What a wonderful year for the movies. I remember around the awards season, I was looking at the slate of Oscar contenders and thinking how weak a year it was. But the Top Ten below is the strongest from top to bottom of the decade thus far, and plenty of movies in the next fifteen below were this close to making the upper echelon. There are big movies on this list, but also some sleepers, so pick one that you haven’t seen, and seek it out at your local Netflix.
[Disclaimer: There’s inappropriate stuff in all of these movies if you look hard enough. Check the ratings.]
10. Blue Ruin
The thrillers we’re used to as a culture are high-budget affairs with stunts and impeccable choreography. But sometimes the real thrills are hidden in low-budget sleepers like Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, released last April before the onslaught of blockbuster season. It’s a bizarro action movie, featuring Macon Blair as a bumbling, would-be assassin trying to exact revenge for something the rest of his family’s already moved on from, but the nail-biting suspense (and don’t misunderstand me, this is a tense movie) is in his total ineptitude.
A bleakly fantastic vision of our future, starring a bleakly fantastic Chris Evans amidst bleakly fantastic art direction and effects on a train speeding on a track around the entire world. Bong Joon-Ho (behind the phenomenal The Host) knows from action, and the action in Snowpiercer is heart-stopping, but where Bong is really a pro is at expounding big themes in genre movies. Even if we’re not headed for a future confined to a locomotive, Bong finds truth about where we are headed in the human need for freedom.
Pawel Pawlikowski is best known for the coming-of-age film, My Summer of Love, starring a young Emily Blunt, and I suppose you could consider Ida a coming-of-age film for its protagonist. And Ida does encounter love on her first extended journey away from her convent to visit her parents’ graves, whom she only just learned were Jewish. But other than that, Ida is a singular achievement even , from its breathtaking black-and-white cinematography to the stunning lead performance from Agata Trzebuchowska to the themes of faith and pleasure bubbling under the movie’s quiet surface.
No other movie made me laugh more than Guardians, and few movies that crack me up this much are equally as adept at bringing me to tears (thanks a lot, Groot…). Director James Gunn doesn’t consider this a superhero movie, which is the key to all of these movies. As long as they conform to the beats of superhero movies, they’re going to get stale, whereas Guardians injected the genre with life because Gunn made a sci-fi adventure movie instead.
Boyhood is almost three hours long, and I think that was a lot to stomach for some people, considering nothing much really happens. Oh, you see twelve years of the life of one boy and his family, which sounds like it should be a lot. But director Richard Linklater and his cast understand that life is made up of all the nothing that happens, and they find the value in all the little moments that become memories.
I just watched this last week; if I had watched it any earlier, star Marion Cotillard may have challenged Scarlett Johansson for the Best Actress Bummy. This is the first movie I’ve seen by the Dardenne brothers, and I’m struck by how their style is like modern neo-realism, committed to putting the audience in the middle of the lives of these regular people struggling to make ends meet. But Cotillard is the center of the story as she tries to convince her coworkers to vote for her to keep her job while overcoming her debilitating depression.
Paul Thomas Anderson is the best filmmaker of his generation. I would have felt comfortable saying that after Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, but I’m most definitely confident in that statement after Inherent Vice. Anderson’s movies have always had funny moments, but Inherent Vice is his first comedy. It’s also an LA noir, full of so many twists and turns it becomes impossible to keep up with the plot, which would be a problem if the movie’s atmosphere weren’t so beautifully realized.
Most of the awards chatter around Whiplash was centered around J.K. Simmons’s brilliant supporting turn, and it was well-deserved. But the movie itself is an incredible achievement, a tightly constructed parable of what it takes to generate creative greatness. Writer-director Damien Chazelle found the ideal medium in jazz to express his displeasure with the culture’s current distaste for art, and he somehow crafted the best thriller of the year out of it.
This was the best blockbuster of the year, a Greek tragedy dressed up in a modern film franchise’s clothes. The characters, from Andy Serkis’s Caesar to the slimy villain Koba, are written with big ambition and clear intentions, making what could have been a silly movie about CGI apes into the most effective story in Hollywood movies of this year. Some might balk at a movie in which the human characters feel less important than the ape ones, but the ape characters are so well-drawn that it might be more appropriate for the rest of Hollywood to feel ashamed that they can’t create human stories this effective.
I don’t think the Academy is racist for not nominating Selma for more awards or for failing to honor director Ava DuVernay. No, it was the studio’s fault; they failed their movie by not marketing it well enough or throwing their full force behind campaigning for it. Where the Academy is to blame is in the system they’ve helped to create, where studios have to campaign for their movies to get them recognized. It’s an easy fix: make it a rule that anyone who campaigns for their film or their performance is disqualified from the race entirely. There won’t be any campaigning after the first film is disqualified. But because things are the way they are, a movie like Selma, which is actually a movie with a small budget that makes every effort to convey the truth of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy through this one small story of the march from Selma, doesn’t get recognized by the awards circuit and is still seen as awards bait by the average consumer. It’s a shame, because Selma was the best movie of the year, a serious, earnest film that nevertheless gets at the political and social nuances of its story, and yet it was largely underseen. You may have avoided Selma for political reasons, but here’s some advice about that: don’t. King’s importance to our nation’s culture is apolitical, and there’s much to learn from a movie as artful and honest as this one.
Another Fifteen (in alphabetical order)
I loved this underseen movie about a pop star’s embrace of newfound independence.
It’s not my Best Picture, but it was a deserved Oscar winner as an ambitious movie with a unique story to tell, and with perhaps the best cinematography of the year.
Since Guardians isn’t a superhero movie, this was the best superhero movie of the year, a Marvel movie with ‘70s spy movie aspirations.
An indie sci-fi great with a mind-bending plot.
Mainstream animation did just fine in 2014 with The Lego Movie and the second Dragon movie, but this little gem from France was just as memorable.
If you can get over subtitles, this drama about a family dealing with the fallout from the father’s less than heroic reaction to an avalanche on their skiing holiday is must-see stuff.
Probably the most accessible Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson ever made, featuring a great performance from Ralph Fiennes.
‘80s horror homages abound in this thriller starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as a visitor with more to him than he pretends.
Somehow, this movie being compared to The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t come off as hyperbole.
An ambitious science-fiction epic that didn’t receive nearly enough love for its emotional assertion that we as a human race will be okay.
The funniest movie of the year bar none (okay, bar Guardians of the Galaxy), a wild, surreal celebration of the joys of childhood.
This one’s personal; Roger Ebert is one of my heroes, and this Steve James documentary is a loving tribute to his full legacy, warts and all.
An affecting portrait of a gay couple forced to live apart that has the potential to coax empathy out of the staunchest protester of same-sex marriage.
A magical Celtic fable about a family stricken with tragedy but brought together slowly but surely by legends surrounding the sea near their house.
Chris Rock has made some bad movies, but Top Five is a wonderful rom-com, full of all the romance and laughs missing from Hollywood’s best recent efforts at the genre.
Past Top Tens
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The World’s End
Short Term 12
Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
The Tree of Life
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Secret in Their Eyes
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech