10 Best Films of 2014 (Or: The Unexpected Virtue of Cinephilia)

After 11 consecutive posts about the music of 2014, it’s due time to switch over to another of my areas of great interest: the movies. 2014 was a great year for theatergoers, with plenty of unique achievements in film-making to satisfy a wide range of interests. Thus, selecting my choices for the ten best films of the year was an incredibly difficult task to undertake. But, after weeks of deliberation, here are my picks. With a few exceptions, like Selma and American Sniper, which I was unable to see before year’s end since I don’t live in New York or L.A., I am confident that I have seen the best 2014 had to offer. Feel free to disagree, and as always, your comments on how you would have ranked the best movies of the year are welcomed. As a bit of a copout (but mainly as a way to acknowledge as many of my favorite movies as possible), here are 12 movies (in alphabetical order) that didn’t quite make the countdown:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Guest, Interstellar, John Wick, Locke, A Most Wanted Man, Neighbors, Top Five, Unbroken, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

So now without further ado, here are the 10 Best Films of 2014!

#10: Edge Of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman

There’s nothing quite like going into a movie theater with modest expectations and having a phenomenal cinematic experience. No movie gave me that feeling more wholeheartedly than Doug Liman’s Edge Of Tomorrow, which kicked my summer off with a bang. Continuing Tom Cruise’s impressive streak of high-minded action thrills, Edge contains some of the year’s most complex sci-fi within all the guns and explosions your popcorn-munching head can take. Throw in one of the year’s wittiest screenplays, and you have the kind of effortless fun which floats through two hours like a snap of a finger. Emily Blunt’s turn as the stone-faced heroine of the resistance against an alien invasion was a subtle yet endearing performance which showcased her budding talent. All in all, this was one of the funnest times I had at the theater all year, and it’s a movie which demands a second viewing almost as soon as John Newman’s “Love Me Again” blares over the end credits.

#9: The Theory Of Everything
Directed by James Marsh

Biopics are always risky territory for me, as they can often be riddled with clichés, screenplays functioning as Oscar bait, and over-generosity to the subject material. But in telling the captivating story of renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, The Theory Of Everything felt refreshingly removed from the traditional biopic formula. Its first half-hour does feel quite a bit like A Beautiful Mind, but works perfectly as an introduction to the personalities and instant connection between Hawking and his future wife Jane. From that point forward though, The Theory Of Everything moves forward to its own beat, as we watch Hawking successfully fight his lengthy battle with ALS. Anchoring it all are completely Oscar-worthy performances from its two powerhouse lead actors. Felicity Jones is tenacious as Jane Hawking, emoting her perseverance to stay strong for her husband, all the while battling the natural urges for a normal life and a normal husband. And Eddie Redmayne is revelatory as Dr. Hawking, undergoing a full physical transformation (with the help of some wonderfully convincing makeup) to encapsulate the inner workings of one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. It simply is one of the year’s best performances, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hoisting the Oscar in February.

#8: The LEGO Movie
Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

What a wonderful surprise it was to me to see that The LEGO Movie wasn’t merely the cash grab it easily could have been. Beaming with all the gleeful energy of childhood, it utilized the most vibrant palette of the year in crafting the wonderful world we all spent our early years constructing in our minds. The LEGO Movie is one of the funniest movies of 2014, thanks to outstanding voiceover work from Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Will Ferrell, Charlie Day, and a host of others. Some of the one-liners contained within are among my most quotable lines of the year, and this is a kid’s movie for crying out loud! All of this would be more than plenty for me to have an enjoyable time at the theater. But when The LEGO Movie‘s third act began to strike the emotional nerve of leaving childhood behind and the confrontation of creativity vs. order, I knew that I was seeing something special. This truly is a contemplative parable behind the mask of a delightfully zany family-friendly romp.

#7: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed By Wes Anderson

I’ve always been a big Wes Anderson fan, and I’m fully aware of the critiques brought forth by his vocal dissenters. Anderson is one of the industry’s most confident filmmakers, never making any compromises or concessions to try and appeal to a wider audience. Simply put, if you buy in to his instantly-distinguishable style, you will never be disappointed by his output. The Grand Budapest Hotel was no exception, and it likely will go down as one of his finest outputs to date. Underneath all the charm of his pastel-pink titular set is a film about nostalgia, and looking back with a fond eye on the past. And did I mention how funny it is? In a rare comedic turn, Ralph Fiennes shows that he has considerable chops, turning his heartfelt charisma into one of the year’s most memorable characters. Along with the dozen or more effective and scene-stealing supporting roles which complement the efforts of Fiennes and excellent newcomer Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel was a slice of Wes Anderson heaven, mixing all the adventure of The Life Aquatic with the character authenticity and heart of Rushmore.

#6: Begin Again
Directed by John Carney

The feelgood movie of the summer for me, Begin Again used an impressive slate of original songs to carry a captivating story forward. Telling the simple yet moving tale of two lost souls fed up with the trappings of the contemporary music industry, their journey to finding solace and crafting something unique and meaningful was a joy to watch unfold. Directed by John Carney, who turned Once into a musical phenomenon, he uses music to the same effect here, helping us to discover that Keira Knightley is actually quite a good singer. Throw in Adam Levine as her pop star ex-boyfriend belting out a couple insanely catchy tunes you’ll have on repeat the second you leave the theater (as I did), and you’ve got yourself a memorable cinematic experience. With honest performances from both Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, this is a trip worth taking with the protagonists, and a powerful testimonial to the power of music that is so intertwined in film.

