The 10 Best Movies of 2014
The biggest surprise of 2014 is that the Oscar-bait movies like The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and Unbroken failed to deliver. As the year comes to a close, most critics and cinephiles are talking about innovative indies like Boyhood, Birdman, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as mainstream blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and Edge of Tomorrow. It seems as if everyone has had enough of the by-the-numbers biopic, in which actors ham it up for their peers in a lame attempt to be considered for an Academy Award. The culture has become more sophisticated, and many films from 2014 represent this shift.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t the usual duds. There’s always going to be the annual Adam Sandler movie and Transformers sequel. However, the highs felt much higher this time, with films like Gone Girl forcefully entering the pop culture conversation in a way that hasn’t been felt since Brokeback Mountain (2005). For the first time in years, the mass public engaged in a passionate debate about a Hollywood film.
The following list highlights the best films that 2014 had to offer. Most of them were released in the first half of the year, which says more about the disappointing slate of Oscar movies that came out in the fall than anything else. Unlike last year, which offered an impressive amount of mainstream fare during Oscar season, the best films this year were independent releases or summer blockbusters. Although there are a number of fantastic films that I did not include, I am certain that the ones I did choose will be remembered the most when we look back on this wonderful year at the movies.
10. Joe dir. David Gordon Green
With Joe, director David Gordon Green reminds us why he was once considered the most promising filmmaker of his generation when he arrived on the independent scene in the early 2000s with George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003). The film is a vital return to form after a string of disappointing studio comedies, and finds Green observing the lives of downtrodden, working-class individuals he captured so well in the beginning of his career. Nicolas Cage gives one of his best performances as Joe, a short-tempered ex-con who forms an unlikely relationship with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a young boy who suffers at the hand of his alcoholic father. At the center of the film is the relationship between Joe and Gary, and like Jeff Nichols did with Mud (2012), Green showcases a social environment that is often overlooked in cinema. For instance, when Joe and Gary crack open a few beers and drive around town, it is meant to be a bonding moment between the two characters. Gary is a tough kid whose circumstances have forced him to mature at a young age, whereas Joe in many ways still has much growing up to do. The relationship unfolds in unpredictable ways, and culminates in a harrowing conclusion that in retrospect seems inevitable.
9. Palo Alto dir. Gia Coppola
For some reason, audiences never really caught on with Gia Coppola’s impressive debut, Palo Alto, about a group of aimless teenagers in California. Like other selections on this list, Palo Alto is a coming-of-age film, and it is easily the darkest of the bunch. The depiction of youthful rebellion on screen is nothing new, nor is the representation of millennial malaise, but Coppola finds a way to make it all seem fresh and exciting. Perhaps this is because teenagers today come of age in a world where the future is actually hopeless (global warming, food scarcity, population growth, etc.), and now more than ever it seems utterly pointless to sacrifice the careless exuberance of youth for career planning or other goal-oriented activities. The teenagers in Palo Alto experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex, and underlying all of this is a fear that they will soon have to give this up for adulthood, and a civilization that may collapse by the time they reach middle age. Given these circumstances, it makes sense that the stakes for today’s youth do not seem as high, and their general disposition is a combination of “why bother?” and “who cares?” You’ve seen coming-of-age films before, but none have captured youth as honestly as Palo Alto.
8. We Are the Best! dir. Lukas Moodysson
We Are the Best! is a lovely tribute to the anarchy of punk. The film follows three young girls in 1980s Stockholm as they form a band without any musical talent or the support of their peers. This is a delightful piece of work, and like Moodysson’s Together (2000), it is joyous and life-affirming. We Are the Best! celebrates the confusion of adolescence, as well as music’s power to transform life’s mundane moments into something magical. Moodysson is the real deal, and although We Are the Best! remains overlooked by most audiences, those who see it will not be able to stop singing its praises.
7. Neighbors dir. Nicholas Stoller
Call me crazy, but Neighbors was the most fun I had at the movies all year. This is another Seth Rogen starring vehicle, which means that the jokes will be related to body parts. Forget all of the hoopla surrounding The Interview, and relish in this over-the-top comedy about a fraternity that moves next door to a newly married couple with a baby. Rogen and Rose Byrne play the couple, and Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse play members of the fraternity. As far as mainstream comedies go, Neighbors is a winner, and solidifies Rogen’s status as Hollywood’s funniest leading man. Efron, Franco, and Mintz-Plasse are the perfect frat boys, which is impressive considering that neither of them have a college degree. It is Byrne, however, who steals the show, and delivers the funniest performance of the year. There is one scene, in particular, that needs to be seen to be believed, and it involves her attempt to breastfeed after a night of heavy drinking. Neighbors is crude, vulgar, and very, very funny.
6. Edge of Tomorrow dir. Doug Liman
Edge of Tomorrow will be remembered for a number of reasons. It reminds us that Tom Cruise is our most consistent movie star, and that he never fails to deliver. It shows us that Hollywood can still release a blockbuster that isn’t based on a preexisting storyworld. Most important, it brings the fun back to the summer blockbuster in a year when films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Godzilla displayed an unprecedented amount of self-seriousness. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas understood that blockbusters could be smart, sophisticated, and, dare I say it, a little silly, and as a result, they made some of the most entertaining movies of all time. These are films that adults and children could enjoy, and lately, our summer blockbusters have been overrun by wannabe auteurs with an embarrassing need to bog their films down with pretentious preaching. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of this recently established “serious summer blockbuster” subgenre, which can be attributed to Christopher Nolan’s batman trilogy. Fortunately, Cruise and Liman came along to save the day. Edge of Tomorrow is action-packed, thrilling, and even thought-provoking, but it’s also extremely funny, and contains arguably the most clever use of slapstick comedy since Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton graced the screen in the silent era.
