2014 was a great year for movies. I think there are more films in 2014 that are garnering honourable mentions for this year’s best list than any previous year I could imagine.
2014 was also a terrible year for movies, which in some ways is a good thing. I saw a lot of excellence and a lot of trash this year, but very little that was mediocre or middle of the road. Years that have such immense extremes in terms of the gap in quality of the films getting released are always exciting. The worst any year could be is mediocre, so in that respect I’d consider this year as a success.
To be eligible for a spot on this list a film had to be theatrically released in 2014 in the city of Toronto for at least a full week. Films that are also currently eligible for Oscar contention, but are not opening in Toronto until 2015, are also eligible.
So here now and without further ado are the top 25 films of 2014, starting with the honourable mentions.
Honourable mentions (in no particular order): The Guest, Nightcrawler, Tom at the Farm, They Came Together, The Drop, The Good Lie, John Wick, Kung Fu Elliot, A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Gambler, A Most Violent Year, Ida, The Double, National Gallery, Godzilla, Stranger by the Lake, Leviathan, Manakamana, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
25. Big Eyes (opens in Canada on December 25th)
A decidedly more stripped down and emotionally darker work from Tim Burton than he has come up with in quite a long time, Big Eyes gets more emotionally wrenching the longer it goes on. The tale of art world huckster Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, nicely tapping into the same energy he brought to Django Unchained for evil purposes here) and how he willfully and maliciously appropriated his the artwork of his kindly, genius wife (a resplendent and emotional Amy Adams) benefits greatly from a tight script from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, The People Vs. Larry Flynt) and a top notch cast. It goes further than being Burton’s best film since Big Fish and becomes his best film since Ed Wood. It’s also a great discussion of how people perceive high art and low art.
24. Two Days, One Night (opens in Toronto on January 16th)
One of the strongest films from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this film is one of two on this list to feature actress Marion Cotillard giving one of the year’s best performances. As a woman on the brink of losing her job trying desperately to stay employed after a bout with illness, Cotillard shines, but she gets a lot of help from the Dardennes’ exceptionally economic storytelling and prescient narrative.
23. The Lego Movie
Look, guys, I know. It’s The Lego Movie. It’s also the funniest film of the year. Phil Lord and Chris Miller know what they’re doing when it comes to this kind of comedy, and although 22 Jump Street wasn’t as good as this animated romp was (triggering the ascension of Chris Pratt as a superstar despite never being on camera) it delivered a lot more warmth, creativity, and fun for adults and kids alike.
22. A Most Wanted Man
Featuring one of the last performances from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, this well constructed, slow burn spy drama from Anton Corbijn features an ending that has stuck with me longer than any ending to a film this year. It’s hard to explain without rehashing the whole film over again, but it’s the kind of earned conclusion that only great material and a great leading man can pull off. It’s the most underrated film of the year.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s second teaming with star Jake Gyllenhaal is a cerebral and existential exploration about the nature of identity and the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day. Boasting a nuanced pair of turns from Gyllenhaal, it’s also Villeneuve’s most outwardly playful film.
20. The F Word
Michael Dowse’s charming, but never oppressively clichéd Toronto set romantic comedy feels like a throwback to classics of the 1980s and 90s (like When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle), but with smarter characters (played nicely by Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan) that are more cognizant of how convoluted their friendship and love for each other might be. It’s the rare case of a rom-com where people are smart instead of stupidly oblivious.
19. Love is Strange
Speaking of love stories featuring smart people that goes beyond merely talking about love, Ira Sachs’ tale of a well educated and married gay couple (John Lithgow, Alfred Molina) going through a rough patch looks beyond mere relationship specifics and looks at how staying together can be difficult in the face of outside influences (and not just because of the sexual orientation of the main characters). Sachs is a filmmaker who gets better and better with each effort. Here’s hoping that continues for years to come.
18. Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s surreal and experimental sci-fi thriller is an ingenious piece of work that feels artful and dangerous at the same time. A nameless alien (Scarlett Johansson in a career best performance to date) wanders the Scottish countryside looking to learn about human nature. Never predictable, often improvised, and consistently unnerving, it’s one of the films on this list that benefits the most from multiple viewings that can unlock subtle details every time.
