2014 world events had ups and downs, as did the collective art and media of our time. However, if you love movies as much as many others and I do, or simply are looking for engaging escapism to immerse yourself in, there actually were plenty of options to choose from. At the end of every year and the beginning of the next everyone from serious critics to the random passerby begins to form a “top list” of the movies they had seen. It is a celebration of the movies we enjoyed and a fun means to bring certain works to the attentions of their peers or to compare and contrast each experience they had at the movies. It’s not so much that these lists are some deep evaluation, but rather an entertaining way to group the stuff we like or rather what I liked.
So, here are the 20 films from 2014 I experienced & enjoyed and hope others check out:
This is without a doubt one of the dumbest films ever made, however; it gets so ridiculous that it could only possibly be a work of savant-like genius. After waiting years for a movie w/ even a smidgen of the deranged energy and attitude of trash masterpieces like the Crank films or the latest Resident Evil or Underworld movies, leave it to Luc Besson to make Lucy, his most satisfying film since 1997s The Fifth Element, and it completely overshadows those movies. The movie tackles a premise borne out of the old wives tale about using only 10% of our brains but it just dives headfirst into bringing something so silly to life with zero sense of irony and 100% sincerity. The title character, played by a Terminator-esque Scarlett Johansson, has ingested a miracle drug that’s giving her full access to her noggin and kickstarting her evolution from plucky action hero into a supreme being. The movie is messy but it’s so freewheeling and brimming with style and gusto that I can’t help but love it the same way a schoolteacher not-so-secretly loves the class clown.
19.) JOHN WICK
It remains to be seen if this becomes known as the best action film of the 2010s decade, or even a cult classic. It is, however, the best action film of 2014. John Wick edges many great genre pics such as the witty & self-aware throwback The Guest and the sprawling ambition of The Raid 2 just in sheer confidence and near-perfect execution. This is a simplistic yet mythic tale of the titular assassin’s rampage of revenge and is elevated by pulp-fantasy world-building, innovative action choreography & staging but most of all gorgeous cinematography. There are action sequences here that will be mimicked in the coming years. Keanu Reeves plays the role he was made to play in the quintessential “guys w/ guns” movie. It’s not that the film is filled w/ anything “original” per se but it’s the way familiar elements are mixed and brought to life that makes everything feel fresh, new and exciting. John Wick makes a strong case for execution being just as innovative as originality.
I’ve gone on rants about how blockbuster movies are important in their own special way and that we should not dismiss populist entertainment for being simple and well…populist. Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi tale about a 2-front mission (Earth & Space) to save mankind from a dying Earth is as ambitious as it is clunky but undoubtedly gorgeous and engaging. At it’s core it weaves a heartwarming (a first for the coldly logical Nolan) story about how we are all connected, extrapolated by the paternal love between a father and daughter and it’s the kind of universal story I can’t help but find adorable no matter how populist and trifling it all seems to be. That’s the real skill of Nolan, to dress up the simple stories we all sort of know w/ the same type of ambitious experimentation once reserved for artsy fare. This was easily the best blockbuster of 2014, edging out post-human thinkpieces like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the Godzilla reboot, or the Groundhog Day/Starship Troopers mash-up Edge of Tomorrow not to mention the countless superhero flicks just on sheer strength of assured filmmaking, scale and ambition.
This is one of those rare Biblical epics that stands a chance at resonating w/ non-believers or people of other faiths and spiritual beliefs. It treats the Old Testament tale of Noah’s Ark with the same level of fascination, complexity and creativity that filmmakers have been applying to other mythological tales. Darren Arornofsky gets to the heart that what makes the parables of religion “real” is not a matter of fact or fiction but rather that they present and explore real ideas and subjects that are always relevant in some way. The handcrafted visuals and the strong & nuanced performances bring to life one of the oldest morality tales in a fresh and exciting way while losing none of its core themes, and even emphasizing some. This film is as fantastically engaging as it is thought provoking and I have no doubt that’s exactly how many religious texts were intended to be.
