As 2014 comes to a close, those of us who spent the majority of our time with eyes fixed on the big screen are charged with the inescapable quest: solidifying our favorite films of the year. Top 10s are inevitable. Top 20s a growing trend. But, if you’re as obsessive a cinema lover as I am, you might be inclined to make something in the neighborhood of a Top 180. In other words, a complete ranking of every new movie seen throughout the year.
That’s what I did: all 180 new films I saw in 2014 are accounted for on this list, ranked in ascending order. While some lament ’14 as a lackluster year for the pictures, I wholeheartedly disagree, celebrating a large percentage of the list to follow. I like just about everything in my Top 100, I must confess. If I had my way, my Top 20 would include 36 movies. And my Top 10 would be a Top 18. But numbers aren’t as open to interpretation as the art of cinema is. So, here we are.
And now, an admission of guilt. This list is not without its egregious omissions. I tried to see as many new films as I could in 2014, but missed out on a few noteworthy titles, including The Overnighters, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Big Hero 6, Dumb and Dumber To, and (somehow) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I. I’m as befuddled as you are by that last one slipping by. Apologies all around.
Without further ado, I present to you my year in review: every new movie I saw in 2014, ranked worst to best.
to All That
The title of “worst movie” in the discussion of any given year’s slate of cinema should not be wasted on any simple technical folly or creative failure. A year’s true worst movie should, as far as I’m concerned, be one that incites real anger — anger that lives with you, on a spiritual level, long past the rolling of credits — over the very fact that the movie in question was made. With this rare achievement (one reached in 2013 by Saving Mr. Banks and in 2012 by Pitch Perfect) do I credit Goodbye to All That. In this would-be comedy, Mark Brendanawicz whines about his divorce for an hour and a half while the Earth’s female population devolves into a villainous, psychologically destitute stupor.
The movie is devoid of imagination, riddled with plot contrivances, and frustrating to the point of physical agony. All through my screening of the film, I was indeed angry to be watching. Once the curtains closed, I was angrier still, by this time over the very fact that a movie with such aggressive disregard for its premise, characters, and message existed, and prided itself so heartily on its malfeasances. There are probably a good few 2014 movies that I’d fault with worse writing, direction, or acting (this film actually packs a pretty decent cast, in fact). But Goodbye to All That bears that indefinable factor that separates a bad dream from a nightmare. Thus, it wins lucky number 180 — my least favorite film of the year.
179. If I Stay
Boasting every teen drama cliché in the book, If I Stay seems like it was born from the ambition to make a YA movie for the sake of making a YA movie, banking on the hope that the actual ideas would come about organically. But in this irresponsible misappropriation of the notions of grief and loss — and obscenely cheesy rock and roll named rops — they do not.
178. Into the Storm
Three or four carloads of dead-eyed exposition machines chase and evade tornadoes in this aesthetic rat’s nest.
177. The Giver
Just because the inhabitants of this film’s monochromatic dystopia relinquish all semblance of mind and soul, that doesn’t mean that film itself should follow suit. But lo and behold…
176. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
A family of five undertakes a willfully dumb barrage of misfortune. An especially regrettable turn involves a preteen girl chugging cold medicine until she’s plastered.
175. A Million Ways to Die in the West
Nearly two hours of dead air, spotted with the occasional joke about excrement or genitalia.
174. Behaving Badly
A frighteningly black-hearted comedy of errors about the ill-conceived sexual misadventures of a teenage louse and a neighborhood of psychopaths. Poor Cary Elwes. Poorer Elisabeth Shue.
You know how culturally insensitive Adam Sandler manages to be right here in America? Now imagine that he brought his talents to Africa.
172. The Legend of Hercules
With absolutely nothing going on upstairs, this knuckle-dragger pulls from Greco-Roman legend, the story of Jesus Christ, and the filmic stylings of Zack Snyder to churn out something more pitiable than truly revolting.
171. Knights of Badassdom
Don’t expect an empowering tribute to the precious universe of LARP subculture. Expect, instead, cheap gore and jokes about masturbation.
170. Earth to Echo
The Amblin spirit can find home in the digital world. You just need a script.
169. 300: Rise of an Empire
From a distance, I can admire the craft in this movie’s design and choreography. The chore of watching it, though, is like R-rated dental work.
168. Oh Boy/A Coffee in Berlin
How many times can a movie prompt you to ask, “Oh who cares?!” about its main character’s struggle without being stamped a failure? If it’s less than nine, we’re in trouble here.
167. Planes: Fire and Rescue
As little patience as I might have for adult-directed movies that feel “stupid,” I manage even less for those made with children in mind. Not a hint of creative thought or flavor was employed for this extended toy commercial; it’s unforgivable precisely because it’s a “kids’ movie.”
