Whenever I make up my best-of-the-year list, it’s always late. In fact, this list is ready a couple weeks ahead of when it usually is. The reason is simple, as I don’t feel as though I can give an informed opinion if I have yet to see some of the more notable films of the year.
And let’s talk about that year, shall we? 2014 was a rough year for me personally and professionally. I had lost my job and went through all sorts of personal crises that I won’t share with you now. But once I had the year in my taillights, I had to admit that I was in a better place at the end of 2014 than I was at the beginning of it. Also, I started writing again. While work on the Moviocrity web series continues, I revamped this platform more for personal fulfillment than anything else. And the response from you guys out there has been overwhelming. I’ll never stop thanking you for that.
More relevant to this article, I spent much of 2014 griping about the lackluster films it had to offer. And in many cases, I think that criticism was justified. It seemed as though there were far more mediocre films than in years previous. And if you’ve watched the Moviocrity web series, you know there’s nothing I despise so much as the average. But compiling this list, I realized that while this year might not have been as swell as 2013, there was still plenty to get excited about. I just needed to see beyond my own grumpiness to realize it.
With that in mind, here are my picks for the 15 Best Films of 2014!
“In the end, I am not interested in that which I fully understand.”
15. 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH – I’ve enjoyed the work of Nick Cave ever since my old friend Paul introduced me to him, back when we were teenagers. Cave has been doing music since the 1970s, first with the Birthday Party and then later with the Bad Seeds. He has also worked apart from his band and done exemplary soundtrack work. All of this when he isn’t writing or pursuing some other endeavor. After more than 35 years, he continues to evolve and pursue new soul searching avenues of art and beauty.
Cave’s music is known for its melancholy, along with the enigmas that you imagine surround its creation. You probably won’t receive many clear cut answers in 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH, but this is as close you’re likely to get.
This is the year’s best music documentary. It seems to go along randomly, as Cave begins recording his album, PUSH THE SKY AWAY and encounters collaborators past and present. And yet, as you hear Cave’s musings, you start understanding the things that make him tick. Nick Cave continues to be a fascinating artist and this film is a solid document of the man, living each day as it comes.
“I’m my own animal.”
14. LAGGIES – People gave props to several indie comedies this year, films like CHEF and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (I would argue that they are actually mini-majors since they attract big names and have a few million to play around with. But that’s not to diminish what the films were trying to accomplish and anyway, it’s an argument for another time. I’m rambling.). And while those films were perfectly fine, somewhere lost in the mix was a really sweet, funny and inspirational film called LAGGIES.
Focusing on a woman not ready to conform to the standard model of maturity, our heroine (Kiera Knightley) instead befriends a teenage girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and plays hooky from life for a week. In that time, she tries to figure out her own life, while hitting it off with her new friend’s dad (Sam Rockwell).
LAGGIES is a great little film that deserved more attention than it got. Great performances from Knightley, Mortez, Rockwell and Kaitlyn Dever (the latter of which delivers my favorite line of the year) made me wish I could spend more time with these people instead of leaving the theater and returning home. The film features magical synchronicity between Lynn Shelton’s direction and Andrea Seigel’s script. On a personal level, LAGGIES hit close to home, but it also made me smile a lot on the way.
“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, dreams, aspirastions and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
13. LIFE ITSELF – I did not always agree with Roger Ebert. I occasionally found myself at opposing ends of not just his reviews but some of his causes. But I always had great respect for the man, who was one of the greatest writers on film out there. He brought an intellectualism and emotion to the world of film journalism while still eschewing the elitism of contemporaries such as Pauline Kael.
LIFE ITSELF is a heartbreaking document of Ebert’s life and his declining health over the years. Remarkably, it’s pretty much all here: his early days, his partnership with the late Gene Siskel, his life-changing marriage to his wife, Chaz. It’s almost impossible to watch the documentary on this man and not tear up a bit. But beyond the tears, LIFE ITSELF is uplifting, offering hope and beauty even in the face of ultimate darkness.
