I don't believe there's such a thing as a bad year for movies. As easy as it is to be cynical with the modern movie landscape I feel each year does bring us films of originality, wonder and genuine vision. For me, every year is defined by the movies that were released. It's hard for me not to associate a given year with certain films. And it's a treat to look back at what films made up my year watching movies.
This list of my favourite films of 2014 is coming a little later than I planned and there are still several films from the past year I haven't seen; as well as films I did see but haven't revisited. But here are the films of 2014 that I either loved, deeply affected by, or just really enjoyed and admired. I don't use the word "best" because I don't know what I would objectively call the best. While I would certainly name several of these films as the best, this list is to be taken merely and
humbly as my own preferences. As always, I'll start with my number one favourite film and then proceed alphabetically.
SPOILERS FOR CERTAIN FILMS AHEAD
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I saw Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel about this time last year and no other film from 2014 has taken its place. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film I'll still be watching in 20 years, a film that already feels like a classic. It sort of falls in to the category of film Quentin Tarantino called "hangout movies," a movie you watch just to spend time with the characters. Even though the film has a fast pace (in many ways its a screwball comedy), it does give us enough slower scenes and moments that allow to fall in love with the characters.
The film's main storyline focuses on the adventures of a hotel concierge- M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)- and his new lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revlori)- which revolve around a stolen painting and a vast family fortune. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of 1930s Europe. But the plot mechanics don't really matter. Anderson is more interested in the idea of storytelling and the way in which stories are passed down through the generations.
The theme of "passing down of stories" is reflected in he the film's layered structure. We begin with a young girl reading a book by an unnamed writer (Tom Wilkinson). The book is a recount of a trip he made to the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. During this time he met the older Zero (F.Murray Abraham), who now owns the hotel and who tells the young writer (Jude Law) about his relationship and adventure with M. Gustave.
I view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a film largely about nostalgia. Zero believes Gustave epitomized and represented a world which was a already a thing of the past. And the heart of the film is Zero looking back at the pivotal era of his life. I have a particular fondness for films about someone looking back at their past. I find something poignant about the concept; and when we learn why Zero never shut down the hotel, it encapsulates how even the briefest amount of time being happy defines the rest of our lives.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman is an example of how drastically a film's reputation can change in less than a year. After receiving rave reviews from critics it eventually became the film to hate. And when it won Best Picture at the Oscars in February its victory was compared to another acclaimed but then reviled film which won Best Picture, Paul Haggis' 2005 Crash. I understand why many dislike this film. It's self-conscious and it's script is largely unsubtle, it may not have as much depth as it purports to be- and it's "one take" conceit is seen as just a cheap gimmick.
But for me, Birdman was one of the most enjoyable film experiences I had last year. While I have wondered whether it's mostly a surface level film I can't help but admire it as a high wire act of directing and acting. Being comprised of numerous long takes- instead of merely being a gimmick- feels organic to the narrative largely taking place backstage at a theatre. Here, former movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is attempting a comeback by directing, writing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The continuously moving camera puts us backstage and part of this hectic environment, where arrogance and pent-up aggression abound.
Moreover, the long takes result in the film taking on play-like elements- with actors having to hit their marks and not mess up their lines- while still feeling cinematic. The meta-ness of the film is accentuated by Michael Keaton- known for his performances as Batman- in the role of an actor famous for playing a superhero. While it's reductive to say Riggan is a reflection of Keaton I do feel Keaton's performance is a personal exploration of how fame and an iconic role can become like an albatross- as well as the difficulty of shedding that past existence and being born anew as an artist.
While admittedly I don't have the same amount of passion for Boyhood as other critics but I can't deny the authenticity and beauty of director Richard Linklater's 12 years in the making vision of one boy- Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from 6 to 18. With this film and the Before Trilogy, Linklater confirms his place as the utmost chronicler of life as it unfolds (white middle class life- but still). While the broad strokes of the story aren't particularly original, it's the small details- the interactions between characters and the non-showy way in which Linklater portrays the passage of time- that make up Boyhood's artistry.
I see the film as asking after whom Mason will model himself since his step fathers weren't exactly ideal role models. Even his biological father, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke)- a decent guy at heart- has his own flaws. Even at the end, Mason is still forming his identity. But maybe all he needs to do let the moment seize him.