A painfully boring Gladiator rip-off for the first 80 percent of its run. That volcanic climax, though, is kind of a treat.
Dreadfully corny. People say things like, “If you can take it, you can make it.” And when these people say that, other people don’t say, “Shut the hell up,” oddly enough.
An exploitative pseudo-documentary that is content to use its cinematographic merits to excuse a lack of any other kind.
163. The Nut Job
It kills me that the closest thing to a Tex Avery throwback we’ve gotten in years is about as witty and vivid as something you’d watch in driver’s ed.
162. The Monuments Men
“Damon? Clooney. Call Murray, Goodman, Balaban, and the Artist guy. We’re goin’ to war!” The enthusiasm stops there.
See Wild instead.
"You know what’s weird? Africans! Let’s put ‘em in America and see what kind of hijinks they get into. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn something from these puerile creatures ourselves."
Shailene Woodley, Chicago, and teen angst all deserve better than this.
158. The November Man
There is nothing to say about this movie. That should say something.
Angelina Jolie could command a screen with even the least interesting of characters (which she does, here). Too bad there are so many other things happening in this movie, too.
156. Red Knot
I get it. Your relationship is falling apart. It’s hard for me to be too broken up about it when you didn’t give me any reason to care about its maintenance in the first place.
155. American Sniper
This one’s at least partially on me — I find it impossible to accept Bradley Cooper as someone hailing from outside of America’s brunch region.
154. Begin Again
As a David Wain movie, this phony baloney “the power of music” flick is fantastic.
153. Dracula Untold
If ya ask me, he shoulda stayed untold! But seriously, folks…
152. How to Train Your Dragon 2
Sure, it’s got dragons. The dragons are cute. Cute dragons. But nothing in this movie makes emotional sense.
Its primary elicitation is the groan, but Dwayne Johnson and Ian McShane provoke the occasional chuckle.
Drop it further down a few notches if you’re not quite as placated by British accents as I am.
149. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Immediately after viewing, I witnessed a collection of colleagues engaged in the anguished lamentation of what can only be described as “turtle boners.” Few have since recovered.
148. The Purge: Anarchy
There’s some philosophical merit buried beneath the gruesome muck that is this Hawkless sequel that nobody asked for.
147. The Maze Runner
What can I say that hasn’t already been said so eloquently?
146. Summer of Blood
A Brooklyn do-nothing becomes a vampire in this initially optimistic experiment that dissolves into obnoxious nihilism.
As a cheeky high school comedy about gay teenagers, it’s a welcome entry. But it’s rendered forgettable by a “play it safe” ending.
144. Sin City: A Dame to Kill for
A second-rate narrative with the visual panache of Asteroids. Mickey Rourke keeps things watchable.
143. Nas: Time Is Illmatic
It doesn’t say much, but might just be worth the watch to spend a few scenes with Nas’ brother — effectively a reproduction of Christian Bale’s character in The Fighter.
142. Beneath the Harvest Sky
Two kids. Some hopes. Some dreams. Some potatoes. Meh.
141. The Expendables 3
Theory of Everything
Here’s an idea: make a movie about the most brilliant man alive. The man who pioneered the study of space, time, and countless tenets thereof. The man who led the venture into realms of science that might indeed answer the all-important question of where we came from. But gloss over all of that. His leaky marriage is far more interesting, don’t you think?
139. The Angriest Man in Brooklyn
As the title might suggest, this movie is far too angry to be as funny as it thinks it is.
138. Transformers: Age of Extinction
Bizarre enough at times — Jack Reynor’s statutory rape card, Stanley Tucci’s mononymic exclamations — to tear through the excess. Ugh, the excess.
137. Fading Gigolo
It’s tough to evade the lecherous connotations of John Turturro directing movie about his own character having sex with Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara. It’s all just kind of icky.
136. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The hodgepodge of comic book concepts takes center stage, but the real joy of this movie is Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s Grant/Russell repartee.
135. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
I like the fact that secret agent Chris Pine goes to the Film Forum. Otherwise, what can I really say?
134. Winter’s Tale
Oddly, Winter’s Tale seems to be playing off its weirdness like a second-thought, while the real victory would be in celebrating its many peculiar elements: flying horse-dogs, centenarian New York Times editors, Will Smith as a Hendrix-loving Satan, and Jennifer Connelly’s prideful proclamations about poultry possession.
133. Men, Women & Children
Jason Reitman’s ostensible revulsion for the Internet dominates this after school special, but a few interesting conversations peek through on occasion.
As a sociopolitical satire, this remake is effectively wry. As an action/sci-fi, it’s bland and generic. As a platform for Samuel L. Jackson to bellow through the fourth wall, it’s the Nick Fury movie we’ve been waiting for.
131. The Fault in Our Stars
Strikingly false and manipulative in its illustration of a romantic relationship between two teenaged cancer sufferers. But hey, I cried. So I guess it did its job.
