2014 was a great year for movies. Marvel realized there's joy in the unfamiliar as Guardians of the Galaxy became the year's biggest hit, despite the fact that most audiences had no idea who this ragtag team of character was prior to its opening. The book-to-film adaptation craze continued as we were treated with some great works like Gone Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Maze Runner, and some not-so-great works like The Giver, If I Stay, and the few Bible movies that didn't quite work out. The were surprises and disappointments (I'm looking at you Interstellar).
I saw a pretty good number of films this year, but nowhere near the over-300 titles that qualified for the upcoming Academy Awards. And, there are a few big projects I haven't been able to see yet that aren't on this list, unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on how the films turn out). American Sniper is receiving mixed-to-positive reviews. Inherent Vice is supposed to be Paul Thomas Anderson's return to his earlier, qurikier days. And, A Most Violent Year is earning huge raves for its two stars, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Look for my reviews of these as they roll out in the next few weeks. I'll amend the list, if needed.
It's a difficult task narrowing a list of hundreds of films to just 25, but here are the ones that I enjoyed the most. Let me know in the comments below which ones I left out!
25. EDGE OF TOMORROW
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
The return of Tom Cruise looked to be a blockbuster version of 2013's Oblivion. Instead, it was a clever twist on the Groundhog Day theme as Cruise proved why he was once the most famous face in the world and Emily Blunt proved she's destined to be a star. The action is thrilling, the twists keep you guessing, and the effects are top notch. The fact that many were done practically is a testament to the days of Mission: Impossible and the great 90's action flick.
24. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
Directed by Josh Boone
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern
The Perks of Being a Wallflower proved that young adult books could resonate as mature film adaptations. While that film is brilliant, The Fault in Our Stars filled the void of great book-to-screen adaptations. Shailene Woodley showcased her ability to be "normal" in any role. Ansel Elgort welcomed himself to heartthrob status. A film based on a very popular book is a tough sell. Luckily, The Fault in Our Stars delivers, never leaving out any of the book's best parts, especially its heart.
23. THE BABADOOK
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Going along with my theory that the best horror films star the most unknown of actors (because it seems like the frights are happening to real people), The Babadook exceeds immensely. I'm not sure if any of the actors are well known in Australia, where the film was produced, but the production quality is top-notch and the scares are perfectly played out. The evil Babadook is a character from a mysterious children's book that comes to life, haunting a sad mother and her son. The kid is great in that strange, "how'd they get those emotions from a child" way. Essie Davis, as the mom, is the best mix of lonesome and crazed.
22. BEGIN AGAIN
Directed by John Carney
Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine
After Once became an underdog classic and "Falling Slowly" became a staple of music reality shows, John Carney delivered a musical love letter to the city of New York: Begin Again. Keira Knightley pulls off the Anne Hathaway moment of the year, delivering a very natural performance highlighted by a surprisingly inept singing talent. Mark Ruffalo is at his best, offering the first of two great performances this year. Even Maroon 5's Adam Levine gives an authentic performance as a stuck up musician. Featuring an endearing love story and a soundtrack worth awards, it was a quiet hit this summer at the arthouse.
21. THE ONE I LOVE
Directed by Charlie McDowell
Starring Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson
Relationship dramas can go in so many directions, so it's no surprise that The One I Love takes a weird turn towards almost sci-fi proportions as it examines the parallels of love once it's moved past the new stage. Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are both quirky in their own right and deliver two great performances as the couple in question. The longer they spend on their weekend away to "fix" things, the crazier things get. The film rides the line between unsettling comedy and all-out creepy drama as you're not quite sure what the hell is happening inside and outside this house.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell
A dystopian adventure doesn't sound like anything new, but Bong Joon Ho's brilliant Snowpiercer takes a seemingly overdone setting and flips it to new heights. Much can be said about the few plot holes that never iron out (or, is it worth a rewatch to try and figure out?), but no one can deny that this clever thriller puts class differences in a form never experienced. Chris Evans quietly reminds us why he's a great leading man and Tilda Swinton shows off why she's one of the modern day Hollywood greats. The film's domestic box office may not have been stellar, but the film is a hit worldwide.
