By Ezra Stead
This was the year I realized that my annual goal of seeing pretty much every movie released in a given year was more impossible than ever. The reason for this is the exponential growth in the number of films now being released in the digital age. When I started doing these lists back in 2001, there were about 300 official releases per year; now it’s closer to 700. With that in mind, I’d like to start with a partial list of movies I meant to see in 2014, but just didn’t get to in time. Then, to acknowledge the relatively arbitrary nature of these lists in general, I’m listing my Top 10 in categories by which each film corresponds to another one from my Top 20 (only the Top 10 is ranked in order of preference). It’ll make more sense as you read it, I promise.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN (40 movies I didn’t see in time for this list, in alphabetical order): Bird People; The Boxtrolls; Calvary; Chef; Citizenfour; Coherence; The Congress; Enemy; Fading Gigolo; Filth; Force Majeure; Foxcatcher; Frank; Fury; Gloria; Happy Christmas; Ida; Joe; A Letter to Momo; Leviathan; Life After Beth; Like Father, Like Son; Lucy; Men, Women & Children; A Million Ways to Die in the West; Mr. Turner; Moebius; A Most Violent Year; Night Moves; Palo Alto; The Rocket; The Sacrament; St. Vincent; Song of the Sea; Starred Up; Stonehearst Asylum; Top Five; 22 Jump Street; Virunga; Wrinkles.
THE TOP 10:
1. BEST ANIMATED MOVIE: The Lego Movie – against all odds, this is easily my favorite movie of the year. Much like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle before it, I initially dismissed this one for having product placement right there in the title, but then I actually saw the movie, and it is simply glorious. I decided I was in love with this movie right around the time I realized that Will Arnett was voicing Batman, and that Batman was going to be fully a Will Arnett character– pushy, narcissistic, obliviously the butt of the joke– but it’s the third act that really transcends and makes The Lego Movie the best picture of the year. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is also a feat only previously pulled off by the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, bringing together beloved characters from all over the pop culture landscape without fear of licensing issues. There were more innovative and important films in 2014, but nothing as much fun as this.
RUNNER-UP: Ernest & Celestine – this was actually nominated for Best Animated Feature of 2013 at the Oscars, but most of the world didn’t really get a chance to see it until 2014, so I’m counting it here. A wonderful, touching story set in a world in which the only inhabitants seem to be bear and mice, Ernest & Celestine is a delightful and consistently clever look at the extraordinary power of an unlikely friendship.
2. BEST MOVIE CHARACTER I WANT TO PARTY WITH: Cheap Thrills – I might not survive the hypothetical party with David Koechner’s character in this movie, but it would be a hell of a way to go out. Cheap Thrills is my favorite movie of the year that no one else seems to have seen or even heard of, but I hear Tarantino loves it, so I guess I’m in good company. The premise is simple: a guy who needs money fast runs into an old friend, and soon the two of them are in a continually escalating game of outlandish dares for cash prizes. To say much more would be edging into spoiler territory. I’m not sure if this is the darkest comedy or the funniest thriller of the year, but either way, it’s one of my absolute favorites.
RUNNER-UP: The Immortalists – my favorite documentary of the year is about an inherently fascinating subject– scientists searching for a cure for old age– but it is the personality of one of those scientists that really hooks the viewer. Aubrey de Grey is a hard-drinking, polyamorous weirdo who would be great fun to share several pints with, and both he and the movie do a remarkable job of keeping the esoteric science behind his endeavors very accessible to the layperson.
3. MOST EXTREME MOVIE: Nymph()maniac – this is probably the most divisive movie of the year. I’ve certainly seen it on more worst-of-the-year lists than best. Whatever, those people are wrong. This is the best and most ambitious movie ever made about sex addiction, handily trouncing the maudlin and obvious Shame. Lars von Trier is always polarizing and, with the exception of Dogville, this is probably my favorite of his films. At five-and-a-half hours, it’s bound to test the patience of those who aren’t instantly in love with it, but it is never boring and surprisingly funny, especially in the first half. Uma Thurman’s cameo is probably my single favorite scene of the year.
RUNNER-UP: Why Don’t You Play in Hell – if Nymph()maniac is the most extreme movie of the year about sex (and it most certainly is), this is the most extremely violent movie of the year. Breathlessly paced, continually surprising and, above all, batshit insane, Shion Sono’s masterpiece is a blood-soaked, cocaine-fueled love letter to cinema.