I enjoyed John Michael McDonagh's The Guard but I feel his more profound work is his follow-up, Calvary. In the film Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in The Guard) plays an Irish priest named Father James. While listening to a confession the parishioner tells James he plans to kill him in a week. The parishioner was sexually abused as a child and since the priest who committed the crime is dead, the parishioner chooses to murder James instead; this is largely because James is a good man and a good priest. The parishioner was an innocent child so an innocent man but be punished in return.
The film then follows James as he interacts with other parishioners as well as repairing his relationship with his estranged daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The takes on a somewhat episodic structure, creating a lived in world that is both humorous but also incredibly dark. McDonagh's script and director create an cohesive balance between the humour and drama, the warmth and the bleakness of the story. McDonagh also has the benefit of Gleeson in the lead role, who's the anchor of the story; his understated performance grounds the film in an emotional reality.
We don't know who the would-be murderer is until the end but the film isn't really about this mystery. Calvary is- at it's core- a film that asks how you would face your own imminent death, especially when you're being punished for someone else's crime. The film's climax on a beach, stunningly photographed by cinematographer Larry Smith, stands as one of my favourite denouements of any film from last year.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and last year's sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are prime examples of how franchise films based on pre-existing and previously adapted material can be just as vital and artistic as original blockbusters. If Rise was a reimagining of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes then Dawn is this new series version of 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes. 15 years after the simian flu has killed off most of humanity, the ape leader
Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) attempt to make peace between apes and humans- whom Caesar still distrusts from his time in captivity. But Caesar's general Koba (Toby Kebbel) wants war between the two species.
Dawn explores how even a great leader cannot control the path of his people. Via motion-capture, Serkis further cements his legacy as an actor. His performance as Caesar in these two films is an even deeper and more impressive feat than his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.
Director Matt Reeves- taking over the reigns from Rupert Wyatt- crafts some amazing set pieces while also allowing the film to breathe, telling a thoughtful and ultimately tragic story about coming close to peace and it being torn apart. "I thought we had a chance" says Malcolm at the film's conclusion. "I did too," responds Caesar. Rarely does a blockbuster laments violence in such a devastating fashion.
David Fincher is maybe the most precise of contemporary American film directors, which is why he's perfect for films based around investigation and painstaking details. And it's his often deeply cynical view of human nature which makes him unafraid to confront the themes of Gillian Flynn's adaptation of her best-selling novel.
While some will dismiss the film as merely an adaptation of an "airport novel," Gone Girl isn't just an entertaining amd involving mystery about whether Nick Dunne murdered his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The film is largely a funny and uncomforting satire about the America media and how it can reinforce paranoia and distrust. Fincher also explores the nature of identity in relation to being in a marriage- the "cool girl" persona Amy creates to win over Nick and- after it's revealed Amy staged her own disappearance out of revenge- the persona Nick takes on to win her back. "The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like," Amy tells him after her reappearance.
Fincher takes Affleck's limitations as an actor and coasts out Affleck his best performance yet. Affleck plays Nick neither too sympathetically or wholly unlikable. He's not a clear-cut protagonist but rather a flawed and potentially violent human being. Nick has to win people over and Affleck- as much as any actor in Hollywood- knows how easy it is for people to turn against you. When Nick says "They hated me, and now they love," it sounds like Affleck summing up the arc of his career."
I've never subscribed to the theory that Christopher Nolan is an unemotional filmmaker but I do feel Interstellar- while very divisive- is arguably his most purely emotional film to date. Nolan takes what was mostly symbolic in Inception- Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) children- and makes it more tangible via Cooper's (Matthew McConaughey) relationship to his daughter (Mackenzie Foy). Akin to Inception, Interstellar is about the protagonist's desire to return home. Due to the Earth dying, Cooper has to leave in order to find a planet for humanity to inhabit.
