This was one of the stranger years in film in my time as a fake film critic (going on 10 years now, like a boss). I say that because, as it progressed, I never felt like it was a particularly strong year for film overall. There were plenty of weeks when there was literally nothing showing that I had any interest in seeing and most of the bigger budget movies failed to impress either me or the wider audiences judging by the sluggish box office. And yet, when I sat down to make my annual Top 10 list, I had a much harder time cutting it down than I expected. I think this is a year in which we were treated to very few (if any) “10 on a scale of 1 to 10” movies but we got a ton of 8’s. There’s not much separation, for me at least, between the number two movie on this list and, say, the 17th movie on my list. And that’s not a bad thing, if you think about it. All that to say, 2014 had some really strong highs even if the week-to-week showcase was fairly weak.
As always with this list, I have to put forth the following disclaimer: my top 10 list is not necessarily the 10 “best” films of the year. For the “best” list, check out the Odds and Ends post from yesterday to catch my hypothetical Oscar ballot. But for this list, while Quality certainly counts (significantly so), favoritism and rewatchability play a large part as well. So bear that in mind.
Honorable Mention #1: Edge of Tomorrow (Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson)
I had this one in the top 10 for a long time and it pains me a little to have it sit on the outside. For some reason, American audiences didn’t buy into Edge of Tomorrow and I guess that’s because the studio had no stinking idea how to market it. Even the movie’s title changed a time or two to the point that my Blu-Ray copy marks the title as, “Live. Die. Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow.” That’s not unstable or anything. Regardless, those who saw the movie saw Cruise as his Cruiseiest and (hopefully) took note of just how incredible and versatile Blunt really is. On rewatch, the ending still bothers me a tiny bit and that’s ultimately why it got bumped out.
Honorable Mention #2: Whiplash (Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Reiser)
This was the last 2014 movie I saw and wow, did it crash the party! Throughout the vast majority of Whiplash, I was only somewhat on board with the movie as a whole, chalking it up to more of an actor’s showcase than a great film. And then the final scene kicked off and 20 minutes later I was sitting on the edge of my seat, completely riveted and utterly mesmerized. This is a REALLY difficult movie to watch and thus, it’s a tough sell as far as rewatchability goes. Still, Simmons is remarkable, writer/director Damien Chazelle shows off some immense talent, and the subject matter itself is interesting. But that final scene very well might be the best scene in any movie I saw this year and jumped Whiplash up a grade or two in my book. I’m still kind of reeling over it.
10. Godzilla (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen)
When Godzilla was announced a couple years back, I’m not sure my eyes ever stopped rolling. “No one wants this!” I said. “This will be terrible!” I said. “Why do we keep making pointless reboots?!” I said. So I was wrong. In a year that was seriously lacking in high quality blockbuster fare, this was one of two, possibly three movies that really felt like a summer blockbuster and I mean that in the best way possible. The plot is more than adequate, the direction is superb, and the effects are FANTASTIC. Just a glorious piece of popcorn filmmaking.
9. The Lego Movie (Chris Pratt, Elisabeth Banks, Will Ferrell)
I don’t often get too hot under the collar over an Oscar “snub” but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how The Lego Movie missed on a Best Animated Feature nomination. In my mind, it had an outside chance at an overall Best Picture nomination. It was robbed. Snubbing aside, this is one of the freshest, most original films of the year and ranks as one of the best family films in a long time, maybe since Toy Story 3. I’ve watched The Lego Movie at least three times thanks to the magic of Blu-Ray/DVD and the jokes still land every time. It’s just too much fun to ignore. Unless you’re the Academy Awards.
8. Chef (Jon Favreu, Emjay Anthony, Jon Leguizamo)
When I started making this list a couple weeks ago, Chef was on the outside looking in. Some of its charm had worn off over the six or seven months since its release and I talked myself into believing it was simply good, not great. But having rewatched it with my wife, I rediscovered how much I absolutely love this movie. Chef has a rhythm that few other movies achieve; it’s lively, it’s upbeat, and it feels like a passion project, which is exactly what it was for Jon Favreau. Each scene takes on the characteristics of the setting it takes place in and that gives it an authenticity that propels the film forward. And the cooking scenes alone, backed by a killer soundtrack, would probably make this thing worthwhile.
7. Foxcatcher (Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo)
No other film on this list pits “favorite” against “best” more than Foxcatcher does. It’s a supremely well-made and exquisitely acted film that also happens to be somewhat difficult to watch and not exactly enjoyable. That’s okay, of course, as there are plenty of GREAT movies that you don’t exactly what to sit down and watch on a daily basis; it’s just that those films don’t usually crack my personal Top 10. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch this movie again and yet I found it mesmerizing throughout my first viewing. At the end of the day, the performances are just so strong that I couldn’t find a way to exclude Foxcatcher from either this list or my hypothetical Oscar ballot and I’m still a bit haunted by Carell’s dark depiction of insanity.
