2014 was a terrific year for movies — and I say that without having seen several of the films that are appearing on others’ top 10 lists, like “Selma,” “Mr. Turner,” “Ida,” and “The Immigrant.” (That last one has been on Netflix for months, so I have no excuse, but the others simply haven’t screened yet where I live. For some reason, this year the studios were only interested in having their most prestigious offerings considered by critics in New York and L.A.)
But you know what? WHATEVER. Nobody sees everything. “Best movies of the year” should always be understood to mean “best movies of the year, from among the ones that I saw.” (For the whole list of everything I watched, look over here.) These are the 10 that delighted, excited, intrigued, or captivated me the most, ranked approximately according to the degree to which they did those things.
The backup 10 are a great bunch of flicks, too. And I could have listed 20 more that I’d recommend, including these 10 that made almost no money. Like I said, terrific year for movies.
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2014
Some movies on this list are more polished, more complex, or in other ways “better” than “Whiplash.” Because of that, I resisted putting “Whiplash” at the top. But then I came to an important realization: WHATEVER. This jazzy, electrifying drama about a drummer and his fearsome, un-Mr.-Holland-like instructor grabbed me when I saw it at Sundance in January and hasn’t let go all year. On second viewing, the flaws (like the third-act implausibility) didn’t bother me, but rather heightened the feverish experience. I can hardly imagine anything scarier than seeing J.K. Simmons’ forehead veins bulge and knowing it’s me he’s mad at.
2. “Under the Skin”
I left my first viewing of this eerily unnerving and abstract sci-fi curiosity feeling confident that I’d liked it but unsure why. Seeing it a second time brought it home. (Being a literal-minded fellow, I’m sometimes a bit dense about these things.) Jonathan Glazer’s account of a Scarlett Johansson alien learning what it means to be human was one of the most surreal and flat-out coolest things I saw (or heard; the ethereal sound design and trippy score are vital) all year.
Richard Linklater shot a few scenes at a time over the course of 11 years, resulting in a magical experience that captures the bittersweet, sublimely humdrum process of growing up in a way that no other single movie has done. The story is so universal that I identified with it despite having almost nothing in common with the kid (Ellar Coltrane) who grows up before our eyes. You come out of it feeling like you’ve lived an entire childhood.
4. “Listen Up Philip”
Then there’s this jerk. If you like movies about hilariously self-absorbed yet profoundly insecure semi-geniuses, here’s a smart, literate gem for you starring Jason Schwartzman as a young novelist. Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce as his girlfriend and mentor, respectively, add layers to the film, which ends up feeling like a good novel. How many movies feel like novels? Heck, how many novels feel like novels?
Bennett Miller, the director of “Capote” and “Moneyball,” continues in that vein with another true story about oddballs with unorthodox ideas. In “Foxcatcher,” weird billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) undertakes to become a trainer and coach to down-on-his-luck Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). I didn’t remember how this news story turned out, but Miller (who resists the impulse to make fun of any of these losers) expertly keeps us off-balance and uneasy. We know something is wrong; we just don’t know what kind of wrong it’s going to be. A riveting, methodical character study.
6. “The Babadook”
If I recall correctly, this was the Sundance film that, sight unseen, we all assumed would be re-titled before its release. We were wrong. And having seen it a couple times now, I think the goofiness of the title (from a children’s book within the movie) makes for a suitable juxtaposition with the fear and dread that permeate the story. It’s about a single mom (the powerfully talented Essie Davis) who’s at her wits’ end coping with her difficult 7-year-old son, who’s afraid of monsters under the bed. The monster is a metaphor for whatever might take hold of a person and drag him or her into the depths of despair … which makes the eerie story seem all too plausible.
7. “Ernest & Celestine”
Technically, this is a 2013 film. They released it for a week last December so it could qualify for the Oscars (it worked: it was nominated for Best Animated Feature), but the real release was in February. So I’m counting it for this year. Because WHATEVER. Anyway, it’s a perfectly charming, elegantly simple, sweetly deadpan animated tale from Belgium about a bear and mouse who become friends. If you watch this and don’t enjoy it, there’s something wrong with you.
Here’s a movie so manic and fun that it’s made to look like it’s all one unbroken take — and that’s not even the most interesting thing about it! Part backstage comedy, part showbiz satire, it stars Michael Keaton as a former movie superhero mounting an ambitious serious Broadway play as a comeback attempt. Keaton is great as a frustrated actor losing his sanity, and supporting turns by the likes of Edward Norton and Emma Stone keep this buoyant treat hopping.
True, there are ultimately some screenplay problems in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s darkly funny and tragic gut-punch of a film about a compassionate Irish priest and his village of sinners. But please see previous comments re: WHATEVER. Brendan Gleeson, a treasured actor who improves everything he touches, is certifiably brilliant as the priest, a troubled, imperfect but devoted man who wants nothing more than to help heal people’s wounds. The movie may “only” warrant a B grade, but Gleeson elevates it to something special.
10. “Cheap Thrills”
Another WHATEVER-based choice. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is more accomplished, “Snowpiercer” more ambitious, “Two Days, One Night” more thematically rich. I could go on. But “Cheap Thrills” is sick, demented fun, a cringe-inducing and hilarious look at the reckless lengths men will go to for money. David Koechner and Sara Paxton play rich jerks who pay a couple of losers (Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) to be their prank monkeys. The remarkably insane series of events that follow make this a terrific party movie and conversation starter.
