The Top 10 Films of 2014

As we say our last farewells to 2014, two of our critics give their competing picks for the Top 10 Best Films of 2014...

As the year comes to a close, we’re once again looking back at an eclectic 12 months in film. Yes, the summer was filled with more superhero fireworks, and the winter’s gotten cozy with a slew of fireside biopics, yet there has been also just as many outside-the-box risks taken. In 2014, we saw the culmination of 12 years of work when Richard Linklater dropped his three-hour opus to adolescence. Around the same time, Alejandro González Iñárritu lightened things up by bringing back a photographic illusion first attempted by Hitchcock with Rope. Christopher Nolan reached for 2001 in 70mm, and Paul Thomas Anderson got submerged in a new 1970s mystery haze.

With so many unique voices, it is hard to whittle down the calendar to 10 entries (or 11 when the honoraries are considered), but that is what we, Den of Geek’s David Crow and Don Kaye, have attempted to do right here. Below is our alternative offers for the “Top 10 Films of 2014” (click to the second page in order to view Don’s counterpoint). And we promise, after we’re done slugging it out, you can let us know what yours is in the comments below!

Without further ado, here are (both of) our Top 10 Films of 2014.

Honorable Mention: A Most Violent Year

Make no mistake, 1981 truly was one of the most violent years in New York City’s history. But unlike normal crime films, writer and director J.C. Chandor does not treat that statistic as a wonderful backdrop for his genre protagonists. Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales is quite like how Michael Corleone would imagine himself at his most delusional: a self-made man that used mafia money to build a legitimate business which tethers his soul, if ever tenuously, into his continued possession. But if Isaac is channeling Pacino at his most reserved, he is seriously flirting with disaster the whole film as his heating and oil transportation business becomes the target for repeated broad daylight theft from his New York competitors. And he has his former mafia princess wife, played with a perfect Brooklyn accent by Jessica Chastain, whispering sweet vengeance in his ear.

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This is a moody, atmospheric film that recalls the deliberate pacing of 1970s crime dramas while ostensibly being about non-criminals—at least not at first. Like jazz, this movie is riveting for the (story) beats it doesn’t play, engrossing viewers into a foreboding sense of doom while rarely pulling the trigger on anything but Isaac and Chastain’s inescapable charisma.

10. Still Alice

Generally speaking, I tend not to fawn over films singularly for lone performances, but Julianne Moore’s turn as Dr. Alice Howland is the movie in this case—and it’s searing into the memory (for however long that lasts).

Playing a linguistics professor who develops early onset Alzheimer’s Disease after her 50th birthday, Moore methodically tracks the rapid and total devastation this poison has over the human identity. Watching Alice slip away from her loving family—admirably played by Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, and Kate Bosworth—is akin to a two-hour death scene. Except even then, our heroine must live on in some capacity. For anyone who has watched a loved one go through this nightmare, it never strikes an inauthentic note.

9. Selma

Previously unadapted by Hollywood, the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been precariously truncated to “I Have a Dream” in pop culture and bite-sized history. But director Ava DuVernay demands new attention for the civil rights icon with Selma, a film that attempts to both eulogize and reexamine the man at a moment in our culture where his teachings are as crucial as ever. Much like Lincoln, Selma focuses on a singular moment instead of the breadth of his whole life (in this case the steps taken to pass the Voting Rights Act, beginning on a bridge in Selma) to engrossing biopic results.

The depiction of King’s relationship with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson is intriguing, and the presentation of his union with wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) feels appropriate, but the movie quickens with harrowing electricity whenever King is in the titular small town where African-Americans are denied the right to vote. David Oyelowo gives a star-making turn by fleshing out the marble statue with intensity, and the most violent scenes, including “Bloody Sunday,” linger long after the film ends with a level of outrage at systematic oppression that follows all viewers past the parking lot.

8. Tracks

Humans by their very nature are social creatures. Hence why Tracks’ ode to the lonesome is so endearing. Instead of using the communal medium of filmmaking to pity the alienated with “there but before the grace of God go I” crocodile tears, John Curran’s introspective Tracks traverses the quixotic vastness of a truly private life with revelatory celebration.

