The Best Movies of 2014 Were Quite the Present

29 Dec
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight

The thing about movie trailers — great as they are — is that they get us focused on movies still to come, when what’s currently playing at the multiplex (maybe even on the screen right in front of you) is worthy of attention too. It’s kind of an ironic shame if you like this sort of thing.

That’s especially true now because in 2014, there was plenty to see. There was, for example, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill satirizing ridiculous sequels in 22 Jump Street. Chadwick Boseman bringing James Brown back to life in Get On Up. Matt Damon making a surprise cameo appearance in Interstellar. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen grappling over who feels more “Agony” in Into the Woods. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader lip-syncing to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” in The Skeleton Twins. And of course, Groot getting down to the Jackson 5 in Guardians of the Galaxy.

And then there were the movies themselves. If trailers are about future movies, the movies this year served as quite the present. (Sorry.)

So, before we turn to 2015, a year in which we’ll see Jurassic World, a new Star Wars, and even a dramatic version of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (a.k.a. Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk), among other things, allow me to look back on the films that made going to the movies so much fun this year.

Of the more than 60 movies I saw in 2014, these were my favorites.

Honorable Mention

First, 10 films that just missed the cut. Good movies all, listed alphabetically:

Photo credit: Focus Features

Photo credit: Focus Features

American Sniper

Bad Words

Big Hero 6

Birdman

Citizenfour

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Edge of Tomorrow

The Imitation Game

Love Is Strange

The Theory of Everything

My Favorite Movies of 2014

Without further ado, here is the list.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
No film brought me as much pleasure this year as Wes Anderson’s European caper did. With its intricate details and distinctive soundtrack (Anderson trademarks), plus droll performances by Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, and an overflowing cast of colorful supporting characters, nearly everything about Grand Budapest made me smile. From the ridiculous to the more ridiculous, Anderson kept piling on (layers of plot, design flourishes, etc.), turning the film into something truly sublime: Perhaps his finest film yet.

2. Life Itself
An ode to journalism and film, and a man who loved them both equally, Life Itself provided an unvarnished, inside look at the life of Roger Ebert, told through his own words and the words of those closest to him. Filled with archival clips and anecdote after anecdote, Life Itself showed a man who could be contentious and difficult, but also warm and devoted — with the balance shifting after he met his beloved wife, Chaz. This film made me laugh and cry, and miss Roger so much more than I already did. He would have loved it.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

3. The LEGO Movie
What could have been an advertisement barely disguised as a movie (hello, The Internship) instead turned out to be a wacky, brilliant, and oftentimes subversive comedy that went beyond just “we all fit in somewhere.” Way beyond. Gorgeous to look at, the film mimicked stop-motion animation and mocked the brand as much as it paid affectionate respect to it. It’s no pun to say The LEGO Movie was awesome, because it was.

4. Whiplash
This movie’s final 15 minutes all but sealed its place on this list, but there’s a reason that performance of “Caravan” is so intense: It’s because what’s led to it — a power struggle between a drumming prodigy (Miles Teller) and the abusive teacher/conductor (J.K. Simmons) who pushes him to be even better — is so electric. This conflict has fueled our fire to see these two go at it. Whiplash is brutal and exhausting, but also a complete thrill to watch and listen to, whether you’re a fan of jazz music or not.

5. Chef
This intimate look at the culinary world and the way that one chef rediscovers his passion when he quits his job and starts a food truck featured some impressive food photography (director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau made even a grilled cheese sandwich look delicious) and a fun take on how social media is transforming small business marketing. It also confirmed that after years of making films like Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau hadn’t lost his heart.

6. Boyhood
Some say not much happens in this movie, which takes place over the course of 12 years, but what writer/director Richard Linklater focuses on is the smaller moments that happen in a boy’s life that add up to a whole lot. Boyhood is a social experiment that could have gone wrong, but instead, thanks to an unaffected performance by Ellar Coltrane and Linklater’s ability to keep all the elements together, is a beautiful look at how we all mature.

7. Snowpiercer
Snowpiercer takes place in a dystopian vision of the future, where an attempt to end global warming has instead turned the world frozen, and the planet’s remaining human population circles the globe aboard a segmented speeding train. Tilda Swinton, in one of the year’s most gonzo comic performances, tries to stop Chris Evans from leading a charge from the back of the train to the front, and we marvel (no pun intended) at the class warfare that ensues.

