I was initially apprehensive about creating a “best of” movie list for 2014, because upon review, it was easier to make a list of all the critically acclaimed movies I didn’t get a chance to see than did. In fact, here’s that list now: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Whiplash, Selma, Ida, Goodbye to Language, The Babadook, and Inherent Vice.
So with the caveat that the best films of the year (and possibly your favorites) may still yet to be seen by me, here is a list of the best films I did see this past year.
The theme for many films I saw in 2014 was the reinvention of classic genres, and no film nailed that theme better than James Gunn’s fresh spin on the space opera. Since Return of the Jedi, no film has given me that classic old-school Star Wars buzz the way Guardians of the Galaxy did, and sadly, that includes Lucas’ latter trilogy. Admirably, it also exists firmly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe while at the same time can stand alone without foreknowledge of the rest of the series. Hands down, the best time I had in the theater this year, this film left me with a goofy grin and feeling like a nine-year-old again.
Again, continuing the reinvention of the revenge film, here’s a film where the revenge act takes place in the first act, and the rest of Blue Ruin deals with the aftermath of that action. The protagonist is no more competent than you or I would be — he spends the first twenty minutes just gathering enough money to afford a gun and to repair his car to be able to drive to his victim. This is revenge done right — as a cautionary tale, knowing that while you’ve satisfied your need for justice, it may lead you to a spiral of retaliation you can’t stop or control.
What if Dune had starred Mick Jagger and Orson Welles, featured the music of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, and been designed by H.R. Giger and Moebius? That was the film psychedelic Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky envisioned in the mid-seventies and is meticulously detailed in this documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. Studios were spooked by his ambitious vision, and pulled out of his project, making this perhaps the greatest movie never made. The concepts he developed later inspired sci-fi classics such as Star Wars and Alien, amongst others. Read my interview with documentary director Frank Pavich here.
It’s always a gamble when a well-known Asian director makes the transition to English-language films. Worst-case scenario, you get something like when John Woo went from making cutting-edge Hong Kong action to crappy Jean-Claude Van Damme films and the worst entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Luckily, Korean director Bong Jun-ho made the leap well here with Snowpiercer, applying the humor and dark sensibility he brought to films such as The Host and Mother to a batshit insane post-ice-age tale of revolution onboard a perpetually moving train. Bong’s sense of world-building is awe-inspiring and just seeing crazy action sequences limited to boxcar-sized sets will blow your mind.
Pairing the technical wizardry of director Christopher Nolan is a script (co-written by brother Jonathan) that never forgets that at the heart of it all are the personal connections that make humanity worth sacrificing for. While it may have had its flaws, Interstellar was well worth the journey. Completing the had-to-be-there experience was watching Nolan’s space odyssey in 70mm IMAX. Nolan’s one of the few working directors to make a compelling argument for not watching a movie at home.
It’s amazing how effortlessly directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are able to shift from grown-up humor like 21 Jump Street to kids films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and this terrific film, and entertain successfully in both. What really set The LEGO Movie apart from most other kids’ fare is how well the humor works for both audiences, and that it really does have profound things to say about one’s place in society, how we choose to play, and what happens when we lose touch with our sense of creative freedom.
The lion’s share of praise for Nightcrawler falls squarely on the shoulders of Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformative performance. The twisted obsession of Taxi Driver matched with the sociopathic ambition of American Psycho makes Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom irresistibly compelling to watch, even as his actions become more cringe-inducing and reprehensible. Look for this film when Best Actor Oscar nominations are being handed out this year.
This feature debut from first-time director Charlie McDowell is a major feat in how much it’s able to accomplish with so little. With little more than two talented actors (the versatile Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) and sparse locations, McDowell crafts a sci-fi rom-com thriller that’s a clever allegory for the regrets we’re willing to live with for the sake of a harmonious relationship. I never knew where The One I Love was going, and that’s a good thing! It was certainly the most surprising find of the year. If McDowell can do all this with limited resources, I can’t wait to see what he does with a decent budget!
Like Christopher Nolan, David Fincher is one of a few directors whose work, bad or good, is always worth giving a watch. I may be a little biased, as I was already a fan of Gillian Flynn’s incendiary novel, but Fincher knocked it out of the park (with able help from a crisp screenplay, also by Flynn) with Gone Girl. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were well matched, and this was certainly a breakout performance for Pike. I look forward to seeing her career take off from this role. I also admired how much this film had to say about our own obsession with media sensationalism, and how easily we can be manipulated from the truth, as well as the gender politics of who we pretend to be in order to please (or manipulate) our mates.
My favorite film of the year was Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s reinvention of the alien invasion thriller. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who seduces young Scottish men to their certain doom (it’s not hard to understand how that could happen). Part of what makes this work is how perfect Johansson is in what is her best role to date. She plays to her strengths as an emotionally detached alien pretending to be a charming, seductive human. It’s the dark mirror-image of her charming, seductive AI avatar in Her. Glazer evokes the best work of Kubrick here with eerie visuals, and a sparse, haunting score. Inviting meditation on what it means to be human (or even just act human when you’re not), it’s a Blade Runner for a new age.
And as a bonus, the most disappointing film I saw this year was…
I really wanted to love this movie, I really did. I enjoyed Ted, and I’ve always admired how frighteningly talented Seth MacFarlane is as an animator, producer, host, and singer (if you haven’t heard his albums of classic pop standards, I highly recommend them), and I was pulling for his sophomore directing effort to propel him into leading comic actor status. But A Million Ways To Die In The West was just painfully unfunny from start to finish. Unfortunately, the blame falls squarely on MacFarlane’s strained sense of humor, which works well in the ephemeral world of animated episodic TV, but goes horribly wrong when you’re attempting to craft the next Blazing Saddles. The sole standout moments are a bouncy musical number (what MacFarlane’s best at) set to an 1860s Stephen Foster song, and a clever nod to Back to the Future III. Beyond that, a tragic disappointment.