6. Wild (Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski)
On the surface, Wild looks like an easy showcase for a good actor. “White woman treks alone through the wilderness in order to find herself” isn’t exactly a risky proposition. But there is so, so much more at work within this film. Jean Marc Valles is rapidly becoming one of the best dramatic directors in the business, going straight from his incredible work on Dallas Buyers Club last year to this to which he brings an impeccable approach to a film that just so easily could’ve been a lazy affair. Wild holds its protagonist accountable to her actions with more vigor than most films of its kind and asks a great deal of its lead. And wow, does Witherspoon come through. Every year there’s at least one movie that I force upon my friends until they’re all tired of hearing me talk about it and I’m pretty sure Wild is that movie.
5. Interstellar (Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway)
This is a movie that provokes strong emotions. You love it or you hate and very few people fall in the middle. Clearly I love it. I’m predisposed in its favor (Christopher Nolan, McConaughey, Chastain, space, all coming together?!) but due to the mixed early reviews, I went in with a clear mind and came out so completely on board. I like that Nolan switched up his M.O. and went for a much more emotional chord than he usually strikes. I like that Interstellar attempts (and sometimes fails, if I’m being honest) to tell a human story in the midst of a galactic overarching plot. And I like that it has the guts to ask its viewers to come along for a ride and worries not that some are bound to check out. Interstellar is ambitious and beautifully and so wonderfully well-shot and for me, all of its many virtues far overshadow the issues others have gotten tripped up over.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper)
Without question, Guardians of the Galaxy is my favorite film of the year and without question it is the movie that I will watch with the most frequency. It has absolutely everything that I want in a blockbuster and then some. James Gunn’s direction is dynamic, the script is smart and filled with fast humor, and Chris Pratt is the perfect lead for this sort of lively, out of the box popcorn movie. On the whole, Guardians works so well that you hardly notice the ridiculousness of a talking raccoon and a walking tree. It’s kind of the opposite of Interstellar in that it tells a galactic story on a human level. This is just a riotous film and I’m going to stop writing about it now so I can go watch it again.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham)
This movie was hovering somewhere toward the bottom of the list at the beginning of this process. So much of it had faded from my memory in the nine months since it debuted and I had sort of glommed it all together into a hodgepodge of Wes Anderson-ness that I liked and appreciated but wasn’t in love with. Then I rewatched it and, much like Chef, remembered all the details of my love. GBH is the funniest movie of the year and it’s not particularly close. But moreover, Anderson may have found the perfect muse in Fiennes who takes so well to the director’s well-established quirkiness that I was left feeling as if my life was somehow incomplete until I saw this movie. It is easily the most Anderson-y movie of all of Anderson’s movies and that makes it darn near perfect if you are, in fact, a fan of Anderson. (I apologize for the all the Andersons.)
2. Birdman (Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts)
Much like Interstellar, there are two distinctive camps on Birdman with very little room for a gray area in between. I think, more than any other film this year, this one boils down to a subjective question: did you get it or not? That’s not to say that anyone who doesn’t “get” Birdman is wrong or unable to appreciate good cinema or anything like that. It’s just a really odd movie and that means some viewers just aren’t going to be able to jump on board. One thing that is clear, however, even to this film’s detractors, is that Michael Keaton is AWESOME and he gives a staggering performance. I’m 99% sure he’s winning the Oscar for his work here and I couldn’t be happier with that. Beyond Keaton, though, the rest of the film is a stylish, one-of-a-kind roller coaster that moves at an almost disorienting pace. I’ve personally never seen anything quite like Birdman and it simply worked for me on virtually every level.
1. Boyhood (Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke)
In some ways, I almost feel like Boyhood topping my list is somehow a default ranking. I saw it in July and it led to some of the deeper thoughts I’ve ever put into a film and yet I just kind of expected eventually something would bump it down my list. I tried to put Birdman, GBH, Guardians, and even Wild in this spot at one point or another and every time I would come back to some element, some scene, some emotion attached to Boyhood and I’d have to push it back to the top. Boyhood puts you through the wringer, runs you through the emotional gamut of the human experience, and somehow manages to be mostly enjoyable in the process. This is such a unique experience (and I use that word purposefully as this is really more than just a film) that will never, EVER be duplicated; it is truly unlike any film I’ve ever seen or ever will see. It is the epitome of what being a filmmaker is all about and I don’t know that anyone besides Richard Linklater could’ve pulled it off. When I look back on 2014, I am 100 percent certain that Boyhood will be the movie I consider first and in the end, I think that’s what topping this list is all about.