4. BEST OSCAR MOVIE: Whiplash – stunning doesn’t begin to cover it. One of the most intense movies of the year, Whiplash is also easily the most inspiring, the kind of movie that makes you want to bleed for your craft. J.K. Simmons is simply brilliant as a jazz bandleader who is basically the reincarnation of R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, unleashing a steady stream of colorful profanity on his students in an effort to bring out their best. Miles Teller achieves the impossible feat of matching Simmons’ intensity every step of the way. Much like There Will Be Blood before it, the really interesting thing to ponder about this one is just how much of a villain is the villainous character, really? Sure, his methods are unusual and extreme, but maybe he’s right.
RUNNER-UP: Boyhood – the most ambitious film of the year is Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making portrait of a young boy’s life as he gradually transitions to manhood. Though this is easily the best behind-the-scenes story of 2014, it is not, as many claim, Linklater’s masterpiece. In fact, one of the few cinematic precedents for what he’s done here is his own Before trilogy, all three of which are better finished films than this one (especially 2013’s possibly final installment, Before Midnight). Nonetheless, Boyhood is moving, memorable and certainly one of a kind, and Patricia Arquette gives a career-best performance.
5. BEST HORROR MOVIE: Tusk – presumably tired of being pigeonholed as a director of silly comedies with no real eye for composition or camerawork, Kevin Smith has struck off in a bold new direction with his last two films: the politically charged, genre-bending Red State, and now the extremely weird monster movie Tusk. This one skews closer to the humor for which Smith is known, but it is still a legitimately disturbing horror movie, thanks mainly to the excellent prosthetic make-up and effects work, as well as Michael Parks’ commanding performance as the mad scientist who surgically transforms Justin Long into a walrus. The film takes this premise as seriously as it can possibly be taken, but ultimately, the reason I love this movie is the fact that it had me laughing out loud for a good ten minutes straight after the credits rolled.
RUNNER-UP: Oculus – who knew WWE Studios, an offshoot of World Wrestling Entertainment, would produce the scariest movie of the year? Featuring Dazed and Confused‘s Rory Cochrane (Slater), all growed-up and in full-on Jack Torrance mode, Oculus invents a wonderfully effective new monster for the horror genre: the haunted mirror. It sounds silly, but the way the film uses it is unexpected and genuinely frightening. This is an immensely satisfying horror movie.
6. BEST EDGY BUT HEARTWARMING MOVIE: We Are the Best! – my favorite foreign language film of the year is also my favorite coming of age story. It would be my favorite music movie, too, but for Whiplash, which is just phenomenal. Anyway, this portrait of three misfit teenage girls starting a punk rock band together isn’t really about the music, or certainly their skill in playing it. It’s about the friendship between the girls and the non-conformist spirit that unites them. Director Lukas Moodysson made one of my all-time favorite movies with 1998’s Show Me Love, and this is the closest he’s come to revisiting that territory.
RUNNER-UP: Obvious Child – truly a one-of-a-kind romantic comedy, and the first movie I can think of to really tackle abortion in a comedic way (Knocked Up and Juno both had their chances, but opted out). Not only that, the “meet-cute” between the two leads occurs when he accidentally farts in her face while they are drunkenly urinating in public together. This movie deserves an Oscar for that alone.
7. BEST SCI-FI / ACTION MOVIE: Snowpiercer – South Korean director Joon-ho Bong first English language film is this year’s Oldboy; a smart, kinetic, beautifully shot thriller with killer fight scenes. The central premise of a train continuously running on a circular track provides neat metaphors for societal inequities, and the classroom scene is a terrific illustration of the old axiom that the winners write the history books.
RUNNER-UP: Edge of Tomorrow – the most satisfying Tom Cruise action movie since the first Mission Impossible is also the cleverest video game since the underrated Gamer, and it’s even more fun. To clarify, neither film is actually based on a video game, but both use video game logic in very interesting ways. Plus, Emily Blunt is a bigger badass than Cruise, and both he and the movie acknowledge and accept that.
8. BEST POLITICAL COMEDY: Dear White People – the Spike Lee comparisons were bound to happen, and this movie does resemble his early film School Daze, but not a musical and way more focused. The best thing about it is that it stays focused on the characters and their relationships, and it rarely allows any of them to be mere types. This keeps the political commentary from feeling too heavy-handed and, most importantly, it’s funny as hell.
RUNNER-UP: The Interview – after Boyhood, this is the behind-the-scenes story of the year. It went from a movie I could take or leave me to one everyone must see for the sake of Freedom! In a surprisingly short amount of time. If the entire movie were as great as its opening scenes (particularly the Eminem cameo, which is nothing short of brilliant), it would have easily made my Top 10. Luckily, the rest of the movie is pretty damn good. That Eminem scene, though– one of the very best of the year.
