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.
I loved every single solitary moment of this true story about a group of gay men and women in 1984 London who devoted themselves to raising funds and awareness for the ongoing miner’s strike. Hilarious, heartwarming, devastating, inspiring, Pride is everything every movie should dream of being. The glorious ensemble cast is led by the brilliant Ben Schnetzer, a 24-year-old New Yorker whose nuanced and empathetic performance as the movement’s leader should be one of the most talked about turns of the year while George MacKay stuns as a young man struggling to find the courage to put his full voice behind his cause. Director Matthew Warchus’ light touch and Stephen Beresford’s sharp script allow the story its earned sentimentality, optimism and joy while keeping the film grounded in strong character and sense of place. A thing of beauty.
2. The Last Five Years
This is technically a 2015 film because its theatrical release wasn’t until February but I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival, making it a key feature of my personal Cinematic 2014. Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway masterpiece has been the most consistently played soundtrack on my iPod for nearly a decade. That score, with its emotionally resonant technical construction and the poetic, funny, eloquent (and at times poignantly ineloquent) lyrics the accompany it, is, no exaggeration, one of my favourite things ever created by a human being. This imperfect but faithful film adaptation is everything I could have asked for in a Last Five Years I can put on my DVD shelf.
The first time I saw this movie, I placed it 17th on this list (still not too shabby), calling it “Centre Stage with a dash of Full Metal Jacket”. After my second viewing, it jumped up 14 spots for reasons I elaborate on in my Full Review. Set in the hyper-focused world of a talented young jazz drummer, Whiplash takes a world I know well and finds its darkest side. JK Simmons shines as a hellishly tough studio band conductor whose quest to inspire perfection is driven either by misguided but clear-sighted philosophy or psychotic, vengeful jealousy; or possibly both. Miles Teller gives a strong performance as the determined student while doing all his own drumming and, unless you’re a real expert, he more than carries it off (just to clarify, this is not like saying Cory Monteith did all his own drumming on Glee; jazz drumming is a whole other monster). There were moments when I felt like this film (one of my most anticipated of the year) slipped a bit too far into melodrama (the end of act two is wild) but the final scene is a masterpiece- a prolonged sequence containing, technically, just one action beat but containing within it a world of character transformation and subtext, daring the audience to look away and ending with ambiguity and triumph on the perfect downbeat.
4. The One I Love
When I saw this limited release mumblecore indie in September, I breathed a sigh of relief. 2014 was fairly weak on my favourite kind of movie- small, intimate romantic dramedies (though, to be fair, after the embarrassment of riches that was 2012, every year seems weak on my favourite kind of movie) but The One I Love found that perfect balance of melancholy and lovely, honest and funny that is my cinematic sweet spot (and the bread and butter of perennial favourite Mark Duplass). Magical realism that could arguably be called sci-fi finds its place in a subgenre of filmmaking that thrives on realism and the effect is stunning.
5. Into the Woods
I’ve long maintained that Chicago is the best movie musical ever made (though my personal favourite is Evita; say what you will). It makes sense, then, that its director Rob Marshall should be the person to not only adapt one of the most musically challenging and conceptually ambitious properties ever to hit Broadway but to adapt it into what might just be the best movie musical since Chicago (remember, I said these are ranked by how much I enjoyed them, not by quality; hence this falling after my beloved Last Five Years despite being a stronger adaptation). Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Lilla Crawford are all fantastic and I will happily include the charming James Corden with them as soon as someone assures me that the criminal deletion of my favourite song (“No More”) had nothing to do with how difficult it is to sing. Meryl Steep, though clearly not a singer, delivers a mesmerizing “Stay with Me” (and has never looked better than she does in Act II) and Chris Pine steals the whole thing with a blindingly funny turn as the prince “raised to be charming, not sincere”. The final “Into the Woods” reprise should have been an epilogue rather than closing on the uncharacteristically sentimental “Children Will Listen” and using the musical’s actual ending as a credits song but there’s not much more here to nitpick. A splendid adaptation that left me with no desire to see the stage version soon, the most remarkable of achievements for a movie musical.
For one film to speak all the cinematic languages of this masterful futuristic thriller within a single, successfully realized world seems unlikely, but Joon-Ho Bong’s deft hand sews them together as an encapsulation of not just the film landscape but the human landscape, captured in two hours on single train as it rushes around the world we destroyed. Also, “I was the man with the knife” kicks the ass of “I am the one who knocks”.