Oh, come on. It’s not that bad.
129. Muppet’s Most Wanted
By and large, a good distance from any real understanding of what makes the Muppets funny. But Sam Eagle and Ty Burrell’s tertiary shtick is damn near gold.
128. Cheap Thrills
It keeps attention by building on the false promise that something philosophically riveting is on its way. In the meantime, there’s a whole lot of gross as Champ Kind coerces Pat Healy and Mark-with-a-“K” to compete in a battle of wills.
127. Labor Day
One of those movies that I hated upon impact but have grown to appreciate for its brazen peculiarities — the questions of Stockholm Syndrome, Oedipus complexes, and the intrinsic sexuality of pie — overtime.
Chris Pine is funny.
125. Horrible Bosses 2
Chris Pine is funnier.
124. Deepsea Challenge 3D
An often cheesy, occasionally illuminating documentary that poses the question, “Does James Cameron actually like making movies?”
123. The Skeleton Twins
It brushes away the legitimate emotional turmoils that it claims to hold important, but Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s chemistry makes up for a lot.
122. Magic in the Moonlight
The perfect movie to watch with your grandparents. I mean that. Perfect grandparents movie material.
121. Ride Along
Kevin Hart isn’t allowed full reign of his comedic aptitude in Ride Along, but we get glimmers.
An energized character study wherein college professor, gambling addict, and family disappointment Mark Wahlberg’s driving conflict is, plain and simple, chemical depression. How will he get out of this one?!
119. Draft Day
So… many… split screens.
You can practically hear Warner Bros. begging Melissa McCarthy, “Please, please, put more falling down scenes in this. People can’t realize it’s a drama!”
Call me an anti-Ursite, but I find bears to be one of the least interesting members of the animal kingdom. But if you like bears, watch Bears. (Especially if you also hate fish.)
116. Jersey Boys
Well, the closing credits are fun.
Sorry, I dozed off, what were we talking about? Steve Carell’s Oscar chances? Really?
114. Million Dollar Arm
"You know what’s weird? Indians! Let’s put ‘em in America and see what kind of hijinks they get into. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn something from these puerile creatures ourselves." (It’s not much nobler, but effortful character work makes it a wealth more tolerable than The Good Lie.)
113. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The cinematic equivalent of an afternoon wasted playing Super Smash Bros., but without the necessary luster of Fox McCloud.
112. Wish I Was Here
Sporadically as funny as Zach Braff’s Scrubs shtick. More frequently as cloying as his Garden State nonsense. Never eminent of the cultural power borne by the latter.
111. Dolphin Tale 2
Dolphins: way cooler than bears. And this squeaky clean little number has a few fair lessons about growing up to boot.
110. To Be Takei
As a scientific fascination, George Takei lands somewhere in between dolphins and bears. The rewards of his story wax and wane.
109. About Last Night
A cute ensemble rom-com with just enough yelling! (Kevin Hart is better served here than in Ride Along by a mile.)
108. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
An abrasive and merciless art piece with an ostensible contempt for its viewer (and “characters,” if you can call them that), but a visual and rhythmic opus in which to revel.
107. God Help the Girl
A coming-of-age musical that distracts from its softball story and characters with groovy tunes and an indomitably twee quirk.
106. This Is Where I Leave You
Tina Fey’s hair extensions and Adam Driver’s lupine swagger yank this lackluster family dramedy up a few dozen slots.
Good try, Jon Stewart. How about directing a comedy next time?
104. St. Vincent
Rote to the point of regular boredom, but Bill Murray is never too much of a chore to watch.
War is hell… until it’s empowering and cathartic. Make up your mind, movie.
102. The Hundred-Foot Journey
A sweet-natured “battle of the cooks” movie wherein the good guys don’t have it that bad, the bad guys aren’t awful, the stakes never get very high, and the food looks… well, edible enough. Perfect if your doctor recommended avoiding undue stress!
101. The Imitation Game
It’s tough to be wholly invested in an underdog team’s mission to crack a big case when you’re granted such limited understanding of what they’re actually doing. Everyone involved in this World War II thriller is fun to watch, but you wish that someone would take a second to explain the science behind the group’s Nazi-trouncing device.
to Language 3D
I must confess: I was stricken by existential dissonance when a French woman with a cute dog sat down next to me in the theater just before the film began. (It certainly helped the immersion.)
99. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
That Steve Coogan!
98. Big Eyes
The central story of domestic oppression plays with the emotional weight of a trip to the Laundromat, but Christoph Waltz’s veritable Daffy Duck impression is a hoot.
A drab and melodramatic one-act play about a family stricken by cancer that leaves more of an impression than it probably deserves to.