#5: Nightcrawler
Directed by Dan Gilroy

Without a doubt the year’s most essential film, Nightcrawler is one of the most effective cautionary tales I’ve ever seen. Inflating the moral bankruptcy associated with modern video journalism to dizzying levels of horror, Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut is an unflinching indictment of our society’s thrill at seeing bloody violence played and replayed on our television screens each night. Jake Gyllenhaal shines in the best role of his career as the sociopathic and darkly comedic oddball who turns his morbid fascinations into a viable career path by stalking the streets of Los Angeles at night looking for the most brutal crime scenes to film. Featuring some of the year’s most expressive cinematography and excellent production design, Nightcrawler leaves no stone unturned. The sight of a recently-murdered family being captured unempathetically on camera is a sickening image which I won’t soon be removing from my head. As a journalism student myself, this film scared me deeply, because its admitted exaggerations are only a few steps away on the path our society is carving for itself.

#4: The Imitation Game
Directed by Morten Tyldum

Equal parts biopic and World War II thriller, The Imitation Game was a wholly exhilarating look at one of the war’s most fascinating and untold stories. Detailing the Allied efforts to crack the code behind Nazi Germany’s seemingly unbreakable encrypting device Enigma, the film spins a taut and utterly entertaining narrative which goes in a variety of unexpected directions. At the center of it all is Alan Turing, who had to design and build the first computer in order to accomplish the assumed impossible task. Portrayed with heartbreaking effectiveness by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game also explores the always lurking issue of Turing’s sexuality which eventually cost the prolific mathematician his life. Divided into three concurrent storylines depicting his teenage years, the war years, and his final years, the film turns the difficult trick of interspersing all three parts in a way which keeps the narrative flowing and refuses to let up on the suspense. In a year which saw several World War II films veer into decidedly familiar territory, The Imitation Game felt like a breath of fresh air, not needing to show the battlefields in order to capture the visceral grit and desperation of the situation.

#3: Whiplash
Directed by Damien Chazelle

As I said last year, Miles Teller is one of my favorite young actors, and Whiplash elevated him into a whole new level of appreciation. A film about the relentless pursuit of perfection and self-betterment, Whiplash is one of the most intense films I’ve seen in a long time. J.K. Simmons is virtually assured an Oscar for his role as the bandleader who pushes his desire for more into the realm of emotional (and even physical abuse) as he takes a promising young jazz drummer under his tutelage. Building steam throughout until its jaw-dropping finale, music and drama collide with great harmony to create a slick experience brimming with suspense. Both celebrating the power of determination and condemning the obsessive nature of music, Whiplash brought us 2014’s most haunting quote: “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”

#2: Birdman
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

In any other year, Birdman would have had no problem securing my accolade as Best Film of the Year. It truly is a cinematic achievement, and one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen. Edited and shot with expert finesse to make it’s first 100+ minutes look and feel like one continuous shot, Birdman dropped us into the tormented psyche of a washed-up Hollywood star desperate to restore both his fading star and his self-respect. The movie/play-within-a-movie/play has long been a trope of classic Hollywood, but never has it felt so authentic and dysfunctional as it does while we see the personal and professional, internal and external demons of the man who used to play Birdman come to the surface over the course of a few days. Michael Keaton deserves all the praise he has received for his starring role, and his convincing self-effacing performance dazzles with equal parts comedy and heartbreak. Edward Norton leads a star-studded supporting cast (Emma Stone and Zach Galifinakis also shine) in peak form, each of whom infuse the incredible original screenplay with a dark sense of humor, helping to also make Birdman one of the year’s funniest films. And for the record, it’s a complete shame that the hypnotic original drum score has been deemed ineligible for the Best Original Score Oscar.

#1: Boyhood
Directed by Richard Linklater

I know that I had a Richard Linklater film as #1 last year as well, but how could I have known that he would be able to follow up the emotional conclusion to his wonderful trilogy with an even more captivating experience? The fruit of 12 patient years of work, Boyhood is an unprecedented achievement, truly capturing the process of growing up in a way that cinema has to this point only faked through movie magic. What makes Boyhood such an authentic experience for me is the fact that it portrays the childhood of a boy who is close enough in age to me that I can fully relate to nearly all of his experiences. From details as minute as the diagetic use of Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad” to signify the year 2009 to that handheld electronic 20 Questions machine that we all had growing up, Linklater got everything right. At the core of it all are performances grounded in reality which never stray anywhere near exaggeration. Linklater took the absolutely necessary care to create a character whose family life is compelling enough to make good drama, but normal enough to relate to the universal experience of growing up in the 21st century. I left the theater that summer afternoon with the emotional satisfaction that the universal essence of my childhood had been exquisitely captured in a way the film industry has never seen before. Telling a deceptively simple story the way it plays out in reality, Boyhood is without a doubt the best film of this year, and of any year in recent memory.

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So there you have it! Please feel free to submit your thoughts on your favorite movies of the year, and let me know where you think I went astray. Thanks so much for reading, my retrospective on my year at the movies will be posted sometime tomorrow!

Until then,

Ryan

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