Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2014 (So Far)

Happy New Year, everyone!  And, of course, with a new year comes a list of my favorite films from 2014.  Before we get to the meat of things, here are a few ground rules for this list: (1) This is my list, and it is largely reliant on my feelings about the film at the time of writing.  You are free to disagree, but I’m no more right about my preferences than you are about yours; no matter how acclaimed a movie is, it always comes down to personal taste.  (2) I’m restricting this list to films that were theatrically released during the 2014 year.  Inside Llewyn Davis and Her may have been among my favorites that I reviewed in 2014, but those were part of the 2013 theatrical year, and are therefore disqualified.  (3) I completely recognize that I have not seen all that 2014 has to offer yet, but that will hopefully be rectified by February for my Oscar Predictions editorial.  That’s why this article has the words “(So Far)” in the title.

And so, without further ado, here are my top ten favorite films of 2014. Be sure to click the title of each film to get the full reviews!

Drenched in a brooding atmosphere reminiscent of the darker Coen Brothers films, Blue Ruin is a shocking character study of a man who kills not out of hatred or vengeance, but out of a sense of obligation.  It is a slow and methodical tale that can be punishing if you aren’t paying attention, but the experience is well worth it for Macon Blair’s lead performance.

The main reason this film is not higher on the list is because we’ve all seen this type of film before: this is an AIDS epidemic tear-jerker, but it succeeds so well in its execution that it would be a disservice to not give credit where it is due.  From Mark Ruffalo’s morally questionable protagonist to a story that is not so much about a fear of dying as it is a social group’s fear of demonization, The Normal Heart knows just how to pull on your heartstrings and does so damn effectively.

Noah is one of the stranger films to come out in 2014, but director Darren Aronofsky found a way to make an epic action film out of a Biblical myth, yet still allow space to explore the moral ramifications of dooming one’s entire species to die in a flood.  As a visual marvel, the film shines, with some of the most surreal dream sequences to ever be associated with the divine, and though the most fundamentalist of Christians may be turned off by the supposed stretches in dogma, Noah delivers a damn fine piece of entertainment.

For a film that uses a man in a papier-mâché headpiece as its main selling-point, Frank sure knows how to make you feel guilty for your choice of viewing experience.  Darkly funny until it pulls the rug out from under you, this film turned out to have one of the most surprising narrative turn-arounds in recent memory, delivering a powerful message through a vacant, cartoon smile, which Michael Fassbender wears with realistic emotion that still resonates even with the obstruction.

Who knew that Jake Gyllenhaal had it in him?  Dark, suspenseful, and undeniably creepy, Nightcrawler exposes the seedy underbelly of the crime-as-news industry through a character so fascinatingly disturbing that it makes us question who the real monster actually is: him or the industry he’s a part of.

Even if Snowpiercer weren’t a venomous polemic about the consequences of class-based society, it most certainly qualifies as one of the most gorgeously filmed movies of the year.  Sure, its message is a bit blunt, but the film is upfront about that, and it uses its anger to tell a fantastic story of people only trying to make a better life for themselves, even if violent revolution is the only way they can achieve it.

The fact that what appears to be a blatant corporate cash-grab made the list should only be surprising if you haven’t seen it yet, and if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself.  The Lego Movie is one of the funniest films of the year, making self-aware jabs at itself with a childlike innocence that doesn’t rely on so-called “adult” jokes to make the experience enjoyable for all ages.  And the third act twist may just be one of the most brilliant things that could have been done, given the licensed property.

Wes Anderson has always had a way with bringing obviously staged productions to the screen with grace and energy.  The dialogue is ham-fisted and the sets are grandiosely unreal, but that doesn’t matter because the whole experience is so damn fun.  From shots that pay homage to cinematic eras past to characters that pop from the screen to implant themselves forever in your psyche, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that simply delivers the best of what Wes Anderson has to offer.

Yeah, I know this is perhaps not the most technically great film on the list, but you know what?  I don’t care.  This film is a hell of a lot of fun, and for all its faults, I’ve still watched it three times since its release, two of those times in the theater.  This is a smart sci-fi action comedy that has put together the greatest ensemble of protagonists since Ghostbusters, and I think Guardians will have just as much staying power in the decades to come.

Of all the films I’ve seen this year, I can think of no other more deserving of the number one spot on this list.  From the multi-layered acting to the gorgeous cinematography to the incredibly subversive screenplay and direction, Birdman is a work of genius that other awards season contenders are going to have a very hard time competing against.  This is a superb character study wrapped in a commentary on the entertainment industry wrapped in a fever dream, and it would be a shame if any of you missed it.

And there you have it!  My top ten films of 2014.  Think I left something important out?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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