For those of you who didn’t check out my 2013 Favorites list, I’ll provide a quick explanation of how I choose the films that make the cut.
I don’t call my list a “best of” because I never see enough of the films released in a given year to feel justified in claiming some kind of comprehensive list. A partial list of notable films I’ve yet to see from 2014—Boyhood, Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive, Interstellar, Whiplash, Selma, A Most Wanted Man, Inherent Vice, and Citizenfour—gives you an idea of how arbitrary my viewing habits can be.
That said, I do feel like highlighting the following films from what was a very good year in film. These are the films that I felt a strong connection with. Whether they drew out an unexpected emotional response, intellectually challenged me, or just flat-out entertained me, these are all films I can see myself repeatedly watching and recommending to others.
So without any more of this rambling introduction/explanation/justification, here are my favorite films of 2014.
A merciless satire of the widening disparity between the rich and the poor in America, Cheap Thrills also boasts one of the best ensembles of the year. Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, and Ethan Embry all turn in stellar work running the gamut from physical comedy to honest despair, rage, and heartbreak. But it’s David Koechner who is the true revelation here. Tweaking his normal gregarious idiot shtick into a sadistic heartlessness, he still manages to be hilarious as he goads people into committing monstrous acts. It’s not for everyone, but if you can stomach the uncomfortable extremes director E.L. Katz and writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga take their story of “haves” and “have nots,” you’ll discover one of the most entertaining and angry films of the year. That Katz caps it off with a perfect final shot is just icing on the cake.
Another brutal film, Blue Ruin stands apart from other revenge films by taking the revenge for granted. It’s what happens after shell-shocked Dwight (Macon Blair) blunders his way through avenging the murders of his parents that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is interested in. It’s grim stuff, but Saulnier peppers the film with sprinkles of pitch black humor and never loses sight of the psychological toll the events take on the people involved. Added bonus: while he’s never showy, Blair doesn’t hit a false note and quietly turns in one of the best performances of the year. You can read my full review of the film here.
Here is a film that lives up to the promise of pure fun. The Guest is a genre bender that combines the precise widescreen compositions (and synthesizer score and title font and distrust of the government…you get the idea) of ’80s John Carpenter films with a plot that borrows bits and pieces from The Terminator, The Bourne Identity, and any number of “dangerous but alluring stranger” movies. But director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett aren’t just copying those films. By using the expected visual and audio cues from the genre films to which they are paying homage they cause the audience to expect one type of story before twisting those expectations into a sinister comedy—one that has the audience wondering if they should root for the bad guy. It might be the most thoroughly entertaining film I saw last year. Special kudos go to Dan Stevens for his a-movie-star-is-born performance and a terrific soundtrack. Fireballs for everyone!
In Halloween, the boogeyman is a knife-wielding psychopath who may or may not be a supernatural entity. In The Babadook, the boogeyman is anxiety and depression. Welcome to the 21st century. But reducing the movie to that description under-sells it. This Australian import is also one of the most assured feature debuts I’ve ever seen. Writer/director Jennifer Kent turns in a horror film that smartly builds its two main characters into believable human beings before turning the titular monster loose on them. A film of emotional extremes that never feels like overkill, it boasts a genuinely great performance by Essie Davis who expertly moves between emotional exhaustion, terror, and menace without ever feeling like she’s over-acting. It’s a visceral performance in a movie that is just as intellectually alive as it is emotionally honest.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Not surprisingly, I’m sick of comic book movies. Marvel’s “shared universe” plan especially annoys me because what I prefer about movies to television is the sense of closure. A movie provides a stand-alone story that I get in 90-120 minutes (hopefully) while a TV show can go on for years—a prospect I find daunting. There are elements of Marvel’s attempts to tie all of their characters together into the same storytelling universe in Guardians of the Galaxy, but they don’t detract from the blast of fresh air that co-writer/director James Gunn brings to his vision of a comic book film. A brightly-colored space opera, the film is derivative of everything from Star Wars to The Last Starfighter, but Gunn steals the best parts of those films and uses the ridiculously large budget at his disposal to craft a blockbuster that is both briskly-paced in its plot and leisurely in its exploration of the idiosyncratic goofballs who stumble their way into being heroes. I don’t know the last time I had this much fun watching a mega-budgeted studio blockbuster.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
The second of three big-budget studio blockbusters on this list, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes flew well beyond my already high expectations. Improving on the solid origin story laid out by Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves and writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver take their time exploring the society of the apes through an observant series of opening scenes that includes an exciting hunting sequence, the birth of Caesar’s second son, and the establishment of a hierarchy that finds Caesar’s leadership hold to be more tenuous than it first appears. By the time the first humans show up, it’s a good twenty minutes into the film and their appearance is as much of a surprise to the viewer as it is to the apes. Some criticism was leveled at the filmmakers for not investing as much time or characterization in the human characters as they did the apes, but the title says it all. This is a film about a world that is changing over to its next dominant species and it maps out this change with empathy for all involved. Special acknowledgement has to be made to the effects and production design teams. They successfully created an old world that is recognizable even as it is transforming into something new. And of course, there is Andy Serkis, doing more with his body language and eyes in a motion capture performance as Caesar, than most actors can ever hope to pull off.
WE ARE THE BEST!
A sweet, funny, and nostalgic surprise from mercurial Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson. Basing his tale of three middle school-aged girls who form a punk band in 1982 Stockholm on the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by his wife Coco Moodysson, he crafts a loose tale of friendship that thankfully avoids any false drama. By allowing his trio of would-be punks to act like the kids they are, Moodysson gives the characters room to breathe and never turns anyone—even the most peripheral characters in the film—into stereotypes. It’s a warm film where people make mistakes, but never out of maliciousness and even the most clueless characters on display mean well.
