January 9, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

We Are the Best!

I’ve heard plenty of recent claims that 2014 was a disappointing year for movies, and the logic doesn’t compute. There were some generic blockbusters, but that’s hardly a new phenomenon. Hollywood is shifting even further into a franchise mode, and smart writers like Mark Harris are right to question it. Even so, that fact doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of treasures to find this year. The continued rise of VOD is making it easier to catch films with limited releases for surprisingly modest fees. I paid a mere $0.99 to watch God Help the Girl on Amazon, and it deserved a lot more. Despite missing significant titles like Birdman, Interstellar, and Inherent Vice, I’ve still caught a wide range of impressive films. If you’re decrying 2014 for its lack of exciting movies, you aren’t trying hard enough.

Ranking my favorites of the year seems foolish, but I’ve taken a shot to inspire discussion. Choosing an order helps with digging through what I really loved about each choice. It wasn’t easy to narrow the list down to 10 selections. I’m including films with 2013 festival screenings because they didn’t receive a general release until this year. This list is a snapshot of my feelings at this time, and my thoughts will certainly change down the road. Despite the challenges with comparing films, it’s still enjoyable to see how everyone ranks the hundreds of worthy contenders around the globe. It can lead to engaging discussions about divisive selections that will charm some while angering others. That’s the great thing about movies; you bring so much of your own background into every screening.

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in Begin Again

10. Begin Again
I hesitated to dive into this film despite my love of John Carney’s Once. It seemed like there was no way to avoid disappointment with his follow-up project. While it doesn’t reach the same heights, Begin Again delivers a similar emotional charm. There’s such a love of music and creating art that’s it’s easy to overlook the awkward scenes. Can anything beat the joy of walking around the city and listening to Stevie Wonder? I loved Mark Ruffalo’s nerdy charm and Keira Knightley’s heart-on-her-sleeve performance. I hope that we don’t have to wait another eight years for Carney to do something this cool again.

9. Ida
Two of my favorite performances this year come from PaweĊ‚ Pawlikowski’s Ida. Agata Trzebuchowska is effective as the quiet title character, while Agata Kulesza’s fiery work as Wanda Gruz demands attention. The black-and-white cinematography and mostly static camera allow the characters’ search for truth to take center stage. Pawlikowski creates a striking look by using the unconventional 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and it never feels like a gimmick. The sharp composition of each shot aids the story, and I won’t forget it anytime soon.

8. Boyhood
It's a challenge to come up with new superlatives to describe Richard Linklater's remarkable project. There's such ambition to the fairly normal story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) that it sometimes feels like too much for one movie. Even so, Boyhood is filled with striking moments and interesting performances. Patricia Arquette's remarkable work as Mason's mom stands out and never hits a false note. Her character makes unfortunate choices in men, but she's always believable. Ethan Hawke's progression as the dad was surprisingly poignant as he evolved from estranged hipster to straight-arrow family man. It's interesting to note how the characters around Mason sometimes make a greater impression that the boy himself. This isn't a strike against Coltrane but more about the complex world that Linklater creates in this epic tale.

Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau

7. Chef
Jon Favreau built his reputation as a writer/director with heart that loved movies. Somewhere along the line, he lost something and seemed ill-suited for generic blockbusters. It was so refreshing to see the warm emotions back in place on a smaller scale with Chef. It’s the kind of movie that’s easy to love but rarely comes along. I expect Favreau saw a lot of himself in his tale of a chef that’s lost his mojo. The likable guy feels misunderstood by critics but needs to start over completely. Favreau’s doing a similar thing with this endearing film, and I hope that charm carries into his future work.

6. Edge of Tomorrow
Moving beyond the enjoyment of watching an ill-equipped Tom Cruise repeatedly die, Edge of Tomorrow was another summer movie that delivered great fun. Watching Cruise and a powerful Emily Blunt work together to solve problems is just part of the charm in Doug Liman’s sci-fi yarn. I love the time-loop premise, and the screenplay from Christopher McQuarrie and others expands the world of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel. It never feels repetitive, and that’s quite a stunning feat.

