This year, we saw the ongoing war between expensive, studio-minded blockbuster releases and smaller, more adult fare rage on in the multiplexes. A supposed dearth of quote unquote R E A L cinema coupled with the increasing sequel/prequel/reboot/remakeification of movies bred a lot of contempt from critics and filmgoers alike, but ultimately, the medium endures. 2014 offered a number of strong releases, whether they featured superheroes, gun-toting monkeys, astronauts, sociopaths, or talking trees. The industry has ups and downs, but the art isn’t going anywhere.
– Dominic Griffin, Movies Editor
#1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
After the summer of 2012, which saw the release of the climactic Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, I found myself feeling very cynical about the future of the superhero film genre. Where was there to go but down? What was left to do? The end was nigh, and before long, I was certain, this whole superhero thing was going to fizzle out from the sheer disappointment that no subsequent film could top The Avengers. God, do I feel stupid now.
Marvel’s penchant for genre-mashing is probably what’s kept the superhero film alive and dominant for the past decade, and it’s never paid off better than with The Winter Soldier. This is a film that could have been Avengers Lite and instead feels like Avengers PLUS, with all the excitement and charm of that film but with a more complex, poignant plot, stronger acting, and a greater dependence on intensely satisfying practical effects. It asks questions and takes a stand on current events (namely, pushbutton warfare) while never sacrificing an ounce of the adventure and fun we expect from a movie about a guy who carries an indestructible shield that can defy all physics and geometry.
The Winter Soldier is a twisty-turny superspy thriller with some heavy themes, but still manages to be a feel-good movie, and that’s all thanks to the wonderful chemistry between heroes Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson (Anthony “Cut the Check!” Mackie). The friendships in this film feel instantly genuine, and it’s a joy just watching the characters interact, whether their banter is during an action sequence or just a simple car ride. That Winter Soldier features masterfully staged fight sequences and thrilling car chases just feels like a bonus.
The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s best film, and while its prestige quality will likely be ignored by the likes of the Oscars and Golden Globes, we’re happy to declare it our no-qualifiers Best Movie of 2014.
– Dylan Roth
Interstellar had a number of things going for it. Matthew McConaughey riding that sweet, sweet McConaughnessance high as America’s Cool Space Dad, charming candy bar-shaped robots (hey Warner Brothers, a TARS-shaped Steelbook for the blu-ray release is an idea you can have for free), and one of the few instances of really successful stunt casting in the form of “Dr. Mann.” But more than that, Interstellar solved a unique problem that’s plagued filmmakers for a good long while; how do you make a Big Serious Space Movie that doesn’t collapse under its own weight? Gravity wisely sidestepped this problem last year by giving us an intimate, sub-orbital one woman show. Nolan, instead, gives us a movie that embraces his own weaknesses or blind spots as director. Nolan ditched his usual bag of practical special effects for eyeboiling cosmic vistas. (It worked!) Nolan leaned into a script that upholds love, in the face of the destructive distance of time and space, over all things. (It worked!) He even gave us a sci-fi film that values women and their rightful place at the forefront of scientific frontiers. (Aside from “stock Nolan movie dead wife”…it worked!) Interstellar is a tribute to the human spirit and our inherent need to explore, our drive to survive despite impossible odds. In a sense, it’s a romantic movie, a kiss on the lips to the collective human race that would make Grant Morrison blush.
– Max Robinson
#3. The Guardians of the Galaxy
While Winter Soldier was the better superhero film this year, Guardians was the most fun I’ve had in a theater in some time. The ultimate example of Marvel’s ability to make fourth-string heroes into giant moneymakers, GotG was wall-to-wall enjoyment from start to finish. The story of this band of scoundrels who come together to do great things is a quotable delight in every way: from the script, to the directing, to the effects, to the sound of Chris Pratt becoming an A-Lister, it’s hard to walk away with anything but a smile. Add in a diverse cast, and heroes who actually go out of the way to save people’s lives, and you’ve got something from which other superhero films could learn thing or two. At times moving, hilarious, and oddly deep—in the case of Rocket’s drunken rant, all three at once—GotG has everything you’d want, need, or even simply expect out of it. If it weren’t for the Actual New Star Wars coming out, I wouldn’t hesitate to call GotG the New Star Wars.
Also, the soundtrack. Can’t bring that up enough.
– David Lebovitz
#4. The LEGO Movie
The LEGO Movie is a feel-good adventure set in a magnificently animated world made entirely of LEGO. The writing/directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller tells the tale of an average guy trying to save his world while facing doubts that he may not be special enough to do it. They are aided by a star-studded voice cast who are clearly having an absolute blast in their roles. The roster includes Chris Pratt in the lead role of Emmet, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, and so many others. Aside from the inspiring story and comedy dialogue that comes with every Miller/Lord project, they also do a great job of bringing out the inherent humor of making a movie entirely out of LEGOs; silly details like an excited character’s head spinning on its axis, or having a dead character resurrected wearing the old ghost piece, make the movie that much more enjoyable and rewards multiple watches. The theme song to The LEGO Movie is “Everything Is Awesome,” performed by Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island, and no matter how you’re feeling going into it, everything WILL be awesome for the 101 minutes that you’re watching The LEGO Movie.
