The studios were a little slow in getting some of the smaller movies into wide release this year, so it took me longer than usual to make my list. The really interesting thing this year is that 6 of my Top 10 were released before "Awards Season" kicks off in October, so while their positions have changed a bunch of times, the bulk of my list was firm before the heavy hitters even came out. The fact that so many of them turned out to be disappointing is a tad disheartening, but it just goes to show that sometimes, the further you get into the year, the more you realize that some of the best movies have already come and gone. I've reviewed all but one film listed below, and I will get around to reviewing that one soon, but you can click on the title to be taken to my original review. My 10 Worst Films of 2014 will be on its way to you this weekend. As always, I welcome all comments, criticisms, vitriol, and any combination of the three in the comments section below.
10. Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson is the absolute master of creating films that are so dense, they actually get richer and more rewarding on subsequent viewings. Initially I had left this film off my Top 10 list, but after seeing it again, I think it's incredibly deserving of a place at the table. Once the confusion of the first viewing is out of the way, spending 150 minutes in the company of such memorable characters reveals itself to be the true intention of this film, much like the best films of his idol Robert Altman. Inherent Vice is a film I look forward to revisiting time and again throughout my life, and that's just not something you can say about many other movies.
9. Life Itself
When film critic Roger Ebert passed away midway through the making of Steve James' documentary based on Ebert's life, the finished product could have easily turned into idol worship. Instead, it shirked those temptations and gave us a well-rounded portrait of a man who was just as human as the rest of us, and whose love of life and film radiated through all of his personal trials and tribulations. As I said in my original review, Life Itself "perfectly encapsulates what a great film should be, and it beats with the heart of a man who loved film above all else except, perhaps, life itself."
8. Edge of Tomorrow
In a summer filled with disposable, noisy visual effects spectacles, no film proved as memorable as the one which failed to connect with a wide audience. Doug Liman's exemplary science fiction epic was the most fun—and arguably the smartest—mega-budget film released this year. Featuring Tom Cruise's best performance in ages, the film perfectly played on an audience's expectations of what to expect from a film like this, a delighted in subverting them every step of the way. Though the ending is perhaps the weakest element of the film, I'd rather watch an ambitious but flawed film over something assured and bland. Ignore the boneheaded title, which Warner Brothers itself already seems to be doing, and seek out this gem of a film.
No animation studio in America is doing the kind of work that stop-motion house LAIKA is doing, and their third film proved that they're a powerhouse in the making. Based on the book "Here Be Monsters," The Boxtrolls was the most gloriously grotesque family film since The Dark Crystal, and its message would resonate with audience members of any age. At a time when family entertainment seeks to remove all the sharp edges and elements of danger, this film was like a battle cry for individuality and uniqueness that's seldom seen on the big screen anymore.
6. Gone Girl
David Fincher may be the only director in America who has the clout and the wherewithal to create pitch black works of art and then sit back and wait for audiences to come to them. Gone Girl had just as many detractors as it did supporters, but perhaps the greatest thing about this scathing condemnation of marriage is that it came from the mind of a woman. Gillian Flynn brilliantly subverted the expectations of scores of readers looking for a simple escapist beach read, and instead painted a portrait of what "till death do us part" truly means. Anchored by a career best performance from Ben Affleck and a remarkably brilliant turn by Rosamund Pike, this is a biting, caustic, nasty piece of work which will benefit enormously from repeat viewings.
In recent years, the biopic has become something of a laughable joke of a genre. Far too many of these films follow the exact same clichéd outline of events, and ninety percent of them miss the forest for the trees. Ava DuVernay's masterful film Selma skillfully danced around all of these narrative pitfalls, opting instead to focus on one intense five month period in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., played to perfection by David Oyelowo. The film was able to get everything right, from the small, intimate moments to the grandiose events, and painted an unflinching portrait of a dark time in our nation's history. But it was the light, like the light of the man at the film's center, that drove out the darkness.
4. The Babadook
True horror lies in the mundane. Perhaps that is why this tale of a single mother (an electrifying Essie Davis) whose fears of her own child (Noah Wiseman) manifest themselves in a haunting boogeyman, is so damn effective. The honesty with which the film deals with mental illness and co-dependency is what allows it to transcend the horror genre and become a film in a category all its own. There is real, honest-to-goodness terror in The Babadook, and every ounce of it is grounded in that most bone-chilling fear of all... What we, as a human beings, are capable of doing to one another and ourselves.
Another film which mastered the art of simplicity was Richard Linklater's laconic masterpiece Boyhood, a film that's not so much about any one thing as it is about everything. While it's impossible to divorce the film from the incredible story of its creation, the magic at work in this film is how none of that behind the scenes stuff matters one whit while you're watching. The film plays out in front of your eyes much like life does, and there's something for just about everyone to latch on to, making it a truly transcendent piece of work. Linklater finally found a way to show that what he's been doing as a filmmaker all along has been art, it's just not the kind that smacks you in the face with its importance, but rather the kind that sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise. That might just be the rarest commodity of all in this day and age.
It's so rare in this day and age to come across a vision so singular and unique that it defies description, and no film this year boldly defied any kind of description like Jonathan Glazer's mesmerizing film. Featuring a career best performance from Scarlett Johansson, this film moved so seamlessly between several genres, boldly flying in the face of convention at every turn, and most importantly, making the audience work for every last word and image on display. For atmospheric excellence, breathtaking imagery, and a real sense of awe and wonder over where the story is headed, Under the Skin was second to none this year.
Looking back on the year that was in film, I’m left feeling disappointed by so many films. The films that most critics seemed to be falling all over themselves to lavish with effusive praise mostly left me cold or indifferent, and while there were some great films this year, the one that I absolutely cannot stop thinking about is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s breathtaking debut Whiplash. The problem with so many films this year was that they talked the talk, but very few walked the walk, and not only did Whiplash walk, it flew like a bat out of hell from the very first moment and never let up. Making a film about an artist in any medium is a huge risk, because the creative team must choose whether to sacrifice truth in the name of drama, but the most miraculous thing about Whiplash is its ability to not just be a compelling drama, but to actually have something to say about art and those who create it.
The tipping point for Whiplash, however, is the remarkable performance by J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, one of the most fully realized antagonists of the 21st century. The real joy of the film is watching this phenomenally talented actor transcend greatness and make his way into the pantheon of legendary villains, a feat he manages so effortlessly, it’s almost hard to believe that he’s built a career around playing likable paternal figures. Here he flips the script and uses his natural charm to his advantage, making him a force to be reckoned with. The tête-à-tête between Simmons and Miles Teller is a battle for the ages, one that all the CGI in the world couldn’t have enhanced.
In a year that relied so heavily on visual effects, spectacle, and noise to get its point across, the most amazing fireworks of all occurred between two immovable objects and the irresistible force between them.