2014 was an exceptionally enjoyable year of films, from a great crop of unique prestige pieces like Birdman and Boyhood, to brilliantly funny comedies, with some of the finest blockbusters and children’s films of recent memory in between. It was very difficult to narrow down this year’s best releases to just ten films and an honourable mentions list would be just as long, if not longer than the top ten itself. Bear in mind that I did not get the chance to see every movie of 2014 (for example, I am far too cowardly to ever watch The Babadook), so there are bound to be some notable omissions.
10: Inherent Vice – Dir; Paul Thomas Anderson, Starring; Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston
You know it’s been a very strong year when the latest Paul Thomas Anderson movie comes in at 10th place. Inherent Vice is PTA’s most likeable film to date, even if that added accessibility takes away from some of the majesty that his previous works have been capable of. An incredibly fun stoner comedy, with the added intrigue of having a classic noir mystery story, the first ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel is far more coherent than was expected. Joaquin Phoenix once again delivers a standout performance as the likeable Doc Sportello, and the nostalgia for late-60s California gives Inherent Vice a timeless quality that was visible in few other 2014 films.
9: The Lego Movie – Dir; Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Starring; Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett
Alongside Big Hero 6 and Paddington, The Lego Movie was one of the key ingredients in one of the strongest ever years for family-friendly filmmaking. Written and directed by the team behind the hilarious Jump Street movies (22 Jump Street very nearly made it onto this list), what could have been a shameless cash-in on a famous toy brand was actually one of 2014’s funniest films. Endlessly quotable and with riotously enjoyable comedic set-pieces, The Lego Movie never went more than 5 minutes without a proper laugh, and certain sequences had me nearly falling out of my chair. The animation was also ridiculously imaginative, everything from the sea to the sky being made entirely of Lego pieces. The only thing that stops it from being higher on the list is that a lot of the jokes work less well on the re-watch, but it was still the best trip to the cinema that parents of young children could have had in 2014.
8: Calvary – Dir; John Michael McDonagh, Starring; Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly
My favourite British film of the year, Calvary told a moving and gripping tale that wasn’t quite a whodunit, but more of a who-will-do-it. After Gleeson’s good priest is threatened with death in a confessional, he has just a week to put his affairs in order, care for his suicidal daughter (Reilly) and maybe save the souls of his townspeople. Every member of the cast gave sublime performances, from Gleeson in the lead role, to Aidan Gillen’s venomously atheistic doctor. Chris O’Dowd was the most surprising, simultaneously gut-wrenchingly sad and terrifyingly threatening. Every character was wonderfully fleshed out and the finale will stick with you for days after you see it. A film likely to be generally forgotten about come awards season thanks to its small budget and April release, Calvary is nonetheless an unmissable piece of Irish cinema.
7: Selma – Dir; Ava DuVernay, Starring; David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson
Achieving the rare honour of being both a historical drama as well as incredibly relevant to the year it was released in, Selma‘s story of the triumph of Martin Luther King in Alabama in 1965 reminded us just how far America has come, and how far it still has to go, in its race relations. Recent, tragic, events made Selma one of the year’s timeliest movies, and it helped that it was a thrilling film in its own right. Unflinchingly portraying the brutal and random violence of the era and anchored by an absolutely magnetic David Oyelowo, you could easily approach Selma as nothing more than an exciting period drama and it would be an excellent film. The context of its release merely highlights just how important it is.
6: Guardians of the Galaxy – Dir; James Gunn, Starring; Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace
Marvel Studios were on top form in 2014, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy their two best films yet and Guardians becoming the highest grossing film in the US this year. The argument over which one is superior could go on and on without resolution (and Captain America still ranks pretty highly), but my pick goes to Guardians. No other film this year had as much re-watch value for me, and from start to finish it had me grinning. Suffering slightly from the usual Marvel tropes, James Gunn’s whip-smart script kept these problems at bay, making his impeccable mix of humour and action look effortless. A note-perfect cast and the year’s best licensed soundtrack rounded the experience out and made Guardians the best blockbuster of 2014.