So, so, so uncomfortably disgusting. But if you’ve got more of a stomach for blood, excrement, and hygienic destitution than I do, you might find this coming-of-age gross-out comedy sweet and charming.
95. Top Five
In the end, Chris Rock’s comeback comedy about the plights of fame doesn’t have that much to say about fame… nor does it have that much in the way of good comedy. But a baseline of Rock’s charm keeps the whole thing alive.
94. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The latest chapter in the Avengers series is mostly a dullard, but gets bonus points for the talking Nazi supercomputer scene. I love a talking Nazi supercomputer.
93. Mr. Peabody and Sherman
A treasure trove of puns, and — I don’t care how many people call me crazy — an allegory for gay adoption, and a relative success in both regards.
At very few instances while watching Tusk did I actually enjoy what I was seeing, but I never stopped thinking, “Well, it sure is something.” So there’s that. I guess.
91. The Rover
Get it?! The rover! Rover!
90. The One
Great idea, poor execution. But at least we get two Elisabeth Mosses (Moss? Mossi? Mossy? Mossad?) as a consequence.
“But Luc, you didn’t tell me what to—”
“Damnit Scarlett, just do whatever!”
88. Into the Woods
Chris Pine is funniest.
87. Happy Christmas
Joe Swanberg has some friends (Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham) over, and people talk about their feelings. Nothing happens, but nobody minds.
86. They Came Together
Not quite as stellar a David Wain comedy as Begin Again (or any other actual David Wain comedy, for that matter), but gets by on a few good bits. “New York is a character” reigns supreme.
85. Get on Up
For a formulaic biopic, it’s got some real pizzazz. Would James Brown say “pizzazz?" What would James Brown say? “Soul?" "Funk?" “Rock-a-doo fever?"
Aw — dad/son/food/happy.
Some top-notch high-stakes parkour in this Israeli-Palestinian version of The Departed.
82. Jodorowsky’s Dune
Sometimes, not making movies can be just as fascinating as making movies.
81. The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam’s latest effort weighs a good deal less than his past works have, but bald Waltz, velvet Damon, and digital Swinton are all proper fun.
80. A Most
Man, it was tough to get bank loans in 1981.
79. 22 Jump Street
So devoted to undercutting its own succession of 21 Jump Street that you might actually call this a parody of sequels.
Now I have two reasons to hate mirrors…
77. The Boxtrolls
Not as rich a story as either ParaNorman or Coraline, but it might have the best voice performances of the Laika bunch. Richard Ayoade is particularly brilliant.
76. Are You Here
About as slow and sleepy as a midseason episode of Mad Men, stretched out to feature length. But like Mad Men, it’s got a good head on its shoulders.
75. The Great Flood
A tenacious reminder of the fact that natural disasters are more than just “interesting news.”
74. X-Men: Days of Future Past
As much as I remember enjoying this movie, I can’t for the life of me recall a single thing about it other than the Quicksilver sequence. But I suppose I have no problem with that.
73. Ernest and Celestine
I’d like to cash in my once-a-century use of the term “adorbs.”
72. A Most Wanted Man
A worthily meaty and nuanced sendoff performance for the great Philip Seymour Hoffman.
71. Mood Indigo
Kind of like a glimpse into the mind of Baz Luhrmann, if he dropped acid and then stared at a child’s diorama for two hours. In French.
Only the second best performance from Marion Cotillard or Joaquin Phoenix this year, which is saying something; they’re both remarkable in this feisty revisit to the Hollywood golden era (both in content and in style).
Remember when Godzilla vomited fire down the MUTO’s throat? Or Ken Watanabe said, “Let them fight?" Or the closing newsreel backed by crowds of cheering Californians? Yeah, that was awesome.
A delightful hybrid of Taxi Driver and an Animaniacs routine, but veers sadly toward the latter when it comes to substance and weight.
67. Need for Speed
A brilliant satire of drag race cinema on a mission to tear down American bravado, indulgence, and entitlement. Maybe.
I have no idea if I think this film works on an intellectual level, but I could follow a glum Brendan Gleeson around the Irish boonies all day.
65. Love Is Strange
Half my waking thoughts since seeing this one have been devoted to coming up with the right celebrity couple name for its two stars. Molithgow? Lithgolina? Doctor Garptopus?
64. The Guest
The “mysterious houseguest” gambit does it again! Spooky fun.
63. The Missing Picture
An appropriately tough watch, albeit an imaginative one, about the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities in 1970s Cambodia.
62. The Signal
As a Twilight Zone aficionado, I have to applaud this small and simple sci-fi quandary, even if its “rinky-dink” ambiance keeps it from genre grandeur.
61. Mr. Turner
Just as much fun as The Guest, but with Buzz McCallister for bonus points.
59. The Rocket
The better of this year’s two James Brown tributes, and the one with more explosions.
