For the past two years, I’ve been ranking every film I see- just the new releases, from January 1st to December 31st. The rankings are subjective, based entirely on how much I enjoyed and/or connected with or appreciated the film rather than on some sort of objective artistic criteria. Basically, this is a list of 110 films released in 2014 ranked according to how much I liked them.
Read the Full 2014 List HERE.
As someone who generally doesn’t enjoy films about villains with no heroic aspirations, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this totally creepy “underbelly of humanity” drama (all I knew going in was the basic premise and that the word “psychopath” was buzzing around it). First of all, I would argue that Rene Russo is actually the most important character in Nightcrawler, despite the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal definitely deserved to be in the Oscar conversation for his chameleonic performance. A thrillingly complex human portrait, Russo’s ambitious news director is fierce and flawed and endlessly compelling even against Gyllenhaal’s captivating psychology study of a leading man. The main difference between the psychopaths of Gone Girl (my least favourite film of the year) and Nightcrawler (one of my favourites), in my view, is not their genders but rather the fact that Nightcrawler seems to be examining the nature of the psychopath while Gone Girl is merely presenting one; even without Russo in the picture, that fact makes me able to invest in an antihero as bleak as Louis when I simply couldn’t tolerate Amy (no matter how proficiently her film was executed). Director Dan Gilroy nails the pacing and the tone that makes Nightcrawler visceral and presents interesting visuals that don’t distract from the storytelling while directing his own script that serves as both a potent character piece and a genuinely surprising twisted thriller. Just a brilliant film all around.
12. The Theory of Everything
As obnoxious as this is to say, this film is sort of too oldschool to praise too profusely (other than the performances; there aren’t enough praise-related adjectives in the world to describe the nuance and heartache and charm and precision of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in this film). Soft focus, beautiful melodies, traditional storytelling, an Oscar-bait-y biopic drama- these are the sides of The Theory of Everything we’ve all seen before (mostly in A Beautiful Mind, which is unhelpfully similar in subject matter and will likely never be topped as one of the first prestige movies I fell really hard for) and these are the reasons why a film seemingly designed to win all the Oscars was reduced to just the Best Actor race. But I think there’s still a place for a movie as straightforward as this one. Remove it from its time and our tastes and this film can easily stand up next to many things far more beloved because the story is well chosen and well told with a great mix of humour, romance, melancholy, tragedy and hope. Three key supporting players (Stephen’s best friend from Cambridge, his nurse Elaine, and Jane’s future husband Jonathan) fill out the ensemble with extra depth but this film rests on the shoulders of Eddie Redmayne’s gloriously impressive portrayal of a legend (what he does with his non-verbal dramatic moments is unbelievable) and Felicity Jones’ desperately heart-wrenching performance in his shadow.
13. Guardians of the Galaxy
What a solid Marvel installment. Very by-the-book, very universe-adherent but also very standalone entertaining. And excellently cast. It’s about damn time Chris Pratt got to be a proper movie star (I’ve been rooting for this guy since Bright got his appendix out) and you just know Vin Diesel loved every minute of his Groot-ness (and who doesn’t love how hard everyone fell for Groot?!). This film also has some ace jokes, some of the best CGI I’ve seen and, it goes without saying, the best soundtrack possibly ever. A1.
14. About Alex
A cast of some of TV’s most wonderful people populates this debut feature from Parenthood writer Jesse Zwick. A dramedy about college friends reunited by tragic, awkward circumstances, About Alex dives into everything- listlessness, love (requited, unrequited, unspoken, overwrought), depression, anxiety, jealousy, pretension, ambition- only rarely losing its honesty and light touch (let’s just say I wasn’t surprised to find Parenthood on Zwick’s IMDB page). Parks & Rec’s Aubrey Plaza plays arguably the largest role in the true ensemble, stretching her usually hidden non-sardonic, non-pessimistic muscles and proving once again why she’s quickly becoming an indie darling. Suburgatory’s Jane Levy makes her mark in the outsider role that could have easily been grating while The Mindy Project’s Max Minghella completely won me over as a soft-spoken success story stuck in a state of “what if?” (his simmering chemistry with Plaza made me marvel at how he’d ever made me dislike him as The Social Network’s bitter couldabeen). But it’s Jason Ritter and New Girl’s Max Greenfield who shine most brightly in the script’s strongest and most complicated roles, Ritter giving the performance of his career thus far as the sweet and sad title character. Rotten Tomatoes tells me that most people aren’t really liking this film. Most people must be crazy because it’s funny and moving and honest, even when it’s a little pedantic.