19. OBVIOUS CHILD
Directed by Gillian Robespierre
Starring Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann
Who would have thought that a comedy featuring an abortion would slide through as one of the year's best, mostly without controversy? Jenny Slate, who left "Saturday Night Live" way too soon, masters the everyday millenial girl as Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian who accidentally gets pregnant during a one night stand and doesn't really seem to worry over getting the little lima bean removed. The film's dark elements are masked by a nervous humor that seems realistic and exactly how I approach any awkwardly serious situation.
Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
We'll pretend that Left Behind didn't happen because of the brilliant work done in Joe by one of my least favorite actors: Nicolas Cage. He brushes aside his strange macho act to turn in a sincere, broken, tough man performance as an ex-con bent on being a good role model to a young teenage boy. Tye Sheridan, who astounded a few years ago in The Tree of Life and last year's Mud, is such an incredible talent that I'm surprised there hasn't been an undercurrent of awards attention. Joe is one of those hidden gems that not many know about, but those that do can't deny having an experience while watching. It's beautifully shot and beautifully told.
17. UNDER THE SKIN
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
Haunting is the most appropriate word to use to describe the atmosphere of Under the Skin, an eerily beautiful film starring Scarlett Johansson and featuring one of the best film score's of the year. The story is twisted and even disgusting, but like a train wreck, you can't look away. Johansson's The Female, as the character is affectionately known, is strangely enticing to both the men she seduces in the film and the audience. Highlighted with brilliant performances by unknown actors and, what appears to be, everyday men, the simplicity in which director Jonathan Glazer eases the story along is part of the draw. It's bleak in all of the right ways.
16. THE LEGO MOVIE
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks
Who thought that a film based on a classic toy would make for one of the most original animated films of all time? A monster hit at the box office and home video, The LEGO Movie was just one piece of the year that was Chris Pratt. The script is hilarious and just topical enough to be appealing, but not too much as to keep the humor from lasting into the future. The animation is equally as brilliant. While Disney may have hoped Big Hero 6 would be the animated flick of the year, it's beat by one little yellow guy and a million little pieces.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
The cinematography of Birdman, alone, is one of great respect. Seen as a mostly single shot for the entire film, Birdman tells the story of a washed up actor trying to reinvent his career and himself. Michael Keaton stars in a comeback role as the elder actor, supported by a brilliant Edward Norton and an astonishing Emma Stone, in a dramatic turn she'll probably be nominated for. There were moments for me that kept this film from being a masterpiece that others are calling it, but it is a unique piece of art worth including in any conversation about the year's best work. It's intriguing to watch and intriguing to discuss. Time will tell if it happens to live up to masterpiece status.
14. BLUE RUIN
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Eve Plumb
2014 was a great year for independent film and Blue Ruin was one of a few that road the line of breakout hit and quiet masterpiece. Macon Blair is one of the triumph stories of the year, breaking onto the scene as a promising character actor. Vengeance is usually a rewarding plot point and the flow of Blue Ruin is unstoppably exciting. The violence is always purposeful and the visual aesthetics are so perfectly done. It's one of the more unique films to come out this decade and a great cameo by Eve Plumb (who you may remember as Jan on "The Brady Bunch") is icing on the dark, bloody cake.
Directed by Laura Poitras
Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald
The scariest film of the year isn't a dark and twisted story of a haunted house, it's the real-life documentary CITIZENFOUR, which follows the days leading up to and after Edward Snowden leaked information regarding the NSA. Director Laura Poitras puts the viewer in the front seat of history as we witness Snowden throughout the process and revelations of exactly how the greatest breach in American security history happened. Excuse me while I clean out my email folder and begin the process of going into virtual hiding.
