The year in film paled in comparison to the tremendous variety of releases from the previous year. Despite a dearth of winning, huge studio releases, there were plenty of notable titles that premiered on the festival circuit and a strong field of indies and foreign-language films.
Before we begin, please understand that each critic’s year-end Best list is a reflection on the types of films that are their strongest preferences. For example, if you are more of a foreign-language aficionado, than your choices will clearly tilt in that direction.
Secondly, best is clearly subjective and no two people will agree on a list of ten film across the board and there is nothing wrong or right about that claim. Each critic judges films on their own personal merits and while we may not agree with their choices, we respect their choices.
Our criteria for creating this list was to focus on films with strong screenplays featuring storytelling that is well executed, leaving distractions to a minimum. Other factors include creative cinematography, a score that successfully moves the story along and the strong vision of a director, who is able to tie all of these elements together in entertaining fashion.
After watching close to 275 movies, it was difficult to whittle this list down to just ten. Of course, there were films that deserved a slot but came up short, including Still Life, Ida, Top Five, The Raid 2: Berendal, Wild Tales, Citizenfour, The Overnighters, Force Majuere, Wild, The Imitation Game, Big Hero 6, Book of Life and many, many others.
Our list are the films that moved us, either positively or negatively, and made us feel . . . something. That in itself, is quite the achievement. Here is the list of the Ten Top Movies of 2014, in reverse order.
Writer/director Jon Favreau pulled off quite the feat – he managed to create a film that surprised us. We knew that he was a solid actor and could direct his share of both light comedies (Elf), action films (Cowboys & Aliens) as well as major studio releases (Iron Man, Iron Man 2). But what we didn’t know is what would happen if he made a movie near and dear to heart, a personal, passion project that he could pour his soul into. What then? The answer is arguably the best film from last summer, the crowd favorite, Chef. Favreau sparkles as a once-successful chef whose creativity is stifled by his managing partner and after getting his soul and confidence crushed by a food critic sets out on an odyssey to rediscover his passion and reconnect with his son. More aptly described as “food porn,” the film is a breezy, wonderful adventure that never feels false or phoney and shows that properly unleashed, Favreau is a superbly talented artist.
Our favorite film from the Sundance Film Festival is a tribute and celebration of the life of former Pulitzer Prize winning critic Roger Ebert. Based on his memoir of the same name, documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams) crafts a funny, poignant and emotional story that parallels his extraordinary life while focusing on his final days. The film looks at many of the contradictions of his life including his drinking, the battles that sharpened him as critic opposite his partner, Gene Siskel and the relationship that save his life with his beloved Chaz. We predicted after the Sundance screening that it was a certain Oscar nominee and could win, almost a year later, there are many others who have come around to the same opinion. A tremendous achievement for James, whose film Ebert championed at Sundance 20 years ago. While life itself would be better with Ebert’s presence with us, this film is a wonderful testament to a man who lived life to the fullest and on his own terms.
From the opening lines uttered by Oscar-winning director/screenwriter/actor Ben Affleck to his deceased wife, played by Rosamund Pike, “What have we done to each other? What will we do?” This look at one of the most dysfunctional relationships in modern movie history takes the audience on a long, strange, trippy adventure with enough twists and turns for even the best rollercoaster. It’s not just those turns that make this winning story hum but director David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network, Zodiac) who is superbly adept at telling stories brimming with suspense and mystery. He also gets career performances from Pike and believe it or not Tyler Perry, who for the first time in his life as an actor finally delivered a performance that had critics singing his praises instead of the customary scorn. Affleck is perfectly cast as an overwhelmed husband who gets much more than he bargained for when his marriage goes sour. While the film has been eclipsed by more recent releases and almost forgotten, the utter sadness, hopelessness and resignation in Fincher’s story is so hard to forget.
One of the true unsung movies of the year was this rumination of faith, cynicism and vengeance in John Michael McDonagh’s gem. Brendan Gleeson is sensational as an honest and good-hearted priest who wrestles with his mortality and faith after he receives a death threat from an unknown parishioner and has limited time to get his affairs in order. In a year where there are so many films getting awards recognition, this film really belongs in that group but sadly wasn’t widely distributed as it’s big studio brethren. Gleeson, who has received recognition for his performances in previous films such as In Bruges and The Guard, adds yet another powerful portrayal to his impressive film canon. He anchors this small story and is figuratively the heart and engine that drives this story. His performance and McConagh’s direction and storytelling elevate this from a small contender to the fringe of awards contention, simply an amazing achievement.