Ten More Movies That Are Really Good and You Should Watch Them
And Also These:
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2014
I skipped a lot of the likely contenders (“Transformers,” the Sandler thing), so this list is by no means complete. And having mostly overcome the pain caused by the garbage piles I did see, I lack the enthusiasm to rage against them now. But briefly, and as a public service, here’s a handful of movies that can burn in hell forever.
1. “Winter’s Tale”: incoherently, weirdly, bafflingly bad
2. “Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day”: pointless chaos
3. “The Legend of Hercules”: inept, pitiful, cartoonish
4. “And So It Goes”: bland laziness aimed at the undiscerning
5. “The Expendables 3”: they’re not even trying anymore
MISCELLANEOUS DATA (originally published at Movie Mezzanine)
Anyone can tell you which movie made the most money this year (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), or which wide release had the highest Rotten Tomatoes score (“Boyhood”), or whether Sinbad was in anything (no). But who cares about that? We’ve compiled the details that truly matter. Learn these and be everyone’s favorite minutiae-oriented blowhard at your next party!
Longest movie: “Nymphomaniac: Director’s Cut,” 325 minutes
Shortest movie: (tie) “Bears,” “Meet the Mormons,” 78 minutes
Longest title: “Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day”
Shortest title: (tie) “Ida,” “Joe”
Movies in which a dog is killed: “Calvary,” “Cheap Thrills,” “Joe,” “The Babadook,” “John Wick”
Movies in which a cat is killed: Deliver Us from Evil, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Movies in which a horse is killed: Wild, Fury, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Pompeii, The Homesman
Movies in which a gazelle is killed: The Good Lie, Lucy
Movies in which Michael Shannon is killed: “Young Ones,” “They Came Together”
Movies in which a hero stops a villain by throwing a knife through the villain’s hand, impaling it to the wall: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Divergent”
Movies in which some characters randomly have Scottish accents and others don’t: Maleficent, How to Train Your Dragon 2
Animated sequels in which central characters are reunited with long-lost parents: Rio 2, How to Train Your Dragon 2
R-rated comedies in which outsiders sneak into a frat house, and in which Dave Franco and Seth Rogen appear: Neighbors, 22 Jump Street
Movies named after popular songs that frustratingly don’t feature those songs: In Your Eyes, Night Moves, And So It Goes, The One I Love, Gimme Shelter
Movies that use the song Obvious Child by Paul Simon: Obvious Child (duh), Wish I Was Here
Movies that use the song Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto: The Double, Inherent Vice
Movies that use the song Vitamin C by Can: Inherent Vice, Life After Beth
Movies centered on characters that had already appeared in at least four previous movies: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Godzilla, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Hercules, The Legend of Hercules, Muppets Most Wanted, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, I, Frankenstein, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Son of God
Movies in which characters discover their own twins or doppelgangers: Enemy, Muppets Most Wanted, The Double, The One I Love, The Identical
R-rated sex comedies starring Freaks & Geeks cast members in which a sex toy is brandished as a weapon: Neighbors, Sex Tape
Movies in which mirrors are smashed: Oculus, Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler
Movies with wormholes via which a long-lost daughter is saved: Big Hero 6, Interstellar
Movies where we’re told at the beginning that we don’t know the real story behind a famous character, and it turns out it’s because the movie completely changed it: Hercules, Maleficent, Dracula Untold
Movies where a man goes home with a woman he meets on the street, dances seductively for her, and is then preyed upon by her: Under the Skin, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Movies in which a resistance movement hacks the oppressive government’s broadcast signal and sends a message to the whole country: The Lego Movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1
Fictional movies that include footage from real documentaries: Interstellar, Lucy
Movies that have a Cinderella character who leaves a shoe behind: Into the Woods, Top Five
Please welcome our newest sorority sisters: Annie, Belle, Annabelle, Ida, Lucy, Selma, Tammy
And the new fraternity brothers: Frank, Noah, Joe
Remakes of ’80s movies: Annie, RoboCop, About Last Night, Endless Love
Movies in which the protagonist ultimately becomes a computer intelligence: Transcendence, Lucy
Movies in which Cameron Diaz worries about her sex life being exposed: The Other Woman, Sex Tape
Movies in which the lead is framed for his significant other’s murder: Gone Girl, Horns
Movies in which a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton appears: Snowpiercer, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Zero Theorem
Music-oriented movies featuring James Corden: Begin Again, One Chance, Into the Woods
Movies that open with the protagonist discovering their spouse cheating on them: Tammy, This is Where I Leave You
Depictions of bleak futures starring Kodi Smit-McPhee: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Congress, Young Ones
Movies in which Willem Dafoe plays a German: The Grand Budapest Hotel, A Most Wanted Man
Movies in which Brenton Thwaites has his expectations of reality upended: Oculus, The Signal, The Giver
Movies with important sequences set in Austin, and in which Twitter is a vital plot point: Chef, Frank
Movies in which Jack O’Connell is held prisoner: Starred Up, Unbroken
Movies involving reclusive authors: The Fault in Our Stars, Listen Up Philip
Movies in which critics are portrayed in a less-than-flattering light: Birdman, Big Eyes, Top Five, Mr. Turner, Chef, Life Itself
(Additional reporting by the indispensable William Goss.)