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.
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.
Two of my favorite performances this year come from Paweł 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Listen Up Philip
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?