5. Boyhood dir. Richard Linklater
There is nothing cool about attacking fantastic films for the sake of it, so I’m not about to jump on the backlash bandwagon and try to rationalize why Richard Linklater’s Boyhood isn’t one of the best films of the year. We all know it is, and those who have labeled it “overhyped” or “overrated” are bored attention-seekers, depressed that no one will listen to them at the dinner table. Everyone knows the story about how the film was made, but I’m willing to bet that even if the actors didn’t reprise their roles every year for 12 years, we would still be talking about Boyhood. I’m not naïve enough to claim that the making of the film doesn’t contribute to its overall impact—it certainly does—but to attribute its success primarily to the production ultimately undermines Linklater’s mastery behind the camera. Boyhood is excellent because Linklater is an excellent filmmaker, and he has always prioritized characterization above all else. After decades of consistent quality work, it’s nice to finally see him recognized in a big way.
4. Begin Again dir. John Carney
Begin Again is the most charming film of the year, and easily the best movie musical since Carney’s Once (2006) reinvigorated the genre for a new generation of cinephiles. This time, Carney’s film is more polished, and is graced by an A-list cast including Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, but it’s no less funny, romantic, and emotionally resonant. Earnest romantic comedies rarely get acknowledged by the Academy, which is a shame because Knightley’s performance as Gretta, a young singer-songwriter heartbroken over the demise of a romantic relationship, is miles better than her likely-to-be-nominated turn in the overrated The Imitation Game. Knightley effortlessly moves between hope and despair, and whenever she opens her mouth to sing, my heart melted a little more. Ruffalo is equally fantastic as Steve, a down-and-out record producer who notices Gretta’s talent. It’s easy to be cynical and criticize certain elements of Begin Again as unrealistic or manipulative, but where would we be without fantasy? Begin Again is one of the best films of 2014 precisely because it presents an idealistic depiction of the music industry at a time when aspiring artists struggle to receive compensation for their work, and music lovers struggle to find artists that move them. Begin Again offers the best of both worlds, and even though Gretta doesn’t exist in real life, fans of the film can rest knowing that her beautiful songs, including “Lost Stars,” exist on a soundtrack.
3. Gone Girl dir. David Fincher
Thank god for David Fincher’s Gone Girl, the only mainstream Hollywood film in 2014 that delivered on its promise of offering sophisticated adult entertainment. In 2013, the major studios gave us challenging fare like The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Captain Phillips. This year, we get by-the-numbers drek like The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Unbroken, and Into the Woods. Leave it to Fincher, then, to entertain us with a provocative dissection of marriage and the media. Gillian Flynn successfully adapts her best-selling novel for the screen, and Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck are pitch-perfect as Amy and Nick, a married couple with a few secrets, to say the least. Pike has deservedly received the awards attention for knocking 2014’s most intriguing character out of the park, but Affleck’s performance has been unfairly overlooked, and is crucial to the film’s success. Since Affleck wisely plays Nick ambiguously with various shades of gray, the audience never “likes” him and thus never sympathizes with him when things turn sour. Sure, Amy is a monster, but the reason why Flynn’s story is so complex, and why Fincher’s adaptation and the performances therein are so successful, is because part of us can’t help but believe that Nick, the bastard that he is, might just deserve what happens to him. It is this unfiltered depiction of a revenge fantasy that has angered feminists and misogynists alike, and has made Gone Girl the most divisive film of the year.
2. Ida dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
In a year when most promising films overstayed their welcome with unnecessarily long running times (Mr. Turner, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Inherent Vice, etc.), Ida proved the old mantra “less is more” in every single way. Clocking in at a mere 82 minutes, the film may just be the only perfect release of the year, and is arguably the definitive exercise in cinematic minimalism. The camera barely moves, and the terrific actors, Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska, hardly speak a line of dialog. Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s breathtaking black and white cinematography is reminiscent of Sven Nykvist’s iconic work with Ingmar Bergman, and if the film was released in the 1960s, it would be taught in universities alongside legendary auteurs like Bergman and be included in the revered Criterion Collection along with The Virgin Spring (1960) and The Silence of God trilogy. Ida is quiet and understated, and it is not the kind of film to watch half-heartedly after a long workweek. To say that it demands and deserves your undivided attention is an understatement. It is one of the few releases in 2014 that has the potential to restore your faith in pure filmmaking, in which priority is given to the construction of the image, the pacing of the narrative, and the psychology of the characters.
1. The Raid 2 dir. Gareth Evans
The Raid 2 is one of the best action movies ever made. At a time when the genre has been plagued with an overuse of digital effects, Gareth Evans wisely goes back to the basics. The film is void of the loud explosions often seen in the Transformers franchise; instead, Evans highlights the physicality of his performers as they beat one another to a bloody pulp. Those who can stomach the gruesome violence and non-stop pummeling (the film is 150 minutes) will find themselves having just experienced the most artfully constructed film of 2014. Action cinema is too often overlooked by critics and awards groups, and The Raid 2 reminds us that, when done right, the genre represents cinema at its most vital. The set pieces are among the most inspired and beautifully choreographed in cinema history, and they become more exciting and impressive as the film progresses. You don’t need to watch the first film to believe the hype. The Raid 2 is a new action classic.
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