So many movies released in the past twelve months felt like advertisements that it was nice when the year periodically decided to come back from commercial break. That doesn’t mean that every non-blockbuster was a masterpiece. For every gem like The Grand Budapest Hotel there were duds like Palo Alto or Transcendence. And don’t get me started on The Giver again.
I count myself lucky to have seen the following ten films. Each broke the mold in its own way, either by inspiring, confusing, or something in between. These films, from seasoned and new directors alike, reinforce my love for the medium as both art and entertainment.
10. Locke (Steven Knight)
Earlier this year, Søren called Tom Hardy “a liquid.” I can’t think of a better way to describe him. Filmmakers rarely alter the actor’s typical rugged look – although his Nolan-orchestrated transformation into Bane was a notable exception. It’s Hardy’s mesmerizing knack for disappearing behind radically different characters that makes all the difference. Tom Hardy makes you believe that you’re watching a real man’s life unravel in front of some hidden candid camera. His performance lends the film’s private chaos a devastating heft.
Writer-director Steven Knight takes full advantage of his star’s formidable chops. Locke is both a one-man show and a high-wire act that conveys the devastating power of real-time narrative. Ivan Locke’s character develops with each passing minute of a dark highway drive.
9. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Let’s be candid here. Summer 2014 was garbage, financially. Ticket sales were generally down, and some of the box office heavy hitters were depressingly terrible (a big exception is further down on this list). Now, Michael Bay’s movies have a brain-dead knack for raking in the dough, but when two of them are in the Top 10 U.S. domestic totals for the summer, the season doesn’t seem all that sunny.
I think it’s fair to call Doug Liman’s criminally under-seen sci-fi flick a glimmer of hope amid the destruction. Edge of Tomorrow – don’t you dare refer to it by any other title – is entertaining in every sense of the word. The script is whip smart. The editing is sharp. And the leads are tremendous.
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt epitomize the term “co-stars.” They play off each other in equally compelling arcs. William Cage’s (Cruise) dynamic is as affecting as Rita Vrataski’s (Blunt) is thrilling. Together they combine with a taut narrative to create a film that is sure to send a wide grin across your face.
8. Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong)
Snowpiercer is speculative filmmaking at its best. It’s got a literal bullet train pace, a complex but accessible central ideology, and it’s jarringly brutal. Joon-ho Bong’s English-language debut, as befits dystopian fiction, depicts a frighteningly plausible vision of the near future.
The director’s choice to build his classism commentary into the train cars themselves may seem too transparent for some. I found this among the film’s greatest strengths. If the world freezes, would humanity cement itself into violently enforced socioeconomic factions? With his bizarre and remarkable film, Joon-ho Bong shows that we already have.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
Superhero movies aren’t going away any time soon. Six months ago, that fact made me feel a little bit sick. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, despite the infallible chemistry between its leads, still felt like a letdown. Marvel started to get sulky. DC still can’t seem to make a good superhero movie. Then the two studios began an announcement war, lobbing titles and release date plans like artillery shells. It seemed that an endless dirge of mopey folks in tights was about to unfurl ad infinitum.
That all changed
when the fire nation attacked when Guardians hit theaters. I loved it. My editor loved it. According to the box office returns, just about everyone else loved it, too. It didn’t win the year in ticket sales (Michael, you’ll live to swim another Bay), but it definitely made its mark.
James Gunn brought a giddy, fun-loving energy that’s been missing from the MCU since Iron Man. And Guardians barely feels like it’s part of the mega-franchise, which is a beautiful thing. The film’s success sent a message that I hope studios heed. Guardians of the Galaxy is a ball because it bucks the industry’s trend towards furrowed brow filmmaking.
Listen up, execs. Movies can be fun again.
6. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
I never expected to say that a Christopher Nolan film made me cry, but Interstellar did just that. The director stepped away from the broody, puzzle box trappings of his previous work and revealed a big fat heart. Yes, the movie spends most of its time in the chillingly silent, impersonal reaches of deep space. But Interstellar isn’t just about space.
This is a movie about human connection. It’s about a bond between father and daughter that’s strong enough to stretch across the universe. And it’s about facing the tragedy of death and lost time. Interstellar is overlong, and at times skews melodramatic in its embrace of heftier themes, but you can’t fault its genuine core.
5. The Double (Richard Ayoade)
Richard Ayoade plunges viewers into a wonderful well of weirdness in The Double. This is narratively and sensually a claustrophobic film. Anachronisms, a stark yellow and gray color scale, a stiff haunting score – these uncanny choices immerse the audience in Ayoade’s otherscape.
Jesse Eisenberg delivers two performances whose only link is their strength. As a lonely man and his doppelgänger, he is forced to convey intimidation and charisma with mutual commitment, and he succeeds in spades. Ayoade works in tandem with his star to hammer home the strange, suffocating atmosphere.
The film’s darkest and funniest aspect is how gleefully it torments its protagonist. The titular double and a mob of off-kilter coworkers nearly shut the man out of his own life. It’s horrifying and absurdly hilarious.
4. Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s debut is short and sweet. Forgive the old adage, but it’s true. Obvious Child thrives on a subtle, unassuming charm. It’s most notable for nobly going where no romantic comedy has gone before. Stand-up comedienne Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) has a one night stand and discovers she’s pregnant. The balance of the film’s plot focuses on Donna as she navigates getting an abortion.
Embracing subject matter commonly regarded as taboo is a brave thing unto itself. But Robespierre excels at carrying the elephant in the room with levity. Through Donna, the director shows that abortion can be approached maturely, even with humor. Jenny Slate handles the demands of her well-written role with aplomb.
Obvious Child is an intimate look into a real-life challenge. I loved it for its quiet progressive heart. The movie doesn’t preach to the choir. Instead, it makes an important move to raise the bar for Hollywood’s representation of women in cinema.
3. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
I watched Whiplash from the front row of a small theater. The film was quite literally in my face. But I bet its pulse-pounding intensity would register just as powerfully from any other seat in the house. Whiplash was the most stressful film I saw all year.
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons wage an intimate war as student and teacher in mutual pursuit of perfection. The co-stars are each at their absolute best. Miles Teller embodies the psychological deterioration of a young music student with a confidence that will surely emblazon his name on marquees for the foreseeable future. Simmons holds the viewer captive as tightly as the fearsome maestro holds his students. Laser-focused and chaotic, Whiplash is an addictive rush.
2. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
This is the kind of movie that makes me desperately want to make movies. Birdman is a celebration of cinema. It’s also a nostalgia romp for Michael Keaton fans. Riggan Thomson’s fictional celebrity narrative cheekily mirrors Keaton’s real one. The former Batman masterfully enlivens this retired Birdman. Keaton’s performance boils over with verve.
Stellar turns abound across the supporting cast as well. Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis bring their dramatic A-game. And Emma Stone devastates as Riggan’s daughter, Sam – she’s an emotional implosion and magnetic to watch.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fifth feature is a feast for the movie lover’s soul and eye, thanks largely to some masterful cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki. The DP and director keep the action rolling seamlessly into one dazzling long take. It’s intoxicating.
1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
There’s a magical moment when you realize that something has just irreversibly changed you. I experienced it after seeing Under the Skin for the first time. Jonathan Glazer’s surreal vision offered a voyeuristic glimpse into what it means to be human and alien, and how the two can be the same.
Scarlett Johansson’s brilliant performance as a mysterious extraterrestrial in disguise is the heartbreaking core of a film that abstractly explores the dark truths of the feminine experience. Johansson skitters across the emotional spectrum just as effortlessly as Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin bounce around their visual palette. The result is disturbing and confounding. It’s also enlightening and unforgettable.
Click here to see the other 2014 lists from the Movie Fail staff!