5. Only Lovers Left Alive
Sometimes you need a big budget and complicated plot to sell a story. Other times you just need to put Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in a room and let them dance. Few relationships felt as effortless as the one between Eve and Adam in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They’ve been together on and off for centuries and share an unspoken bond that different than the human “zombies”. The actors understand what makes these characters tick, and the result is a riveting movie.

Stuart Murdoch's God Help the Girl

4. God Help the Girl
I called Stuart Murdoch’s debut “joyous” in my review, and I still can’t think of a better way to describe it. The songs function like music videos that move the story forward but succeed on their own. It’s a vibrant and colorful look at the ways people connect through the love for music. God Help the Girl is a precious and very cute film, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel has announced their slate for many years to come, and there’s a real chance of franchise fatigue. That fact makes the success of Guardians of the Galaxy even more impressive. It feels completely fresh and sidesteps the confines of the Marvel cinematic universe. I had few better times at the movies this year. Chris Pratt deserves to be a star, and the offbeat Peter “Star-Lord” Quill is the right guy for the job. It’s a team adventure with colorful supporting characters, over-the-top villains, and just pure fun.

2. We Are the Best!
Arguably my favorite ending for any film this year involved three girls sitting on a bus with huge smiles on their faces. Their first gig as a band was a disaster in conventional terms, but they don’t care at all. We Are the Best! tells a small story, but the friendship between the 13-year-old girls brings such heart that it sticks with you. Its emotional center is the fine work from Mira Barkhammar as Bobo, an intelligent girl who’s still adjusting to becoming a teenager. Lukas Moodysson presents these girls so warmly and delivers a story that feels more real than all the prestige pictures of the past year.


1. Snowpiercer
It’s easy to critique plot holes or heavy-handed themes in Bong Joon-Ho’s first English film, but none of that mattered while I was watching Snowpiercer. It’s an inventive thrill ride with a killer premise that rarely follows a predictable path. There’s dark comedy, wondrous action set pieces, and rampant creativity on an epic scale. Chris Evans is the perfect everyman to lead the revolution, while Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Ah-sung Ko, and Kang-ho Song shine in supporting roles. The seemingly endless train begins as a confining place and morphs into a world where anything is possible. Here's a quote from my original review that summarizes my thoughts:

"The screenplay delves into complex themes, but it's also rousing entertainment. The hatchet battle is possibly the most thrilling sequence that I’ve witnessed this year. Although it’s bloody and action-packed, there are small touches that separate it from the typical fare. In the middle of the fight, everyone stops for a brief New Year’s celebration. That brilliant segment is matched by a comic sequence involving a classroom of students, a history video, anthems praising Wilford, and machine guns. It’s ridiculous and represents a drastic shift in tone yet still feels right in this world. It takes major skills to get away with this move and keep the audience right with the story. I wasn’t budging for a second."


The following titles just missed the top 10 and could have easily made the cut. Presented alphabetically, they’re all intriguing films that connected strongly with me and deserve your attention.

Finding Vivian Maier
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Life Itself
Listen Up Philip
Obvious Child
The One I Love

During the upcoming months, I’ll continue to dig into the films of 2014 and will certainly find other gems that would have found a spot on this list. I caught up with Her last spring, and it would have easily placed near the top of my 2013 list. The process of discovery never ends, and there are always exciting movies to catch up with down the road. No matter what Hollywood does with its search for interconnected worlds and franchises, there will still be interesting films to find in some part of the world of cinema.

What did you think of this list?

30 comments:

  1. Really interesting list here, Dan. The majority of which are on my to-watch list for 2015, including Ida and We Are The Best.

    A small smile came across my face when I saw you listed Chef in here. Definitely worthy of being on an end of year list like this. Really happy to see that here!

    Surprised that Snowpiercer made your number one. Well, not surprised exactly, it's a fantastic film. I've not seen it grace anyone else's lists so far. Definitely be in mine, if I had a list. Didn't see another film quite like that one last year. And yes, that hatchet scene was awesome to watch.