17. Force Majeure
A coal black comedy about a family under so much pressure they could form a diamond, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s look at one father’s ill decisions in a crisis and their repercussions might be might the most perceptive character dramas of the year. It’s a snow capped nightmare set in a wintry wonderland, and it hits quite appropriately like an avalanche.
16. The Immigrant
The other film to feature a knockout turn from Marion Cotillard is James Gray’s 1921 period piece of one woman’s attempts to immigrate to the United States for a better life. Offset by disease, mistrust, and economic strife, Gray’s look back on a country about to hit a great depression feels necessarily bleak. It also boasts one of two great Joaquin Phoenix performances on this list and a great turn from a surprisingly sympathetic Jeremy Renner in a smaller, but vital role.
15. Goodbye to Language
Jean-Luc Godard’s best film in over a decade finally brings together his desire to push the boundaries of cinema while breaking apart critical and social ideologies and philosophies piece by piece. Far less obstinate and deliberately obscure than much of his recent work, Godard seems to be having fun with the audience this time rather than at their expense. It’s a call to question cinematic convention rather than a cantankerous former film critic telling kids to get off his cinematic lawn.
14. Night Moves
A welcome change of pace for filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, this restrained and intense thriller about a trio of ecoterrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) trying to pull off the bombing of a hydro dam and dealing with the fallout of their actions showcases precisely why she’s one of the best working American filmmakers today. There isn’t a note in this film that rings false, and that’s partially why the third act becomes strangely terrifying.
13. Only Lovers Left Alive
If Jim Jarmusch were to stop making films altogether tomorrow, this tale of vampire lovers (Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton) reunited would be an exceptional cap to his career and a soundly valedictory statement to end on. But since one would hope he would keep on doing what he’s doing, this will have to be content standing alone with some of his career best works.
12. The Grand Budapest Hotel
In a year that wasn’t as great as 2014, Wes Anderson’s look at the history of a fictional resort hotel that has seen better days would have been a shoe-in for the top ten, and I almost feel bad including it so far down the list. Just know that doesn’t mean I love this charming and surprisingly emotional tale any less than most of Anderson’s best films.
11. The Overnighters
Jesse Moss’ look at one pastor’s efforts to better one North Dakota community’s homelessness situation (bolstered by the arrival of big oil and new jobs) has earned the right to be compared favourably to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Those who don’t think America isn’t currently in the throes of a prolonged social and economic depression will have their eyes opened wide by this powerful and unpredictable work.
One of the craziest, most exciting political and economic parables ever constructed, Bong Joon-Ho’s tale of an uprising of low class survivors on a post-apocalyptic train in the future takes on a lot of different elements and somehow never loses sight of them all. It’s an outstanding balancing act and some of the most fun to be had at the movies this year.
9. Selma (opens in Toronto January 9th)
It takes a lot to look at a man like Martin Luther King Jr. and look beyond the speeches that he delivered and the political manoeuvres and social sacrifices that he made to get African Americans equality in the 1960s, but Ava DuVernay’s look at the man’s efforts to march through the heart of Alabama for voter’s rights takes the man’s ego out of it to paint a picture of a society on a precipice and the conflicted man (played by David Oyelowo in a spot on performance) tasked with being the face of a new nation. And if you don’t get chills thinking about Ferguson while watching Selma, you’re probably dead inside. It’s the right movie at the right time.
Handily besting the work that he did on last year’s Oscar nominated Dallas Buyers Club, Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee’s tale of self-discovery has my favourite performance of the year in the form of Reese Witherspoon’s lead. A tale of self-discovery that’s progressive and never gives into touchy-feely clichés or easy answers, it might be the most purposefully uncomfortable feeling inspirational story. It’s subtle, beautiful, and as emotionally cathartic as it can be draining.