16.) GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D
Master filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard tackles the next dimension. This experimental video collage is plotless; it’s an abstract art tone poem. However, Goddard plays with the conventions of structure and means of communication to generate a narrative and structure seemingly out of nothing. My take was that Goodbye To Language examines the history of artistic representation and the way we communicate ideas, consistently updated with the technological developments of past decades. Godard supplies shots where hands fiddle with PDAs, others flip through books, and he repeatedly casts the central figures in silhouette against hi-def TVs showing classic movies. Not content with the fundamentals, the director experiments with every shot, violating the 3-D principle of two cameras in sync. No film in the past two decades has matched Goodbye To Language for sheer density of invention; it’s a case of an 84-year-old director who’s still ahead of his time.
15.) TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
While the US and Europe have largely embraced computer-generated imagery for their big theatrical animated productions, Japan still sticks mostly to traditional hand-drawn animation. There were some great marvels of animation this year from all over; from the clever Ernest & Clementine to commercialism gone right in the brilliant Lego Movie but Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday) teams up with celebrated Japanese animation Studio Ghibli one last time to deliver a marvel of hand-drawn animation that looks like nothing else. Steeped in tradition in terms of production it’s also steeped in other traditions as it recounts one of Japan’s most famous folk tales (“The Bamboo Princess”) with stunning clarity and visual ingenuity. This is one gorgeous movie that recalls the look of Japanese woodblock prints and iconic paintings brought to life with an effortless sense of awe, imagination and whimsy that’s slowly fading as computers & committees churn out toons more & more.
14.) LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Hirokazu Koreeda has made the ultimate “Disney Dad” movie and it’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg is well on his way towards making a US remake. The story of two families, or rather one father’s actions after discovering his child and another’s were switched with another at birth. It is humane, complex & heartbreaking to a fault. Koreeda’s is less interested in a narrative a questioning which son should be with which father or which father is “better”, it’s about the currency of love and how bonds transcend blood or logic. The characterizations are never phony as Koreeda & the cast is masterful at making each character feel either wholly relatable or like people we know and the relationships and actions between each character feels absolutely genuine. I believed every look, every gesture… but maybe that’s just because I am my father’s son.
If Like Father, Like Son argues that we are who we are because of how we are raised, Boyhood takes that idea into further extrapolation. Shot over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s ambitious coming-of-age drama follows a young boy from early childhood to his 1st week in college. The results are somewhat mixed and since this was ultimately a scripted affair it could have used a bit more polish and perhaps a less passive lead. It’s forgivable since the film is more enamored with the moments in between big milestones and decisions, looking to them as a fuller and more interesting portrait of a life and it works. I have no doubt this film will be shown not only in film schools but perhaps in sociology/psychology courses at it really is an interesting peak into what makes us who we are.
12.) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
I’m calling it now: Only Lovers Left Alive has some of the best music selections in a movie since The Big Chill. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog, Mystery Train, Broken Flowers) invites us to hang out with Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton as Adam & Eve, a husband & wife who happen to be centuries-old vampires. Adam, a successful musician (now a rock star in this century) and Eve, a bibliophile & art dealer drink blood from wine bottles and thermoses while they listen to music from all eras and muse on the constant changes to the world of art and culture. Many other characters join them but mostly this film is about Adam & Eve: their relationship and their different worldviews. It’s also about nostalgia for the past never overshadowing optimism for the future. However what struck me was the way Jarmusch has orchestrated this film: combing a fantastic music selection with imagery steeped in iconic rock album covers, vintage Rolling Stone magazine (including some of Anne Liebowitz’s work) and other scorces Only Lovers Left Alive may be the most effortlessly “cool” movie out right now.