12. THE IMITATION GAME
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Not only is The Imitation Game an affective WWII film, it's a remarkable intelligence thriller. Another entry in the 2014 biopic genre, the film tells the story of Alan Turing and his machine that brought an end to Hitler's regime. Benedict Cumberbatch showcases more than a great name by turning in a subdued performance littered with brilliant moments. Keira Knightley is the best compliment to Turing's social ineptness. Rich in style and honest in approach, director Morten Tyldum has built a film with multiple layers that easily rejects redundant or cliche approaches and delivers a epic film of intrigue and excitement.
11. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Directed by James Marsh
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Emily Watson
If there were an Oscar bait performance of the year, it'd be Eddie Redmayne's as the inspiring and bewildering Stephen Hawking. The Theory of Everything excels on multiple levels. It's a timeless romance that hits all of the usual notes, while also being strangely unique. Plus, the story of Hawking's career rise and physical fall is hard to watch. Redmayne treats the performance with fervor, never allowing it to become a caricature, despite the possibility being so great. Felicity Jones, as his wife Jane, is strong-willed and practically pleasant in every possible English way. Each scene is constructed in a way that it's hard to remember a more beautiful tribute to a living legend.
Directed by David Ayer
Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf
There were hits and misses when it came to WWII-set films this year. Fury is easily the best of the battle-focused flicks, coming close to the brilliance of modern classics like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan. David Ayer, the film's director, manages to produce a visual treat in the form of clever battle sequences and unique effects, while also drawing out endearing performances from the entire cast. Brad Pitt is strong. Shia LaBeouf surprises in a focused performance that easily distracts from his highly publicized personal life in the tabloids (seriously, you forget you're watching him). And Logan Lerman steps up as the frontrunner of America's Next Leading Man.
9. HIDE YOUR SMILING FACES
Directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone
Starring Ryan Jones, Nathan Varnson, Christina Starbuck
Startling and quietly emotional, Hide Your Smiling Faces is the type of ethereal independent film that covers so many levels and sticks with you long after watching. Following two young brothers as they come of age and adapt during one lonely summer full of mortality and relationship, the film masterfully captures the innocence of adolescence and the wonder of nature through beautiful images and subtle performances by its young unknown stars, Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson. Never meant to be a huge film, the experience of watching the film is one that is rewarding and personal. There was nothing else like it this year.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
Ten times more interesting that director Jean-Marc Vallee's last film, Dallas Buyers Club (despite Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto's Oscar-winning performances), Wild is a tour de force led by Reese Witherspoon's best work to date. A broken women and her brutal journey alone on a 1,100 mile hike, Wild is both a telling film of powerful strength and endurance, while also being the perfect tale of finding yourself. Witherspoon is this year's Sandra Bullock, carrying the entire film on her performance, almost solo. Support by Laura Dern as her mother is equally powerful. A type of film that easily gives way to cliche, Wild is the rare exception that excels through every single frame.
7. GONE GIRL
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
One of the most-anticipated films of the year completely met expectations as Gone Girl reached box office success while also managing to steer around spoilers through most of its run. The clever tale based on the hit book by Gillian Flynn is full of dark performances and a few twists so delicious that audible gasps were heard in the audience as each chapter unfolded. Ben Affleck continues to surprise as an actor (after already proving himself as a director) in a performance full of conviction. Rosamund Pike breaks out as a star in a role cleverly built to elicit many emotions. It takes a talented actress to pull off a character like that.
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
I'm not sure if Nightcrawler was meant to be a fun thriller or a commentary on the state of modern day society's obsession with gore and topical pop culture, but it works on both levels to perfection. Jake Gyllenhaal gives the most driven performance of his career. The character of Lou Bloom is nothing short of remarkable. He's seedy and twisted, but confident. He's a guy you don't want to root for, but you have no choice. In the midst of Los Angeles, a culture all on its own, the city plays second fiddle to the racing, irreverent work of the media. Nightcrawler is the rare gem that may have not been intended as a prestige film, but it is easily one of the best films of the year.
