I really thought 2014 was going to be a bad year for movies. There were only a few projects I was excited about, and a very disappointing series of spring and summer releases seemed to solidify this initial belief as the year dragged on towards “Award Season”. But boy, did things ever turn around. The past few months have had some really fantastic films, and in my mind easily made up of the lackluster first half of the year. Here are a few of my favorite films from 2014:
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh
A sorely overlooked and under-appreciated pitch black comedy from John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), Calvary is a bleak, dark, and perhaps profound look at religion in today’s world. Brendan Gleeson gives an absolutely stellar performance as a priest in a small Irish village who must cope with the fact that a stranger has vowed to kill him at the end of the week. As always, McDonagh is a master of dark comedy, and delivers a very enjoyable, albeit bittersweet film.
9. Edge of Tomorrow | Doug Liman
By far the biggest surprise of the year for me, I never would have expected Edge of Tomorrow to end up on this list after I saw the commercial. But damn, was it good. This Groundhog Day-esque sci-fi film is a nearly-perfect summer blockbuster in my mind, and a perfect environment for leading man Tom Cruise to shine as a charismatic, manipulative member of the military, dragged into the role of unlikely hero. With the exception of a pretty mediocre ending, Edge of Tomorrow far exceeded my expectations for a summer sci-fi flick.
8. The Theory of Everything | James Marsh
More than just a biopic of one of the world’s greatest scientific minds, Theory of Everything is a tragic and incredible story of triumph and struggle. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deliver two of the most powerful performances of the year as Steven and Jane Hawking. The storytelling is compelling and extremely well-paced, and Redmayne’s role of Hawking offers a perfect outlet to show off his serious acting chops like never before. For my money, he is a serious contender for Best Actor this year.
7. Whiplash | Damien Chazelle
An intense and unsettling character study, Whiplash is a film about the cost of excellence. MilesTeller stars as a borderline obsessive jazz drummer striving to surpass his classmates and become the best who ever lived. The films biggest credit is the building conflict between Teller and his professor, played by J.K. Simmons, who abuses his students emotionally and verbally in an attempt to push them to become better musicians. The tension between the two actors is palpable, and their intensity carries the film.
6. Gone Girl | David Fincher
Yet another excellent dark and psychological film from David Fincher, Gone Girl really tries to do something different with the thriller genre. Despite a few missed beats throughout the film, Gone Girl is airtight, and packed with a few very satisfying twists throughout, including a pretty unconventional and unexpected ending that really made the film for me. Affleck is great as always, and proves yet again that he is fully capable of handling demanding leading roles.
5. The Imitation Game | Morten Tyldum
As someone who has a strong interest in programming, it’s unsurprising that I would have a soft spot for this film. However, this movie is so much more than a film for those interested in the material. The cracking of the German Enigma machine is a fascinating piece of history, but the film is really more of a look at the life of Alan Turing, the father of modern computing and the man put in charge of the project to crack Enigma. The film focuses heavily on the issue of the treatment of homosexuals during the World War II era, and Benedict Cumberbatch shows some serious acting chops in portraying a socially inept and emotionally conflicted Turing. I would not be surprised in the slightest if this film is awarded best picture this year, and would be entirely satisfied with that verdict.
4. Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller
Foxcatcher was one of the most talked-about films this year due to Steve Carrel’s transformative star turn as wrestling-lover and obscenely rich guy John Du Ponte, and after seeing the film there is clearly a reason for all the commotion. Carrel is incredible, disturbing and ominous; however it would be a disservice to the film to not also talk about Channing Tatum as Olympic gold medalist Mark Shultz, who gives an equally powerful and unexpected performance. Aside from the acting, Foxcatcher a very slow build to a very satisfying payoff, ratcheting up suspense as all the characters become more and more fragile and spiral towards the eventual climax of the film.
3. Wild | Jean-Marc Vallée
Yet another “based on true events” movie this year, Wild tells the story of a former heroin addict’s journey hiking the 2000+ mile Pacific Crest Trail alone. I was by no means enticed by this premise, and in addition am not a particularly big fan of Reese Witherspoon. That being said, this film was hugely impressive. Witherspoon absolutely nails it, and director Jean-Marc Vallee’s use of quick cutting and flashbacks are extremely effective at giving emotional weight to the movie as we slowly learn more about Sheryl Strayed’s past. I have now seen the film twice, and the second viewing only solidified this movie’s position on my top 10.
2. Nightcrawler | Dan Gilroy
Sinister and charismatic, Jake Gyllenhaal easily delivers the best performance of his career as a free-lance video-journalist in Nightcrawler. The film is methodical, slowly building tension and a profound sense of dread. Throughout the entire movie, it is impossible to shake the feeling that something could go horribly wrong at any moment. Nightcrawler is by far the most gripping film I have seen this year, and I was completely enthralled from start to finish.
1. Birdman | Alejandro González Iñárritu
Without a doubt, Birdman was my favorite film of the year. I have now seen it multiple times in theaters, and something I fully intend to see several more times. It’s extraordinarily well-acted and written, both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton shine, but it is the cinematography that cinched this as my number one choice, as there is a visual gimmick throughout the film that I was pretty taken with. The film is not just about the desire for fame or redemption, but taps into the most basic human need to find significance and recognition in life. Birdman is a little surreal, and more than a little funny, and while it might not be the film of the year for everyone, it is definitely a must-see.