2014 has been a brilliant year for movies. We can talk all day long about the disappointments and straight-up garbage shoveled our way, but that’s a waste of time and effort when so much greatness is available too.
So lets talk about the great ones.
One quick note: There are always acclaimed films that slip by and go unseen before the year-end deadline, and this year is no different. So for what it’s worth, at the time of this writing I have yet to see Citizenfour, Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice and Selma.
14. Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart
Odds are you’ve never heard of this animated film from France, but regardless of whether or not you have kids at home it’s a movie guaranteed to surprise, delight and impress. The tale explores ideas of friendship, love and the value aiming high, but as solidly touching as the story and characters are it’s the creativity and beauty on display that leave viewers swooning. There’s a Tim Burton-esque atmosphere at times, but this is a unique adventure with visible wonders and songs that are both catchy and literate. It goes places our own kids films would never imagine and has perhaps the most beautiful ending you’ve ever seen in an animated film.
13. Kill the Messenger
This revealing and upsetting film about the price sometimes paid by journalists and whistle-blowers was lost in the shuffle of early fall – and maybe in the shadow of Citizenfour – but it’s deserving of more attention and awareness. Jeremy Renner gives his best performance since The Hurt Locker as a man trapped behind his desire to tell the truth. His motivation is both professional and personal, but while his character challenges viewers’ hearts and minds it’s the over-arching story of C.I.A. oppression and the media’s betrayal of the public trust that makes this a powerful story.
First Run Features
Jillian Schlesinger’s film certainly isn’t the year’s flashiest documentary or even its most important, but its value rests less in the specifics of the tale than in what it has to say about the human spirit. That’s not to diminish the incredible bravery and efforts of Laura Dekker though – she set out on a solo, two year sailing trip around the world at the age of fourteen, and it’s nothing short of awesome. The footage, mostly recorded by Dekker throughout the trip, captures a child becoming an adult, a girl becoming a woman and a dreamer becoming an even bigger dreamer. It’s an incredibly inspiring tale once you get past the shame of never having done anything remotely comparable with your own life.
11. Dear White People
An Ivy League college campus becomes a racially-divided battleground in writer/director Justin Simien’s very funny comedy about an issue that seems impossible to erase from the American landscape. It’s loaded with sharply satirical dialogue and insightful observations, but while race is the overriding focus it never comes at the expense of character or smarts. The cast of mostly unfamiliar faces mesh together beautifully as they fire hard truths and hilarious barbs at each other at an equally blistering pace, and any fear that the film is a broadly one-sided affair (I’m looking at you Higher Learning) is not only unfounded but also speaks to a mindset that feels this is even an issue with sides.
Steven Knight’s follow-up to the Jason Statham-starrer Redemption is the definition of a film that shouldn’t work. It’s a one man show featuring a man driving to an unknown destination while chatting on his phone to co-workers, friends and family. Sounds like a short film at best, but when the man is played by Tom Hardy and the conversations work so damn well to build an engaging character and a compelling tale the result is an oddly brilliant and quietly mesmerizing experience. This isn’t an indie riff on Speed, but the metaphorical bomb(shell) waiting around the corner leads to something equally suspenseful.
We all know the back story to Richard Linklater’s latest film by now – he shot it across twelve years, using the same actors thereby allowing us to watch and experience their aging – and while there’s a risk of that detail becoming a gimmick it does so only in the eyes of the short-sighted. It adds untold weight to the tale of one boy’s early journey through life, and if it doesn’t leave you fondly recalling incidents both specific and vague from your own childhood then there’s a good chance you’re a clone. Ellar Coltrane tackles the attention-grabbing title role (and is the weakest element), but the supporting cast – Patricia Arquette in particular – effortlessly becomes a part of our own family.
8. Force Majeure
Brazenly honest and brilliantly comedic, this Swedish film – the first of two to make the list – is a relentlessly attractive look at the disintegration and possible rebuilding of a family on vacation. Maybe “vivisection” is more accurate than “look” as the very concepts of masculinity, familial responsibilities and relationship expectations are sliced open, examined with brutal frivolity and then reassembled before our eyes. There are laugh out loud moments here, but much of the humor is the kind that sneaks back into your mind days and weeks later, bringing a smile to your face as you recall the witty script, sharp performances and avalanche-like effect of one family’s terrible vacation.