9. BEST THRILLER: Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal really commands the screen in this one, but it’s not merely an actor’s vehicle. It’s also a wonderfully dark and uncompromising satire of news media in the 24-hour news cycle. This is definitely the darkest mainstream hit of the year, and I’m a little uncomfortable with how well I relate to Gyllenhaal’s character. Nice to see Bill Paxton and Rene Russo in good roles again, too.
RUNNER-UP: Blue Ruin – as revenge movies go, this is sort of the anti-John Wick (which is also very good in its own right). A slow-burning, gradually revealed story of incompetent revenge carried off by sheer stubborn determination, this one is more like Winter’s Bone or No Country for Old Men than it is an action movie, and it’s every bit as good. This is a movie that will stick with you long after it’s over.
10. BEST MOVIE ABOUT MARRIAGE: Proxy – I don’t think any movie in a category such as this could ever have an especially positive view of marriage. Who wants to watch that? Proxy is remarkable in part because of its Psycho-esque abrupt shift about midway through. I don’t want to say too much about that, but the scene that signals the shift is one of my favorites of the year. This is the rare movie that has the ability to shock and surprise even the most jaded viewer.
RUNNER-UP: Gone Girl – a wonderfully trashy thriller in the vein of Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction, this one this one also hinges on a dynamite twist and the aftermath of that moment. Don’t take it any more seriously than it takes itself (probably less, actually) and you’ll have more fun. Also, I had no idea Tyler Perry was such an awesome actor. I might have to check out some of his movies now.
To sum up and keep it simple, here is my actual Top 10 list, the only ones I’ve ranked in order of preference:
- THE LEGO MOVIE
- CHEAP THRILLS
- WE ARE THE BEST!
- DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
And, just because the point of all this is to recommend movies, here are ten more I really liked, in alphabetical order: Cold in July; The Double; The Final Member; The Guest; The Immigrant; John Wick; Locke; The Raid 2; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; They Came Together.
WORST MOVIE I SAW IN 2014: I, Frankenstein – I’ve already taken this one to task in my full review, but I guess my complaint is how a movie this silly manages to be no fun at all.
MOST OVERRATED: Birdman, or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – the pretentiousness begins with that ridiculous subtitle, but it certainly doesn’t end there. It is kind of amusing how critically beloved a movie that so blatantly hates critics has become, but the movie itself is little more than Charlie Kaufman-lite. It particularly brings to mind Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, both of which are infinitely superior. The ending is ambiguous for ambiguity’s sake, and the celebrated cinematography, while technically impressive, calls too much attention to itself for me to really consider it “good.” I love Michael Keaton and hope he wins the Oscar, but the movie is consistently underwhelming and fails to live it up to its considerable potential. I think its biggest problem is that it’s a comedy that simply isn’t very funny.
MOST UNDERRATED: Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – it’s a pale shadow of the original, to be sure, and it would have been more interesting if it attempted to adapt the sprawling final chapter of Frank Miller’s groundbreaking comics, but it’s not half-bad for all of that. Its biggest problem is its final act, which ruins the carefully crafted continuity of the Sin City universe, but it’s an undeniably fun ride for fans of the material.
PLEASANT SURPRISE: Ping Pong Summer – this one barely opened to mostly middling reviews, but one quote I saw on the poster sums it up nicely (I’m paraphrasing here): it’s like The Karate Kid, but with ping pong and Hip-Hop. As a big fan of both those things, that was enough to sell me, but it’s also a really good movie about friendship and reaching one’s potential. Susan Sarandon makes a great Mr. Miyagi, too.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Only Lovers Left Alive – I’m not sure if I’ve grown tired of Jim Jarmusch or if the quality of his recent movies has actually declined. Based on how much everyone seems to love this one, I guess it might be the former, which makes me wonder if I’d love Dead Man or Ghost Dog as much as I do if I saw them for the first time now. At any rate, this film reminds me of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in that they both attempt to show the inherent boredom in a certain lifestyle (extreme wealth / immortality via vampirism), and in succeeding, the result is a boring movie. If you really want to see John Hurt and Tilda Swinton in the same movie (and who wouldn’t?), I recommend Snowpiercer.
Well, that’s it, folks! Check in with us later in the week for a podcast in which Jason and I discuss our thoughts and predictions on the Oscars.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and aspiring stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com