This list includes all the new movies (first run) that I saw in 2014, regardless of their release date (full list here). As long as they weren’t archival and were watched in a theater, they were eligible for this list. And yes, this is by no means a representative list of all the great films I saw. Now let’s get to it!
10. The LEGO Movie (Chris Miller, Phil Lord)
Everything was awesome with this movie that was basically a huge product placement for Legos…and filled with joy from beginning to end.
9. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs)
This story about a gay couple (played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) isn’t on this list because of its timely issues (gay marriage, housing crisis), but because the performances of Molina and Lithgow are so wonderful. The film steps a little wrong with the drawn-out ending, but that’s a small fault for a film that cares so much about its characters.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
I can’t say this is Anderson’s best film, as I’ve only seen the last three films he’s made, but this is the best of those three, depending not only on Anderson’s evocation of a Europe that vanished between the wars, but on Ralph Fiennes truly decent (and wonderfully acted) M. Gustave, which gives this film its emotional center, and its heart.
7. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
I enjoyed The Host but felt it lost steam once it crossed its halfway point. Not so Snowpiercer. We have a hero who must grow into the role (Chris Evans), a mentor who is not all that he appears to be (William Hurt), and a wonderful performance by Tilda Swinton in a role originally written for a man. Plus, unlike other movies about rebellion, this one truly contemplates the consequences of “winning,” while giving us characters that have depth. When some of them die, we truly feel the loss. Moral ambiguity at its best.
6. Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy)
The hardest category to choose best films from this year was documentaries. I easily could have put four on here (Supermensch and Life Itself being the other two). Maybe I should’ve limited it to one documentary, but Rory Kennedy’s film about the fall of Saigon and the efforts to relocate the Vietnamese who had collaborated with the U.S. to other countries is an incredibly well-made film about an incredible — and little-known — story, particularly to those of us who were born after the war ended.
5. American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Yes, this technically came out in 2013, but I didn’t see it until last year, so I’m putting it on this list. David O. Russell’s tale of a con-man helping the Feds is too good to leave off, with crises created by Bradley Cooper’s headstrong and possibly inept FBI agent narrowly averted by Christian Bale’s quick-thinking con-man. Plus, Bale, Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence are exceptional.
4. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
One could argue that J.K. Simmons’s character in this film is too abusive to his students to have lasted as long as he has at a prestigious music school. To that I have two words: Bobby Knight. But it doesn’t really matter: the real story here is two actors pushing each other to their limits: Simmons’s teacher and Miles Teller’s student, who is so driven to be one of the great drummers that he will suffer extreme abuse to get there. The climax of the film is a lesson in how editing can create emotional tension.
The best documentary of the year deals with the decision to challenge Proposition 8 through the courts. It results in the unlikeliest of bed-fellows and a reminder of how wonderful human beings can be when they forget to hate each other.
Linklater deserves all the accolades he’s been getting for this film, which follows a boy (Ellar Coltrane) through twelve years of his life, by filming the actor who played him (and most of the other actors) over a twelve-year period. It reminded me of the best parts of my childhood through its patchwork of moments. This film made me smile.
1. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
The best movie of the year is more tightly knit than Boyhood, with layers upon layers of meaning, centering around a priest (Brendan Gleeson) who is faced with death at the hands of a parishioner who was sexually abused by one when younger. The best handling of faith that I’ve seen onscreen — not as something that solves all our ills, or has all the answers, but as something that can provide comfort in uncertain times.
….And 12 Honorable Mentions, in no particular order: Like Father, Like Son (Kore-eda Hirokazu), Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (Mike Myers), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), Life Itself (Steve James), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois), A Letter to Momo (Okiura Hiroyuki), Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski), Burning Bush (Agnieszka Holland), Lucky Them (Megan Griffiths), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves), The Legend of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata Isao)