11.) GOD HELP THE GIRL
God Help The Girl, from Belle & Sebastian group leader Stuart Murdoch, is an unabashed and heartfelt musical with production numbers on the scale of a living-room dance party often taking the place of where a non-musical film would place exposition or first-person narration. The catchy pop ballads serve to advance a coming-of-age story about teens enjoying one last summer before college and start a band. In most other films the threads about depression and youth angst would be insufferably maudlin to say nothing of the hipster-stereotype cast (lovely as Emily Browning is) but it takes giant leaps to avoid those pratfalls. The movie combines youthful naiveté without idealizing things to a fantastical degree (it knows when to keep things “real”). A fun ditty akin to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous by way of a Wes Anderson movie, it’s the cinematic equivalent to a nice cup of tea on a cool summer day: the ultimate “pick-me-up.”
10.) THE BABADOOK
From Rosemary’s Baby’s allegory for toxic “rape culture” to the Scream trilogy’s tongue-in-cheek sendup about media-obsessed youth culture; the best horror films are always about something other than scaring audiences. The Babadook, the breakout film for Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, uses the framework of the old “haunted/cursed object terrorizes a family” tale to explore how grief, misplaced anger and resentment eat away at what should be cherished relationship bonds within families. This film has as much food for thought as it does genuine scares and it’s elevated by career-making performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as a widow and her only son who battle the titular monster only to discover that the real monster has been with them all along. See this movie with the lights on, as Mr. Babadook is sure to become one of cinema’s iconic creatures more for what it represents than what it is.
9.) UNDER THE SKIN
Filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has created an eerie hyper-visual sci-fi parable that they really haven’t made well since the “midnight movie” movement of the 60s & 70s. Scarlett Johansson was already a cipher in Lucy; in Under The Skin she turns in a performance that makes that one look soapy by comparison. As a cold and emotionless alien in the flesh-suit guise of an attractive female, she prowls the UK to lure unwitting men into a strange abyss. Plot is not really important, as this is mostly a visual film with nearly non-existent dialogue where viewers are challenged to “fill in the blanks” themselves based on imagery and music cues alone. Much like last year’s Upstream Color, this movie is less about being “about” anything so much as what it gets you thinking &/or feeling.
Two determined musicians—a drill-sergeant-type jazz instructor and a teenage drummer whose drive takes him to dark places—enter into a duet (or perhaps duel) of verbal abuse, obsession, self-destruction & rebirth. JK Simmons and Miles Teller play their characters as captivating fiends of pure ambition: repulsive yet mired in vulnerability and a relatable drive. This is also a movie about the fruits (both good and bad) of forcing “greatness.” This is how “greats” are made in the worst way: men who have no qualms about alienating and taking down every obstacle in the pursuit of their selfish desires. The kind of goals reached for by Fletcher (Simmons) and carried out by Andrew (Teller) are twisted from an artform to an enabler for man’s worst anti-social impulses but the results borne from which are nonetheless proud marvels to be sure.
20 years after WWII a Polish nun-in-the-making discovers that her family were Jews who hid from the Nazis and paid a terrible price. She and her aunt take a trip to the old homestead to explore the changing face of Poland. With exquisite black and white photography and tender, layered performances, Ida is a harrowing tale about the horrors of the past affecting the present. I see this movie as the type of prestige movie the Academy Award voters salivate over, done right in terms of nuanced and memorable execution and performances.
6.) FORCE MAJEURE
Force Majeure is as stressful as it is entertaining. Director Ruben Östlund follows a family on their ski vacation in the French Alps, when a controlled avalanche that gets slightly less controlled exposes the frailties of the our supposed family head: the father/husband. This is an uncomfortably funny movie that splashes black comedy across the gorgeous vistas and provokes nervous laughter with every awkward exchange in panicked family man Tomas’ (Johannes Kuhnke) tumultuous journey of self discovery. This otherworldly beautiful setting reveals some mundane truths about personal insecurity, family life, the fragility of “power” roles and the importance of a little courage.