“You’ll all have what you deserve.”
12. WRATH OF THE CROWS – This is not the first time Ivan Zuccon has made one of my best-of-the-year lists. While some other directors capitalize on trends and offer bleak depressathons without a shred of originality, Zuccon creates entire nightmare worlds that seem to be supported on mist and shadow.
Moving away from his tonally faithful Lovecraft adaptations, Zuccon now creates another, totally original film. Taking place in a strange fascist prison somewhere in limbo, WRATH OF THE CROWS gives us a group of haunted, damaged people who are paying for the sins of their past. Zuccon’s screenplay fleshes the characters out, giving us far more character development than is usually seen within the genre.
But WRATH OF THE CROWS would only be half the film it is without the excellent performances from the actors. Debbie Rochon turns in another powerhouse that further illustrates how she has continued to be a prolific and fascinating actress all these years. Tiffany Shepis turns in what may be a career best performance as a witch-like creature who seems to be pulling the prisoners’ strings from inside the cells.
“How can you have lived for so long and still not get it? This self obsession is a waste of living. It could be spent in surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship, and dancing. You have been pretty lucky in love though, if I may say so.”
11. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE – Jim Jarmusch’s newest film feels like it was made twenty years ago. Back in the 1990s, there was an absolute craze for romantic vampires. But whereas that now conjures images of films based on young adult novels, these romantics were more in tune to the vamps one would find in THE HUNGER or an Anne Rice book. It’s appropriate that ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE seems to exist outside of time, since that’s exactly how its characters exist as well.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE ponders a world in which an immortal (Tom Hiddelston) has blessed the world with artistic genius for centuries, mostly in secret. As he looks at his achievements, he ponders going out as so many tortured artists have before. But he is also linked to his one true love (Tilda Swinton), though they have lived in separate parts of the world for decades.
This is Jarmusch back on track, which is odd since it is one of his most straight-forward films. He decks the film with top-notch actors whether they be vets like Swinton and John Hurt or newer talents such as Hiddleston and the increasingly-fascinating Mia Wasikowska. What really works for this film is showing the casual intimacy of the characters who have had to share this world for centuries. Then again, this should not come as a shock. Intimacy and the interaction between characters has always been what Jarmusch does best.
“You both feel like the world owes you something, you’re both permanently pissed off and you’re both stuck up in that house.”
10. HOUSEBOUND – After an attempted robbery goes awry, a young woman (Morgana O’Reilly) is caught and put under house arrest. Meaning that she has to move back into her mother’s house, forcing her to return to a time she would rather forget. She treats her mother (Rima Te Wiata) horribly, until she begins to suspect that the house may be haunted. She begins to discover a new purpose for her wasted life as she starts to unravel the mystery surrounding an unsolved murder.
HOUSEBOUND is a horror comedy that delivers on both scares and laughs. The characters are believable and the mystery keeps you guessing until the third act. Great performances abound, particularly from O’Reilly and Te Wiata. This is a spookshow that manages to be amusing, entertaining and – heaven forbid – actually makes you feel better after watching it.
“If you wish you could’ve been normal, I can promise you that I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.”
09. THE IMITATION GAME – Alan Turing may not have been a very jovial person. But the debt the world owes him is incalculable. Not only did he save millions of lives during World War II, his work also paved the way for the modern world. But while the debt was incalculable, the despicable treatment Turing got instead was unforgivable.
It may seem a bit too easy to picture Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Another super-intelligent man misunderstood and despised by the average person? But Cumberbatch embodies the role perfectly and we have no trouble putting away comparisons to the famous sleuth he portrays on the BBC.
THE IMITATION GAME is a taut thriller of mathematics and also an emotionally wrenching film, detailing the inhuman treatment of the gay community in Great Britain and elsewhere.
I’d also like to point out that this marks the second time Kiera Knightley has appeared on this list. You done good, K.
