A top ten is a nice idea, but come on - how do you make a top ten list in a year like 2014? This was one of the best movie years I’ve had the privilege to write about, and this top fifteen list began life as a top thirty. And frankly any of the fifteen films I cut from that top thirty could have made the final list. It honestly hurt me to cut Captain America: The Winter Soldier from this list, as it’s the movie I’ve watched the most this year, but when you see some of the other films that didn’t make the cut you’ll understand. It sits in good company.
This list contains only films that were released in 2014, which means worthy movies like Duke of Burgundy do not make the list. One caveat: I struggled with whether or not to include Jodorowsky’s Dune, as I’m in the movie. Is there a conflict of interest here? I don’t think there is, as I kind of consider my stuff to be the worst part of the movie, but I’ll leave that up to you guys to hash out in the comments.
And now here, beginning at fifteen, are my top fifteen movies of 2014.
Yeah, it wasn’t shot over 12 years. And yeah, it isn’t all in one continuous take. But John Wick does something even more cinematically stunning than that - it proves that good action can still come out of America, and at a budget. What’s more, it’s the movie the reminds us all that Keanu Reeves is absolutely great, and it shows there is no greater motivation for violence than avenging a puppy.
Here’s a movie I actually skipped at Sundance because the premise - Tom Hardy in his car, talking on a speaker phone! - sounded so irritating to me. I assumed it was some kind of a heist movie or a high concept thriller, but it isn’t. Locke is a character piece, and it’s a deep and honest examination of what it means to truly be a man, and a look at how we deal with our responsibilities in life. What’s more, it’s gripping - a guy sitting in a car talking is one of the most gripping things I’ve seen onscreen this year!
It takes a special film to find inspiration in failure, but that’s just what Jodorowsky’s Dune pulls off. While the movie is ostensibly about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune, the doc truly examines the ways that all of our creative endeavours - failures as well as successes - impact the world around us. Even a movie that never gets made touches hundreds of lives and forever changes the culture.
Twenty years after WWII a Polish nun-in-the-making discovers that her family were Jews who hid from the Nazis and paid a terrible price. She and her aunt, now a Communist party judge, take a trip to the old homestead to explore the changing face of Poland. With exquisite black and white photography and tender, layered performances, Ida is a surprisingly engaging movie about the way the horrors of the past echo throughout our lives.
Something this pulpy fun shouldn’t also be this good; David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s popular novel moves from procedural to the blackest of black comedy with an assured slither, and it has a nasty gleam in its eye the whole way. The movie’s cynical statements about marriage and the modern media are great, but the real winner of Gone Girl is Rosamund Pike, whose Amazing Amy takes a place as one of cinema’s greatest villains.
Beyond the Lights
Dumped by the studio (I was never invited to a screening) and ignored by the public, Beyond the Lights is a classic love story that could have been told in 1939 as well as in 2014. Sure, the details would have changed but the basic story - a singer with aspirations of ultimate stardom falls in love with a cop whose political hopes make her a poor PR choice - is pure Hollywood at its finest. And even finer are the performances in this absolutely beautiful, tear jerking tale, especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni, a singer whose careerism has hidden her true talent. There’s a scene where Noni sings Nina Simone’s Blackbird a capella that is one of the most arresting, moving and magical movie moments of 2014. For that scene alone I would include Beyond the Lights on my list, but the fact that the film had me in tears multiple times without being manipulative, that it presents an adult love story that’s honest and that everybody in it is so damn good looking certainly helps.
Laura Poitras was one of the journalists to whom Edward Snowden reached out when he wanted to divulge the shocking enormity of the NSA’s snooping into American lives, and she filmed all the early meetings between the whisteblower and chronicler Glenn Greenwald. What she ended up with was an exciting first-person account of history in the making - and with a film that crystallizes the privacy abuses in a way that all of the news coverage never managed to do. Snowden himself is transformed as a historical figure - he’s clearly a guy trying to do the right thing, and he knows that the media will attempt to make the whole situation about him, not about Constitutional crimes. He’s incredibly savvy, very likable and relateably terrified. The one problem with Citizenfour: it doesn’t have much of an ending, if only because the United States has opted to largely ignore what Edward Snowden has revealed.