15. Happy Christmas
Joe Swanberg’s latest mumblecore masterpiece is a tentative love story between two sisters in law- the transcendent Melanie Lynskey as Kelly, a serious novelist turned stay at home mom, and her husband’s troubled younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) who is every bit as infuriating as inspiring. Lena Dunham is also there as the most likeable character she’s ever played, Kendrick’s even-keeled but still fun best friend, while the director takes on the role of the well-intentioned man keeping Jenny and Kelly together. Refreshingly taking on a platonic relationship model that Hollywood rarely investigates (I love in-law stories but until now the best ones have all been on Parenthood), Happy Christmas is moving, understated and honest, as all the best mumblecore is (and Joe Swanberg has made some of the best mumblecore ever). The movie doesn’t look very pretty but in its best moments (a wonderful tipsy scene between the three women, an awkward profession of love between Jenny and Kelly) it’s truly beautiful. Stay through all the credits to receive the gift of an extra scene between Lynskey, Kendrick and Dunham as they hash out the details of a proposed erotic novel; it’s pure gold.
One of the first great dramas I saw all year, this triumphant tale about being thick-skinned and steel-spined and self-assured in the face of careless dehumanization was inspiring for all sorts of reasons, even beyond its inspiring story. Screenwriter Misan Sagay’s humanization of every character, no matter how wrong they were, added a strong complexity to this richly characterized world, a deeply flawed place beautifully not devoid of compassionate people (some heroic, some cowardly, all honest). The incandescent Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the rock-solid core of all that is great and terrible and beautiful and true in the world of Belle.
17. The Search
Another festival favourite that won’t hit the theatres until 2015 (along with Good Kill and ’71), this remarkable multi-lingual drama set during the Czech Wars really stayed with me. The beautifully tender leading performance by Bérénice Bejo, the haunting eyes of MVP child actor Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev, the chilling arc of Maksim Emelyanov’s reluctant soldier Kolia- I still can’t shake them.
18. Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show
This straightforward documentary isn’t great because of its execution (the structure is too formulaic and some of the main shows discussed just aren’t that good) but it’s really great because of its subjects. Showrunners are inherently fascinating, I think- writers (an introverted, creative profession) tasked with producing/managing (an extroverted, practical profession), they are walking juxtapositions doing the job of at least 4 people at once. There are definitely some interesting showrunners missing here (why no Jason Katims? His low-fi, 3-camera approach to drama is wholly unique; much as I can’t stand him, Ryan Murphy would have been an ace addition) but director Des Doyle does get in the really key players like Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams (I have to say it’s really nice to hear Joss talking about Buffy and Firefly again after years steeped in Marvel-dom; they feel most authentically his own). My unexpected favourites were Chris Downey & John Rogers from Leverage (a show I never watched, but now I might). One of the things I love about Joss is his desire to be, as he puts it, “a company man” and his ability to adapt to restraints, whether they be FCC or otherwise. Downey & Rogers captured that spirit and approached making their show with a really refreshing, grateful attitude : “we go to a bunch of people and ask them to give us a couple million bucks a week to tell our little pretend-y stories. The idea that they should do that with no strings attached is madness”. Beyond the sheer fun of candid wit from great minds and the inside-baseball of the industry, Showrunners has some genuinely amazing moments when the creators reflect on the creative process- when Janet Tamaro talks about how she memorializes her late best friend through her show (Rizzoli & Isles), JH Wyman’s heartbreaking farewell to a show (Fringe) he called “an excellent communication device” (a more insightful comment about the introvert as creator I’ve never heard) and, most memorably, Ronald D. Moore’s tale of literally killing his idol as the Star Trek fan who grew up to write Captain Kirk’s death scene (in Star Trek Generations). If you love TV, Showrunners is just about the best film there is.
19. Two Night Stand
Hand two charming, naturalistic actors characters with real thoughts and feelings then trap them in a room. Sometimes, that’s all I need in a movie (it helps if one of the actors is Miles Teller). And that’s all Two Night Stand is. It’s a real rom-com with all the ooey-gooey love stuff and cheesy happy endings that that entails but it’s also brilliantly low-key and at times fairly blunt with characters so unremarkable that they miraculously start to resemble human beings rather than movie characters. Wildly under-publicized, Two Night Stand was one of the biggest out-of-the-blue treats all year.
20. The Imitation Game
This movie is too straightforward to be lauded too much for its true artistic merit. I went back and forth about placing it this high on the list because of that fact. But, ultimately, I really enjoyed this imperfect but stirring fictionalized biopic on a pure storytelling level and, to me, that’s simply the most important level. Benedict Cumberbatch is very good (though not Redmayne good), Keira Knightley is convincing, Matthew Goode continues to be one of the most wildly charming men alive, my beloved Rory Kinnear is understatedly great, Graham Moore’s Oscar-winning script is surprisingly funny and director Morten Tyldum’s pacing is fantastic. None of them really achieved anything close to what, say, Iñárritu or Redmayne or Justin Lader did in their respective fields but, as a whole, The Imitation Game is one of the most engagingly watchable movies I’ve seen in a long time.
21. Still Alice
This sad, quiet character piece about a highly intelligent woman’s decent into early onset Alzheimer’s is probably the best pure actor’s showcase of the year (though The Theory of Everything certainly comes close). Julianne Moore is beautifully restrained as the titular Alice, a brilliant linguistics professor who receives her diagnosis at age 50. Moore’s turn is supported by an excellent ensemble that includes some of Alec Baldwin’s best dramatic work in years and the greatly under-appreciated Hunter Parrish as well as some nice moments from Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart (whose actress character delivers a serene rendering of Harper’s beautiful closing speech from Angels in America). A heartbreakingly beautiful achievement.
22. Force Majeure
This gorgeously shot Swedish family drama is about a couple who take their kids skiing. That’s pretty much it, technically. It’s not technologically unambitious, low budget, single location, small cast or any of the other things hard-to-describe, intimate films often are but Force Majeure is, in a lot of ways, the encapsulation of what makes hard-to-describe, intimate films special. It’s at once the simplest and most complicated storytelling of the year with some truly startling performances from Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli as the central, deeply human couple. It’s about what’s wrong with and great about all of us, but it’s really just about a couple who take their kids skiing.
23. The Angriest Man in Brooklyn
It’s unbelievable that this movie exists- that it was made when it was made by the people who made it. It’s unbelievable that this was one of the last artistic experiences of Robin Williams’ life, portraying Henry, a man plagued by anger who learns to live again as he prepares to die. At one point in this film, Robin Williams jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the last lines Robin Williams ever said on film was “on my tombstone it will read 1951-2014”. This film’s existence is almost eerie, tortured with irony and heartbreaking in the knowledge that even making something this lovely and full of life in the face of death couldn’t help poor Robin. More than any film before it (yes, even The Dark Knight), The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is inextricable from the death of its star just months after the film’s release. The battle, then, is to see it for what it is beyond that, and I think it’s a pretty special film (if not a groundbreaking one). The premise is a little trite (a man is told he has 90 minutes to live) but the execution is wonderful, complete with engaging third-person narration by the lead characters and a superb supporting cast that includes a slightly underused Sutton Foster, Hamish Linklater (I think if we put Hamish Linklater in everything, everything would be better), Melissa Leo and Peter Dinklage (he plays Henry’s brother Aaron with so much quiet sweetness you’d think he’d never even heard of Westeros). Mila Kunis shares the leading duties with Williams as the miserable doctor who gives the damning and far-fetched diagnosis, giving her best performance in years in a role that requires intelligence, pathos, comedy and, awesomely, no romance to speak of (if we ignore a miserable dalliance with Louis CK). The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is just a small, emotional, personal little film that doesn’t break down any doors and likely would have been forgotten fairly quickly like so many small, emotional, personal little films before it if it wasn’t also a poignant and painfully topical farewell to one of the most beloved men to ever appear on screen.
William H Macy’s directorial debut is a little bit tonally confused. But so is life, I guess. It’s at times really fun and at times really sweet (perhaps even a little too sweet) but it’s also heartbreaking, morally conflicting and melancholy. We begin with Josh (played by Drew from Parenthood aka Miles Heizer; Parenthood is all over this section of the list!) alone in his dorm room, recording an intriguingly excellent original song (it’s called “Asshole”; you should download it from the generally decent film soundtrack). The next day he dies in a campus shooting and we jump forward 2 years to the heart of our story. The gloriously nuanced Felicity Huffman (of course), a sage Laurence Fishburne, a somewhat useless Selena Gomez, and one of my favourite young actors Anton Yelchin join the always excellent Billy Crudup as Josh’s father who finds solace in his son’s previously undiscovered compositions. Quentin (Yelchin, wonderful as the wounded optimist) hears Sam (Crudup) at an open mic night (run by Macy as a supportive bar owner, of course) and convinces him to start a band called Rudderless, which proceeds to add a drummer and a bassist then start to really take off (the three younger members adopting a very unconvincing Ramones look the more successful they get). A late-act-two twist I’m so glad I didn’t see coming changes the game and raises this power-of-music drama above the comparable Begin Again, leading to a final performance scene that’s as uncomfortable and sad as it is beautiful.