5.) GONE GIRL
Here’s a rare case of lurid pulp satire just being “good.” David Fincher’s adaptation of author/feminist critic Gillian Flynn’s popular controversial novel about the fallout after the wife of MO local Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) goes missing morphs from a Lifetime-channel procedural into the bleakest of satires with an assured slither, and it has a nasty gleam in its eye the whole way. The movie’s cynical statements about societal expectations of gender, marriage and the modern media are great. It’s a film about the fictional versions of ourselves that we present to others constantly, and the way others react when masks crumble, revealing true warts-and-all selves. And perhaps what elevates the film the most is the titular “girl” of the picture: Rosamund Pike’s embodiment of “Amazing” Amy Eliott-Dunne. Flynn’s writing is brought to life through Pike’s Amy as they explore the darker sides of people and she takes a place alongside Fight Club’s Tyler Durden and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman as one of cinema’s most diabolically fascinating characters.
4.) GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Wes Anderson is an auteur, however, if I had to pick just ONE movie that’s representative of his entire oeuvre, The Grand Budapest Hotel would be the one. The film follows the story of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Finnes) the devoted concierge to the eponymous hotel and Zero (Tony Revolori), a hotel lobby boy, and their various escapades, primarily a caper involving the last will of one of Gustav’s beloved clients. Along the way comes a quirky fable about nostalgia, morals and the importance & value of kindness & good deeds. All of this is told through an ornate story framing that is too crafty to spoil and executed with all of Anderson trademark tools and techniques: a colorful pastiche aesthetic, stop motion, dolly cameras etc. This was the “feel good” movie of the year and it was Wes Anderson’s thesis as to why he’s a filmmaker who matters in our lexicon of film.
3.) WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?
Sion Sono’s ode to filmmaking and Japan’s history of cinema wasn’t just one of the best films of the year: it’s one of my favorite movies ever made PERIOD. This violent, absurdist comedy of errors involves: a war between rival Japanese mafias, a group of wannabe filmmakers, a crime boss’ actress daughter and the poor sap roped into being her pretend boyfriend. It has impeccable style, rhythm and pacing that far outshine most contemporary filmmakers. This movie is funny, grotesque, incredibly sincere and enthusiastic and it’s easily Sono’s most accessible work yet. Although his 2009 heartfelt surrealist 4-hour rom-com epic Love Exposure was arguably his masterpiece, it’s intimidating to most audiences. This is the type of film that you can show anyone who appreciates films in the vein of say Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. This film literally has everything in it from high drama to lowbrow schlock and this much irony-free “FUN” is rarely packaged so well.
2.) INHERENT VICE
A colorful noir yarn has been repurposed into a shaggy hangout flick; Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel takes the framework of a drugged-out ensemble comedy of errors and uses it to weave a parable about the death of the hippy dream and the corruption of morality and ideals. More than that, Inherent Vice is has an infectious funk-groove to it that makes it Anderson’s most straightforwardly entertaining film since Boogie Nights. As with any ensemble piece, it’s filled to the brim with familiar character actors and mainstays all leaving a wonderful impression even in momentary instances. However the real star is Joaquin Phoenix turning in a relaxed and genuinely funny performance as bumbling yet good-natured Private Investigator “Doc” Sportello, the plucky protagonist to this off-kilter caper.
Seemingly, filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) has stopped taking himself so seriously for the first time. Like it’s jazzy score and seamless editing suggests, Birdman creates the feeling of freestyle filmmaking at it’s best. With so many layers of rich ideas about art, performance, life and verisimilitude the film can be forgiven for often baffling creative choices and lack of subtlety or finesse. It’s also an actor’s movie to boot as it explores the minds of performers as if they were an alien landscape. However, it’s also a conventionally entertaining movie in it’s own right, telling a simple story about a semi-washed out actor, his daughter and his many friends & acquaintances in a comically surreal fashion. To give away more would be to ruin what was for my taste the right combo of ambitious filmmaking and conventional engagement in film of 2014. Just take a flight of fancy and see this movie for yourself.
So there you have it!
Those were 20 of the many movies I saw in 2014 that made it as exciting a year for the arts as any other. If you haven’t as of yet seen any one of these, I can’t recommend these strongly enough. There are plenty of other films aside from these to see as well (and some I missed). MORE ON THOSE LATER!!!