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly
First things first, there's nothing like Brendan Gleeson's toned work in this film as Father James, a priest threatened during a confessional. The drama, shot beautifully in Ireland, is rich in dialogue and imagery (trust me, it'll be hard to find anything that looks more beautiful than the images you'll see here). The struggle Father James goes through is both personal and prophetic. Chris O'Dowd and Kelly Reilly offer some of their best work in supporting roles, but it's Gleeson who shines. It's the rare revenge thriller that takes a good-natured threat (if there is such a thing) and spins it around to great proportions. There's an honesty in each moment that is both understated and haunting.
Directed by Bennett Miller
Starring Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
I wasn't expecting to like Foxcatcher as much as I did. I've always been impressed by Bennett Miller's storytelling abilities, but something about this film just looked like it was trying too hard. Oh how wrong I was. Steve Carrell's melting performance as Jon du Pont is nothing short of brilliance. He's not just playing a part with makeup on. He literally becomes someone other than himself. Mark Ruffalo is receiving a lot of praise for his supporting turn as a wrestling coach who meets his own demise. But, the real surprise here is Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, the wrestler taken under du Pont's wing.
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
To be honest, there are a few moments in Boyhood that don't quite work as well as hoped, but they are easily forgiven by the end of this wide-reaching filmmaking exploration. Famously shot over the course of 12 years, Boyhood follows the life of Mason from the ages of 5 to 18. Newcomer Ellar Coltrane gives an understated and pure performance as Mason. Whether you like the kid he turns out to be, or not, there are things about his maturation that immediately resonate with the same feelings you've gone experienced. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are the rewards here, offering a steady amount of acting prowess to convey the same character over all of these years.
2. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Saorise Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Jude Law
Featuring a who's who of current actors, and Wes Anderson favorites, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an illusion of artful images and brilliant performances. The quirkiness generally found in an Anderson film is present, but with a certain panache not quite seen before. Ralph Fiennes leads the ensemble cast as hotel concierge Gustave who becomes entangled in a heist adventure of epic proportions. Set in between the two great wars, Anderson's masterpiece features brilliant set dressing and offers some of the most fun moments at the cinema all year. Released in the early part of spring, it's a testament to this film that it is still relevant enough to be receiving tons of awards attention.
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Besides the music, the most impressive thing about Whiplash is that it comes form a rookie director. Damien Chazelle had previously filmed a short film by the same title that won the short film prize at Sundance. The short was then turned into this feature film and it does nothing but charge on like a speeding freight train. Miles Teller stars as a college freshman bent on becoming a drumming legend. J.K. Simmons turns up as the rude and sharp college professor who makes his students' lives hell all in the name of motivation. The tension built is so cleverly done that, as an audience member, you are afraid for your own life. The music is toe-tapping goodness and the musicianship on display is everything it should be and more. It's hard to critique something that lingers in your mind for a long time after viewing and resonates every time you hear a drum beat. The performances here are what people will remember for a long time. This is the perfect example of storytelling at its finest.
So, which ones did I miss? Are you upset Interstellar didn't make the cut? Are we in agreement that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wasn't quite a best film contender? Was Nymphomaniac slighted? Should Big Hero 6 be listed somewhere in there? List your own top ten in the comments below.
Since publishing this list, I've been able to see a few of last year's films that slipped under the radar or hadn't been screened in the Atlanta area yet. To protect the integrity of the above list, no titles will be removed, but any 2014 films that are deemed worthy of the list will be listed below.
American Sniper (Dir. Clint Eastwood) - This harrowing depiction of the military life of the late Chris Kyle is a great entry onto the list of important war films. Bradley Cooper gives a career-best performance.
Inherent Vice (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) - Though I'm not quite sure what the film was about, there's no denying that Anderson's epic based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon is entertaining and fun to watch. The brilliant performances are too many to name.