Steely intensity has long been a hallmark for Jake Gyllenhaal. From Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, End of Watch and earlier this year with Enemy, Gyllenhaal routinely throws himself into each and every character he plays. But even the most staunch Gyllenhaal supporters were unprepared for his amazing transformation as Lou Bloom, a thief who starts shooting footage of accidents and crimes in Los Angeles and sells it to news channels in this engrossing story. As the film evolves, you can almost see him sinking deeper into the story as he figures out how to maximize his chameleon-like skills to this new, yet unfamiliar world. The film features solid supporting performances by Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed. We felt like we needed a shower to wash away the foul stench emitted off by Bloom in a film that will make your skin “crawl” – night or day!
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Back in 2011, a young director J.C. Chandor burst on the scene with debut film, Margin Call earning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. His follow up, All is Lost garnered critical acclaim for its star Robert Redford and received a Sound Editing Oscar nomination, as well. So you could imagine that the announcement of this film generated considerable buzz. Thankfully, Chandor does not disappoint with this story of a heating oil company under attack during the explosive year of 1981. Looking like a young Michael Corleone, Oscar Issac is solid as the cool, honorable protagonist, who’s trying to hold his company – and family- together under extreme uncertainly. The best performance in the film is given by Jessica Chastain, who plays the hot-headed-mobster’s daughter who demands that her husband assert his authority and protection for their family. Also providing opposition for Issac’s character is David Oyelowo as a dogged district attorney. Not as explosive as we thought but it is hard to argue with the end results.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Another film anchored by an extraordinary performance is turned by Eddie Redmayne in this biopic romantic drama. Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the film is a wonderful look at the life of one of the world’s most gifted minds. Wilde Hawking, the literature student he fell in love with while studying at Cambridge in the 1960s, is loving played by Felicity Jones. Directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh (Man On A Wire), his is a great love story spotlighting a man who refuses to be limited by his circumstances. Successfully balancing the film’s heavier moments with offbeat humor, Marsh’s story is a tender portrait humanizing one of the great minds of the 20th Century. The Academy loves physical performances of characters dealing with disabilities and Redmayne not only conquers those challenges but the emotional ones as well.
After successful turns with her first two independent productions, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, writer/director Ava DuVernay takes a huge step and delivers one of the year’s best films with this civil-rights drama detailing the campaign to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Centered around a transformative performance by British actor David Oyelowo, the film is a love letter to the many silent, unknown people who courageously stood up for freedom and justice despite the considerable tensions of the time. Oyelowo is brilliant as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., channeling his spirit much in the way Denzel Washington did in Malcolm X two decades earlier. A huge part of the storytelling that works so successfully is the look of the period courtesy of noted cinematographer, Bradford Young. DuVernay deserves credit for presenting Dr. King not as the pacifist that the media portrays him but as a strategist and a revolutionary. A tremendous cinematic achievement, despite the undercurrents of tensions from those arguing over the historical accuracy of the story!!!
Writer/director Richard Linklater is visionary auteur. His Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have established that he is willing to operate out of the box as a filmmaker. His concept for Boyhood proved that not only does he have the vision to create a masterwork but the ability to execute it brilliantly. In the event that you’ve lived under a rock, Linklater filmed his latest story bringing together a group of actors for two weeks a year for 12 years to tell the coming-of-age story of a young boy from the age of 7 to 19 years old raised by his single mother (Patricia Arquette) with great life lessons from his father (Hawke). Much more than just a visually-pleasing concept, Linklater’s story immerses us in young Ellar Coltrane’s youth and makes us long to see more of his story. One final note, watching Coltrane age a dozen years over the course of two hours is a cinematic achievement the likes that no one has ever attempted before and it is uncannily brilliant.
BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
On the surface, the film tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton), famous for portraying an iconic superhero, as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself. Instead of a story that was clichéd and contrived, in the hands of writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, he spools gold with this black comedy. The film is a visual triumph led by one of the year’s strongest casts, including Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts. Keaton inhabits this character in a way so succinctly because of his own history as Batman in the early 90s. Shot, or brilliantly edited, as one continuous take by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and featuring a seductive score by Antonio Sánchez, Birdman is full of intriguing sights and sounds that Iñárritu seamlessly blends into satisfying narrative and the year’s best film!