25. Kelly & Cal
This tender, foreboding indie about growing up and moving on and loving each other and using each other sports two fantastic leading performances, especially from Juliette Lewis who plays discontented new mother Kelly with so much delicate longing it’s a wonder her career isn’t ten times the size it is. Stirring, startling, sexy and sympathetic, this film is one of the great underrated gems in a year with many great underrated gems.
26. Camp X-Ray
As the credits role on this ambitious Kristen Stewart vehicle, two guards pace back and forth along a short corridor, peering into the always-lit cells along their path, checking each one at least every three minutes to make sure the detainee inside hasn’t killed himself. This is Camp X-Ray, or the American Prison at Guantanamo Bay where Kristen Stewart has been stationed to prove that she’s so much more than Bella Swan. The force that was Demi Moore in GI Jane apparently long forgotten, the waif-like Stewart feels like a dumb Hollywood choice for an Army movie but she squares her jaw and narrows her eyes and totally sells it, leaving doubters in the dust along with the appropriately irksome Lane Garrison as her slimeball superior officer who breaks new ground in the portrayal of prisoner (sorry, detainee) mistreatment in a harrowing and emotional scene where he walks all over personal and religious boundaries while daring to utter the haunting phrase “are you a solider or are you a female soldier?”. But the true star of this perfectly simple, excellently directed indie (made up almost entirely of long conversation scenes) is Payman Maadi who plays a detainee named Ali who slowly charms Stewart into caring for him more than she really ought to and leaves the audience torn between their instincts towards empathy and self preservation. The conceit may strain realism but it tears at your heart in return and that’s a trade well worth making.
This Disney re-telling is visually stunning in every way (The kingdoms! The costumes! Those cheekbones!) and Angelina Jolie is perfection as the misunderstood villain, her warm maternal instincts poking through the shivery, regal shell she so easily projects. Elle Fanning also makes a lovely, natural Aurora and the extremely well-constructed plot cleverly twists the classic tale without throwing out too much of its world building. Toss in a charming birdman sidekick, some dry humour, a big heart, and the very welcome dismissal of Prince Phillip and his One Direction hair and you’ve got a real winner of a summer blockbuster as easily enjoyed by kids as by their parents and the adults who both loved and hated the original Sleeping Beauty (I fall in the later category, for the record; I’m a strictly post-1990 Disney girl).
28. The Skeleton Twins
I don’t know if you’ve noticed by now but intimate indie dramedies are kind of my jam and I love to complain about how the studios drown them out and how it’s a miracle anytime one gets enough press to attract any kind of audience. The Skeleton Twins is the exception to that this year. I heard a ton about this movie before I finally saw it- rave reviews and press interviews and viral videos where the two wildly likeable stars openly mock clueless interviewers- so maybe my expectations were unfairly high, but I didn’t find it as funny or delicate as my favourites of the genre. But, even if imperfect, The Skeleton Twins proved a worthy member of the decent 2014 indie dramedy club, anchored by an indelible performance from Bill Hader and the best work of Ty Burrell’s career in one of the year’s most complex supporting roles. I love a good sibling story and casting long-time friends whose years of onscreen collaborations live in the audience’s consciousness sets the exact right tone. The Hader-Wiig chemistry alone makes this movie special.
29. Begin Again
One of the year’s big themes: the healing power of music. This was its most fun incarnation, a coming-into-your-own tale with Keira Knightley doing my favourite thing that Keira Knightly does so well but doesn’t do often enough, low-key charm (as opposed to, say, attempting to play literary legend after literary legend). Supporting turns from such fantastically watchable people as Hailey Steinfeld, James Corden and Adam Levine- and a soundtrack that legitimizes the plot- help this slightly cheesy but totally loveable film along its path towards a really pretty great ending. That scene in the bar (you know the one, it was the centrepiece of the trailer) where Mark Ruffalo imagines the orchestrations surrounding Keira Knightley’s solo performance remains one of my favourites of the year.
30. The Fault in Our Stars
One of those rare but fascinating cases where I much preferred the movie to the book, this YA adaptation with its balance of frank reality and wish-fulfillment was greatly elevated by its grounded and refreshing star Shailene Woodley and a devastating performance from Laura Dern as her helpless but hopeful mother. If I cried, it was only a little, which feels like something of a failure for a movie like this, but I’m a weird cryer who falls apart during Facebook ads but was barely moved by Boyhood so I don’t think it’s really a reflection of anything. I wanted to love this more, but I liked it enough.