    Great list, Dan!

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    1. Jaina, I'm glad to hear that you're planning to check out some of these picks. While some are possibly divisive, I have a feeling you'll like We Are the Best. With Chef, I can understand some of the criticisms but had such a great time seeing it. There's something to be said for that type of experience, and that's the case with a lot of my picks this year.

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  2. I've only seen 3 of your ten so far - Guardians, Edge of, and Only Lovers. Love the first two, hate the.latter. Looking forward to the rest of these.

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    1. I'm surprised that you didn't like Only Lovers Left Alive. What do you think about Jarmusch's other films? I'm a fan and have enjoyed most of his movies, so that probably helps to explain my positive response.

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    2. Of his other work, I've only seen Ghost Dog, which I did like. This one bored me to tears and didn't say nearly as much as it thought it did.

      http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2014/10/only-lovers-left-alive.html

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    3. Read your review and can't really make any strong points against it. Some films just strike everyone a certain way. I didn't mind the lack of much plot or it not being scary. I was engaged by the characters and just enjoyed spending time in their world. I also thought Hiddleston and Swinton (plus supporting actors like Wright and Hurt) inhabited the roles so well. I do think that Jarmusch is an acquired taste, and I haven't loved all his films. This one just really hit for me. Enjoyed your review!

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  3. Such a great and diverse list here, and one that is not cut from the same cookie cutter mold, which I love! So glad to see love for We Are the Best, Guardians of the Galaxy and Begin Again. Even if I hated Boyhood and Ida, I'm fine with them being her (and everywhere else) as long as they aren't topping the list ;-)

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    1. Andrew, I'm curious to hear why you hated Boyhood and Ida. I can see reasons for each and wonder what really pushed you away from them. I feel like there were a lot of really interesting movies this year, and I'm seeing some cool diversity on a lot of lists. Plus, I still have a lot to see!

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  4. I did not see Chef, but that is easily your boldest choice - there is LOT of disdain for that film. But I say pick what you really like - not what makes you seem smart or cool. And besides, it's not so much whether you liked/hated a film, the discussion all lies in the why/why not.

    If it's any consolation, I had relative high expectations for Birdman, Interstellar, and Inherent Vice (indeed, Boogie Nights is my ATF) and was a bit disappointed by all.

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    1. Steven, I'd rope Chef in with Begin Again as the type of film that I loved because of the heart within it. It's easy to pick holes with the plot or lack of a major conflict, but I just enjoyed spending time with the characters.

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  5. Chef and Begin Again are charmers that I enjoyed very much. I'm glad to see some love for Edge of Tomorrow. I think Guardians was on everyone's list as the most authentic "Big" film of the year. I just watched Snowpiercer a few days ago, and while I enjoyed it, the ham fisted, loaded premise did put me off. Whiplash topped my list and if you have not seen it yet, I think you'll want to make plans to do so. Happy New Year.

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    1. I haven't seen Whiplash yet, but it's definitely been on my list going back to Sundance. I wasn't irritated by the messaging in Snowpiercer. I know it bugged some people, especially in the third act. I just found it to be an incredible ride despite not really having much to say.

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  6. I have only seen six of these (Snowpiercer, IDA and Only Lovers Left Alive came really close to making my top ten) but looking forward to catching up with We Are the Best, Chef, and God Help the Girl. Begin Again really seems to be dividing people for some reason. Regardless, I know I will get around to it at some point.

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    1. I can totally see the different reactions to Begin Again. It's essentially a fairy tale set in New York, and the take on the music industry is pretty simplistic. It's easy to be cynical and dismiss it. On the other hand, it's also endearing and has a great soundtrack, plus charming performances. It also depends on the approach.

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  7. I've seen 8 of the films mentioned, and they were all great. Boyhood, Guardians, and Edge make it on my top films as well. I wasn't that big of a fan of Snowpiercer, though I did like the concept, and the issues it presented were thought-provoking. I recently watched God Help the Girl, and if I've seen it last year (I have this rule I adhere to so I can release a list in time) it would have made my list as well. We are the Best is a wonderful coming of age/friendship movie.