The idea of having to leave your home, not knowing when you can come back, is universal and it's at the heart of Interstellar grand vistas and huge big ideas. Nolan- with his Batman trilogy and Inception- has always attempted to make films that are in the spirit of large-scale epics of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick. I always admire Nolan's use of practical effects instead of over-reliance on CGI. It's what gives his films a sense of reality and texture we don't always get with many modern blockbusters. But's what most surprising about the film is how intimate the film's climax is, intercutting between father and daughter- and eventually tying the themes of the emotions together in a sequence that people either scoff at or embrace. I think it's a wonderful set piece. And while not make complete sense on a pure logic level, but I think dramatically and emotionally it achieves its goals.
The film also asks the question of whether true altruism can exist or whether Cooper's journey is based more on saving his daughter's future rather than everyone else's future. It's eventually revealed that instead of Plan A- which will bring humans from Earth to the new planet- Plan B- embryos being used to restart the human race- is the ultimate game plan. The question of altruism then extends to the people who helped build Cooper's ship. If they knew they would be left behind, would they have helped? The question is a challenging one. The fact Nolan doesn't give us a reassuring answer makes Interstellar the most morally dark blockbuster in years.
The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie is one of the funniest, joyful and inventive comedies I've seen in quite some time. What struck people as merely a toy commercial before it was released, another unoriginal cash grab, turned out be a testament to creativity, originality and individuality. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have created careers out of taking material that sounds on the surface like Hollywood cynicism (a remake of 21 Jump Street? a movie based on Lego?) and subverting our expectations Even when it goes down conventional routes in its storytelling The Lego Movie always manages to surprise and entertain.
David Michod's follow up to his 2010 film Animal Kingdom is a bleak but empathetic story set in the Australia outback a decade after the world suffered a global economic collapse. Michod isn't concerned with explaining every detail of what lead to the state of the world. He instead focuses in on Eric (the always underrated Guy Pearce), a drifter whose car is stolen by a gang of thieves after a robbery. Henry (Scoot McNairy) leaves behind his injured brother Rey (Robert Pattinson), whom Eric uses to find Henry and the car.
Michod's creates one of the most realistic visions of a dystopia I've seen in a film. And it suits the subtlety of the narrative as the characters wander through the remains of the old world. This is a film many will call boring. But for me, I found Michod's filmmaking, his sense of composition and deliberate pacing, very absorbing. This is a film which places you firmly in its world, lets you breathe it in and understand what life is it like in the remnants of the world.
We only get hints of Eric's backstory- including the final reveal- but Pearce's face and his demeanor create a lived in performance. Pearce is always reliable but the biggest surprise is Pattinson's performance. He's as far away from Edward and Twilight as he's ever been. With a thick and drawly southern accent Pattinson's performance is a fascinating display of an actor forging a new identity for himself on screen.
I admire how Michod develops Eric and Rey's relationship throughout the film. They never become buddy-buddies but they do reach an unspoken peace and understanding. And with the film being so restrained, the emotions in the climax feel like some kind of catharsis.
Darren Aronofsky's adaptation of the story of Noah's arc got lost in the shuffle of 2014 but I think it's the most visionary blockbuster to come out this year (even more so than Interstellar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). Instead of making a sanitized version of this tale, Aronofsky creates a dark fantasy that's full of grit and moral ambiguity as Russell Crowe''s Noah leaves people to their deaths and almost kills a baby as to prevent further reproduction (he wants humanity to end with his family). Many purists will take issue with Aronofsky's vision. Personally I feel Aronofsky brings us the non-religious audience much closer to the character of Noah and this story than ever before
I don't think there's any horror movie villain which has frightened me in the same way Terence Fletcher has. Watching Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, J.K. Simmons' Oscar-winning performance as a tyrannical and merciless music teacher felt like it was pulled out from my subconscious and put on screen. I'm an easily intimidated person and Fletcher represents the kind of man who would absolutely petrify me in real life. Fletcher is a man whom- no matter how much I hated him- I would still strive to please.
But Fletcher isn't the main character of the film. That's Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) an ambitious young drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York who'll do anything to become the next jazz great. Fletcher pushes his students beyond what's acceptable. Whiplash asks troubling questions about the line between passion and obsession, between stern- and occasionally unorthodox- teaching and straight up mental abuse. How can true greatness be unlocked and how far would push yourself to achieve true mastery- and possibly legendary stasis.