Here’s a movie that shouldn’t have come out in 2014. Nightcrawler is absolutely a throwback to 1970s cinema, a hard-nosed and bleakly funny look at a certain type of personality type that finds great success in this country: the sociopath. Jake Gyllenhaal redefines himself as Lou Bloom, a TV news cameraman who chases the goriest stories on the streets of Los Angeles. One part Network, one part Taxi Driver, Nightcrawler is a great time at the movies that is also smart and dark as hell.
We Are The Best!
You gotta have that exclamation point in there. Lukas Moodyson’s movie about three young teen girls in 1982 Sweden forming a punk band is one of the most energetic, wonderful, exciteable, fun, sweet and inspiring movies of the year. The film perfectly captures the joyous stupidity and righteous anger of young punks, which is amazing enough, but more than that it represents a certain kind of young friendship that scream-heavy American swill like The Goonies never can. We Are The Best! is happiness in celluloid form, a blast of anarchic wonder that will have you cheering the spunkiest little brats ever caught on film.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The promise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally blossomed with Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a grand adventure in the best tradition of Star Wars, crammed with characters who have impacted pop culture like a blow from Ronan’s hammer. This movie is lovingly crafted in a way that proves big blockbusters can be fun, exciting, action-packed and still pack an emotional wallop that pushes weird and seemingly non-commercial creatures like a talking tree right into the very hearts of audiences across the globe. This may be some of the hardest filmmaking of all - feeding a massive machine while still maintaining a personal touch, and James Gunn has proven how goddamned good he is at it. We are Groot.
Grand Budapest Hotel
In some ways this is the most Wes Anderson-y movie Wes Anderson has ever made, but it has to be - the film is a manifesto for Anderson, an explanation for why his little clockwork worlds matter, what they offer us in times of trouble and horror. What begins as a confection as sweet as any from Mendl’s ends up having a steely nail file center. It’s exciting to see Anderson weaving a thread of true darkness through this film in order to fully repudiate it. And Jesus Christ, did any film this year look better?
Sunshine noir reimagined as a shaggy hangout movie; Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is to the death of the 60s what There Will Be Blood was to the Robber Barons - an examination of a moment in history that reflects on the world we live in today. More than that, Inherent Vice is movie as mindset, a funky paranoid groove that like its stoned lead, Doc Sportello, bumbles and wanders through the story but always sticks to its own unerring moral compass. Funny and wistful, Inherent Vice is about the end of things - an era, a relationship - but also about the way those things stick with us forever. They said that if you remember the 60s you weren’t really there, so maybe that’s why this film is set in 1970.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Two bohemian vampires hang out. Could this movie sound more insufferable? But it’s actually a masterpiece, and Jim Jarmusch is wryly aware of just how absolutely wrong this movie could go. It helps that his vampire lovers are Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, each seemingly immortally cool, each seeming perfect for each other in their thin white loveliness. If you’re looking for a story, look elsewhere; events occur, but Only Lovers Left Alive is mostly an excuse to hang around these ageless poetic rock star blood junkies as they riff on the world, on life, on love and on art. It’s the coolest movie of this millenium.
Biopics suck. Which is why it’s great that Ava DuVernay didn’t make a biopic. She took one moment in time - the march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of Jim Crow laws that restricted black voting - and used it to shed a light on Martin Luther King Jr as a man. But more than that, Selma is a movie that understands while movements have leaders they are not the work of a leader alone; this film carefully, smartly and emotionally brings us the stories of the martyrs and heroes who marched alongside Dr. King, the regular men and women who sacrificed their time, their comfort and, in more than one case, their very lives for the dream of a more equal America. Selma isn’t a hagiography, and the film’s complex view of Dr. King - masterfully portrayed by David Oyelowo in a chameleonic performance - makes everything feel more true and more present. And speaking of present: is there any film this year more of its moment than Selma, released in the wake of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand juries? This movie doesn’t feel like history, it feels like bloody current events.
If you made a movie targeted directly at me, that movie would be Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho’s scifi allegory is a movie that exists in the tradition of the original Planet of the Apes films, a movie that uses its far-out setting to say true - and possibly disturbing - things about the world today. Yes, the train doesn’t exactly make sense, but those apes didn’t look like any apes I had seen before either. What’s important is that the story is great, the action is fucking IMPECCABLE (that nightvision fight scene!) and Chris Evans uses his Captain America charm to chilling effect here - not unlike the way Charlton Heston’s all-American victor persona was masterfully undercut in the original Apes. The ending of Snowpiercer is beyond brave, making a political statement few want to hear - sometimes you just got blow it all up. As 2014 draws to a close that sentiment seems more and more reasonable.