Published on December 24th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Our favorite movies of 2014
This is my ranking of 2014’s most likely contenders for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in February. I’ll be updating the list as I see each film. Here’s my list so far:
#1 – Wild
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée | Screenplay: Nick Hornby
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
This quintessential “journey picture” is about as raw and personal as mainstream cinema gets. Based on the best-selling memoir of Cheryl Strayed — played by Reese Witherspoon in the best performance of her already strong career — this movie recounts her 2,600 mile solo hike, and most importantly what led her to that near-suicidal trek. The book was part of Oprah’s book club but don’t expect anything trite or faux-inspirational from this film as we follow a woman who defies nearly all of the characteristics of a typical Hollywood heroine. The soundtrack is fantastic, there are small moments of triumph to match the devastating lows, single-serving friendships are made and long-term relationships are torn asunder without fanfare. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) has now established himself as one of the most unflinching storytellers in the game. This film should be required viewing for anyone who’s ever lost the path.
#2 – Interstellar
Director: Christopher Nolan | Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway
This obviously isn’t the pretentious or most popular pick for one of the year’s best films (only its musical score was nominated for a Golden Globe), but no movie affected me as much as this sci-fi epic. Interstellar is pure Nolan, directed with the same ridiculous scale and scope of his previous masterpieces Inception and The Dark Knight. The acting is fine but this film is more an experience than simply a story on screen. Sure, it has some plot holes but the story and execution of Interstellar are as inventive and grand as 2001: A Space Odyssey was nearly 50 years ago. People will be thinking — and talking — about this one for a long time.
#3 – Birdman
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu | Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts
Michael Keaton once again shows his love of a risk, starring in arguably the most interesting and unique movie to receive mainstream acclaim this year. I promise you, Birdman is unlike any drama you’ve maybe ever seen. It’s a picture about acting — as Keaton plays a washed-up Hollywood star that’s turned to a Broadway drama to make himself relevant again — and every one of its performers prove up to the task. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are fantastic in supporting roles but Keaton dominates the screen, giving us every move he’s got. The conclusion drags a bit but almost every part of Birdman works perfectly, including the illusion that it was almost completely shot in one long take. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) will fight with Richard Linklater (Boyhood) for Best Director honors at the Academy Awards.
#4 – Pride
Director: Matthew Warchus | Screenplay: Stephen Beresford
Starring: Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Faye Marsay
Eighteen years ago, a humble British comedy about a group of laid-off steelworkers who turned to stripping to pay their bills earned a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards — this year, another likable British comedy that centers on a labor unrest could do the same thing. Prideride has already picked up a nod for Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical) at the Golden Globes and if I were voting, I’d be tempted to give it the trophy. Like The Full Montyty, this true story about a group of homosexuals who decided to vehemently support England’s striking coal miners is loaded with likable characters and carries a relevant message about the importance of a support system. Aside from Bill Nighy and Dominic West (HBO’s The Wire), the cast is made up of mostly unknown actors but each pulls their share in what becomes one of the best ensemble films of 2014. This was the best work I’ve seen from Andrew Scott (Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock) and I may have found my newest favorite actress in Jessica Gunning. This uplifting movie has a ton of heart and none of the sentimental sap you might expect.
#5 – The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum | Screenplay: Graham Moore
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
The Imitation Game hooks you at its opening with intriguing narration from the commanding voice of Benedict Cumberbatch overtop a soothing score, and it only gets better from there. It’s well paced, well written and extremely well acted by its entire cast but three actors dominate this movie. Cumberbatch is powerful as the socially offputting mathematical genius Alan Turing, who helped the allies win WWII by inventing the world’s first computer and breaking Nazi codes. But while Cumberbatch is baring his character’s tortured soul onscreen, he’s bolstered by Keira Knightley, in my favorite performance of her career, and the always-dependable Mark Strong, who provides The Imitation Game with a great deal of intrigue. This isn’t a spy picture and it’s certainly not a war film in the traditional sense, but rather it’s a pure character study. We get to know Turing and his tragic story well but unfortunately the audience is still kept at arm’s length from the character. His was a story that deserved to be told and was done with care by screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum in what may be a breakout moment for both of them. I have to give a special nod to six-time Oscar-nominated composer Alexandre Desplat, whose original score for The Imitation Game may be the best of 2014.
#6 – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson | Screenplay: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law
It honestly doesn’t matter who acts in a Wes Anderson film because the director is always the star. This crime dramedy exists on a grand scale and features Anderson’s most intricate screenplay yet, Its visual style stays in step with other signature Anderson films like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom while once again surrounding a cast of characters that you’ll enjoy spending time with. The ensemble cast includes plenty of solid performances but its Ralph Fiennes as a respected hotelier who gets caught up in an art heist that makes this one of 2014’s best.
