Best of the Year: Top 20 Films of 2014
Christmas and New Year have come and gone, drawing a close to 2014, so it's time to count down the best films of the year.
Christmas and New Year have come and gone, drawing a close to 2014, a year which produced a mixed bag of films. British film in particular has had its ups and downs, producing some incredible fare, from inventive thriller Locke and offbeat character study Frank to moving crowdpleaser Pride and excellent family film Paddington. But on the flipside, there was dreadful TV adaptation Mrs Brown’s Boys: D’Movie, smug Simon Pegg vehicle Hector and the Search for Happiness and widely loathed kids efforts Postman Pat and Pudsey the Dog.
It’s better to focus on the positives though – from the UK, US and overseas, drama to comedy to documentary and more – and compile a list of the 20 best films of the year, as I see it. Unlike previous years where I’ve gone from one Oscar season to another, I’m compiling the list from films released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2014, so new releases like Birdman and Whiplash won’t be included. Festival releases that weren’t otherwise released in 2014 have been omitted as well (so no Snowpiercer, for example).
If you agree/disagree with any of my picks, sound off in the comments section below…
20. What We Do in the Shadows
Improvised around a loose script by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Concords fame), this vampire mockumentary is a hilariously dry buddy comedy that playfully skewers genre tropes, from Nosferatu to Twilight and everything in between, while cramming in an obscene amount of quotable lines and memorable comedy set pieces.
19. Next Goal Wins
More about acceptance, diversity and spirit than it is about football, Next Goal Wins is a warm and endearing real-life underdog story that also provides some of the most loveable and compelling characters of the year as it follows the American Somoan national team through their World Cup qualifying campaign.
18. The Lego Movie
Celebrating individuality and creativity through a hyperactive stream of witty gags, big characters, bright colours and an ending that even manages to tug at the heartstrings, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller once again prove themselves adept at making great movies from unlikely sources.
17. The Guest
After putting a fresh spin on horror tropes with You’re Next, writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard applied the same wit and genre savvy to The Guest, a film that blends action, comedy and Carpenter-esque horror, with a knockout lead performance from Dan Stevens, formerly of Downton Abbey, now a movie star in the making.
One man, in a car, driving from Birmingham to London. It doesn’t sound like the most appealing premise but with Tom Hardy delivering a powerfully nuanced performance, Stephen Knight’s low key, inventive thriller ramps up the tension with sky-high personal stakes and a slick visual style.
15. 22 Jump Street
In copying the exact template of 21 Jump Street, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller set about sending-up formulaic sequels in the none-more-meta or self-referential 22 Jump Street. Stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are as charming as before and the gags are inspired, ranging from a red herring payoff to an obscure Benny Hill reference and the best use of an egg timer ding in modern cinema.
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s latest intricately detailed deadpan comedy is one of his best, with a hilarious Ralph Fiennes proving to be a perfect fit for Anderson’s style as Gustave H., concierge of the titular hotel in fictional Central Euro country Zubrowska. As ever with Anderson, all of the whimsy and elegant visuals are underpinned with a sense of melancholy, here the inevitability of war in Europe, that provides a dark backdrop to the comedy.
13. The Skeleton Twins
Straight from the Sundance school of downbeat American indies, The Skeleton Twins manages to rise above the depressed white people clichés, proving a sensitive, warm and insightful film that’s full of pain and regret as suicidal siblings Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reconnect after drifting apart for 10 years. The two leads are what really elevate the film, with the former SNL cast mates showing they have dramatic chops too, as well as a wonderful chemistry.
12. The Past
Asghar Farhadi’s family drama focuses on an estranged husband and wife in Paris trying to amicably resolve their relationship so she can settle in with her new partner, who has baggage of his own. Farhadi and his knockout cast – including The Artist‘s Berenice Bejo and A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim – explore weighty themes, particularly the past and the grip it has on us all, through a detailed and compelling story that takes some unexpected twists towards its conclusion.