58. Starred Up
Damned if I can understand a single thing any of these characters are saying, but that doesn’t mean I’m not wholly on board with every word! This prison-set father-son piece more often than not eschews the Hollywood routine, offering a staunch and meaty drama about self-betterment.
57. The Trip to Italy
That Steve Coogan! (And Rob Brydon!)
56. Grand Piano
Here’s the premise: An anonymous assassin threatens to kill concert pianist Elijah Wood if he doesn’t play every note correctly in a particularly tough piece. It’s a bananas-grade riot.
If this bleak (but often laugh-out-loud funny) Russian drama has one lesson above all, it’s probably this: Don’t talk politics with family.
Rose Byrne: the new Chris Pine!
53. What if
As “traditional” as romantic comedies get, and that ain’t a bad thing. This Daniel Radcliffe/Zoe Kazan love story is chock full of terrific chemistry, silly hijinks, and banter of the utmost caliber.
52. Guardians of the Galaxy
We are Groot.
Is it the art that destroys the artist or the other way around? This is the sort of heavy query viewers will brave in this — ooh, Abed! It’s Abed!
50. Venus in
Roman Polanski’s one-scene film frolics vivaciously about the issues of sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender politics, acting, directing, writing, reading, and bad weather.
“What if our Bible movie
had an evolution scene?”
“And rock monsters?”
“And one part where it shows people from the Revolutionary War dying in silhouette?”
“Damnit, Darren, you’re going to piss everyone off!”
48. The Lego Movie
This movie is so hyperactive that it’s legitimately exhausting, but hardly shy on laughs. “Spaceship!” and whatnot.
47. The Babadook
Nope, uh-uh, skipping this one. It’s late at night and I’m alone. La la la, not thinking about it! Moving on to something silly!
46. The Interview
I can’t help but let the sociocultural significance of this movie influence my opinion thereof. I appreciate what it has been to the world, even if created as nothing more than a frivolous comedy. But there’s a lot more to it than that. The outlandish Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy is a send-up of America’s value system, an effort to humanize the hardships of the North Korean people, and… okay, yes, an excuse for like 20 different butt jokes.
45. Gone Girl
Sure, sure, it delves into expansive scientific constructs with impressive artistry, boasts a rich emotional center, and offers striking visuals throughout. But let’s get right down to the real tour de force here: TARS.
43. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
If John Huston came back to life in the vampire era as a young Iranian-American feminist, it might look a little something… like this.
42. Edge of Tomorrow
He’s back, folks! The comically smarmy and self-centered Tom Cruise we loved in the ’80s is back. And it only took a sky-high-concept sci-fi adventure picture to bridge the gap.
41. It Felt Like Love
An earnest exploration of the wicked world of teenage romance and sex. Altogether sad and inviting.
Tom Hardy talks to himself (in a soothing falsetto) about cement pours while stuck in traffic on the highway. No, it’s good. I promise, it’s good!
Sorry, I don’t have a good “not my tempo” joke.
38. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Narcissism, competition, impotence, malignant colleagues, the constant approach of madness, and naked sprints through Times Square. That’s showbiz!
37. Life Itself
About more than just the times and work of Roger Ebert, Life Itself is in fact about the industry for which Ebert has been the face for decades. It’s an all-too-necessary reminder of why movies, and conversations about movies, are important.
36. Force Majeure
Marital problems are hilarious.
A thrilling, claustrophobic whodunit-on-an-airplane that melds Liam Neeson’s ass-kickery with actual crime-solving mechanics. One of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had all year, though credit is partially due to the particularly vocal (and gregarious) young man seated directly to my left. “Did you see that?!” Yes, good sir. I sure did.
Lars von Trier examines adult sexuality: an even darker and sadder conquest than that seen in It Felt Like Love, but nonetheless more humorous (in that Lars von Trier kind of way).
33. Particle Fever
The love letter to physics that The Theory of Everything could have been. If you’re in dire need of an existential reboot, check out this spirited documentary, which manages clear elucidations of complex concepts without stooping to condescension.
Nicolas Cage hobbles around his backwoods neighborhood, killing trees, taking care of underprivileged kids, and asking bodega rats how their MMA classes have been going.
Few movies to hit theaters in 2014 can be called quite as important as Selma, which depicts a time both decades past and tragically still at large. Ava DuVernay’s glossless “inside baseball” approach to a particularly verbose chapter in the Martin Luther King Jr. story is important not solely to cement our nation’s recent atrocities in a visual medium, but to dissect the machinery behind the fight against them: what works, how to make what works work, and why these endeavors are so necessary in the first place. Selma might bear its own mishaps of form, but it is a crucial, and impeccably timed, addition to a conversation America needs to be having right now.
30. We Are
A rockin’ Swedish girl power flick for anyone (regardless of sex or gender, ethnicity or upbringing) who has ever “hated the sport.”