#7 – Nightcrawler
Director: Dan Gilroy | Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton
A pitch black vision of the American dream featuring a career-best performance from one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars. Jake Gyllenhaal looms over every scene of Nightcrawler, as a self-made success in the world of freelance Los Angeles TV news shooters. Writer/Director Dan Gilroy keeps the tension boiling through the entire film, building to one of the most exciting climaxes of the year. This movie is totally dependent on Gyllenhaal and it pays off through the star’s intense dedication to his character. Nightcrawler likely won’t get a Best Picture nod at the Oscars but it wouldn’t upset me if it did. (READ OUR FULL REVIEW OF NIGHTCRAWLER)
#8 – Still Alice
Director: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland | Screenplay: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
In a year of strong lead performances by veteran actors, Julianne Moore has inserted herself at the top of the Oscar conversation — and she’s long overdue for a win. This quiet, thoughtful film provides perhaps the best portrayal of alzheimer’s disease that we’ve ever seen on screen. Moore’s Dr. Alice Howland is left a bystander as her mind is slowly devoured by a rare early-onset version of the disease. Still Alice is full of natural performances and its script plays out in a way that feels completely authentic; you won’t find the typical melodramatic tropes that fill an “illness picture,” just a study of this empathetic character. Co-Writers/Directors Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland (The Last of Robin Hood) attempt awkwardly to liken the film’s action to the AIDS epic Angels in America but this story comes from a different place. Still Alice is not about love but rather about the human condition and how the things we use to define ourselves can always be taken no matter how hard we’ve worked for them. In my opinion, Moore is the best screen actress working today and this performance ranks among her finest work.
#9 – Whiplash
Director: Damien Chazelle | Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Some movies are fine with only one actor carrying the load but there’s something exhilarating about watching two performers do a perfect dramatic dance, matching one another step for step. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) continues to show why he’s one of Hollywood’s most legit young talents and J.K. Simmons finally breaks out of the Characer-Actor Zone and shows his chops as a lead for the first time since HBO’s Oz. The pair are at each other’s throats for nearly the entire film as Teller plays a student at a prestigious music school and Simmons is his ruthless teacher. Never has music — and in particular jazz music — been portrayed so violently on film. First-time Director Damien Chazelle is more interested in the suffocating pressure heaped on a hopeful great than what they actually produce in the end.
#10 – Inherent Vice
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson | Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston
In my humble opinion, Paul Thomas Anderson is the most focused writer-director in movies today. His style today is much more singular than it was in the late-1990s, and after 2007’s game-changing There Will Be Blood, I couldn’t have imagined him making a picture as zen as this one. With that said, Inherent Vice’s narrative is completely scattered and a bit unsatisfying to follow closely but it is the wildest cinematic ride I’ve seen in years. Joaquin Phoenix is a blast to watch as a stoned-out private detective juggling several interconnected cases at once. With every passing scene, he crosses paths with another memorable character who adds something to the gumbo that is this hippie-noir plot. The tone of the film is confusing at times but for the most part, you’ll do best to sit back, laugh with these characters and soak in the acting and atmosphere — including Jonny Greenwood’s intriguing score and Joanna Newsom’s enchanting narration. The dynamic between Phoenix and Josh Brolin makes for some of the best twosome scenes I saw this year and no director working today — I mean nobody — gets the kind of performances Anderson does out of his actors.
#11 – Into the Woods
Director: Rob Marshall | Screenplay: James Lapine
Starring: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt
Disney acts as an unlikely backer for Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical which retells some of the most recognizable fairytales into a dark commentary about the unsavory ways dreams are sometimes achieved. There is perhaps more dishonesty and death here than in any Disney flick I can ever recall but the music is gorgeous even if the subject matter and scenery are drab. Meryl Streep is magnetic as a witch that may be wicked but is possibly also the wisest character in the story. There is no show-stopping musical number that will have you humming for days — like other Sondheim classics “Send in the Clowns” or “Being Alive” — but each song is full of dizzying rhymes and lyrics that progress the story and characters. Director Rob Marshall has made here the best live-action musical since Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, as well as his best film since 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha.
#12 – The Theory of Everything
Director: James Marsh | Screenplay: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox
Arguably the most well-acted movie of 2014. Two virtually unknown British talents — Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones — carry this intimate film from start to finish. Redmayne plays world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in this account of the man’s life and complex relationship with his wife Jane. Both are flawless in their performances and the movie carries a softness in tone that we don’t see in many of this year’s top films. Redmayne’s physical transformation is enough to get him nominated for an Oscar but the depth of emotion he proves capable of is why he will be on the short list. The Theory of Everything is a bright beacon in what has been a pitch dark year for acclaimed films.