11. The Raid 2
While Gareth Evans’ The Raid was a simple, video-game style story of a cop fighting his way to the top of a tower block, the sequel is a far more ambitious and complex affair as hero Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover in the Jakarta underworld. However, fans of the first film’s blistering action need not worry as this epic crime saga is littered with truly outstanding action sequences, including a bone-crunching, technically impressive fight scene set in a moving car…
10. Inside Llewyn Davis
With a fantastic soundtrack compiled by Coen brothers regular T Bone Burnett and a delightfully hangdog performance from Oscar Isaac as the titular folk singer, Inside Llewyn Davis is another Coens film, like Barton Fink and A Serious Man before it, focusing on a perennial loser, ambling through the 60’s Greenwich Village folk scene. Llewyn is a hard guy to like and the plot is fairly slight but the film is compelling nonetheless, as Llewyn meanders through a chilly New York, each one infused with the Coens’ usual brand of peculiar humour.
Set in a very near future where people are more attached to their phones than we are now, Spike Jonze’s stylish and sensitive film tells an insightful and often painful human story via a love story between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his sophisticated operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Jonze’s unique futuristic world is excellently realised – with the high-wasted trousers and pastel colours proving instantly iconic – and Phoenix’s soulful lead performance is one of the best of the year.
8. Life Itself
Steve James’ documentary on influential, Pulitzer prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert is a suitably warm, funny and moving look at the life of the man who popularised film criticism in the US. Ebert’s declining health – he suffered from cancer multiple times – and eventual death during production turned the film into something different as James mixes some very candid footage of Ebert and his family in hospital with entertaining talking heads (including Wener Herzog and Martin Scorsese) and archive footage of Ebert sparring with fellow critic and best friend/mortal enemy Gene Siskel on their seminal TV show At the Movies. At times a difficult watch, Life Itself is nonetheless an extremely entertaining and engaging portrait of an intriguing character who lead a fascinating life.
7. The Babadook
Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature The Babadook is an unsettling and unforgettable psychological horror that is more concerned with how we deal with our demons and how we can control them than blood, guts and jump scares. As a mother struggling to cope with her hyperactive young son after the death of her husband, Esse Davis gives an astounding performance as her character Amelia descends into madness, haunted by her own grief which manifests as the titular top-hatted baddie, an iconic creature that calls to mind Nosferatu and George Mellies, via Papa Lazarou.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most Scorsese-esque film in years and the one that most resembles Goodfellas, letting Leonardo Di Caprio’s charismatic, amoral protagonist Jordan Belfort sucking the audience into the glitz and glamour of his lavish drug-and-booze-fueled Wall Street lifestyle, before pulling the rug from under us with Belfort’s eventual crash. With a career-best Jonah Hill and breakout Margot Robbie supporting Di Caprio’s towering performance, Scorsese’s tale of financial excess and murky morality is funny, vibrant and ridiculously entertaining for its entire three-hour run time.
5. Gone Girl
Perhaps the juiciest, most flat-out entertaining film of David Fincher’s career, Gone Girl is a pulpy delight, full of audacious twists and jet-black comedy that’s insightful about what – and how much – we keep hidden about ourselves, even from our closest loved ones. There’s also some pretty sharp satire on the modern news industry’s thirst for salacious stories, with Missy Pyle impressing as a Nancy Grace-alike reporter desperate to report the most outrageous story possible. In the leading roles, Ben Affleck is suitably difficult to read and Rosamund Pike’s layered performance shows the many different sides of a complex character.
Hitting on well-worn themes – the media is morally bankrupt, people can be ruthless – with lashings of verve and black humour, Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler is a wildly entertaining character study of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a psychopathic social climber who finds his way into the media via grisly crime scene footage. Everything about Bloom is slightly off – reminiscent of De Niro’s genial psychopaths Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin – and he haunts the seedy underbelly of LA, motivated by status and fuelled by self-help mantras. Gyllenhaal is absolutely mesmerising, crafting the most memorable character of the year, and the supporting cast is full of engaging turns from the likes of Rene Russo and Bill Paxton, none of whom are remotely likeable but help make this edgy and slightly strange film all the more compelling.