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Bearing some obvious similarities to the more Oscar friendly (and still worthwhile) Wild, Tracks is nevertheless a better effort. Mia Wasikowska transforms herself into Robyn Davidson, National Geographic’s “Camel Girl,” presenting a portrait as formidable and alluring as the Australian desert she longs to walk across. And the frequent run-ins she has with Adam Driver’s gregarious Rick Smolan only accentuate the long periods of silence into something that much more special. They might be the only two people in the world as far as Tracks is concerned, and here that’s a miraculously comforting notion.

7. Nightcrawler

Simultaneously a horror film, a dark comedy, and the cinematic realization for Fox News’ entrepreneurial American ideal, Nightcrawler is the kind of movie that they’re not supposed to make anymore. Every word uttered in Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, and even the breaths between words, is overwhelmed with cynicism; it’s so bleak that Paddy Chayefsky’s mood about American media could even be brought down a few notches. And at the center of it all is a career best performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Playing Louis Bloom as the ultimate go-getter, Gyllenhaal looks like he hasn’t slept in three weeks before every scene, and has not blinked in double that length of time. An edgy, wired performance of overcaffeinated nerves, this is the kind of sociopath that rises to the top of only select industries—ones where cutthroat narcissism is a virtue. Ergo, this is a wild success story in the world of television news! Beginning as a lowly ringer who freelances his way into the local news circuit by filming every car crash, stabbing, and arson in the LA area, Bloom shows a special kind of initiative when he starts creating the stories too. The American dream made toxic or the fastest track to becoming a respected job creator? The choice is up to you…

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

For his latest film, Wes Anderson conjured up a cinematic confection as sumptuously decadent as the titular hotel, and equally as haunted. Relying on his primary repertory of talent, and a new master class performance by first-time collaborator Ralph Fiennes, the ostentatious Grand Budapest Hotel would pretend to have all the hallmark beguilements of its director’s trademark humor.

However, this seeming Euro-romp reaches for something more ambitious and nobler with its surprisingly downbeat plot and overarching shadow, a dark menace from fascism in 1920s Europe. In some ways, this is a rip-roaring Hitchcockian adventure, complete with gruesome murders and exhilarating chases, but it still ends with a denouement worthy of Hemingway, and is framed within the context of several combined unreliable narrators (a feat complemented with its sliding aspect ratio for every individual perspective and time period). The effect is a pervasive sense of loss from the first frame. It appears that for even Anderson, the frivolity of a visual carousel must come to an end. After all, the brutal ugliness of reality is only one horse figurine behind you.

5. Interstellar

There might be a rising backlash to Christopher Nolan in some circles, but there is no denying the man’s ambition or his ability to realize it. Interstellar is an epic on the scale of David Lean vistas while attempting the high-mindedness of Stanley Kubrick. But underneath all the 70mm IMAX bombast is a very personal story about a father who must leave his daughter behind to save the world (or at least film it).

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The central relationship between Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and his daughter Murph (realized pitch perfectly by Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy) grounds the movie in sentiment, but never drowns it in schmaltz. This earnestness allows for the kind of somber sequences never attempted in modern blockbusters—Cooper watching his children grow up in the span of a few minutes, Murph knowing that she and Earth were left to die, a visualization of the fifth dimension!

Interstellar dares to dramatize time dilation and five-dimension theoretical physics in a “popcorn movie” about a humanist apocalypse. There are few movies that cling to the mind after a single viewing like Interstellar. In fact, I suspect it is still rattling around in your mental bookcase right now, pulling on so many threads that to focus on its top-heavy plot feels almost petty. Like its protagonist, this practical effects-reliant spectacle will hardly age in the coming years.

4. Gone Girl

Not happy with giving his personal touch to solely platonic friendships in The Social Network, David Fincher provides a sardonic reflection on married life with this Gillian Flynn adaptation. A comedy so dark that you don’t know that you’re supposed to laugh until halfway through, Gone Girl draws career best performances from both stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike while also unpacking two of the most reviled protagonists in recent memory.

