In 2012, I gave my own Top 10 list on what I viewed were the best movies of the year. For some reason or another (probably laziness), I failed to do that for 2013 even though I did have a list. I’m now back in the opinionated saddle and have cooked up my 10 favorites from this past year. In 2014, I felt like audiences were treated to better-than-usual blockbuster studio fare. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was one of Marvel’s best and was later matched by Guardians of the Galaxy. X-Men was able to reinvigorate and course-correct its franchise in exciting ways with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has officially made the Apes films as my favorite running franchise. The Lego Movie was a joy from start to finish. These are all films I wish could put in my top 10, but there can be only 10 (or 11…). And if anyone is curious what my top 10 of 2013 was, it’s included at the bottom.
11. Citizenfour (Honorable Mention)
I’ve always been a big fan of thrillers that use the government as an overreaching big brother. It’s real-world scary. Things have never been as scary as they are here though in Laura Poitras’ brilliant documentary. A real-life thriller that follows former NSA analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden as he comes public with what he knows. The first portion of the film, where Snowden initially contacts Poitras, sends enough shivers down your spine to fill a typical studio movie. But watching how events play out inside Snowden’s hotel as news breaks and the world changes around him is a stunning non-fiction achievement. You are watching history as it’s being written in a first-hand way, and it’s both thrilling and frightening.
To describe Selma as timely would be an understatement. To describe it as the most humanizing portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be on-point. Hollywood biopics have certainly shifted within the last ten years. Instead of the all-encompassing life view of the early 2000’s on films like The Aviator, Ali, or Ray, filmmakers have focused their scopes to single events that defined their historical subjects. Much like how Lincoln used the passage of the 13th amendment to paint an intimate portrayal of America’s 16th President, Selma uses MLK’s march from its titular town of Selma to Montgomery in similar fashion. David Oyelowo is perfect as MLK. He plays him as a man being ripped apart by his duty to the cause and his doubts on whether they’ll ever see the fruits of their labor. It’s a powerful film that shows not only how hard those before us fought to get to where we now are, but accents how far we still have to go.
9. The Imitation Game
There have been countless World War II films made. It’s Hollywood’s favorite genre after all. The epic battles have been depicted countless times and Steven Spielberg certainly seems to have ploughed that ground as much as one can through Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific (all things I love, by the way). The Imitation Game though is the most important World War II story you’ve never heard. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a career-defining performance as Alan Turing, the scientist who built the machine that broke the Nazi code and allowed the Allies to win the war. Oh, and he also invented the modern computer in the process. The Imitation Game strikes a delicate balance between espionage thriller and biopic. It doesn’t give us Turing’s whole life, but just enough to see how he accomplished one of the world’s greatest achievements, and how society unjustly threw him to the wolves. This isn’t just a history lesson, as the film is thoroughly entertaining on its own merits while also depicting a story that should be essential viewing for anyone interested in the time period.
8. Inherent Vice
I’m still not sure what this movie was about. I know there was a Chinatown-like land grab conspiracy buried somewhere in there, some crooked cops, and lots of drugs. If you’re watching this movie trying to put the plot together, then you’re missing the point. On the surface it’s a hazy detective story, but really it’s a movie about a time, a place, and a feeling. This doesn’t just look like Los Angeles in 1970; it feels like it was made there. Almost as if someone had found a lost print from the era and pieced it together. The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll of the times are very much on full display with the specter of Charles Manson lurking deep beneath the surface. Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin are wonderfully fun as two shady lawmen that hate but can’t live without each other. This movie certainly isn’t for everybody, but if you can check any need for clarity or cohesiveness at the door, you’ll enjoy quite a ride. Groovy man.
7. Edge of Tomorrow
No, this is not the same movie as 2013’s Oblivion. Any list on 2014’s most underrated movies will surely include Edge of Tomorrow. Unfortunately poor marketing, a bland-ish title, and Crusie sci-fi/action fatigue hurt this film at the summer box-office. The reality though is that Edge of Tomorrow was the best blockbuster of the summer and one of the Tom Cruise’s best films. It takes its Groundhog Day scenario and juices every ounce of fun it can from it – and there’s plenty of fun to be had. The movie never gets dull or repetitive which says a lot for a film now being sold as “Live. Die. Repeat.” Cruise plays against his usual action hero-type as a P.R. guy who’s a bit too much of a coward for his own good. I don’t think Cruise ever gets enough credit for creating an environment where his co-stars can shine (Jamie Foxx in Collateral, Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai), but he lets Emily Blunt do a lot of the heavy lifting here and she steals the show. Her “Full Metal Bitch” is the bad-ass action heroine to conquer all bad-ass action heroines. I’ll be happy to force this movie on anybody who hasn’t seen it and let them thank me after. Watch. Enjoy. Repeat.