“I know you’re scared. I’m scared too. They’re sharks. They’re scary. No one wants to get eaten. But I’ve been eaten. And I’m here to tell you it takes a lot more than that to bring a good man down. A lot more than that to bring a New Yorker down.”
08. SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE – You’re damn right SHARKNADO 2 makes the cut. When the summer of 2014 emerged, it looked to be one of the most promising in some time. But release after release was found wanting. If they weren’t complete letdowns, many films at least failed to deliver on what was promised (I’m looking at you, GODZILLA.). SHARKNADO 2 was the only film to not only deliver on every outrageous promise in its advertising; it fearlessly and shamelessly exceeded them.
True, what it promised was not a life-changing experience. No, here is a film that knew what it had to deliver. It was a low budget flick filled with numerous, improbable cameos, a bigger threat than its predecessor and some of the best cheap thrills you could imagine. SHARKNADO 2 upped the ante from the original and gave us one of the most ambitious B-movies of recent memory, which delivered every cheesy moment with a smirk and wink. And all I could do after every scene was laugh and shake my head in bafflement and respect. If you slam this because it’s a “bad movie,” you’ve missed the point.
“The wheels on the bus go round and round…”
07. MISS MEADOWS – Miss Meadows (Katie Holmes) is the proper, old-fashioned, squeaky clean substitute teacher who refuses to put bars on her windows like her frightened neighbors. Deceptively prim and proper, she reacts to the murderous predators infiltrating her neighborhood by pulling a gun out of her purse and shooting them between the eyes. But Meadows’ biggest fear isn’t the subhumans that prey on the weak and innocent; it’s that her past will come back to haunt her. Barely hiding behind that gentile smile is a woman who is trying to outrace a world she fears will never fully understand her.
MISS MEADOWS earned scathing reviews upon its release, and I’m still at a loss as to why. It’s a charming dark comedy with Holmes giving her best performance to date. MISS MEADOWS is a constantly entertaining film that nonetheless doesn’t skimp when it comes to showing the deep psychological scars hidden in Meadows’ past.
This film is a total delight. And if that doesn’t win you over, it also features the funniest sex scene of the year.
“If you think that this war isn’t changing you you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.”
06. AMERICAN SNIPER – There is every reason to believe that the autobiography by the late Chris Kyle was shockingly inaccurate. And though Eastwood omits some of the more outlandish stories from the text, the film likely contains more fiction than fact. Fortunately, I don’t have to agree with a film’s politics or even its truthfulness to see its value as a piece of art. True or not, AMERICAN SNIPER is one amazing film.
Bradley Cooper continues to impress as Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with 160 confirmed kills. Kyle is seen as a legend by his men, who feel the pressures of war getting to them. While Kyle obviously suffers from PTSD himself, he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it in the field, knowing that the moment he shows fear is the moment he’s defeated. But while this may appear brave, it does little to help him relate to his wife and young children, until he comes to terms with his past.
After a disappointing slump that began with J. EDGAR and continued on through 2014’s JERSEY BOYS, Eastwood is back in the lead with this tense and complex drama. Cooper wisely continues to stretch himself as an actor and turns in his best performance. I have a feeling he has a lot more to shows us still.
“I felt more alone than anyone in the whole wide world that morning. Maybe that was okay.”
05. WILD – Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) reacted to the death of her mother by embarking on a path of self-destruction. The path led her to heroin and sex addiction, causing the destruction of her marriage. Cheryl decides to go on a long, cross-country walk in order to discover her worth, during which we enter her mind and learn about the events which led her to chuck it all and walk the trail.
WILD is a very personal film, with virtually every scene exposing some fragile part of Cheryl’s being. After more than a decade of safe romantic comedies, Reese Witherspoon has finally returned to taking the risks that made her such an interesting actress in the first place. She immerses herself in this part and the effect is chilling.
Not only is WILD a great film, it’s a personal, emotional and life-affirming one as well.
“I’m the only one getting our matching tattoos?!?”