At a press conference I attended, Ben Affleck noted that whenever male journalists interview him, they lament how awful Amy Dunne was to her affable husband Nick; female journalists, conversely, always begin with “So, what’s it like playing such a dick?” That dichotomy is perhaps the only fair critique about this white-kunckled experience. Otherwise, it really is perfect from any perspective, save perhaps for that of a first date.

3. Boyhood

In a 12-year endeavor that spanned Ellar Coltrane’s entire adolescence, Richard Linklater went the long way round after popping in on Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy every 10 years with the Before Sunrise trilogy. The result is a movie that is nigh incomparable with its 2014 contemporaries in matters of ambition or temperament.

Coltrane’s Mason grows into an impressive young man who reflects his Austin director’s sensibilities. Yet, it is more the journey that the film goes in exploring this youth that defines Boyhood. The child of divorce with two youthful parents who are also learning to grow up alongside their children, Mason’s earliest years are cluttered with marital fights and an endless string of bad father figures. However, the movie never veers towards the violent, the melodramatic, or even the naturally cinematic. Instead, it notes where all the narrative tropes could intervene (such as when a couple of boozing middle schoolers start stupidly playing with buzz saws), but then promptly chooses to not go there.

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Instead selecting the more measured path that most actual lives venture through, there is a defiant normalcy to Mason’s journey, which seemingly passes the months and years after every 10 minutes. Watching Coltrane, as well as Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, age over the course of a few hours is the greatest special effect of the year.

2. Whiplash

With almost any story, the creation of art is supposed to justify the means. Yet for only his second feature, director Damien Chazelle offers a terrifying alternative vantage that should at least give audiences momentary pause when staring down the mentoring gaze of hellfire made flesh. In the performance of a lifetime, J.K. Simmons snarls, amazes, intimidates, and ultimately enthralls everything in his orbit from his Juilliard classroom to the audience in the theater (and probably the Academy on Oscar night too). Professor Fletcher is one of cinema’s great villains in the vein of R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman, save he might actually be creating something wonderful in his verbal deadliness.

By teaching Miles Teller what it means to be “in his tempo” on a jazz band, this battle of wills is more intense than any cape-and-cowl superhero fisticuff this year, and it left me both exhilarated and afraid at how condoning I am of suffering in the name of art—or a perfect movie.

1. Birdman

After laboring for years in the dark, Alejandro González Iñárritu has “his dessert” by crafting what could be best described as cinematic hypnosis. Partnering with Children of Men cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman takes on the melodic rhythm of its jazz drum-only score, creating the illusion that the film is done all in one take. The effect is a visceral lucidity that’s as freewheeling as Michael Keaton’s schizophrenic onscreen alter ego, Riggan Thomson. For that role, Keaton embodies an actor best known for portraying a superhero 20 years ago and mixes narcissism with thwarted aspirations. Having once forsaken depth for commercialism’s fleeting attention, the film’s arc is about desperately regaining admiration.

While obviously paralleling Keaton’s own biography, the character feels like really a proxy for Iñárritu.

Paradoxically loving and hating the unending war of commerce and art in filmmaking (or theater), Iñárritu casts several superhero movie actors (Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone) in some of their best roles in order to reject “apocalypse porn” despite spending millions to showcase it. Birdman is a flight of magical realism without rules, gleefully defying logic, structure, its own narrative, and even criticism. It says popularity is “prestige’s slutty little cousin” but it is basking in having all of the above. It is such a uniquely bizarre experience that to define it feels as if one is playing into Iñárritu’s lovingly contemptible caricatures. Instead, it’s best to just get lost in the madness of the year’s most fascinating film.

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Click Over to See Don Kaye’s Top 10 Films…

10. Borgman

A thoroughly unsettling mix of horror and black satire from Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam, Borgman watches with an unblinking eye as the title character – who literally rises from the earth like a vampire – entangles himself in the lives of an upper-class family and proceeds to turn them against each other and tear them apart. Borgman’s motivations remain obscured, leaving the story open to interpretation, but the destruction brought upon the family is both frightening and darkly funny.