It’s not paranoia if you can prove you’re being followed, and Laura Poitras’ chilling look at the life of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden crackles with the immediacy of great fiction despite never leaving a single Hong Kong hotel room for more than a few moments at a time. It’s terrifying not only because of the danger Snowden, Poitras, and reporter Glenn Greenwald find themselves in, but in how easily this could happen to anybody willing to speak out against freedom to privacy. One of the most important films of the year
6. Gone Girl
Leave it to David Fincher to take a somewhat ludicrously plotted novel (adapted quite wonderfully by Gillian Flynn) and turn it into the most shockingly unconventional blockbuster of the year. A hilarious, playful, and thought provoking mystery, it’s up there with the filmmaker’s finest works, and had this been made before he did The Social Network, it would be heralded as his career defining masterpiece. Come to think of it, it still might.
STOP THE LIST
Okay, look. There’s a film that deserves to be on this list because of how strong this year was, and for the first time ever I am making an executive exception to talk about how wonderful Jennifer Kent’s debut feature THE BABADOOK is. Unjustly relegated to only a pair of screenings at Toronto After Dark and with no theatrical release planned or anywhere on the horizon from its distributor, this will sadly become the most unjustly slept on film of the year. A horror film unlike anything that has been made in decades it has garnered accolades from luminaries like Edgar Wright, Stephen King, and William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist who stated the film was one of the scariest he has ever seen in his life. These recommendations should not be taken lightly, and I’m kind of frustrated that there hasn’t been more of a push for this tale of a single mother (Essie Davis in a starmaking performance and the second best in any film all year, male or female, next to Witherspoon in Wild) trying to take care of her troubled son and dealing with a potentially deadly storybook that won’t go away. It’s relentlessly terrifying, bringing me to the verge of tears just watching it. It belongs honestly in the top five films of the year, and it’s too great to be relegated to a mere honourable mention. Someone up here needs to give this film a proper release, and they need to do it now.
RE-START THE LIST
5. Listen Up Philip
Making a huge leap from his previous independent production, The Color Wheel, NYC filmmaker Alex Ross Perry’s film about an arrogant literary wunderkind (Jason Schwartzman) learning to be a somewhat more tolerable person boasts three of the best written characters of the year, particularly Jonathan Pryce’s aging Martin Amis-styled mentor, in a role that’s worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod. It’s one of the most engaging films about sometimes off putting and brutally honest people in years.
4. Dear White People
Satire is tricky, but Justin Simien’s debut feature about a race war that’s about to erupt on a modern day university campus is as complex as is it is cutting. Everyone in this world pretends to know all the answers, but they refuse to listen to each other about anything. Everything is a perceived threat to someone’s often misplaced or malformed ideals. Simien doesn’t try to answer anything, and the film becomes overwhelming, but only because of how much thought has been placed into these characters and situations. It’s an outstanding and assured first feature.
3. We Are the Best!
Forget the fact that the three main characters are punk rock Swedish teens in the 1980s. This is one of the best and most insightful coming of age stories ever created, regardless of sex, setting, or taste in music. The friendship between these friends and the rifts that develop as a result of impending adulthood and the dynamics of being in a band together rings true for anyone who was ever a teenager with big dreams and friends that sometimes contradicted their own taste. It’s easily the most delightful film of the year to sit through and a blast from start to finish.
2. Inherent Vice (opens in Toronto December 25th, opens throughout Canada January 9th)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s outstanding job of adapting the previously unadaptable work of Thomas Pynchon isn’t just one of the funniest films of the year, but also the rare case of a mystery that’s devoid of a mystery. There’s a lot going on here and it probably takes more than one viewing to take it all in, but this tale of a burnout hippie gumshoe (Joaquin Phoenix) approached for help by an ex-girlfriend is episodic in brilliant ways. It’s not quite the Zucker Brothers styled romp people want to make it out to be, but it’s a confident new direction for the constantly evolving Anderson.
It’s doubtful that there will ever be another film like Boyhood or that anyone could chronicle twelve years in a person’s life better or more astutely than Richard Linklater does here. The commitment to the material required on the part of everyone involved with this film is unprecedented in any year. They are scenes from a life in one’s most formative and vulnerable years told like memories that have made lasting impressions. It’s thoughtful, committed, and the best film of the year.