04. PLAIN DEVIL – The funniest film of the year didn’t feature backing from the usual suspects. Instead, it came from talented indie filmmaker Tonjia Atomic and her growing reparatory company of Seattle artists and performers.
With PLAIN DEVIL, Tonjia Atomic delivers the funniest and most purely enjoyable film of 2014. It’s a girl gang movie with a twist. Eccentric characters populate this shot on video production and create a sort of wonderland of vibrant, kooky personalities.
From my initial review: “If you can imagine John Waters invading the set of MEAN GIRLS as the script was getting a once-over by some of the better writers on PARKS & RECREATION, you’ll get a general feel for the type of wonderful lunacy offered up by PLAIN DEVIL” Yeah, that about sums it up. Seek this film out, you won’t be disappointed.
“They don’t know what you’re capable of.”
03. BIRDMAN – What can I say about BIRDMAN that I haven’t said already? I’ve written about it. I’ve been on panels discussing it. The long and short of it is, this is a great film.
BIRDMAN is a film about regret and human fragility. But though it seems steeped in tragedy and melancholy, it’s also about overcoming those things and being the person you were always meant to be.
Michael Keaton is incredible, as is the rest of the cast. I don’t know whether BIRDMAN will take home all the awards, or if they’ll go to the ambitious BOYHOOD (which I liked, but didn’t embrace like others did). Still, I think BIRDMAN will be a film people talk about for years to come, as well they should. Some of the best direction of the year and one of the best ensembles. It’s a winner.
“If I follow your rules, it means I am admitting you have the right to give me rules. But you don’t.”
02, CAMP X-RAY – I opened my review with the words, “One of the best films of 2014 stars Kristen Stewart. Get over it.” You have no idea how much I loved writing those words, and not just because lots of the actress’ fans surprised me by retweeting the article. No, I loved writing those words because they were true, and because this was an opportunity to show up all the people who had counted Stewart out due to her involvement in the TWILIGHT franchise.
Lots of people populate CAMP X-RAY, but it is ostensibly a two-person drama. On one side, you have Pvt. Cole (Stewart), a young woman who believes in the military and her duty, and wants desperately to escape her small, Florida town. On the other, you have Ali (Payman Maadi), a suspected terrorist who has been imprisoned – sorry, “detained” – in Guantanamo Bay for eight years.
CAMP X-RAY is a film that is crushingly relevant to our times. In a world where compassion and understanding are seen as traitorous to both sides, the relationship between Cole and Ali is a powerful one. And yet, this isn’t really a film about politics. It’s a film about people, with all their beauty and failings. Humanity is often the first casualty of political rhetoric.
“Everything old can be made new again, even democracy.”
01. THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART I – I realize this isn’t the type of film you see on the top of year-end lists. Though I believe we should all look past what we’re told belongs on lists such as these, and instead judge each film on its merits. By those standards, there was nothing that resonated quite like this film. THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGKAY PART I is a complex, emotionally powerful and thought-provoking film that happened to masquerade as a Thanksgiving blockbuster.
But one of the biggest gripes, even amongst those who enjoyed it, was that it wasn’t really a blockbuster at all. Several times in the film, Francis Lawrence chooses to not go for the money shots, knowing that the effects war has on people stuck in its crosshairs is far more interesting. So, he turns his camera instead to the faces as they hear the bombs exploding outside. And we follow Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, incredible yet again) as she turns herself into a symbol for the people. All of these are good things, people.
At the same time, even as we rally on the side of justice, the film manages to be a profound statement about the nature of propaganda. The symbol of the Mockingjay does not occur organically but through extensive planning, which in the end seems like a mistake on the part of the planners. And once the logos for the resistance make their way across the districts, there is no aesthetic difference between them and the movie you just paid to see. Katniss is being steered and manipulated, as are we all.
MOCKINGJAY PART I was the calm before the storm. But the film is absolutely burning with an internal struggle the likes of which we rarely see on the big screen. A strange choice for number one? Maybe. But no other film last year affected me like this one.