I usually like to try and find some theme that applies to the best and worst movies of the year. It’s always an interesting challenge, and meant more as a focusing tool than as some rule that the movies released in a given year magically adhere to. Framing is helpful when discussing fundamentally subjective things, in other words.

If the worst movies of 2014 shared a common theme, it was probably a lack of effort. If the best movies of 2014 share a common theme, it’s the presence and ultimate validation of effort. This is a year when the very best movies were fun, compelling, cathartic, and ultimately entertaining because the people who made them gave a shit enough to really go for it.

Disney is becoming a titan in entertainment all over again, showing up on my Top 15 lists more and more every year, perhaps owing most of that to giving a shit. 2014 has also been a year full of great genre films, especially in science fiction. For every bad movie trying to cash in on the pervasive nature of genre in contemporary entertainment, there have been two or three examples where cashing in felt like a distant priority and the drive to tell good stories took precedence.

You might also note the number of sequels on this list. I think it’s about time we did away with the time-honored but recently less accurate notion that sequels are usually either just bad, or at best worse than the “first one”. I think those days are over, as the penchant toward franchising fictional sandboxes has led, in many cases, to high quality works. For every Transformers 4 or The Hobbit 3, there are two or three amazingly strong sequels.

I didn’t do as many reviews this year, but I saw just as many movies as ever. Hopefully in 2015, I’ll have more time and more focus and be able to write way too many words about way too many movies. Please check out last year‘s list if you’re curious, and enjoy this year’s!

The usual disclaimer:

I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one move more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of your preferences, it’s about trying to objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock.

15. Nightcrawler

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No Review

Nightcrawler is not fucking around. It’s as bitter and on-point a social satire as we could want targeted at the toxic relationship between society and the media. The sociopathic, opportunistic, and self-aggrandizing nature of that media’s worst tendencies are fully exploited by the leech-like, yet ultimately charismatic Lou Bloom. Here is a mirror held up at us, to reflect darkly what we value and seek out and how reprehensible that is when fully flowered. Bloom is fully the product of his environment, a Gordon Gecko or Patrick Bateman for the Deepak Chopra/Dragon’s Den era.

14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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My Review

Marvel and Disney have really stepped it up in 2014, and with Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Each of the Phase 2 movies has been an order of magnitude better than the somewhat less assured entries of Phase 1. I loved those movies, too, but none of them made it onto any of my Year End lists. It was only with the explosive fun and deft attention to humor, character, and pathos that catapulted The Avengers to be the first. Now, with the likes of Winter Soldier, it’s going to be hard to keep Marvel movies off year-end lists. The Winter Soldier is not only one of the best superhero movies ever, it is also a canny and topical techno-political thriller with amazing action and a brave sense of dissent with the state of things in our increasingly fear-mongering and defense obsessed world.

13. Only Lovers Left Alive

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No Review

Just when you think the vampire movie is genre non grata for serious, or at least interesting filmmakers, along comes Jim Jarmusch with his best film in years. Only Lovers Left Alive is scary, sexy, creepy, and intoxicating. It’s like a big, lazy, and majestic great cat whose every twitch of whisker or tail is a subject of endless fascination. With no real plot and very few characters, this movie’s strength is in the intimate yet esoteric nature of its core characterizations. Both Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are center focus, playing figures that are tragically familiar and yet completely unknowable. For the lover of great, bizarre performances, there is probably not a better movie in 2014 than Only Lovers Left Alive.

12. How to Train Your Dragon 2

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My Review

Dreamworks proved it could capture lightning in a bottle with How to Train Your Dragon and show how to do it twice with the sequel. Dragon 2 is not just a worthy follow-up, but a fully realized new chapter. Less concerned with simply repeating the themes of the first one, Dragon 2 turns them over and takes them on from new angles, allowing those themes to grow and develop along with the characters themselves. In some cases, those themes are even challenged. Hiccup cannot just be the special someone whose talent and point of view shape the world, which is the entitlement narrative we have told our children for a generation or more. Hiccup must learn about self-sacrifice and responsibility, about being shaped by the demands of the world. That makes Dragon 2 a kids movie that shows how you become an adult. More than the first one, it’s a great coming of age story with strong messaging and the same glorious attention to detail, world-building, cinematic highs, and strong emotional catharsis that defined the first one.

11. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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My Review

As good as Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, I don’t know if anyone expected Dawn to be an order of magnitude better. It’s down to confidence, better handling of the human characters, and the strength of the storytelling around Caesar, due in no small part to Andy Serkis’s incredible performance. You can think of the Apes movies as a stalwart bastion against the expectation for every reboot or remake to turn into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The secret ingredient is giving a shit, which translates into effort and begets a great story that respects the audience. Dawn is also responsible for probably the most compelling and authentic story of a non-human person that there is, the kind of story that tells us as much about who we are and how we deal with each other as it raises the specter of what we’ll do when we encounter the Other. Will we have learned anything from the past, from the scenarios and thought experiments of fiction? Dawn argues, sorrowfully but powerfully, that we will not. Bleak, yes, but you can’t say the package for the message isn’t eminently entertaining. In this way, it’s much like Snowpiercer,  2014’s other super entertaining, super bleak post-apocalyptic fable.

10. Boyhood

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No Review

Boyhood is, technically, a unique project. No other movie fictionalizes the coming of age of the American boy to the thorough, authentic, and achingly beautiful extent that Boyhood manages. All that and it also manages to be a great story about motherhood, an element of it that Patricia Arquette completely embodies. I defy anyone to watch this movie and not be moved, not see something of themselves or their loved ones in the gestalt of Boyhood. I say this knowing that Boyhood centers on a young white male, the most privileged and default point of view in our society. I think the movie grounds itself in the basic humanity of its subject and undermines an inextricable chauvinism by being as much about the mother, a quietly feminist character, as about the boy.

9. Fury

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My Review

Fury is the best war film in years. It is also an incidental case study of masculine interdependence, with an authentic and honest portrayal of both its toxicity and grace. I really didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did, but every frame of it is eschewing or undermining the delusions of grandeur with which the period, and the generation that endured it, are usually granted. Fury is a great account of moral corruption and the nature of heroism as both the product of intent and action, and as a narrative quality we apply to choices after the fact. Plus, it’s potentially the first great battle tank movie!

8. Edge of Tomorrow

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My Review

Edge of Tomorrow could have coasted by on its special effects and considerable charm alone, but doesn’t. It earns it all the way through with a combination of humor, spectacle, and not so subtle glee with its own inherent silliness. Make no mistake, Edge is a silly movie right down to its ridiculous title. But it’s also gloriously fun, with a tight script and a great execution of a familiar premise. There’s real thought behind this movie, showing again that giving a shit gets you somewhere. And of course, there’s all that fucking charm. Thanks to Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow is basically a charmathon that happens to feature exoskeletal kill-suits. There’s really something for everyone here, folks.

7. The Raid 2

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My Review

Speaking of great sequels, holy fucking shit The Raid 2: Berendal. It wasn’t good enough for Gareth Evans that he already made the best action movie of all time. He had to go and do it again. Not only that, but this time around he created a veritable action opera. The Raid 2 is also the best crime drama of 2014. That doesn’t even cover it. This movie is a crime epic and confidently replaces minimalist, muscular storytelling for an expansive and ensemble-oriented story that supplements and supports all the spectacular action, making up for what is lost by expectation (rather than surprise) driving much of the audience reaction to that action. The fights are amazing, of course, but they aren’t the meal ticket anymore. They’re dessert after a delicious steak of increasingly fun, increasingly preposterous battles between the very best martial arts performers in cinema.

6. Snowpiercer

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My Review

Snowpiercer is that movie your movie buff friends will be forcing down your gullet over the next year or two. If you’re the movie buff friend, you’ve already likely sat a few friends down with it. It’s a weird movie, with its own unique style and approach to what may be the most popular genre of the day. Dystopian fiction is rarely this self-aware and fun, however. Snowpiercer is the kind of allegorical movie that points a mocking but critical finger at our willingness to accept indignities for the sake of survival, whether it be by the continuity of tradition or the simple subjugation of the fed compared to the feeder.

5. Noah

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My Review

Speaking of movies you sit your friends down with… Noah is a much tougher sell than Snowpiercer. This is because it was marketed as big fuck off Biblical epic full of pretty special effects and sanctimonious antiquated moralizing. Thankfully, the marketing was directed at the Christian test audiences that hated this movie. This is because Noah is antithetical to most of the things that subset of the population believes in and loudly bitches about all the time. Noah is an ecological fairy tale, using the Jewish version of the Noah story the way Thor uses Norse mythology. In the story of Noah, Darren Aranofsky developed an interpretation that is only masquerading as a big special effects spectacle. Everything else about this movie is intimate, thoughtful, and philosophical. Past being simply a parable about ecology, Noah also deals with the nature of conflict between others, and the corrupting nature of self-certainty about ephemeral subjects. These are all themes that apply beautifully to religious assholes who wield their belief system like a self-righteous bludgeon. Noah is also a fucking weird, weird movie. There are visuals and ideas in this that you will wonder how Aranofsky got past a studio in the first place. On a cinematic level, Noah also delivers some of the year’s best alchemy between visual, audible, and intellectual inputs, something at which Aranofsky is a master.