29. Still Alice
Julianne Moore gets Alzheimer’s. She copes, her husband frays, her kids hold it together, and the audience dissolves into a conglomerate of tears. Kristen Stewart might well kickstart her career with a magnificent turn as Moore’s youngest daughter.
28. Dear White People
An essay film about “modern” bigotry, attacked diplomatically (and humorously) from every conceivable angle; Dear White People has especially interesting points about the intra-racial side of the conversation. Always insightful, never preachy, constantly ahead of its audience, and an eager good time throughout.
Reese Witherspoon goes for a walk, curses a lot. You can really feel the “hipness” of Nick Hornby (the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) enlivening her character’s personal journey.
26. Two Days, One Night
A movie about conversations, perhaps more than it is about will or depression or marriage or morality. As Marion Cotillard (this is her best performance of the year) travels from door to door asking for her co-workers’ support in a trifle than threatens to cost her her job, we’re granted the privilege to observe the evolution (or devolution) of her syntactical strategies. A nerdy good time indeed.
25. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
An unexpected rival to Selma in the league of topical merit. The sci-fi allegory tackles the all-too-ready subjects of international conflict and gun violence in a shockingly effective manner.
24. The Double
Because one Jesse Eisenberg was never enough.
23. Zero Motivation
The true heirs to the Bill Murray and Harold Ramis throne are the ladies in and behind Zero Motivation. In this screwball Israeli comedy, we get Stripes — the main characters are low-ranking soldiers with a proclivity for slacking off — Caddyshack — absurdity abounds in this anthology piece of kooky escapades — and Ghostbusters — they actually have to fend off a restless spirit at one point.
22. Endless Love
Explanations evade me. I cannot articulate why, how, and in what fashion I love this movie as much as I do. Is it a straightforward appreciation of its toils to machinate a traditional romance? Is it an ironic glee derived through the merits of in-theater mockery that affords me such a pleasured connotation with the film? Is it some psychological anomaly that allows me to find fault with every facet of a movie’s form all the while reveling in its state of being? Is my fandom of the feature evidence of compromised judiciary sense for the artistic, or perhaps a testament to the elliptical nature that one’s digestion of cinema might and very well should take? Is it the incitation of this prolix rumination itself that stands as the chief reason for my submission to the film? The very provocation of mysteries about the nature of cinema that earns it such a special place in my heart? My questions are endless. And so is my love.
21. Night Moves
It might only bear half the recommended Eisenberg dose, but this exemplary, anxiety-stirring thriller uses its sole Jesse with aplomb, casting him as an uncompromising eco-terrorist whose activism goes awry.
Possibly the Frenchest movie ever made. Bird People tampers in the essence of people watching, delivers sprawling dialogues about divorce, and even disbands from the limits of reality altogether when its title earns its keep in the film’s surreal second act.
19. Palo Alto
The Apocalypse Now of high school dramas. First time director Gia Coppola plants her grim wayfarers in a fever dreamscape, evoking the teen years that so many of us have worked very hard to forget.
18. Obvious Child
I laughed. A lot. About all of it. The romance stuff, the friendship stuff, the career stuff, the abortion stuff. All ripe for parody. All gold.
17. Listen Up Philip
Add bonus points if you are, or spend ample time with, aspiring writers, Brooklynites, or certified jerks. Jason Schwartzman, though probably a very nice guy in real life, was born to play Listen Up Philip’s insufferable novelist on the prowl for refurbished creativity. Deliciously caustic and cranky, and slathered with a linguistic caliber of which you wouldn’t deem your own wedding vows worthy.
16. Hide Your Smiling Faces
Any other year and this would be my definitive “coming of age” epic. Debut director Daniel Carbone’s nearly wordless picture is an exploration of growth and grief, both independently and in harmony (albeit a harsh one).
The bats have organized a coup for the belfry. This maniacal sci-fi adventure takes Chris Evans all the way through a mile-long super-train — which houses the entirety of the human population following an apocalyptic ice age — on a quest to overthrow the tyranny of his never seen conductor, who has, via the mouthpiece of a metaphor-rattling Tilda Swinton, maintained a classist dystopia made up of drug-addled locker rooms, Eyes Wide Shut-esque rave parties, hordes of blind assassins, sushi feasts… oh, why even bother trying to explain this lunacy? Just watch the movie!
14. Closed Curtain
Free speech, the creative process, and human sanity are explored in tandem by Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, playing themselves (or some variations thereof) in a fourth wall-shattering story about one man… or two men… or a woman… or a dog… or something holing up in a secluded house on the Caspian Sea.
13. Under the Skin
Weird and creepy as all hell, this kinetic masterpiece explores how sex and beauty shape our identities in such a marvelously creative way. And if that weren’t enough, Under the Skin is the doting benefactor of the Scarlett Johansson-falling-down meme.