3. 12 Years a Slave
It’s a credit to director Steve McQueen’s incredible skill, and the skill of his outstanding ensemble cast, that a film as brutal and unforgiving as 12 Years a Slave is so compelling and engaging. Winner of three Oscars, including Best Picture, McQueen’s depiction of free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor)’s harrowing experience as a slave in the antebellum United States. The performances across the board are excellent but it’s lead Ejiofor and Oscar winning newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who impress the most, giving powerful, heartbreaking turns that linger in the mind almost as long as McQueen’s camera lingers over the worst atrocities inflicted on the slaves, challenging us to keep watching while he offers no respite from the pain and violence.
Grand in scale, epic in scope and almost overwhelming to behold, Christopher Nolan’s massively ambitious Interstellar is a whopping achievement on almost every level. With leading physicist Kip Thorne acting as a consultant on the film, it deals with ideas and concepts that are exceptionally lofty compared to your average big budget Hollywood blockbuster but as well as the hard science, Nolan’s film also packs more heart than any of his previous efforts. Focusing on a pilot (Matthew McConaughey) who joins a mission to find a new home for humanity somewhere the other side of a wormhole, leaving his young daughter back on Earth, there’s a real emotional core to Interstellar and excellent performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain ground all of the science and spectacle in humanity. Nolan manages to spin love, loss and the inescapable march of time into an audacious science fiction epic that hits at both the brain and the heart.
The story behind Richard Linklater’s incredible coming-of-age epic Boyhood is well known by this point: Linklater caught up with the same actors once a year for 12 years, charting the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of seven through 19. The experience of watching Mason and his family (dad Ethan Hawke, mom Patricia Arquette, sister Lorelei Linklater) visibly age and evolve over that time is incredibly powerful, even as Linklater avoids obvious milestones in a family’s life. The passage of time isn’t marked by weddings, funerals or birthdays – most of the big events happen offscreen – instead it just happens naturally, moving fluidly through the years as the characters mature and change. The film feels less like a traditional narrative and more like just watching a passage of time in people’s lives but the way Linklater has crafted the film lends an authenticity and continuity that can’t be achieved in the same way by using different actors or aging makeup. With the Oscars on the horizon, Boyhood is currently the Best Picture frontrunner and there’s no doubt that Linklater’s magnum opus, a once-in-a-lifetime film, is wholly deserving of the accolade.
Outside of that top twenty, there are a number of other films that impressed this year: Michael R. Roskam’s crime thriller The Drop packed a killer twist and a strong performance from Tom Hardy; David Ayer’s war flick Fury was uneven but no less riveting; Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game is somewhat by the numbers but features a wonderfully nuanced performance from Benedict Cumberbatch; Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is a touching and often hilarious look at creativity and mental illness; Pawel Pawlekowski’s beautiful drama Ida; and John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a deliciously dark comedy with a never-better Brendan Gleeson at its center.
In the summer blockbuster realm, it was a good year for Marvel with their own films Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy – a superhero spin on the 70’s paranoid thriller and an offbeat space opera respectively – ending up two of their best films to date, while Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men universe resulted in the enjoyably labyrinthine time-travel epic Days of Future Past. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow was a pleasant surprise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes veered into Shakespearean territory to great effect.
Other highlights come from Nicholas Stoller comedy Bad Neighbours, Jon Favreau’s career catharsis Chef, young adult weepie The Fault in Our Stars, gritty prison drama Starred Up, ambitious sci-fi I, Origins, cultured vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive and Jean Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club, featuring an Oscar winning turn from Matthew McConaughey.
Any films I’ve missed? Any films I’ve included that I really shouldn’t have? Let me know in the comments below or follow Seensome on Twitter.