2014 was a very good year for film, featuring an impressive balance of quality blockbusters and indie marvels. I saw a lot of movies this year, but of course I didn’t see every single one. This list is merely a countdown of the best movies I did manage to catch. Most of them were seen at my local theater on early Wednesday mornings where I often found myself surrounded by a gang of two or three sassy grandmothers.
10. The Raid 2
I thought The Raid was the best martial arts film I’d ever seen, and then the sequel came along. With its more ambitious, Jakarta underworld storyline and colorful new criminals, our hero Rama has way more to think about this time around. But the move to Indonesia Undercover doesn’t slow down the action one bit. What makes both Raid films so special isn’t just the unique and intricately choreographed fights, but the way they are filmed. Director Gareth Evans doesn’t believe in Hollywood’s quick cut formula where you see a flash kick here, a hand chop there, then cut to Denzel’s face. No, he shows you everything in hyper-extended, crystal clear fluidity. Every strike and every block can be seen and felt when opponents face off. The final battle in The Raid 2 is the most relentless and astonishing hand-to-hand combat scene I’ve ever seen. It clocks it at an unbelievable seven minutes. I had no idea I could hold my breath that long.
9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
I was flabbergasted to see this sequel elevate every level of storytelling from the first movie. Sure, I knew the confrontation between humans and apes would intensify as the epic transitioned toward full simian domination. But I did not anticipate the writers and producers carrying over the heart and character development that made Rise of the Planet of the Apes so impactful. In Dawn the fight for world control begins, but not without moments of compassion and attempts at co-existing, thanks to the thoughtful leadership of head monkey Caesar, played masterfully by a green-screened Andy Serkis. The best compliment I can give this film is that I completely forgot I was watching CGI apes. Caesar and his tribe felt like flesh and blood protagonists, wrestling through all the fears, hopes and dissent that a human civilization would on the precipice of war. More than any CGI-powered feature film before it, Dawn succeeds at making you believe its digital creations are real. Not just with top shelf animation, but with strong, emotional characters.
8. The Guest
About 20 people actually saw this movie in the states. The U.S. run earned just $0.3 million which is just brutally disappointing. I personally hold all of you responsible! Because you failed, this smart, psychological thriller will likely remain one of the most unnecessary secrets in movie history. The Guest stars Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as a mysterious former soldier who visits his dead friend’s family to fulfill a promise to help take care of them. And of course, that does not go well. I’ve never watched Downton Abbey and never will, but Stevens is definitely an actor I’d like to see more of on the silver screen. The cold, calculating menace behind his eyes even as he delivers polite lines of dialogue is just unnerving in the best way possible. Of all the films on my list The Guest feels the most like a cult classic, in the same way that Drive did a few years ago. Make up for your disgraceful negligence and watch this on video.
7. Jodorowsky’s Dune
This spellbinding documentary tells the story of the Dune film that almost was. In 1975, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, started working on an ambitious adaption of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel. Set to star his own 12-year-old son Brontis, alongside Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and set designs based on the art of HR Giger and Moebius, the film was poised to be an epic way ahead of its time. But Jodorowsky’s overblown production costs, surrealist and spiritual leanings, and unyielding devotion to his art scared the hell out of film studios. The project was abandoned just prior to filming. Jodorowsky’s Dune pays tribute to the director’s unique imagination and the lasting impact his creativity has had on film to this day, but it is also a heartbreaking reminder of how many progressive visions are lost and never realized.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
At this point any film Wes Anderson makes is a lock for my Top 10. This quirky tale about a luxury hotel in the fictional republic of Zubrowka and the misadventures that eventually bring about its ruin, is an absolute pleasure to watch. The brilliant Ralph Fiennes plays the haughty and heavily perfumed M. Gustave as he guides us through his offbeat world of geriatric blonde mistresses, wolf-idoled fascists and impossibly crafted pastries from Mendl’s Bakery. The cast is full of star actors in peculiar roles, like Willem Defoe as a kill-happy spook with an uncanny skill at slalom. Or Harvey Keitel as a bald, tattooed, jail boss with a flair for detailed building art. Anderson’s gift for camerawork has also never been better. The off-kilter angles, camera-sweeps and cuts in The Grand Budapest Hotel were like nothing else in film last year. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
5. Only Lovers Left Alive
Before I saw this film I was so sick of vampires that I was on the verge of staking myself. But Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch single-handedly saved my life and rescued the entire mythology for me with Only Lovers left Alive. He earned my devotion years ago by creating some of my all-time favorite films like Dead Man and Ghost Dog, but still… I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when I heard he was taking on bloodsuckers. Having seen Only Lovers Left Alive twice now, I honestly feel that any tired, oversaturated concept can be reinvigorated by the right creator. Set in both the crumbling loneliness of Detroit and the old world charm of Tangier, Only Lovers Left Alive is a darkly seductive and atmospheric film that spends less time on the act of vampirism and more on what life offers those who have existed for centuries. Actors Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are mesmerizing as married vampires, Adam and Eve, who have lived apart for centuries. Amidst the film’s slow-stoned haze of conversation, dry wit and sexy drone rock, they find a reason to reconnect and keep waking up at night. And their dark, eternal bond gave me a reason to fall in love with their characters.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Having read many comic book adventures starring the Guardians of the Galaxy, I was really looking forward to seeing them come alive on screen. But I was completely unprepared for just how good this film turned out to be. It pumps with a massive heart, kinetic action and more funny than I’ve seen in any movie last year. I could have done without the useless Thanos scenes and Ronan was the definition of a one-note villain, but this film isn’t concerned with the bad guys. It’s focused on a group of ragtag, space orphans who find each other and become a family. I cared about what happened to our unlikely heroes from the very opening scene and I laughed my face off at their banter all the way through. Plus, that soundtrack… that f***ing soundtrack!
Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a petty thief turned freelance cameraman who chases down grisly accident scenes and sells the footage to local media, is easily his best performance in an already stellar acting career. If I gave a shit about award shows, Gyllenhaal would take home the Oscar for his performance in Nightcrawler. Clearly his character, Lou Bloom, is a psychopath. But he’s a psycho who seems born to be a part of our tragedy-obsessed American media. That kind of poignant commentary, wrapped up in a viscerally filmed, neo-noir crime thriller is as fascinating as it is riveting.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The First Avenger was my favorite first wave Marvel film because it perfectly captured the heart and the fighting spirit of Steve Rogers from the comics by focusing on his adventures and bravery during WWII. Avengers added a new layer by showing Cap’s struggle to navigate the complexities of his new life in a world 70 years ahead of one he knew. With The Winter Soldier, Marvel was able to play with Cap’s past, present and even his potential future, in a surprising 70’s style conspiracy thriller that redefined the entire Marvel Universe. The film bubbles with explosive action and amazing hand-to-hand combat sequences, but still manages to make time for great character moments with Scarlet Johannsson’s Black Widow and Anthony Mackie’s The Falcon. Those characters shine because of their relationships with Captain America, who is deftly portrayed by Chris Evans. He may not get the same credit for owning the role the way Robert Downey does for Iron Man, but he should. In the Winter Soldier we see him truly embody Cap. Just as The First Avenger was my favorite first wave Marvel film, The Winter Soldier is my favorite from wave two.
My top film of 2014 is a 165-minute affair with no explosions, vampires, super-soldiers or ape armies to rely on. But even with the lack of Hollywood bombast, Boyhood is the most unique and compelling movie I saw last year. The simplest summary is that it is an excellent coming-of-age drama about a kid growing up with his dysfunctional family in Texas. But the kicker is that Director Richard Linklater shot the film in bits and pieces for 12 years with all the same actors. You actually see them grow up on screen. This has never been done. Ever. Linklater did pioneer a similar idea with his amazing Before Sunrise romance trilogy, which checks in with a couple (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) every 10 years or so. But that story almost feels like a trial run next to Boyhood, which takes the concept to another level.
Dedicating years of filming to an ongoing story was a hell of a risk. Anything could have happened to the actors or the producers in the 12 years it took to shoot. Ellar Coltrane, the film’s star, was a complete wild card. As a six-year-old child performer when production started in 2002, there was no guarantee he’d grow up to be a good, young adult actor. Or even that he’d just stay out of trouble and be around to complete the film. To say that gamble paid off is a huge understatement. I expected Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke to give great performances, but Coltrane makes the film special, turning in a thoughtful, nuanced performance as we watch him transform into a man on screen. Boyhood is a masterpiece that manages to expose and celebrate all the joy and turmoil of a family trying to carve out a life in Middle-America. I hope Linklater secretly continues filming these actors for another 12 years. I want Manhood in 2026.
Edge of Tomorrow
I find it very difficult to get the badass image of Emily Blunt wielding a colossal sword across a futuristic battlefield out of my head, thanks to the criminally underrated Edge of Tomorrow. This wasn’t just one of the best sci-fi films in years, it was also one of the best films of 2014. Emily and her Final Fantasy Sword had a lot to do with it, but it’s Tom Cruise as a time-jumping draft dodger who really gives the movie its edge. When he suits up for science fiction I pay attention, even if the general public doesn’t. In 2013 he gave us Oblivion, which was another vastly underappreciated movie, and now with Edge of Tomorrow he’s starred in back-to-back sci-fi epics that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Christopher Nolan has a big brain and it’s on full display with Interstellar’s heady exploration of space travel. Over the last few decades Earth has started to change into the planet Dune, so a makeshift crew of astronauts led by actor Matthew McConaughey traverses the cosmos in search of a sustainable planet. Apparently a lot of science-y complaints have been lobbed at this film, but I honestly don’t think they matter. Interstellar is science-fiction, not science, but Nolan does make it feel believable through both nerd analysis and the emotional commitment his characters have to the mission and their families. It’s the human threads and heart that make Interstellar really take off for me. At its core it’s a story about parents giving their children a better life than they had. Also, the robots are @#$%ing awesome. I already put one on my Amazon wishlist.
She Makes Comics is a fascinating and well-crafted documentary that traces the history of women in the comics industry. It features dozens of interviews with seminal female creators and historians revealing just how important, influential and inspiring women are, not just to comics, but to the creative world. At a brisk 70 minutes, I did feel the film was a bit too short for such an important topic. That said, She Makes Comics is a phenomenal work that deserves a much larger audience.
An exciting, heavily plot-driven mutiny aboard a train in a stark, frozen future. I enjoyed the breakneck pace and the class structure upheaval, but found myself wishing I cared about the characters. Still, Snowpiercer is a train very much worth boarding if you are looking for a slick, sci-fi action thriller.
Choosing one’s favorite films is a completely subjective endeavor. I don’t expect anyone else to select the features I did or to agree with my choices. But I would love to see what made your cut. Feel free to post your Top 10 in the comments below.