8. Gone Girl
A very dark but very likable movie about two very, very unlikable characters, helmed by the king of darkness himself, David Fincher, Gone Girl is a look at modern love gone wrong, with the central mystery being just one of its many pleasures. You root for different characters at different times, and in the end, no one’s happy. Except you, the viewer.

Photo credit: Paramount

Photo credit: Paramount

9. Selma
A film about events that took place 50 years ago, that couldn’t be any more timely, or more urgent, today. Ava DuVernay’s powerful look at Martin Luther King’s attempt to coordinate a non-violent march for voters’ rights in Alabama zeroes in on just that event, letting three months represent the whole of King’s life (a la Lincoln). David Oyelowo, in an impressive performance, lets us see the man in full: His ability to lead and deliver a fiery speech, yes, but also his self-doubt and humor. Selma is a beautifully made film that makes the case for us all to push for change now.

10. Wild
I never expected to like this movie as much as I did. Following the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed’s life spirals out of control. So she decides to take a break and rediscover herself during a 1,100-mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. Yes, it’s a story oft-told, but in the hands of Reese Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Valée, Wild is an understated, moving (no pun intended) commentary on the value of solitude and the ability we all have to be our best selves when we least expect it.

My Least Favorite Movies of the Year

There were some really disappointing movies this year (ahem, Begin Again), but these five were the worst ones I saw. The less said about them the better, so I present the list to you in order — from worst on down — but without comment.

1. Transformers 4: Age of Extinction

2. Into the Storm

3. Jersey Boys

4. The Monuments Men

5. Horrible Bosses 2

And that’s it. Now we can look forward to 2015’s releases — and to many of these films being released on Blu-ray so we can enjoy them over and over for years to come.

What were YOUR favorite movies this year?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below, or on Twitter by tweeting this blog post.

And by the way … If you’re interested in the full list of every 2014 release I saw, here you go:

  1. That Awkward Moment
  2. The Monuments Men
  3. The LEGO Movie
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  5. Bad Words
  6. Muppets Most Wanted
  7. Noah
  8. Draft Day
  9. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  10. Chef
  11. Neighbors
  12. Million Dollar Arm
  13. Godzilla
  14. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  15. A Million Ways to Die in the West
  16. Edge of Tomorrow
  17. Obvious Child
  18. 22 Jump Street
  19. Jersey Boys
  20. Transformers 4: Age of Extinction
  21. Snowpiercer
  22. Begin Again
  23. Life Itself
  24. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  25. Boyhood
  26. Lucy
  27. Wish I Was Here
  28. Magic In The Moonlight
  29. Guardians of the Galaxy
  30. Get On Up
  31. Into the Storm
  32. Love is Strange
  33. This Is Where I Leave You
  34. Gone Girl
  35. Fury
  36. Birdman
  37. Dear White People
  38. St. Vincent
  39. Nightcrawler
  40. Interstellar
  41. Big Hero 6
  42. Theory of Everything
  43. Rosewater
  44. The Imitation Game
  45. Horrible Bosses 2
  46. Into the Woods
  47. Selma
  48. Whiplash
  49. Foxcatcher
  50. Wild
  51. Unbroken
  52. Skeleton Twins
  53. Big Eyes
  54. The Interview
  55. Citizenfour
  56. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
  57. Top Five
  58. American Sniper
  59. Inherent Vice
  60. A Most Violent Year
  61. Cake
  62. Two Days, One Night
  63. Still Alice
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8 Responses to “The Best Movies of 2014 Were Quite the Present”

  1. lorenmcdonald2014 December 29, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

    Great stuff Martin. Of your top 10, I only saw Grand Budapest, Whiplash and Boyhood. Of the 3 I’d probably put Boyhood 1, Whiplash 2 GBH 3. I definitely want to see Wild now. A lifelong dream of mine has been to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail … perhaps not the entire trail … but a good part of it.

    • Martin Lieberman December 29, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

      That’s quite a dream, Loren. I’m impressed! Keep me posted. 🙂 In the meantime, I’m glad you liked the blog post. Thanks so much for the comment.

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