I apologize for the lateness of my best films of 2014 list, but my usual rule is to at least have them done by the time the Oscars are presented, so luckily I’m safe by a couple of weeks.
Every year, a few well-meaning but incredibly misinformed critics, authors and pundits bemoan the death of cinema; and, every year, they couldn’t be more wrong. There was a wide and vast array of movies to choose from in 2014, and my only regret is that I could only include fifteen of them in my best list (nowhere is it written in stone that the list must be a top ten).
These films prove that the art of cinema is as alive and as vibrant as ever. Enjoy.
The 15 best films of 2014
15) Under the Skin. Dir. Jonathan Glazer.
A disturbing and provocative science fiction film, with a brave and wholly original performance by Scarlett Johansson, who was robbed an Oscar nomination for her work here. I saw it back in May of last year, and my respect and admiration for it has just grown since then. It is a strange and beautiful film. Jonathan Glazer has crafted something special.
14) Inherent Vice. Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sun-bleached and drug-fueled adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is the kind of movie either you love or you hate with a passion. I think the film is some kind of demented masterpiece; a hilarious and harrowing neo-noir that takes place in Southern California in 1970. Joaquin Phoenix gives an inspired comic performance as “Doc” Sportello, and he’s backed by an amazing ensemble cast, including a brilliantly intense Josh Brolin.
13) The Overnighters. Dir. Jesse Moss.
Jesse Moss’ astounding, inspiring documentary has the twists and turns of a great drama. Without saying too much about the film, it’s about desperate men trying to find work in the oil fields in North Dakota, and a pastor by the name of Jay Reinke, who opens his church to those in need. This is one of those films that works better the less you know. Moss is a truly talented filmmaker, and the fact that this was not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary is a travesty. This is an important film about America in the 21st century.
12) Jodorowsky’s Dune. Dir. Frank Pavich.
A delightful documentary about the most influential science fiction film never made. The film follows the preparations for director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of the classic novel Dune. Although the film was never made, it nonetheless remains a fascinating footnote in cinematic history. The film is an intoxicating and delicious tonic for film buffs, and living legend Jodorowsky is a lively and fascinating subject.
11) Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Michael Keaton gives the performance of his career as a once-famous star of a superhero franchise desperate for a comeback on Broadway. The casting of Keaton, who lived some version of this character’s life, helps emphasize the way the film blends realistic and fantastical elements. Alejandro González Iñárritu has never made a film this comic or, frankly, fun; and it has a giddy and darkly whimsical energy. The supporting cast includes winning turns by Emma Stone as his daughter, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton (deliciously satirizing his own fiery reputation) as his costars, Zach Galifianakis as his agent and Lindsay Duncan as a Broadway critic; but this is Keaton’s baby all the way.
10) TIE: Land Ho! Dir. Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens. and The Guardians of the Galaxy. Dir. James Gunn.
The tenth spot on my list goes to two of the most entertaining films of 2014; one of them was one of the biggest hits of the year, the other should have been. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best Marvel Comics adaptations yet. It works as an action film, as a science fiction film, and also it’s incredibly funny. Rocket Raccoon and Groot remain one of the best comic duos of 2014.
Land Ho! sounds like a bad idea: two older guys go on a trip to Iceland. However, Land Ho was, quite frankly, one of the best comedies of the year, and it’s also very sweet and very poignant. Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn are brilliant as the two friends and former brothers-in-law.
9) Calvary. Dir. John Michael McDonagh.
The second film in a proposed trilogy of films by John Michael McDonagh starring Brendan Gleeson, Calvary is a deeply moving film that dares to ask philosophical and provocative questions. This is the rare movie that is actually about something. It chronicles a week in the life of a priest, and dares to be both tragic and comic. A truly astonishing work.
8) Boyhood. Dir. Richard Linklater.
Richard Linklater broke new ground when he directed this gem; a movie that chronicles 12 years of a young man, filmed over the course of 12 years. To witness the transformation of both the character of Mason and the actor who plays him, Ellar Coltrane, is pretty remarkable. Patricia Arquette (in her best performance), Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) shine as his family. This is Richard Linklater’s best film since Dazed and Confused.
7) Nightcrawler. Dir. Dan Gilroy.
Taxi Driver for the 21st century. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a career-best performance as an obsessively driven young man who falls into the world of crime journalism. Los Angeles has never looked darker or more seductive than it does in this movie. This movie captures a time and place better than ninety-nine percent of the Hollywood films that are released every years. It also contains one of the best chase sequences of the year (along with number six).
6) A Most Violent Year. Dir. J.C. Chandor.
Director J.C. Chandor’s third feature film is this fantastic drama, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s films, and set in New York City in 1981. The film asks the question how can a basically decent man stay moral in an industry (the heating oil business) that is corrupt and violent? It is an intense and spellbinding movie, featuring two performances that scream “Oscar nomination”: Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.
5) Whiplash. Dir. Damien Chazelle.
Few films in 2014 were more involving than Whiplash, which is mostly about the relationship between a young drummer (Miles Teller) and his vicious, genius instructor (played by J.K. Simmons, in what is possibly the performance of the year). Not only is it a terrific movie, but is also a great insider’s look into the creative process. The last twenty minutes of the movie was one of the highlights of my 2014 movie-going year.
4) The Grand Budapest Hotel. Dir. Wes Anderson.
Although Wes Anderson’s films are usually recognized for their humor and whimsy, few people ever realize the darkness that runs through all of his films. I think Grand Budapest Hotel was the first Anderson film that dominated both critics’ lists and awards nominations because it is so perfectly balanced between the darkness and the whimsy. Obviously inspired by the sophisticated comedies of Ernest Lubitsch, Grand Budapest is a brilliant comedy about greed, lust, death, war, prison and memory itself. It is a wonderful movie to be treasured.
3) Blue Ruin. Dir. Jeremy Saulnier.
A shocking and haunting thriller, Jeremy Saulnier’s breathtaking Blue Ruin is a film that will stay with you long after the credits. A revenge story that could only occur in America, it is both tragic and darkly humorous. This is a nearly perfect film. In the lead role, Macon Blair gives one of the most intense performances of the year. If you haven’t seen it yet, do it. Plus, Jan Brady.
2) Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay.
The best American film of 2014. The first feature-length Hollywood film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ava DuVernay’s powerful and truly moving biopic was one of the best directed and best acted films of the year. As Dr. King, David Oyelowo gave one of 2014’s greatest performances. Seeing this film in the theater was one of the most moving cinematic experiences of the year. If there was any justice in the world, this would win Best Picture on February 22nd.
1) Force Majeure. Dir. Ruben Östlund.
One of the most polarizing movies of the year; in the screening I attended, there were six or seven walk-outs. If Ingmar Bergman had directed Seinfeld, the result would have been close to this film. A Swedish family vacationing in the French Alps is tested when the father momentarily abandons his family. The movie is both serious and comic, and dares to provoke the audience. This was absolutely the best cinematic experience I had in the last twelve months. Force Majeure is a spectacular work of art, and the best film of 2014.