7. Big Hero 6
I started this film thinking it couldn’t possibly live up to the standard set by the short that preceded it (Feast– a remarkable achievement in silent filmmaking that blends adorable puppy hijinks with a beautifully sad and inspiring love story it takes a few moments to realize is being told; probably my actual favourite film of 2014, but shorts don’t count). I was wrong. Big Hero 6 is the best feature Pixar’s made in years (my favourite since Toy Story 3 easily). Funny, sad, insightful, uplifting, inventive and perfectly paced, this “science is awesome!” story features a fantastic pair of heroes (one human, one robot, both adorable), a kickass group of sidekicks (with great voice actors), an interesting villain and mcguffin, strong themes, timely issues, and the dreamiest animated character since Prince Eric in the form of big brother Tadashi (who doesn’t love a robotics genius in a cardigan?). I laughed, I cried, I loved every minute of it.
8. Life Itself
This incredibly moving documentary is painfully frank about illness and the end of life. It’s unrelentingly honest about the life-long imperfections of a beloved man. But it’s also a tribute to the love of movies and how an uncompromising critic can contribute to that rather than tear it down. I simply loved it.
9. That Awkward Moment
The first movie I saw in 2014 remained in the #1 spot on this list for months and months; even as it fell below less silly late-release fare, it remains the single most underrated film of the year. Grossly mishandled by the studio and atrociously marketed, this smart and funny rom-com (and it is a rom-com, a pretty traditional one, no matter what the bro-tastic marketing may have told you) peaked my interest when I thought about the cast (which includes two of the most respected young actors in Hollywood- Miles Teller and Michael B Jordan) and started to suspect that there may be a special script hidden somewhere under all the advertised buffoonery (I just couldn’t picture those two taking the job otherwise). It turns out that the special script isn’t even all that hidden. It’s front and centre and delivered with impeccable timing and comic instincts from all three lead actors and underestimated frontman Zac Efron in particular. This is a strongly male-perspective film and, as such, it was marketed to attract the same high-profit demographic who made huge hits out of male-perspective films in the Apatow brand and its satellite sub-genres. That’s quite simply the wrong demo to send towards these coffee-swilling, over-thinking, hyper-verbal, soft-centered, peacoat-wearing boys and thus none of the people who would have really liked this film actually saw this film (and many of the people who did see it, didn’t like it). But I saw it and I loved it. That’s a little bit because I love Miles Teller and like Michael B. Jordan and adore when people like Zac Efron come charging out carrying a big sign that reads “take me seriously; I’ve got something to show you!”. It’s a lot because of Tom Gormican’s zippy, hilarious and clever script. Does it have anything to do with my unrelenting fondness for coffee-swilling, over-thinking, hyper-verbal, soft-centered, peacoat-wearing boys? No comment.
Though somewhat pretentious about the artistic value of blockbusters (and the film industry in general) and definitely unfair to theatre critics as a group (as personified by a stony Lindsay Duncan), Birdman is full of great points, inventive narrative ideas, and superb performances (Michael Keaton and the incomparable Edward Norton first among them). But most impressive is director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s mind-blowing work, filming almost the entire movie in what looks like one long take (though reason assures you it can’t possibly be). This is a film about a film actor (ex-Batman Keaton) becoming a stage actor (Norton’s turn as a classic board treader is dead on, calling popularity “the slutty cousin of prestige” and attempting to bait Duncan’s reviewer into the negative assessment he knows he’s too good to actually receive). Iñárritu marries the two warring mediums both in story and style, staging his film as though it were a play, set almost entirely in a theatre. If you extrapolate film realities into theatrical terms, a cut between scenes is like a blackout set change (though less frowned upon, obviously). The best theatre directors know how to avoid the dreaded blackout set change (which stops the action and annoys the audience by leaving them sitting in the dark with nothing to watch), blocking and lighting scenes cleverly so that they can flow easily into one another. Iñárritu plays with that concept here with his continuous takes, jumping through time by simply rounding a corner or opening a new door. Accompanied by Antonio Sanchez’s refreshing and evocative drumscore, Birdman is a feast of visual and auditory craftsmanship that, unlike many films set apart for their technical achievements (cough, Interstellar, cough), unleashes its noteworthy technique in service of a story worth telling and themes every bit as captivating as the camera work.