Documentaries aren’t just for learning anymore! (Although there are plenty of valuable insights to glean from this film about Edward Snowden.) In fact, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour is as thrilling as any genre picture to come out this year, with her portrait of Snowden serving more as an intense character study than a biographical report.
11. The Dance of Reality
After a 23-year hiatus from filmmaking, veteran oddball director Alejandro Jodorowsky tackles his own life story with the simultaneously whimsical and macabre Dance of Reality. The director tells of a young Alejandro overcoming ostracism and paternal abuse in Chile around 1930 while his father commits himself to a particularly violent political conquest — all facets of the story are delivered through the lens of a heightened reality, peppered with fantastical characters and surreal sequences.
And Now For the Top 10…
You’d be hard pressed to find a film from this year that’s quite as much fun as Paul Thomas Anderson’s backwards detective story Inherent Vice, adapted from the likewise harebrained novel by Thomas Pynchon. But Inherent Vice doesn’t settle for just “a good time.” Through the exploits of its counterculture-incarnate hero, 1970s Los Angeles’ own Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the picture delves heartily into our country’s sociopolitical climate — one of then and now.
Anderson’s greatest feat in his tour through this Looney Tunes backdrop of cultural and judicial degradation is the complete immersion of any and all brave enough to join in on Doc’s scrambled case, which promises to take us — if not quite to the finish — on an educational journey.
Certainly the oddest excuse for a cinematic narrative in the Top 10 (and quite possibly on this list entirely), the documentary Manakamana is a testament to the omnipresence of story. Fellow directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez set up a camera in the cable cars traveling to and from the titular sacred temple sitting in the mountains of Nepal.
With each new passenger or collection of passengers, we’re treated to a new tale altogether — sometimes overtly, sometimes without so much as a word. But without exception, Manakamana’s journeys up and down through the skies above the district of Gorkha bequeath us with history and character.
8. The Tale
of Princess Kaguya
My experience watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the latest from Studio Ghibli and director Isao Takahata, was a chaotic one. For the first two hours of the simple, sullen folk tale adaptation, I was mesmerized by its artwork and enchanted by its heroine — a young girl who sprouted from a bamboo stalk and grew up under the care of a poor woodsman and his wife, initially knowing humble upbringing before the same magic that birthed the girl provided the family with a bounty of riches.
But it wasn’t until the climax that I truly understood what The Tale of Princess Kaguya was about: growing up. And if that has you thinking, “Oh, give me a break!” just wait until you hit the film’s final sequence… you’ll see exactly what I mean, and just how torrentially powerful such a concept can be when delivered this sensitively.
Birdman has gotten the lion’s share of attention among the community of “showbiz” pictures this year, but the true tribute to the highs and lows of fame is the black comedy Frank, which (if you haven’t seen it) you might know best as “the one where Michael Fassbender wears a giant papier-mâché head the whole time.”
The film has way more going on in its giant papier-mâché head than the wacky premise might suggest, though is hardly willing to slouch on the comedy in the name of gravity. Instead, it intertwines the two rather harmonically, allowing the tomfoolery to carry its viewers straight ahead into the bellows of its sad, elegant message. Oh, and its closing number is the best original song to hit the big screen this year.
While the majority of films on my Top 10 seem to have grand implications, a wide thematic reach, or some yet uncharted contribution to cinema, here’s one that’s simply a great self-contained little picture. The uncategorizeable Dutch film (it land somewhere between drama and thriller…and fantasy…and horror…and comedy) sets off immediately into the throes of the bizarre, never looking back for an instant.
A mysterious visitor (Jan Bijvoet) wreaks havoc on the lives and minds of a posh Dutch family for reasons that become more (and, consequently, less) apparent to us as time carries on. Although conversation about Borgman might be limited almost entirely to its reverence to the strange, this is no mean feat. The film invites us into a world we aren’t likely to see anywhere else in the cinematic spectrum. By being unique alone it’d be a worthwhile venture; by being so damn invigorating on top of this, it’s a tremendous one.
What would a 2014 Top 10 list be without Boyhood, which is just as much a miracle of production as it is one of artistry? Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making coming-of-age-film-to-end-all-coming-of-age-films was the sort of movie we were all rooting for before any of us had even seen it — a recipe for disaster if you consider the detriment of unbridled expectations. But Boyhood doesn’t simply avoid disappointment, it shirks the possibility thereof entirely by taking a form well outside the parameters of traditional cinematic storytelling.