Fletcher believes there's no more harmful phrase than "Good job." We can understand where Fletcher is coming from- how coddling isn't always healthy; but it's also important to acknowledge Fletcher goes too far in the opposite direction, treating his students with cruelty and disrespect. Simmons is amazing but Teller's performance is also crucial to the film. Teller finds a way to make Andrew both sympathetic but also capable of his own coldness and cruelty, even breaking up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he views her as someone who will get in the way of his ascension to greatness. And Teller's drum playing makes you feel Andrew's "blood, sweat and tears."
The psychological warfare between Andrew and Fletcher culminates in a stunning final sequence which may be the best ending to any film from 2014. .It'd be one thing if the film was just a vehicle for great performances but Chazelle's direction and Tom Cross Oscar- winning' editing are stellar, making the film its own kind musical performance. The aforementioned final sequence isn't just the culmination of Andrew and Fletcher's relationship, but it also represents Chazelle reaching transcendence as a filmmaker.
The Davies Awards
Favourite Actors (Female)
Emily Browning- God Help The Girl
Emily Blunt- Edge of Tomorrow
Jessica Chastain- The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Marion Cotiillard- The Immigrant
Karen Gillan- Oculus
Keira Knightley- Begin Again
Felicity Jones- The Theory of Everything
Rosamund Pike- Gone Girl
Aubrey Plaza- About Alex
Zoe Kazan- The F Word
Favourite Actors (Male)
Jake Gyllenhaal- Nightcrawler
Ben Affleck- Gone Girl
Tom Cruise- Edge of Tomorrow
Chris Evans- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Ralph Fiennes- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton- Birdman
James MacAvoy- X-Men: Days of Future Past
Matthew McConaughey- Interstellar
David Oyelowo- Selma
Eddie Redmayne- The Theory of Everything
Andy Serkis- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dan Stevens- The Guest
Channing Tatum- Foxcatcher
Miles Teller- Whiplash
Favourite Supporting Actors (Female)
Katherine Waterston- Inherent Vice
Patricia Arquette- Boyhood
Melissa Benoist- Whiplash
Jessica Chastain- Interstellar
Carrie Coon- Gone Girl
Kim Dickens- Gone Girl
Scarlett Johansson- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jane Levy- About Alex
Jena Malone- Inherent Vice
Hannah Murray- God Help The Girl
Saorise Ronan- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Favourite Supporting Actors (Male)
J.K. Simmons- Whiplash
Dave Batista- Guardians of the Galaxy
Josh Brolin- Inherent Vice
Bradley Cooper- Guardians of the Galaxy
Bryan Cranston- Godzilla
Ethan Hawke- Boyhood
Edward Norton- Birdman
Robert Pattinson- The Rover
Tyler Perry- Gone Girl
Mark Ruffalo- Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Paul Thomas Anderson- Inherent Vice
Darren Aronofsky- Noah
Damian Chazelle- Whiplash
Scott Derrickson- Deliver Us From Evil
Gareth Evans- The Raid 2
David Fincher- Gone Girl
James Grey- The Immigrant
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu- Birdman
Richard Linklater- Boyhood
John Michael McDonagh- Calvary
David Michod- The Rover
Christopher Nolan- Interstellar
Phil Lord, Christopher Miller- The Lego Movie
Matt Reeves- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
David Leitch, Chad Stahelski- John Wick
Wes Anderson- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Damien Chazelle- Whiplash
Gillian Flynn- Gone Girl
Phil Lord, Chris Miller- The Lego Movie
Favourite Action Sequences-
Hammer Girl train fight- The Raid 2
Car chase- The Raid 2
Final fight- The Raid 2
Boat sequence- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Highway sequence- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Quicksilver set-piece- X-Men: Days of Future Past
Boarding the arc- Noah
Shootout in John Wick's house- John Wick
Red Circle shootout- John Wick
Jeff Cronenweth- Gone Girl
Hoyte van Hoytema- Interstellar
Darius Khondji- The Immigrant
Matthew Libatique- Noah
Emmanuel Lubeski- Birdman
Sharone Meir- Whiplash
Jonathan Sela- John Wick
Larry Smith- Calvary
Robert Yeoman- The Grand Budapest Hotel