Here at the end of 2015 and the Top 10 Lists are hitting the web. I will be posting my Top 10 of 2015 very soon (only need to see a handful of films before I feel comfortable making the list), but first, I wanted to look back. When I originally posted my Top 10 of 2014, it was my return to writing and I ended up splitting the list into 4 separate parts. There’s nothing wrong with this, some websites would make each individual entry its own page (usually to get more page views), but I’ve always wanted to see what the list would look like as one cohesive piece. So here you go! At the end of 2015, here is my best of 2014, all in one article!
**Original Article Follows**
2014 was an amazing year for film. I know it’s possible to say that about any year, you just have to watch enough movies. There was just something about 2014’s movies that made it extra special. Maybe it was that I wasn’t expecting too much from it; there was always a sense that 2014 was just the warm-up for 2015’s explosion of high profile blockbusters (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Maybe it was that my life in 2014 was such a roller coaster emotionally and my enjoyment of film helped me get through it. Whatever the reason is, 2014 was great for cinema.
There was a great blend of both blockbusters and independent features. There were “popcorn” movies that were straight up fun (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie) while there were others that, while bombastic in scale, also challenged you to think about great cinematic themes like family and loyalty (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, How to Train Your Dragon 2). On the independant front, Boyhood and Chef gave us different tales of families and how they deal with hardship. Films like The Imitation Game and Selma gave us powerful performances that embodied even more powerful messages about equality. Finally, there was a sense of energy and excitement seen in 2014’s films that drew in the audiences and would not let go (Birdman, Nightcrawler).
Whether crying during How to Train Your Dragon 2’s triumphant story, tensing up the entire run time of Whiplash, smiling during The Lego Movie’s pure joy or reckoning with our society’s prejudice while watching Selma, it was an emotional year for moviegoers. I can easily say that 2014 contained the most emotional movies in recent memory. This may be something that just resonates with me, but as I look over the past year I’m taken back to when I saw the film and what was going on in my life. Whether happy or sad, these films struck a chord with me and that was a huge factor in making it on to my Top 10.
If I had more spending money I would own all of these films on blu-ray. While that may not be possible right now, it is possible for me to revisit the emotional impact I had while watching these films. Although 2014 was a tougher year for me personally, I am overjoyed when I think about the experiences I had as a cinephile during the year. I said I wasn’t going to write it until I saw everything, and here I am. May I present to you my official Top 10 films of 2014.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
It’s so strange, when thinking back on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I don’t think about the big action scenes or the concept of apes shooting guns. I think about the simple story of two families dealing with a new society. One family is of humans dealing with a misunderstood “threat,” while the other family is of silent apes who are growing and trying to coexist with their human counterparts. Both sides have good and bad in them, and that’s the meat of the film and what drives it into greatness. When the action beats come, there is such an emotional core that makes you care about what’s happening on screen. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Dawn of Apes does something amazing during the big action scene in the 2nd act (where the apes take over the city). Though it would be easy for Reeves to revel in the action for action’s sake, he instead shows it through the perspective of a scared ape, and we experience his fear as the audience. Reeves and his screenwriters take a simple action scene in the middle of a “summer” movie and use it to show the horrors of war. Though it is a slower movie, just writing about Dawn of Apes makes me want to go back and live in that world and think on the themes it explores. Yes, the “summer movie” can make you think.
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Nightcrawler is pure movie-making magic. It is a very simple film in that it has a lower budget and is just filmed on regular Los Angeles streets. With the film looking so simple, we are able to be sucked in thanks to an amazing screenplay by Gilroy. Gilroy’s screenplay would be enthralling just as a read, but Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance brings it to life and it is impossible not to be intrigued by this story. Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is a man who learns you can make money filming accidents and selling the footage to news stations. It is so interesting to learn about this side of newscasting and the film does a great job teaching the audience this intriguing profession. As we as an audience learn about night crawling, we learn about Louis Bloom, and we like him. He is a guy who has a strong work ethic and the ability to present himself as the ideal American. He is a capitalist who is willing to work hard and excel at his work. Once we connect with this character the film takes some different turns and we are forced to deal with moral ambiguity of this “upstanding” American. Between Gyllenhaal’s performance and Gilroy’s filmmaking, Nightcrawler is one of the most interesting character studies I’ve seen and an amazingly tense film to experience.
