The top 10 films of 2014
2014 was a great year for movies. So much so that making my top ten list this year was torturous (well, more torturous than usual). So many great films didn’t make the final cut. And that of course is discounting all the movies I either never got around to seeing, or won’t get to see because those of us out here in the sticks (AKA anywhere except New York or Los Angeles) don’t get to see the big awards buzz movies until next month. So in case you’re wondering why there’s no mention of movies like The Babadook, Obvious Child, Inherent Vice, or Selma here, now you know.
I’ve avoided any ranking system for the past few years, so just to test myself, I thought I’d try it back on for size this year. Here, presented in definitive, objective, incontestable order, are my top ten favorite films of 2014.
This will probably end up being the most popularly remembered movie of Summer 2014, which is fine by me. Guardians of the Galaxy was fun, irreverent, and instantly quotable, and outside of Iron Man 3, few Marvel films have felt so singularly influenced by their director’s unique style. Guardians is actually a superior ensemble film to Avengers, fleshing out more characters with only the one film to work with, and no audience familiarity to draw from. A few characters and elements could have used more attention; for example, Thanos ends up feeling extraneous to the whole thing, and Gamora and Nebula’s rivalry was a bit neglected. But the film’s strengths more than make up for it. Lee Pace is gloriously bombastic as Ronan, David Bautista is a revelation as Drax, and Rocket and Groot are easily the best duo on film in forever. It’s not often that the most complex and engaging characters in a movie are a CGI raccoon and a walking tree.
This movie seems to have been mostly overlooked, which is a shame, because it’s now my second favorite Darren Aronofsky film, after Black Swan. As a preacher’s kid, I grew up knowing a lot of the weirder details of Biblical mythology when most kids only got the watered down Sunday school version. So in a lot of ways, this is a movie I’ve been wanting to see since I was little. Watching the version of the Bible the movies always neglect (the one with dragons and fire swords and half-angel giants) finally put onscreen was a dream come true. I adored the design on the Watchers, some of the most fascinating original movie monsters I’ve seen in a long time. After an unrestrained, crazy, sword-and-sorcery epic of a first half, the narrative allows itself to follow its darker ideas to their logical conclusion, leading to a quieter yet twisted and tense third act. Ironically, one of the most brazenly secular Bible movies ever made ends up feeling truer to the spirit of the original text than any previous attempt.
I was surprised by how good this one was. What looked like another forgettable Tom Cruise action vehicle turned out to be one of the best sci-fi films of the year, and 2014 was a really good year for sci-fi. It might be the most perfectly-executed movie on this list, as I’m hard pressed to come up with any criticisms for it at all. Despite being a time travel story, which are almost all made to go wrong, the narrative stays tight and on track, and the editing keeps a potentially convoluted story from becoming tedious. It might be the first time travel movie I’ve seen with no discernible plot holes that I can see. It’s inventive and fun, and a reminder that we really need to see Emily Blunt in more action movies. Plus, it’s a laugh to see Bill Paxton doing his redneck space marine routine again.
This is probably higher on the list than it maybe deserves, but any movie that can make me cry on command twice can’t be ignored. Big Hero 6 may be treading familiar ground, but it’s treading the hell out of it. An instantly lovable cast of characters and a fun, colorfully-designed world revolve around a truly heartbreaking story of a boy and his robot therapist counseling him after the death of his brother. Everything about the movie is almost obnoxiously cute, yet never undermines the real story of dealing with loss, and the film’s heart comes across as tearjerkingly real and honest.
Another movie that was well received and then seemingly forgotten, this is without a doubt the most underappreciated of 2014’s many great sci-fi movies. Delivering on the promise and potential of 2011’s franchise reboot, Dawn is the smartest, most challenging blockbuster of the summer. I love the fact that they chose to view the story almost entirely from the apes’ perspective. We spend a great deal of time with them before we even meet any humans, despite the apes communicating mostly through sign language. Introspective and nihilistic in the finest tradition of this franchise, Dawn pulls no punches in showing humanity at its very worst, using the apes as a mirror. Plus, this is the most realistic that motion capture animation has ever looked in a movie.
It seems like filmmakers today are limiting the potential of vampires with a sharply divided fanbase. Either vampires are brooding, emo pretty boys hopelessly obsessed with romance, or they’re bloodthirsty creatures of the night who will tear you limb from limb. A now, along comes Jim Jarmusch to ask: “Why can’t they be both?” Spending two hours with a couple of hipster bloodsuckers who do almost nothing other than sit around their apartment talking about how everything sucks may not sound like a fun time at the movies, but somehow it works. It helps that they’re played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, two amazing actors who are probably more entertaining when they’re folding laundry than most of us are on our best day. They almost seem made for each other, and the interplay between the two is what makes the movie. Of course, Jarmusch’s signature style and a parade of fun side performances by John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, and Jeffrey Wright don’t hurt either. All I know is, Hiddleston and Swinton need to be in more movies together.
[Mild spoilers follow!] I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this conflicted about a movie that’s so obviously good. I found myself initially turned off because I’m pretty sick of the femme fatale stereotype and the icky, implied misogynist feeling that comes with it. Gone Girl worried me because its intent can be so easily misunderstood as something abhorrent. But I later realized that if we’re not comfortable with female characters being flawed or even outright evil, than we’re just placing another kind of limitation on the roles women can play. Amazing Amy may be evil, but she’s also a complex, engaging villain who’s so compelling she borders on anti-heroism, and she’s played by Rosamund Pike in a powerhouse performance. Plus, the movie’s just a damn fun noir mystery with just the right exploitation edge to it.
As I said before, sci-fi had a good run in 2014, and arguably no film was more impressive than Snowpiercer. Metaphors for classism have been a tradition in speculative fiction almost as long as the genre has existed, but rarely are they as uncompromisingly brutal as this. Snowpiercer is absolutely sickening at times, driving home the evils of capitalism and unrestrained consumption in a way I haven’t seen since Soylent Green. Not only is it a great piece of thinking man’s sci-fi, it’s also a damn fine action film with a host of great performances, including the aforementioned Tilda Swinton. Man, this was a good year for her.
I never realized I had limited expectations of Jake Gyllenhaal until I saw Nightcrawler, because I never thought he had a performance like this in him. Louis Bloom is a lovably repulsive scumbag of a character, and it’s impossible not to enjoy following him as he ascends the ladder of success, leaving human misery in his wake. What Wolf of Wall Street does for corporate America, Nightcrawler does for the news media, exposing another system that profits from the suffering of others only because we, unconsciously, allow it to.
I still can’t quite believe that this movie was as good as it was. It’s like some kind of sorcery. It goes against everything I know about movies that a friggin’ toy line tie-in can not only be more than a soulless cash-grab, but in fact be the most entertaining, intense, engaging, funny, heartfelt, insightful, layered, and thought-provoking movie of the year. And yet, here we are. There isn’t a single frame of this movie I don’t love, not a single character that doesn’t resonate with me on some level, not a single line of dialogue I haven’t quoted at some point. I’m not joking when I say The LEGO Movie might be the definitive movie of this generation. Against all odds, it’s a masterpiece on every level, and not only the best movie I saw all year, but one of the best films made in my lifetime.