A stripped-down exercise in survival of the fittest, it feels like an over-simplification to call this downbeat, Australian post-apocalyptic drama Mad Max‘s grim-faced cousin, but the similarities of the setups are too obvious to ignore. I get the feeling that co-writer/director David Michôd actually tried to highlight those similarities in the first act before taking his protagonist (Guy Pearce in haunted, hopeless mode) to darker places than George Miller ever dared take Max. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is efficient and merciless in the way it shows how the human race can devolve into savagery with just the slightest push.
My initial reaction when I watched Coherence was that it was an enjoyable sci-fi flick that was essentially disposable. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Part of the credit goes to the clever central premise (of which I will divulge nothing because it’s best to go into the film with as little knowledge as possible) set up by writer/director James Ward Byrkit. The other part of the credit goes to a game cast that improvises much of their dialogue and manage to inject real wit into their largely unlikable characters. Nothing about the movie is ground-breaking and it makes no grand philosophical statements. But it’s put together with such efficiency and smart touches that it sneaks its way on to this list.
It cracks me up that so much of the press about this film surrounds the fact that the main character decides to have an abortion after a one night stand. That plot point is almost incidental to the rest of the film, but I suppose anything considered that controversial is going to be a lightning rod that attracts attention. What I did find surprising about Obvious Child—and what earns it a spot on this list—is its endearing embrace of the romantic comedy genre without any of the genre’s usual ridiculousness. Jenny Slate is as good as you’ve heard as Donna, a struggling stand-up comic living in Brooklyn (naturally). While most of the film rides on her shoulders—her goofy, likable personality does carry it through some rough patches—it works best when writer/director Gillian Robespierre simply allows Donna and Max (a believably sweet and dorky Jake Lacy) to tiptoe into a romance that neither of them expected to find. Their relationship develops organically without any of the contrivances that have come to plague romantic comedies. Like the film, their romance is low-key, funny, and totally charming.
COLD IN JULY
I approached Cold in July with no small amount of trepidation. Based on the novel—one of my personal favorite novels, to give you an idea of where I am coming from—by Joe R. Lansdale, I wondered if its twisty plot and tone would work as a film. But I shouldn’t have been concerned. The filmmaking team of co-writer/director Jim Mickle and co-writer/actor Nick Damici seem to have the magic touch (We Are What We Are made last year’s Favorites list) and they brought Lansdale’s hard-boiled Texas noir to the screen with its jagged edges and dark humor intact. Michael C. Hall does solid work as the everyman anchor, allowing a grizzled Sam Shepard and scene-stealing Don Johnson to chew on the stylized dialogue like the old pros they are.
THE LEGO MOVIE
When I first heard that The Lego Movie was in production, I assumed it would be nothing more than a 100 minute toy commercial. You can imagine my surprise when the trailer made the film not only look good, but hilarious. And then the overwhelmingly positive reviews started to pour in. The final straw was when friends who have very good taste in film started raving about it. Of course, it turned out that it really was a 100 minute toy commercial. But it was so beautifully constructed—both visually and at the script level—it was impossible to dismiss as merely an advertisement. Playful, extremely funny, and featuring some of the very best computer animation ever (time to up your game, Pixar), this was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me.
A New Zealand import that defies easy categorization—the tone feels like a mixture of mainstream horror/comedy/adventures from the ‘80s and Peter Jackson’s early comedies—Housebound finds itself in the same boat as The Guest: a movie that is pure fun, but had trouble finding an audience due to its genre-bending approach. The film starts out as a dysfunctional family comedy before pulling the rug out from under the audience’s feet with an abrupt (but earned) twist halfway through. Elements of horror, mystery, and splatter comedies are weaved throughout the clever, twisty plot, but writer/director Gerard Johnstone grounds the film in recognizable family dynamics and a prickly, yet sympathetic performance from Morgana O’Reilly. While reviews were good and word-of-mouth was positive among genre fans, this one largely slipped under the radar. I hope it finds a second life as a cult favorite that is found by a larger audience in the next few years.
While there are a couple of lines of dialogue that are too on-the-nose late in the film, Nightcrawler mostly respects the intelligence of its audience. This is key to the film’s success because it traffics in the kind of nasty, satirical tone that is often misunderstood as simple misanthropy. But writer/director Dan Gilroy trusts the audience to understand his film is not endorsing the horrible extremes that sociopathic videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) go to in order to get what they want. As each character manipulates the truth in their own way—and use each other in a subplot that becomes creepier by the minute—to gain power, money, and higher ratings, Gilroy encourages us to enjoy the ride, while never losing sight of how awful these people are. Gyllenhaal does career-best work as the sallow, cold-blooded Lou and cinematographer Robert Elswit captures a nighttime Los Angeles that is both a sparkling neon-lit dream and ugly, industrial hellhole.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
I’m not normally drawn to movies that are primarily exercises in style and mood, but I’m making an exception in this case. A description of the film sounds like the type of pretentious fare that give art-house indies a bad name: a black and white, deadpan vampire film that takes place in a small, grimy Iranian city. Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour doesn’t provide much of a plot. A group of mostly lonely, desperate people intersect in the city and have interactions with a vampire (Sheila Vand) who preys on some and acts as an avenging angel for others. Even the cliché of the lonely vampire seeking a connection to humanity is used. Despite all of these seeming strikes against the film, Amirpour creates something spellbinding. From the lovely cinematography to the amazing soundtrack to the well-placed comedy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a classic example of a film adding up to more than the sum of its parts.
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