The films of the past year were a roulette wheel of emotions; there were movies to make you laugh, cry, lean forward in your seat, nearly fall asleep, tremble in excitement, get infinitely frustrated with, drop your jaw in shock and maybe come away feeling like you've learned a little something about life.
For me, the following list is comprised of movies from the last 12 months that delivered on so many fronts and stand out because of it.
As a rule of thumb, this list is pretty much the "subjectiviest" subjective thing a writer like me can make. You may agree wholeheartedly or scoff at certain picks. Coolio, since it's all my preferences listed. No absolutes here, much as I would like them to be.
As a college student with limited time and resources, I can't say I've seen every single thing to gain release this year, but honestly, who has? [Notable 2014 films like A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice and Selma won't hit theaters outside New York and L.A. until the coming weeks. How unfair is that?!]
At the very least, it's my secret wish that you, the reader, seeks out some of the movies here you haven't yet seen and find that a pleasant surprise awaits ye.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the 10 best movies of 2014.
Just missed: The LEGO Movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, Birdman
10. The Babadook
Most of 2014's horror movie offerings made me weep as opposed to scream, so maybe that's why The Babadook stands head and shoulders above the rest. That, or it's just a great little spook film. The monster may be terrifying but simply knowing he's there is somehow even more bone-chilling. Atmosphere is such a huge part of The Babadook and the anxiety felt throughout is what helps separate it as a true champ. Even more impressive, there's a real, thoughtful human story going on underneath the otherworldly happenings and lead actress Essie Davis brings it forward wonderfully.
9. The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game is a tried and true awards-bait, prestige pic. Here's the thing: it's far from a hollow one. Putting aside that it contains exactly what awards voters love, at its heart, this is an appropriately moving story of a brilliant, tortured man. Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely excels as Alan Turing, perfectly capturing the man's brilliance and standoffishness that masked some deeper secrets. The story has consequences and urgency while Graham Moore's script fills the characters with life and personality. It won't reinvent the genre anytime soon but it will certainly deliver a highly satisfying look into someone who changed history.
Problems with the general roughness of the film aside, Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic is undeniably ambitious filmmaking. You want a big movie? This is it. You want a movie where scientific theories are presented in an attainable and practical way -- and are arguably something of a hero in the story -- and there's still room for an emotional core that works? This is it. Also, they threw in waves that are hundreds of feet tall just for good measure. Shepherded by what might be Hans Zimmer's best score in recent memory, Interstellar pushes past its relative shortcomings on the virtue that it actually tried. How does that incredibly ironic saying about shooting for the moon and ending up among the stars go again?
"I think I might have witnessed something profound," is what a movie like Boyhood leaves you saying. Funny since the film, excluding the unprecedented detail of filming a boy's life over the span of 12 years, doesn't really carry a self-important vibe to it. It's a movie made up of the smaller moments in life; conversations that may end up shaping us without us realizing at the time. Because of that, the movie comes off as completely naturalistic. Again, this is all putting aside the fact that they filmed the same kid over the span of 12 years. I'm not a betting man but something tells me that you won't see that become Hollywood's new go-to production method.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Snowpiercer
Aka, the Chris Evans entry. Evans starred in two notable action adventure pics that, while on different ends of the spectrum, are both worthy of note. (Definitely not a coincidence they're sharing the same spot, though).
Winter Soldier is the transcendent Marvel movie for me because it manages to be a) one of a small handful of the studio's superhero offerings that feels like the events of the movie have lasting consequence, b) is socially aware and spun an engaging story from real-world concerns and c) found a perfect balance between their brand of humor and keeping the stakes high. Props to the film for having ScarJo be the least robot-y so far as well.
Snowpiercer, meanwhile, has just as relevant a message but is a little more tongue in cheek about its intentions. In a dark, messed up way. Keep in mind this is a film with a large section of ax murder and school children reciting the catchy tune "What happens when the engine stops? We all freeze and die." It's frequently silly and preposterous but doesn't bat an eye as it barrels forward in its sci-fi action goodness. Satire, ladies and gentlemen.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I'll be the first to admit I have my problems with Wes Anderson. Maybe that's what kept me hesitant towards this one. I'll also be the first to admit I laughed my ass off at Grand Budapest. Anderson didn't let his quirky obsession with symmetrical staging get in the way of delivering an interesting story (that's actually about storytelling) and letting Ralph Fiennes truly shine in the limelight. The pastel pinks that engulf the movie are deceiving, as GBH is a dark comedy and nothing works for me quite like a dark comedy done right.
Character studies can be painful if you don't give a crap about the character you're watching. All the more impressive that Nightcrawler focuses on a man who is truly reprehensible, but very watchable due to his charisma, and keeps the film fascinating throughout. Add in the murky world of shock journalism in L.A. and the movie is a powder keg of salaciousness. Jake Gyllenhaal is in absolute top form as the slimy Lou Bloom and Rene Russo is great as well. Nightcrawler isn't a movie you walk away from feeling joy or hope for humanity, but it is a film that is engrossing throughout.
3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn is the next entry in the "sequels that are better than their already good predecessors" cannon. And what an entry it is. Not only did things go bigger this time around, they went more emotional and certainly more tense. Just from the title (and about 50 years of material) we know how things will end up, but Matt Reeves crafts a well plotted film that focuses on the similarities between ape and man that pushes the technical wizardry that Rise is known for even further. Simply, Dawn is 2014's blockbuster that concerns itself primarily with being a great film. Mission accomplished.
2. Gone Girl
I can't recall exactly what I was expecting from Gone Girl besides it probably being a pretty good movie. David Fincher directing and all. I certainly didn't foresee it being an absolute gut punch. Without getting too spoilery, the first 45-50 minutes of the film contain a great mystery set-up premise where we're given as much info on the matter as the characters. Then the twist hits and all bets are off. The film completely shifts gears into something amazingly wicked while remaining an impeccably written piece of work. [Venturing further into SPOILER territory, Gone Girl is, ironically, a great piece of work about the piece of work the title alludes to. Rosamund Pike so epically delivers in the role of the narcissistic and calculating Amy Elliot that it's stunning. Stunning.] Fincher's latest had my head spinning and heart pumping as I left the theater, which I didn't think was possible anymore.
Then one other film did the same...
Whiplash is as much a war film and horror picture as it is a music film. Only in this case, the anxiety level is so much higher than in any film I've seen in those genres. Maybe any film ever. Director Damien Chazelle must have had quite an experience as a music student because he perfectly conveys the pressure of striving to improve and ramps it up to 11 where the film stays for the remainder. The big band sequences are beyond amazing in execution. J.K. Simmons is a boss in every sense of the word as the tyrannical jazz band leader and Miles Teller hits a new high here. Sometimes films with high emotions leave you drained. Whiplash is the opposite and leaves you feeling alive.
Check back later for individual awards for the year.