– Julian Ames
#5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
When a director like Wes Anderson has such a divisive, distinct visual style, new works can become cumbersome to consume. We, as an audience, grow tired of the cinematic quirks, the stylistic tics, and the repetitive tropes we’ve come to love and probably disdain in equal measure. While The Darjeeling Limited presented perhaps the uppermost limit of what could be defined as a “Wes Anderson film,” Grand Budapest, fresh off of the rejuvenation of Moonrise Kingdom, cements in our minds that the particular way Anderson chooses to lens a story is less important than his ability to tell a story at all. His Russian nesting doll narrative about the history of a once revered hotel in the fictional European state of Zubrowka, and the relationship between its premier concierge, M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) and his trusty lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), uses every trick in Anderson’s considerable playbook. He delivers a riotously entertaining, multi-generational tale about the slow decay of a certain level of manners, or respectability, of immeasurable kindness, as personally embodied by Fiennes’ Gustav, a shoo-in for Best Actor in a year less preoccupied with darkness or historical recreation. A lot of critics used words like “confection” to describe this film, but that’s because it’s feels like a delicious dessert served up as a main course.
– Dominic Griffin
#6. Dawn of The Planet of The Apes
After the devastating near-extinction of Earth’s dominant species that began in Rise, two tribes, humans and apes, stand on the cusp of a new era. Caesar, now the wizened leader of hyper-intelligent apes living in the forest, and newcomer Malcolm, representing a human settlement in a nearby city, both desperately want peace for their families. However, the forces of mother nature and plain old fate leave them powerless on a seemingly predetermined path to devastation. Dawn evolves into a war epic, visiting tropes of young, brash warriors learning the hard way what their elders tried to teach them, only the young warriors are apes who ride horses and wield automatic weapons, successfully aligning depth with pure spectacle. In arguably his best performance, Andy Serkis transforms Caesar into a fully realized, standout character as both the wise, reluctant ruler and loving father. This is the dawn of a modern Apes franchise movie that manages to break the reboot mold and stand upright on its own original storytelling.
– Sarah Register
#7. Gone Girl
Continuing his streak of excellent films about awful people, David Fincher brought us Gone Girl, the best horror film of the year. Rosamund Pike shines as “Amazing” Amy, the seemingly perfect daughter and wife who fakes her own murder, leaving her schlub of a husband (Ben Affleck, in a very understated but charismatic turn) to try and escape the trap she’s laid for him. Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel, the movie is a great examination of how paternalistic society traps women in predetermined roles until Amy believes her only escape is to frame her husband for her murder, but she can’t get away clean, forcing her to return and assume another role of loving wife and mother, but this time she may be in more control. It’s a tough movie to watch and downright problematic at times but Fincher has such a sure hand and the performances are top-to-bottom great (including sterling supporting work from Carrie Coon, Patrick Fugit, and Tyler freaking Perry).
– Jason Urbanciz
Nightcrawler is the kind of movie I wish there were more of: I hadn’t heard much of anything about the film’s plot (or even, truthfully, its existence) until a ticket and a bag of popcorn were in my hand. Was it the thrill of surprise that made me enjoy this potboiler of a film as much as I did? Possibly, but Nightcrawler is a damn good film all the same; an impressively stylish neo-noir from first-time director Dan Gilroy (known better as writer on Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy). It’s a fresh interpretation of the hideous “if it bleeds it leads” culture of network television news, anchored by a commanding, terrifying performance from Jake Gylenhaal as a charming, verbose sociopath who’ll do anything for a good story. Sprinkle in some edge-of-your-seat suspense and killer supporting performances—twitchy newcomer Riz Ahmed, an arresting Rene Russo and, perhaps best of all, a deliciously slimy Bill Paxton with one of the silliest one liners of the year (“Welcome to the future, brah!”)—and you’ve got a movie that, despite its consistent quality, rarely fails to surprise.
– Mike Duquette
#9. Edge of Tomorrow
As with most Tom Cruise movies, my family forced me to see this one, and as usual, I wound up really liking it. It sidestepped my nitpick with Groundhog Day plots by providing a decent explanation, thus allowing me to get into the humor and cleverness that I really dig about Groundhog Day plots. (Disclaimer: I have never seen Groundhog Day.) And Emily Blunt routinely acts Cruise off the screen despite their experience gap. Why isn’t she starring in every movie? But yeah, Edge of Tomorrow is the best military sci-fi I’ve seen in years, and makes a frustrating but ultimately wise choice by going with sentimentality over straight-up logic for the ending.
– Patrick Stinson
There are a lot of words we throw around when reviewing films. “Visionary.” “Unique.” Birdman is a movie that makes me regret wasting those sort of statements as hyperbole, when they’re more appropriate here. Simply put, Birdman is the most daring, clever, and well-realized film I’ve seen this year, and probably since far before that. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography are unlike anything else I’ve seen, both intimate and alienating. Keaton, Norton, Stone, and the rest of the ensemble give performances both beautiful and nuanced, and grating and ugly by design. It’s a movie that continuously confounds your expectations and never allows you to become truly comfortable, and it’s better for it. I’d gotten used to a baseline level of similarity within most films distributed by major studios, and this shattered that sense. Birdman isn’t like other movies. It’s better.
– Joe Stando
Check back every day this week for more of the Best of 2014!