5: Nightcrawler – Dir; Tony Gilroy, Starring; Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo
The surprise hit of the year, Nightcrawler came out of nowhere and ended up being the darkest, most exciting thriller of 2014. The story of a man, Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) willing to do anything for employment in LA, the year’s darkest anti-hero discovers he has a knack for freelance crime reporting. Escalating the tensions and stakes constantly and believably, all the way to a genuinely exhilarating finale, first time director Tony Gilroy, who also wrote the film, keeps the audience in suspense all the way through. The action is directed brilliantly, and the film avoids the easy trick of spending too much time shot through the lens of Lou’s camera, which allows for more time with Gyllenhaal’s fabulous lead performance. Thinned-down and startlingly driven, it’s the best he’s ever been, in the best role he’s ever been given.
4: Grand Budapest Hotel – Dir; Wes Anderson, Starring; Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody
Quite probably the best film Wes Anderson has ever made and one of the funniest films of 2014, The Grand Budapest Hotel is never less than incredibly enjoyable. Ralph Fiennes is superb as M. Gustave, the camp concierge of the eponymous hotel. It’s a completely different role to what he’s usually given and he revels in it, doing the best swearing of the year by far and mastering the art of comedic running. It looks sensational, with Anderson’s trademark flourishes abounding, and the set design and use of miniatures create a sumptuous world for the story, a caper set just at the outbreak of the Second World War. With a hugely impressive roster of actors making cameos across the film, there is a sense of fun at play here that makes The Grand Budapest Hotel absolutely essential.
3: Boyhood – Dir; Richard Linklater, Starring; Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Rightly famed for its groundbreaking approach to its story, Boyhood‘s 12 year production process makes it almost entirely unique in the world of narrative filmmaking. Watching Mason (Coltrane) grow up is an experience guaranteed to provoke a different emotional reaction from every viewer. For me, there was an intimate familiarity (Coltrane and I are around the same age) but for others, especially, say, parents, there will be something unique. It takes a special film to be both deeply personal and simultaneously universal, and Boyhood achieves this in an astonishing fashion. Even if the dialogue is not quite as masterful as Linklater’s Before trilogy, the revolutionary real-time ageing of the characters and actors makes up for that emotional reality. The only thing cinematically comparable in terms of witnessing a growth into adulthood would be the Harry Potter series, but what that took 8 films to do, Boyhood does in one. With a heartbreaking supporting turn from Patricia Arquette as Mason’s mum, and a different experience for every viewer, Boyhood is all but guaranteed to become a fixture in cinematic history.
2: Whiplash – Dir; Damien Chazelle, Starring; Miles Teller, JK Simmons
Who’d have thought that a film about jazz drumming would end up being more viscerally exciting than stories about missing wives, men at war, and the LA underworld? Shot and edited like a thriller, Whiplash kept my eyes positively glued to the screen from its opening moment to its stunning finale. The story of Andrew Nyman (Teller), loosely based on the real experiences of writer/director Damien Chazelle, is physically and emotionally damaging, with a confidence and sense of pace possessed by very few other feature length debuts (although Nightcrawler managed to achieve something similar). JK Simmons is outstanding as Andrew’s abusive teacher, for which a Supporting Actor Oscar surely awaits, channeling R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket and forcing the audience into uncomfortable laughter as he tears his students down. Culminating in a breathless, nearly wordless, 15 minute showdown between its two leads, Whiplash is an exhausting experience in the best possible way.
1: Birdman – Dir; Alejandro González Iñárritu, Starring; Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
Grand Budapest Hotel had big laughs, Boyhood used unique cinematic tricks, and Whiplash excelled thanks to its brilliant lead actors and riveting music. How about a film that covers all those bases and then some? That film is Birdman, the first entirely English-language film from Alejandro González Iñárritu. Ostensibly a comedy, not only is Birdman very funny, but it also covers some very difficult themes – the values of art, the constant struggle between the id and the ego, and what it takes to be a good father. Yet it never feels pretentious or preachy, with the humour and flawless cast (Keaton and Norton in particular are wonderful) balancing out the serious stuff. This script is matched by the visuals, with Emmanuel Lubezki (probably the best DP working today) and editor Douglas Crise achieve the wondrous feat of making the vast majority of the film look like one unbroken shot. A technical masterstroke, it also puts us into the ailing mind of lead character Riggan Thomson (Keaton), creating, alongside the oppressive crowds and narrow hallways, a stifling sense of claustrophobia as the play Riggan is trying to put on collapses around him along with the rest of his life. A unique score (it shares a love of drumming with Whiplash) is the thick icing on 2014’s most delicious cake. Birdman is vital cinema, to be used as proof against those who claim that mainstream film has lost imagination. A masterpiece and the film to remember 2014 by.