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    1. That's great that you also enjoyed God Help the Girl. I haven't seen that much love for it. There were few films where I had that much fun in 2014. I extended my time before doing this list so I could see Boyhood and a few others. I understand about setting up rules for the list, though. I appreciate the comment!

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  8. I haven't seen God Help the Girl, but this is a wonderful list. Snowpiercer, Only Lovers Left Alive, Ida, and Boyhood are intriguing pieces of cinema, and I love that We Are the Best! is so high. It's also great to see rewatchable films like Begin Again, Edge of Tomorrow, and Guardians of the Galaxy make the cut.

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    1. Thanks Josh. I'd highly recommend God Help the Girl if you get the chance. It's pretty easy to find and is a lot of fun if you're good with its music style.

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  9. Great list! This looks rather similar to my own. At least half of it does, with another two in my own runners-up department. I have yet to see Ida, God Help the Girl, or We Are the Best!, but I shall get on that asap. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised with Begin Again. For some reason, I did not expect to like it all that much, but in the end, I was wrong, and I would call it my 12th or 13th fave of the year.

    Again, mighty fine list-making there. See ya 'round the web.

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    1. Glad to hear from you, Kevyn. Judging by the similarities in the rest of our lists, I'd definitely recommend that you check out the other three, especially We Are the Best! I also had a feeling that I was going to be disappointed by Begin Again, especially since I loved Once so much. It took me a little while to getting around to see it. Once I did, it felt silly to doubt John Carney and to have waited that long.

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  10. Great list, Dan! I really need to give We Are the Best! a go. It's been sitting in my Netflix for a while now, and I think you're number 2 ranking is the push I need. Also, I'm really digging the new look of the site.

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    1. Alex, I'm glad to hear that you like the new design. The credit really goes to my wife Erin on that front. I'm thrilled by the way it looks now. You should definitely check out We Are the Best!. Nice job on the recent posts about the best performances of the year. I still have so much more to see!

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  11. Cool list, Dan! I've only seen a few of these -- Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy and Snowpiercer -- but I really enjoyed all three. Snowpiercer would definitely be near the top of my list as well, and it's great to see that as your top choice. I'm really curious to check out We Are the Best! and God Help the Girl now, too. Hadn't heard much about them before.

    BTW, the new design looks slick! Nice work.

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    1. Eric, I'm glad you like the design. I'm really happy with it. I'm glad to hear you're also a fan of Snowpiercer. I think a lot of people liked it, but it's been lost in the shuffle a bit with year-end lists. If you get the chance to see We Are the Best! or God Help the Girl, I'd be curious to hear what you think!

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  12. Alas, I've only seen half your list, but I can't complain about any of it. I've been hearing a lot about We Are the Best lately, so I'll have to track that one down soon. Glad to see some love for Begin Again too.

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    1. Jay! Thanks for stopping by. Like I've told others in these comments, I'd highly recommend that you check out We Are the Best!. I will say that it's a pretty down-to-earth story, so don't expect huge fireworks given all the acclaim.

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  13. Surprised Frank didn't make the top 10 list or the honorable mention. Seems like a Dan Heaton kind of film.

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    1. I did like Frank, and it did make #18 on the extended list that I put together on Letterboxd. I loved the final scenes and the offbeat premise. It was more about liking the other choices even more.

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  14. I haven't seen your number 1 (or 2 and 3 and 4 still hoping to watch God Help The Girl), but I love Chef too! Mainly because I learned cooking a lot too last year and it's one wonderful feel-good movie. I love that you put Begin Again, that would most likely be in my top 10 too. Nice list!

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    1. Thanks. Chef and Begin Again have a lot of similarities and both left such a good feeling. In both cases, I was able to turn off the cynical side of my brain, which isn't always easy. It helped to have such likable actors in the lead roles.

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