4. Big Hero 6

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My Review

One of the biggest surprises of the year for me was just how good Big Hero 6 turned out to be. This movie is super inclusive, from its diverse cast to its core themes of support and healing through friendship. It is also the single most pro-science and pro-technology movie of 2014, with a heartfelt and optimistic streak balancing its mature account of the ways science and technology can be appropriated and misused. This contrasts beautifully with the big anti-science, anti-technology movies of the year, which are incidentally some of the worst. When I talk about Disney being the eminent example of translating care and effort into great entertainment, I’m thinking primarily of Big Hero 6.

3. Under the Skin

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My Review

Under the Skin is the best horror movie of 2014, and it is also the most haunting and beautiful. This is one of those movies that are tough to describe, and everybody who watches it is going to have a unique series of takeaways that will probably all be valid. This is not because Under the Skin is any kind of puzzle movie, it’s because there’s so much going on in so silent and withdrawn a package as to leave you only with whatever you bring into it yourself. Where one will see it as an allegory of the plight of women in male-dominated society, others will see the opposite, or not see gender at all. They might find only the mounting existential horror of an alien perspective being taught humanity, or the belligerent oddness of a movie that insists on holding you at arm’s length. But Scarlett Johanssen puts in such a performance here that, whatever your unique take is, you won’t be able to divorce your experience from what she accomplishes here. It may be the single greatest performance of 2014.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

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My Review

What a movie. Guardians of the Galaxy seems like it came out of nowhere, somehow managing to exceed everybody’s expectations to become the breakout hit of 2014. This movie is everywhere, having caught on with everyone, and with even its detractors quickly deflated by how much they actually do like about it. Guardians of the Galaxy is not just its surface, though, which is what we might construe as its most memorable facet. It’s not just the humor, the spectacle, the crazy universe, or whatever. It’s also the pathos, the ability James Gunn has to balance an ensemble of fully realized, dysfunctional characters and turn them into a family… all in the same movie. Because it does what The Avengers relied on like four establishing solo movies to do on a character level, it may be the better movie by default. Whether or not that’s the case, it is the best stand-alone Marvel film and a breath of fresh air for the very existence of space opera and adventure movies. That the people who brought this to us are the same people, on some level, now responsible for Star Wars bodes pretty fucking well.

1. The Lego Movie

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My Review

Obvious, right? Well whatever, man! The Lego Movie was my first great love of the year. Not only is it a movie about fucking Lego, but it’s also a manifesto on creativity and a fairly sophisticated attack on the cult of the individual, the special snowflake myth that plagues our culture. The Lego Movie also throws in socio-political commentary in the form of clever jokes, but also right down to the marrow of its narrative, where the antagonists represent forces that do antagonize the “every man” represented by Emmet. Believe me, I know how crazy it is to draw so much allegorical merit from a movie like this, which seemed destined to be little more than a toy commercial. As a toy commercial, it has much excellence to be sure, but The Lego Movie just doesn’t stop there. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are some of the funniest, most incisive and pop culture savvy writer-directors around and they turned this movie into something that you kind of have to derive tons of pleasure from just because it’s a thing exists. Just as Transformers 4 is something that could only happen in the world we live in, the same is true of The Lego Movie. This makes this cynical toy commercial, this silly kids’ candybar of a movie, culturally significant. How could that happen? How could it not happen!

Honorable Mentions

  • Joe
  • The Guest
  • The Rover
  • John Wick
  • Locke
  • I Origins
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Babadook
  • The Purge: Anarchy
  • Obvious Child
  • Foxcatcher
  • Ida
  • The Machine
  • Earth to Echo
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
  • Wolfcop
  • Blue Ruin

Didn’t See

  • Dear White People
  • Chef
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • Birdman
  • The Two Faces of January
  • Selma
  • Top Five
  • The Theory of Everything
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year
  • Force Majeure
  • Wild
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings
  • The Gambler
  • Unbroken
  • The Water Diviner
  • Night Moves
  • Honour
  • Frontera
  • The Homesman

Phew. That’s it for 2014! Now a word from our sponsors:

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Thanks for reading! See you in 2015!

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