Interstellar is a movie that was hurt by its own hype more than anything else. Due to the monstrous (and deserved) success Christopher Nolan has had so far in his career, every movie he makes will be judged with a higher level of scrutiny. Nolan’s secretive way of working kind of sets himself up for this backlash, but I admire how hard he works to keep things in the bag for opening night. With Interstellar, unless he made a movie that was the true successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey (one the greatest films of all-time) it would have been seen as a failure. Nolan definitely reached for that here but instead of focusing on the movie he didn’t make, let’s focus on the one he did. Interstellar is gorgeously photographed. The space sequences are wondrous. McConaughey delivers a performance that’s as good, if not better, than his Oscar-winning work in Dallas Buyer’s Club (yeah, I said it). The bending of time and space opens the door for some of Nolan’s most head-trip-heavy filmmaking he’s ever done. The questions raised on how far humanity can go on the back of science or if we need something more (love…God…aliens…is it all the same thing?) to evolve to something greater is worth discussing. Nolan didn’t make the space movie to end all space movies, but he did make one of the best. I’d much rather see a filmmaker reach for greatness and get 85% of the way there than one who plays it good and safe, and there’s no better director to watch reach than Nolan.
This is the kind of blockbuster I want Hollywood to make. Every time. Set far in the future where a train perpetually circles the globe as the world freezes outside, it’s up to a group of tail-section revolutionaries to change the balance of power on board. Chris Evans is great as Captain America, but it’s movies like this (and Sunshine) that gives him a chance to show just how good he really is. Every section of the train that he leads his band of rebels through feels like it’s separate, fully realized world. The film is action-packed but doesn’t shy away from its heavy themes of class and segregation. With plenty of surprising cameos and shocking twists, Snowpiercer succeeds as a bloody, thrilling, and mind-bending experience that I immediately wanted to relive. It’s a shame that this kind of originality and creativity doesn’t get as rewarded as the normal studio fare. These are the kinds of movies we need, lest we fall into a dystopian world where every movie is part of a grand superhero franchise. I’d rather buy a ticket aboard the Snowpiercer.
I still can’t get that final drum solo out of my mind. It’s one of the most memorable sequences of any film this year. Miles Teller gives a breakthrough performance while J.K. Simmons capitalizes on years of solid character-actor work and creates one of the most memorable film characters of the year. How you feel about Whiplash may very much depend on your goals and ambitions in life. Some may see the lengths at which Simmons pushes for his drummer pupil to be the best as abusive (it is) and not worth it (it may not be). Being the type of person that I am, I found it to be an inspiring and exhilarating display of how we are not only pushed, but how we push ourselves for greatness. How much of ourselves are we willing to give to reach the mountaintop? If your answer is “everything” you’ll come out of it feeling more charged than you ever have. If your answer isn’t “everything”, then you’ll come out of it having seen a tightly directed, brilliantly edited, and magnificently acted story on how we choose to pursue our dreams.
I’ve read numerous times that Nightcrawler plays like a Network for the 21st century and it’s hard to find a more apt description than that. The film is about a lot of things, but at its core, it’s about how we sell our morals down the river in the name of success (or ratings, if you have Rene Russo’s job). Jake Gyllenhaal, who also serves as a producer on the film, completely embodies the character of Lou Bloom in every conceivable way. Most of what makes the film so entertaining is watching Gyllenhaal at work as this character who motormouths his way to success, aided by his own lack of a moral compass. He is a man consumed with being successful and shows us how disturbing and rewarding the dark path to that can be. How good Gyllenhaal is in this movie can’t be overstated. Also this is the best the city of Los Angeles has looked on screen since Drive. Nightcrawler is tense, scary, funny, scathing, and an excellent showcase for my favorite performance of the year.
2. Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Much like the #1 film on this list, Birdman is built around a concept or “gimmick”. The camera never cuts and the action plays out almost entirely in a single long take. Although this trick is aided quite a bit by skillful editing and visual effects, it is a marvel to behold. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has established himself as the go-to cameraman for long takes and it’s hard to see how he tops himself after this (especially with films like Children of Men and Gravity on his filmography). What’s great about Birdman is the technical achievement never overshadows the fantastic work by its cast. Edward Norton is the best he’s been since the days of American History X, Fight Club, and The 25th Hour. The real star of the show of course is Michael Keaton as a man being torn apart by both external and internal creative forces. Casting Keaton as an ex-movie star trying to rid himself of the super-hero shadow he’s been stuck with was a brilliant choice. While the film boasts one of the most impressive ensembles we’ve seen, it’s Keaton who makes it all tick and he deserves every accolade the industry can give him.
Its working title was “The 12 Year Project” and it’s that kind of ambition that makes Boyhood a monumental achievement. What makes it a great film, and my favorite of the year, is not what its detractors have dubbed a “gimmick” (same can be said about Birdman). By sheer scope alone it deserves to be considered as a definitive coming-of-age tale, but Richard Linklater’s honest screenplay and intimate directing achieves a level of authenticity that few films ever aspire to. Our main character is more or less a shell for the audience that does little more than experience the world around him and reacts to life’s events. Mason’s experience growing up is able to reflect everyone’s experience in one way or another because of this. His life isn’t filled with plot or manufactured drama but with the little things (bad hair-cuts in grade school) and the pains of seeing time slip away. This film feels like the culmination of everything Linklater has done since his debut with Slacker to Dazed and Confused to the Before series and ends up being the gold standard to which all other coming-of-age tales will be judged against. An added bonus is how it also serves as a time capsule for life in America during the 2000’s. For many of us this movie defines the American experience, it defines growing up, and it ends up being Linklater’s masterpiece.
Top 10 of 2013
2. 12 Years A Slave
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Captain Phillips
6. Upstream Color
9. The Spectacular Now
10. Blue Jasmine