#13 – St. Vincent
Director: Theodore Melfi | Screenplay: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy
Will Bill Murray finally win an Oscar for his portrayal of a gruff Vietnam vet that begrudgingly takes a neighborhood kid under his wing? It’s been a strong year for lead actors but Murray certainly has put himself into the race. St. Vincent is sweet, impactful and very funny. Murray obviously carries the bulk but his supporting cast shows up in force, especially Chris O’Dowd and 11-year-old Jaeden Lieberher. The kid is perfect. Period. St. Vincent falls victim to a few overused tropes but it honestly has equal ability to crack you up and well up with tears.
#14 – Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay | Screenplay: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
Perhaps no movie in 2014 created the kind of controversy that Selma did because of its portrayals of the historical icons in its story — namely President Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself — but there’s no denying the relevance of its message today. Up-and-comer David Oyelowo brings King back to life with inspired fire. His performance is what gives Selma its life, but he can’t save the movie from being painfully boring in some parts. You know what to expect from Selma’s message before you turn it on and it definitely comes across as a film about America’s deeply rooted prejudice, but it’s the scenes where we see white police officers assaulting and sometimes killing innocent blacks that resonate loudest with today’s audience. I applaud writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay for taking a three-dimensional look at Dr. King and for keeping alive the legacy of the brave protestors in 1965 Alabama. While I felt like Selma robbed itself of a triumphant climax, it’s most powerful moment comes right before the end credits, when we some well-placed text reminds us how closely removed we are from the film’s events.
#15 – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Director: Peter Jackson | Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellan
It’s sad to see Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga come to an end and this conclusion feels more like a bridge between gaps than a complete film of its own. After the outstanding second chapter of The Hobbit, this one feels a bit underwhelming but all of the great characters and nearly endless action make it worth the trip. This film’s star is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the fabled Dwarf “King under the Mountain,” and his descent into a greed-induced madness that comes with inheriting his rightful throne. Martin Freeman continues an unbelievable career streak and finishes out a strong trilogy that drew plenty of haters when it was first announced. Some loose ends are left untied but this is mostly a satisying ending to one of cinema’s all-time greatest series.
#16 – Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher | Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
David Fincher, one of Hollywood’s most dependable directors, turns his lens to one of adult literature’s best-selling titles this decade and the results are solid but perhaps underwhelming. Gone Girl fails to reach the heights of Fincher’s most inspired films The Social Network and Zodiac or the depravity of his darkest films Seven and Fight Club, but it floats with a breakthrough lead performance by Rosamund Pike. Author Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay but changed a few key details, leaving us to wonder if she treated this as a chance to rewrite her most famous book. Gone Girl is a detatched movie, keeping its stiff characters at arm’s length but it keeps the audience guessing — provided they don’t already know how it ends.
#17 – Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater | Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
There’s no question that the sheer dedication that went into making this epic coming-of-age picture is impressive but I wish the final product had been less vanilla. It’s not typically a good thing when the majority of a film’s buzz is about the novelty of its production process but that’s exactly the case with this picture that was shot with the same cast over a 12-year period. Writer-Director Richard Linklater’s interest in real-time storytelling has been evident since his Before Sunrise trilogy which focused on a romance and took place over an 18-year period. Like those movies, this one co-stars Ethan Hawke who by far gives the best performance of Boyhood. The plot meanders from moment to moment as we skip through the formative years of the life of a boy played by Ellar Coltrane. The script is authentic but some of the acting is downright painful, especially from the female cast members including veteran Patricia Arquette whose part felt underwritten. The scope of this picture is commendable but it’s a shame it’s storyline is so surfacey and its supporting characters so boilerplate. The finest achievement of Boyhood is that it serves as an authentic time capsule of the historical and cultural moments that have shaped the 2000s. If this one wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards it’ll represent yet another safe pick from the voters.
#18 – Foxcatcher
Director: Bennett Miller | Screenplay: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo
Of all the award season dramas hitting theaters in 2014, I perhaps had the greatest expectations for director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. This true story about the 1996 tragedy at the Foxcatcher Farm wrestling training facility is over two hours of tension without a single moment of catharsis for the audience. Miller (Capote, Moneyball) builds the pressure deliberately in maybe the year’s ultimate slow burn. Steve Carrell will almost surely get an Oscar nod for his creepy performance as billionaire John du Pont — and it will be well deserved — but Mark Ruffalo is the film’s faintly beating heart, making the most of every second he’s on screen. This is certainly an actor’s film and while all the performances are great, Foxcatcher’s sluggish pacing and rushed conclusion make it feel like a grueling marathon.
Yet to See:
American Sniper | Big Eyes | A Most Violent Year