15 Best Films of 2014
It’s that magical time of the year where I select my favorite — as well as my most hated — films of the year. 2014 was one of the best movie years in recent memory. A year with such a surplus of quality that even films from two of my favorite directors, Bennett Miller (FOXCATCHER) and Paul Thomas Anderson (INHERENT VICE), didn’t make the cut. And those movies were mind-blowing. But the competition was stiff, and these 15 films resonated with me more on a molecular level.
However, if I had it my way, I would put Seth Rogen’s THE INTERVIEW as #1. Any movie that has the potential to be the catalyst for World War 3 is the greatest film of the year, and possibly of all time.
Jon Favreau’s return to independent cinema is a delicious treat. An elaborate metaphor for his own career as a director (indie darling-cum-blockbuster goliath), we find Favreau’s titular chef Carl Casper waving the white apron: He’s had enough of working for the passion-killing, creativity-asphyxiating big studio restaurant. He’s had enough of the smarmy film food critics who have don’t have the balls to create, so they’d rather destroy those who do. So the chef decides to refurbish an old food truck, hit the open road with his estranged son and make the movies food he wants to make.
CHEF is special because it never deflates into sugary formula. The themes of cherishing your work, never compromising your integrity, and valuing your family are nothing groundbreaking, but we are having too much fun watching (and salivating) to care. The dialogue is as sharp and rhythmic as the soundtrack (a live Gary Clarke Jr. performance FTW!), the food prep on screen has a Pavlovian effect, and the breezy energy never relents.
Chef is easily digestible comfort food.
14. THE BABADOOK
Just as the Hollywood cognoscenti predicted, 2014 was a bleak year for the domestic box office. Conversely, genre flourished. Unless that genre is horror with a capital H. The onslaught of found footage flicks has rendered the subgenre completely bromidic. Demonic puppets were almost cool again, until those puppets turned out to be bizarrely racist (I’m talking to you, ANNABELLE). That was until Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent quietly came and crushed the buildings with THE BABADOOK. This is not only the best horror film this year; it’s possibly the best of the decade.
Relying on a suffocating sense of dread rather than typical startle-you-from-your-seat scares, THE BABADOOK tells the story of a widowed mother (a moving Essie Davis) and her behaviorally volatile son who find themselves tormented by a demonic boogeyman straight off the pages of the boy’s favorite book. In humanoid form, Mister Babadook is the most disturbing figure I’ve seen on screen since the first time I saw Pinhead or Pennywise.
And like all classic horror films, THE BABADOOK’s subtext as something to say. It smartly speaks to the repressed rage and anxieties felt by single mothers. A haunting manifestation of confronting personal demons, this latest entry into the canon of horror classics will linger with you long after you’ve left the theater.
13. JOHN WICK
Anyone who knows me knows my love for dogs. I tweet about dogs more than I do about movies. If my tweets were to transmogrify into cinematic form, the end result would be JOHN WICK: a movie where mountains of dead bodies amass all because some punk killed my dog. Keanu Reeves is John Wick, and the death of his dog is the impetus for coming out of hitman retirement to architect a world of pain for everyone involved.
What elevates JOHN WICK to innovative territories is the way it takes the icy revenge thriller and injects surreal, alternate universe motifs into the story and setting so effortlessly. The viewers are forced to accept this fully realized comic book realm (mysterious gold coin currency, the global network of socialized hitmen) as reality. Your imagination is activated, which is rare in conventional shoot ‘em ups. The visuals are dazzling, the choreographed Gun-Fu fight scenes are kinetic, and Reeves is thrilling with his Zen-like gusto.
As amazing as it is to see 50-year-old Reeves being a badass action star like his 30-year-old self, the real stars of JOHN WICK are directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who cut their teeth doing stunt work on THE MATRIX and FIGHT CLUB films, respectively. They create action scenes that are both beautiful and brutal, yet they never let it eclipse the fun.