9. Leviathan

It’s amazing that this epic drama is Russia’s official entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film (and is not only likely to get nominated, but has a good chance at winning), because the movie skewers Putin’s modern Russia in all its oligarchic madness and greed. An auto repair shop owner (Aleksei Serebryakov) tries to hold onto to his family’s piece of land in a small town near the Barents Sea as a corrupt mayor and development people circle around it like the vultures they are. Elegant, stunningly shot and unremittingly mournful, Leviathan may be Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterpiece.

8. Blue Ruin

Another excellent film from a first-time director, this time as the result of a Kickstarter campaign to fund its production. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier steers this modern noir with style, elegance and a constant sense of dread as he follows Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a vagrant whose life has been whittled down to a singular mission of revenge in his family’s name. Blair is fantastic in the role, and the movie’s spiraling narrative touches on the way that even the most justifiable desire for any kind of justice can turn into a never-ending legacy of violence.

7. The Babadook

As a widowed mother (Essie Davis) tries to come to terms with her unending grief (her husband was killed the day her son was born) and her child’s emotionally unstable behavior, a malevolent force enters their lives via a hideous children’s book. Is the Babadook real or a manifestation of mother and son’s crumbling mental states? First time writer/director Jennifer Kent’s astonishing film keeps you off-balance the whole way through, making it one of the best horror films to emerge in recent years.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel hits it way out of the park with possibly its finest achievement to date: a smart combination of superhero adventure, paranoid spy thriller and even a dash of social commentary. The film moves like a bullet and features several bravura action sequences courtesy of “who knew they had it in them” directors The Russo Brothers, but what holds it all together is the character-driven script and plot dynamics. Chris Evans has never been better as Cap, Scarlett Johansson steps up as Black Widow, and Robert Redford brings all the gravity you need.

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5. Gone Girl

David Fincher once again proves why he is one of the top mainstream directors working in Hollywood today with his satirical, dark, and skincrawling adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s mystery novel. The movie’s look is exquisite, Fincher’s dark humor finds its way into the tone of Flynn’s own screenplay, and his cast – especially Rosamund Pike as the title enigma – is flawless.

4. A Most Wanted Man

The second most heart-breaking aspect of Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the John Le Carre novel – after seeing the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last and perhaps best performances – is just how relevant and infuriating the movie’s subject still is. Hoffman plays an exhausted German intelligence agent who wants to use a low-level Muslim refugee to get to bigger fish – including al-Qaeda – but bigger forces block his way. The idea that the obsession with short-term gains obliterates the hope of winning the long game pretty much defines the War on Terror.

3. Locke

Tom Hardy gives a tour-de-force performance as the title character, whose life comes crashing down around him over the course of a two-hour car trip from Birmingham to London. Writer/director Steven Knight’s film never leaves the car as Locke’s fall happens in real time, but it doesn’t need to: everything that happens is reflected in Hardy’s face and voice as he struggles to remain calm and hold onto whatever he can.

2. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal gives the creepiest, most under-your-skin performance of the year as Lou Bloom, a sociopath who finds his calling as a crime scene video cameraman. First-time director Dan Gilroy (who also wrote this) nails the parasitic relationship between people like Bloom, the news organizations that employ him, and us – the people who watch, fascinated, as other humans die and suffer on camera. Gyllenhaal’s leering, emaciated grin is like something out of a silent German horror film.

1. Whiplash

This movie lit me up both times I saw it and has stayed with me ever since. Writer/director Damien Chazelle makes his film move to the rhythms of its great jazz soundtrack and captures all the chaos and beauty within the art form as he explores the mutually destructive relationship between an ambitious drumming student (Miles Teller) and his monstrous teacher (J.K. Simmons). Both are fantastic but Simmons is simply unbelievable in his ferocity. The movie asks whether the ends justified the means when it comes to art and talent – and if this movie is a result of that, then I’ve got my answer.

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