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Walt Disney Pictures
No apologies. This is not only the most fully entertaining Marvel film but also the year’s best blockbuster (with Edge of Tomorrow coming a close second). Anthony and Joe Russo have crafted a superhero film that shines even when grounded. Chris Evans remains the most well-balanced hero with physical capability matched by sincerity and delivery, the script is legitimately funny and willing to move the universe in atypical directions and the action sequences – good enough for third place on our list of the year’s best action movies – thrill with a mix of fight scenes, car combat and aerial hijinks. The ‘70s-style, conspiracy thriller story-line is icing on an already exciting cinematic cake.
6. Listen Up Philip
Few actors embody assholes as well as Jason Schwartzman, and few films have captured his prickish brilliance so perfectly as Alex Ross Perry’s ode to the intersection of pretension and talent. There’s an abundance of wit on display here – frequently caustic, often funny – in its recounting of a life spent solely for oneself, and the film spreads the wealth among its very fine cast. Jonathan Pryce is typically brilliant, and the deliriously great Elisabeth Moss is heart-breaking and invigorating as one of the year’s best-written (and sadly unheralded) female characters. Small touches like Eric Bogosian’s masterful narration inflection and authentic-feeling book cover designs also delight.
5. We Are the Best!
A surprising number of the year’s best movies are woven thoroughly through with darkness big and small, so when a film comes along filled with unchecked innocence and optimism it’s guaranteed to stand apart from the black-hearted crowd. But Lucas Moodysson’s latest isn’t one of the year’s best simply for being an exception to the rule – this is a genuinely fantastic film. The three young leads set an unreachable goal, but like life itself their story values the journey over the destination. Sheer determination and spirit are powerful fuels and a reminder to the rest of us of what it was like to live blissfully unaware of the weight of the world.
Open Road Films
Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s haunting yet humorous peek beneath the death veil of Los Angeles photo-journalism is a darkly dazzling excoriation of modern day media and news for profit. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance for the ages as a man who’s as damaged and evocative as he is cheeky, and the film matches him beat for beat with slick visuals and a jaunty score that for all intents and purposes seems to be emanating from his own imagination. He’s a far grimmer (and somewhat sociopathic) spiritual cousin to William Hurt’s Broadcast News character who, when accused of crossing an ethical line, replies “It’s hard not to cross it! They just keep moving the little sucker don’t they?”
Sony Pictures Classics
J.K. Simmons’ turn as a relentless music instructor has understandably captured most of the attention surrounding Damien Chazelle’s feature, but Miles Teller is equally impressive as the young musician laser-focused on nothing short of perfection. Together they create a yin and yang powerhouse of drive and talent, and their scenes become a series of thrillingly exhaustive highs and lows leading to the year’s best finale bar none. Seriously, the final fifteen minutes (or so) are far more harrowing, nerve-wracking and energizing than you could possibly expect from a film about jazz drumming.
2. Under the Skin
No film is for every taste, but Jonathan Glazer’s latest seems to go out of its way to leave potential viewers in its wake with long takes, an alien-sounding score and a refusal to do any of the heavy-lifting in regard to its narrative and themes. Like last year’s Upstream Color though the core power and effectiveness of the film are actually quite straight-forward for those willing to pay attention. Scarlett Johansson gives a mesmerizing performance as a stranger in a strange land fighting an inner battle between her obligations and desires, and like Jeff Bridges’ Starman before her, we watch as she comes alive on an ill-fated journey towards something she can never be.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
There’s a delicate balance on display in John Michael McDonagh’s second feature between cynicism and hope, and perhaps fittingly, it requires a certain degree of faith that the film will stay true to both halves until the credits roll. The fact that it does is something of a miracle – the aggression and cruelty of the townspeople towards their priest (Brendan Gleeson) is understandable and palpable, but the film’s message captured with aching beauty in the final frames remains incredibly sincere. Add in pitch black comedy, a great supporting cast and Gleeson’s powerful yet fragile performance, and the result is a film that will stay with you for a long time.