This is the cathartic violence that we go to the movies for, doggone it!
12. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
First time writer-director Justin Simien delivers some overdue hubris to the demographic within the title of his critical and commercial hit. With a beautifully casted ensemble, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE centers on a group of black students at an Ivy League institution whose unique experiences with racism and marginalization come to a head after white students host a blackface party on campus. The satirical bite on race, privilege and the false notion of a post-racial society cuts deep.
There were times I wished Simien would’ve went even further to drive his points home to highlight the hypocrisy and pernicious nature of racism, but he hits the mark more times than he misses. While at times hilarious, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE never uses humor to mollify the severity of the questions it’s posing to both white and black Americans. There’s no coddling or Kumbaya here. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is the honest, human discourse that so many white Americans try to avoid.
In typical Darren Aronofsky fashion, this biblical epic is so fucking insane and bizzare and beautiful and complex that you can’t look away. He takes the story of Noah – which is a horrific tale of genocide and suffering and destruction (that for some reason parents/churches repackage as a gleeful animal adventure for children’s enjoyment)—and, while respecting the source material, gives it sweeping scope and morally complicated philosophies. Russell Crowe brings his usual gravity to the title character, and Ray Winstone is a delight as the evil Tubal-Cain. But who really is the bad guy here? Cain? Noah? God? The brilliance of NOAH is that it asks tough theological questions and leaves it up to you to answer.
Philosophies aside, NOAH is a gorgeous spectacle. The antediluvian world looks like a Game of Thrones backdrop. The film is highly stylized with the special effects of a Greek mythology blockbuster (which is probably how modern monolithic religions will be viewed in a few centuries. But that’s for another article). The Great Flood scenes are intense and epically sequenced while the family drama hits uncomfortable depths.
Movies that leave you asking questions walking out of the theater are refreshing and rare. Which makes NOAH all the more delightful.
10. TOP FIVE
Chris Rock is a singular comedian. His ability to deconstruct social norms, rebuild them, allow us to view them through his prism, then immediately demolish them into dust is unprecedented. We haven’t had such a socially awake, politically sharp mind like his since the days of Carlin. His standups have broken cultural barriers, shattered box office records, and altered public discourse. Unfortunately, his film catalogue has been laughed at, not with.
All that changes with TOP FIVE. As writer-director-star, Rock has made a film —about a successful comedian attempting to gain credibility by undertaking serious roles—takes on a semi-autobiographical tone. But this is more than just meta humor at work. Chris Rock is channeling his inner Woody Allen here, with the focus on the very adult, fluid language as well as the impact of the relationships of everyone on screen. This is a film about creative process, about love, and about growing up versus growing old. And like a protracted episode of LOUIE, we watch Chris Rock’s world, so full of subjective truths, shape him and teach us a few things.
TOP FIVE is as funny and emotional as any of Chris Rock’s standups, and it’s the movie he’s been writing his whole career.
This is as good as psychological exercises get. LOCKE is a minimalist’s dream: we have one man inside of one car for the duration of the entire film. For 85 minutes, we are passengers in Ivan Locke’s (Tom Hardy) car as he takes the wheel on his own imploding life. He’s forced to exercise his demons, battle with morality and finally right his wrongs through a series of phone calls. With a brilliantly crafted script, Locke’s overlapping dilemmas are slowly unveiled with a sleight-of-hand, and we are forced to buckle up and see if he can save the day.
Tom Hardy, usually known for his aggressive physicality, carries the film entirely on his countenance as he is confined to a seat. Beautifully understated, he shifts expressions of panic, frustration, self-loathing, and, eventually, clarity on his face as it becomes immersed in the tapestry of brake lights and passing shadows. It’s a tour-de-force performance, and serves as a reminder just how great Tom Hardy is.
8. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
It’s strange that such an iconic, wholly original director such as Wes Anderson is defined by clichés. The whimsical dialogue. The immaculately framed shots. The perfect symmetry of the mise-en-scène. The fairytale quality of stories about innocence and adventure. All those elements are present in the elegant THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, but with one new ingredient: darkness. This feels like Anderson’s most personal film and the storytelling at his most mature.
Anderson’s signature comedy and slapstick remain omnipresent in this coming-of-age adventure about a poor lobby boy who befriends the concierge (a perfect Ralph Fiennes) who is serving as his mentor. Together they get entangled in an art heist, a prison break, and an inheritance dispute while narrowly avoiding a hitman and the Fascist police state swallowing 1930’s Europe. Anderson is lamenting the loss of innocence at the hands of an increasingly oppressive society. This is a sobering, emotional, yet ultimately redemptive tale where love, art and curiosity conquer all.
Alejandro Gonzales Innarritu takes meta commentary to unprecedented heights in this pitch black dramedy. A once-famous actor defined by his role as a superhero attempts a major comeback as a “serious” actor by taking his talents to Broadway. Michael Keaton gives the performance of his career as an underappreciated actor who hit his nadir and uses his current existential crisis as inspiration to show the world just how brilliant he is. With a stellar supporting cast that includes Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis, BIRDMAN serves as both a love letter to and a satire of thespians, method acting, theater and the idea of celebrity to hilariously poignant results.
BIRDMAN is one of the greatest technical achievements of the year, thanks to the mad scientist cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot the film to make it look like one uninterrupted tracking shot. The camera is in constant motion, creating a tension and rhythm that is unlike any movie-going experience I’ve been party to.
Michael Keaton will win an Oscar this year. That makes BIRDMAN important in it’s own right.
6. OBVIOUS CHILD
I’m just going to come out and say it: Jenny Slate deserves every single acting award this year. No performance made me laugh, cry, or empathize harder than her pitch-perfect portrayal of a 20-something whose crumbling personal and professional life is punctuated by an unexpected pregnancy. But this isn’t the reductive “abortion comedy” that many critics wrongly used to describe it. This is a comedy with depth, one that explores the gamut of humanity, from love to loss to finding your voice and doing what makes you happy.
The abortion subplot (if you can even call it that) is dealt with maturely and honestly, a first for a Hollywood movie. First-time director Gillian Robespierre captures how 20-somethings talk, how they love, how they fuck, how they fuck-up, and how they attempt to buid themselves back up better than any director not named Judd Apatow. This is the best comedy of the year.
Jenny Slate is revelation and I can’t wait to see her takeover the game.
5. GONE GIRL
Only David Fincher could take a best-selling fiction novel full of gruesome murder, domestic abuse, and infidelity and make it into a romantic comedy. That is exactly what he did with GONE GIRL, a tale of a missing woman, the suspected husband and the media circus that follows. Don’t get me wrong, GONE GIRL is disturbing and dark and at times difficult to watch. But at it’s bloody heart, this is a satirical love story, one where Fincher gets to have some trashy fun with the constructs of marriage, media, and the performative nature of relationships.
Fincher isn’t hogging all the fun behind the camera; he lets his cast of players join in on the other side of it. Ben Affleck couldn’t be better as the smug husband who draws the ire of a nation thanks to a Nancy Drew-type talking head who accuses him of his wife’s disappearance before the facts are even in. Even Tyler Perry is solid as the high-profile lawyer who sees Affleck as the victim. But it’s Rosamund Pike who steals the show as the girl who is gone: underneath her tranquil exterior lies a vicious rage that takes your breath away when unleashed. She will undoubtedly rack up plenty of awards this season.
There’s a hazy, dreamlike air to Fincher’s visuals in GONE GIRL and they serve as the perfect backdrop to this nightmare of a love story.
They say eyes are windows to the soul, and Lou Bloom’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) wildly large, white eyes show the black void within him. And what an intense performance he gives as a delusional sociopath with a video camera, filming crimes and tragedies as a freelancer for a fledging news station. As the demand for footage increases for ratings purposes, Lou will do whatever it takes to ensure the supply of footage increases as well. Things get bloody.