More akin to a work of poetry than of prose, Boyhood doesn’t survive on the forward thrust of narrative, but instead lives with consistent enchantment in each solitary moment — its every sequence is a love note to the moment it illustrates, and to hero Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) experiences with it, no matter how fleeting or trivial. In this way, Boyhood is far more than an experiment of form; it is as loving and didactic a tribute to the bounties of life as we’ve seen on the big screen yet. It is, as its main character so churlishly proclaims as the film’s sun sets, celebratory of every “now” with which it crosses paths. A fact as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. In other words, good movie.
Lovers Left Alive
Quite possibly the coolest movie ever made, Jim Jarmusch’s tribute to rock and roll, vampire lore, the follies of mankind, and the delightful promise of mortality left me more immediately satisfied than almost any other movie on this list. I saw Only Lovers in the ideal setting: alone (don’t laugh at me), at midnight, at Downtown New York City’s art house theater, the Landmark Sunshine, without any knowledge of what I was getting into beyond the fact that it was a Jarmusch picture.
Armed with a cup of coffee and the company of similarly plans-lacking strangers, I found myself dipping with surprising excitement into every new development — each scene a feast for the eyes and ears. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton cannot be topped as the central pair of love-struck vamps, charged with passing the endless march of time by way of good music, literature, and bemoaning the human race. In a year or two, this could easily find status as its generation’s Reality Bites, Kicking and Screaming, or High Fidelity. It’s that cool.
It might be a tad misleading to sell Ida as post World War II Europe’s answer to Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but that is indeed how I experienced this admittedly sullen little gem. A story of self-discovery in a world that’d rather you have no part in the endeavor, Ida treads into some mighty brutal territory, but fosters a spirit imbued with an inclination toward joy.
At the precipice of her tenure as a nun, 18-year-old orphan Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is informed of her Jewish heritage and sent to meet her only living relative: her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a caustic loner who enjoys the bounties of drink, dance, and men. One has never known her past, the other has done all she can to escape hers. Beyond standing as a story about these two women and their navigation of this new chapter in their lives, it is the story of a very specific time and place, and of a very specific people therein. Nevertheless, its empathy for the conquest for life is universal.
2. The Grand
I can practically hear the introductory yodels every time I step back into my memories of the most enjoyable movie-going experience I’ve had all year: that with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s very best movie yet (and this is coming from a longtime fan of almost everything he’s done… The Darjeeling Limited is the only exception, really). Anderson is the sort of filmmaker whom we fans aren’t always eager to recommend to those uninitiated. “He’s an acquired taste,” we sometimes say, or, “I love him, but I know a lot of people who don’t.”
But Grand Budapest tears down the barricade that its director ordinarily keeps between his work and the free world, blossoming as a movie that anyone would be likely to have fun with.(Hey, my dad liked it, and the only other movie my dad has ever mentioned liking is The Sting.) Ralph Fiennes is downright magnetic as hotelier Gustave H., a prim and pompous fellow who finds himself — and his trusty lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) — enrapt in a high-stakes caper. With Grand Budapest, Anderson tells a story about cinema, both on the whole — he leaps back in time to a world last inhabited by Billy Wilder or Bob Hope or Groucho Marx — and within the parameters of his own legacy. But beyond this, Anderson tells a story about the little worlds we build for ourselves when the big ones are too much to handle.
It might seem curious that I dubbed my No. 2 film the “most enjoyable movie-going experience” of the year. In truth, The Congress was not an especially enjoyable time at the theater for me. It was instead a confusing and frustrating one, during which time I felt obliged to make mental note of a half dozen or so cinematic constructs that just weren’t working out in this brazen picture. But months later, I live with The Congress as perhaps the most meaningful movie-going experience I had in 2014, at least in retrospect.
The unusual film, a hybrid of live action and animation and of real life (Robin Wright plays herself) and fantasy (in a world wherein actors are asked to sell their images to Hollywood and never work again… hm, maybe that’s not too far off), certainly maintains a presence as something unprecedented, and in many feats of imagination unparalleled. But more than this does it hold an important stake emotionally. The Congress is quite definitely the most effective story about identity and self-worth — in and beyond the contexts of fame and age — that I have been fortunate enough to see this year. The themes take form all across the broad world created by writer/director Ari Folman.
Robin Wright struggles with her identity as she considers passing away the rights to her own image in the interest of her family; around her, people trade in reality for fantasy, hoping to eschew the anchors of their worldly selves in favor of weightless possibility. It’s a complicated piece, and one that is hardly without its share of technical slip-ups. But in the end, I’d call The Congress the most significant film in my personal journey through the cinemas of 2014. And it’s got one hell of a Harvey Keitel speech to boot.
Images: RADiUS-TWC (3); IFC Films (2); Warner Bros. (2); Universal Pictures; Paramount Pictures; Kino Lorber; A24 (2); The Weinstein Company; Lionsgate; Magnolia; Diaphana Distribution; The Cinema Guild; Toho; Drafthouse Films (2); Sony Pictures Classics; Soloban; Fox Searchlight Pictures