those who are into that stuff. A whole lot of people are.
So, my hat is off to Interstellar, this year’s best blockbuster that did not adapt some other material and was not written to spawn a sequel.
It felt the most ambitious to me, its reach frequently exceeding its grasp, but what an effort. You can click on the title for my original review, but when I went to see it a second time, the thing that really struck me was its optimism around a potential future—such a breath of fresh air in the current landscape of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And once you accept that human beings could evolve beyond our imagined limits, many of the more problematic plot elements slip into place.
One other thing that just occurred to me: Interstellar is the most in spirit like Star Trek of any science fiction movie in ages, and that includes the recent Star Trek movies.
A wonderful indie by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is a mini Hatfields Versus McCoys drama taken to its very understandable end. A man living on the margins of society enacts bloody revenge, and sees how his actions affect everyone around him, spending the rest of the story dealing with their consequences. Both a suspense thriller and a drama about the results of violence, it has the smarts and structure to have it both ways.
I have a sneaking suspicion that in years to come The Grand Budapest Hotel will be the movie that I want to revisit the most among all the ones on this list. It may be Wes Anderson’s best, the one where his feather-light constructions and sweet asides were cut with a melancholy vein. Here his expanding cadre of performers clad in gorgeous costumes, make-up, and moustaches, bring a movie both hilarious and very sad—an ode to civility that revels in a special sort of farce. He seems to really shine with period pictures. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: let Anderson direct the next Tintin movie.
I’m not obsessed with Under The Skin—though I wrote about it on this blog a second time and saw it thrice—but I’ve never seen anything else like it.
Back in May when it opened I kept asking people if they’d seen it. If they had we immediately fell into heavy discussion about what we’d experienced. No other film I saw this year was as much that: an experience. Under The Skin—aside from maybe Interstellar—spawned the most conversation this year. Its Kubrickian coldness, its hollows and its absences.
It’s almost an experimental film—while also being very much in the science fiction wheelhouse I so enjoy. It features a career-best performance from Scarlett Johansson She was also a lot of fun this year in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy, and Chef, but this is the most interesting she’s been since The Girl With The Pearl Earring. Her character arc in Under The Skin went from complete lack of empathy to overwhelming emotion—it is something to see.
The fascination around the film could have been all about the non-actor/hidden camera gimmick in the opening act, but it wasn’t. That was just a jumping-off point for a creepy alien invasion movie the likes of which we haven’t had since The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the alien becomes overwhelmed by the nature of its prey, and itself. How is it possible we were actually able to muster feelings for this “pod creature”? It’s all part of the film’s strange spell.
Following in a separate post is a collection of other great times at the movies this year. That also includes a few movies I liked almost as much as these, as well as a few I liked a lot less.