Veteran writer Dan Gilroy is behind the camera for the first time and he captures a spooky and morally bankrupt Los Angeles perfectly. NIGHTCRAWLER offers solid commentary on how media manufactures reality, profits off of fear, and how it gleefully commodifies human suffering.
It’s great to see Gyllenhaal solidifying his position as one of the great young actors of his time.
These final three films were the hardest to stratify. I could call each of them my favorite movie of the year in any conversation because they are all that incredible in various ways. Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD might be the greatest film I’ve ever seen because I have never seen a film quite like it. Filmed over 12 years, we get to observe a poetic time-lapse experiment where Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and newcomer Ellar Coltrane age right before our very eyes. Hawke’s and Arquette’s celebrity personas evaporate and it’s as if we are watching an ordinary American family experience the peaks and valleys of existence in real time.
This is a story about the human condition and it gives the viewer an intimate look at how important and impactful those small, fleeting moments are in life. We are defined by those moments, and BOYHOOD allows us to hold up a mirror and relate to every laugh, tear, triumph, and failure of this family.
It’s a masterful technical achievement, but its vividly human qualities remain the backbone of the narrative.
This is magical filmmaking.
Even if the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Jones or Tamir Rice hadn’t happened; even if the nationwide mobilization of protestors in solidarity against state-sanctioned injustice hadn’t happened, SELMA would still be an essential piece of cinema. But the fact that those aforementioned events transpired and continue to transpire as SELMA is released makes it seem as if fate chose this film for our time. When art imitates life, it can take on surreal qualities. But SELMA is visceral and inspiring and a reminder of how powerful this medium can be.
Director Ava DuVernay – now the first black woman to be receive a Golden Globe nomination for direction – humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way we’ve never seen on film, and she wisely chooses to focus on just one pivotal chapter of his life: The voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. She doesn’t sugarcoat Dr. King’s personality or legacy by mythologizing him as some saint. Dr. King was complicated and angry and funny and aggressively determined to spark change. British actor David Oyelowo is mesmerizing as Dr. King as he brings a grounded sense of nobility to his portrayal. He shows that King was a man with self-doubt and made mistakes and was no stranger to playing ball with the political brass like President Lyndon B. Johnson (a stellar Tom Wilkinson). It also shows the complex relationship between the youth and old guard activists, and how the term “ally” is earned, not self-appointed. SELMA shows what happens when awareness, solidarity and controlled anger intersect to radicalize for the common good of humankind.
SELMA is an impressive feat in that it maintains its heart and authenticity and never succumbs to the melodramatic. It has no Oscar bait self-awareness. It is a movie so genuinely full of hope and heart that it will inspire you to wake up and see King’s Dream is still not fully realized. And as these present-day protests continue to galvanize people across the country show: it’s a Dream that will march on until it’s achieved.
Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH started as an 18-minute short that took Sundance by storm, then evolved into a feature that is the best of 2014. It’s a shell-shocking cocktail of all the best elements of a musical, a psychological thriller, a sports drama, and a horror film. The plot focuses on the ferocious relationship between a draconian music teacher (a terrifyingly great J.K. Simmons who has all but won the best supporting actor Oscar with this performance) and the gifted student (a star-making performance by Miles Teller) whose obsession with being the best drummer reaches dangerous levels. The music pulsates and is amplified thanks to surgical editing. But this movie is as much about music as BLACK SWAN was about ballet: it’s about power, compulsion, the fantasy of perfection and how abusive relationships can be toxic and symbiotic at the same time.
Miles Teller might as well have been holding a stick of dynamite rather than a drumstick. The wick is lit, and we are just waiting for these two performers to explode. And when they do, you can’t look away. It’s equal parts triumphant and tragic. And it’s the most memorable film of 2014.