22 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
Hollywood has a sequel problem. While this problem sometimes produces gold (see: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), most of the time we are given lackluster experiences that are just meant to cash in on the success of the first film (see: the franchises of Night and the Musuem, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean). Comedy sequels usually set the bar the lowest when it comes to quality. It seems to be perfectly acceptable just to retread the same ground the first movie explored, all while repackaging the same jokes (The Hangover Part II, Dumb and Dumber To, Horrible Bosses 2). Instead of falling prey to this horrible trend, Phil Lord and Chris Miller look it straight in the face and say “bring it on.” 22 Jump Street is two things. One, it is funny. I mean, really funny. I mean, we have to pause the movie because we are laughing so much. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are perfect together and the script is comedic gold. Second, the movie is meta. When I say meta, I mean we are one step away from Tatum looking at the camera and saying “here is what we did in the first movie and how we are tweaking it for our sequel.” Though no one says that, the filmmakers love the perception of comedic sequels and take it as a challenge. The plot of 22 Jump Street is 90% recycled from the first film (substituting High School for College), and that’s what so great. 22 Jump Street manages to copy the first movie on all fronts yet remains as an amazing ORIGINAL experience because it accepts the fact that it is copying the first. While the film is so intriguing to explore as a piece of meta-storytelling, don’t let that take away from the fact that the movie is gut-bustingly funny. I can’t wait for 23 Jump Street…….and 24, and 25, and 26………..
Chef (Jon Favreau)
I love food. I love movies. It was destined for me to love Chef. Chef is a film that follows Jon Favreau as he attempts to connect with his son while also showing his passion for food and his talent for cooking. I have to say that Chef succeeds on three main levels. First, it is an inspiring story that is extremely positive. Because the film starts out at a low point, they can only go up from there. Favreau is able to rebuild his cooking career and through that he is able to make his family stronger. It was really refreshing to watch a film that was so unabashedly positive. Next, the film is a love letter (love film?) to food. Favreau captures the beauty of cooking and the beauty of an expertly crafted meal on film. Others have said it and I have to agree, don’t watch Chef unless you have food with you or food on deck, because you will be salivating the entire runtime of the movie. Lastly, Chef works on a deeper level as it is a parallel story to Favreau’s filmmaking career. For a more in depth analysis of this point, please read my review. What I’ll say here is that the film succeeds in telling the meta-journey of Favreau’s real life career through the metaphor of a chef opening his own food truck and running things on his terms.
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
What genre could you put Whiplash in? Is it a drama? Maybe it could be considered a musical based on its subject matter? Because of my experience as a musician, I’m tempted to categorize the film as a horror movie. Because the film is so tense and features some of the scariest scenes crafted this year. Let me back up, Whiplash is the story of a drummer (Miles Teller) who is being trained by and strives to impress his strict mentor/drum instructor (J.K. Simmons). The film features several scenes where the jazz ensemble practices in front of Fletcher (Simmons) and performs in front of an audience. These scenes are terrifying. Anybody who has ever performed live (whether musically or theatrically) knows this simple fear: at any moment something could go wrong. That fear is perfectly encapsulated in Whiplash. Because the film is all about Jazz music though, the fear is intensified as the music is so precise and needs to be performed perfect. Through most of the film I experienced extreme amounts of anxiety as I was hoping and praying that Neeman (Teller) would not screw up; I had just as strong a positive reaction when he succeeded. That’s the point of the movie. True success cannot happen except in the face of true failure. You can’t do something right unless you have ample opportunity to screw up and have a chair thrown at you by a crazy instructor. The film is extremely tense, features powerhouse performances by all involved (well-deserved Oscar win for Simmons) and is a great exploration of a musician’s journey. But I must warn you, if you have trouble with anxiety please prepare yourself before attempting to watch this film.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
The X-Men franchise is a strange beast. There is the original trilogy of films, two Wolverine spin-off films and the prequel/reboot X-Men: First Class. There was never really a sense that Fox had a plan when making these spin-offs and other movies, we just accepted it as another X-Men movie coming out, never really as huge mythos spanning over multiple-films. With X-Men: Days of Future Past, that all changed. Days of Future Past made official that First Class is a prequel and sets the continuity between the young cast and the older cast of Bryan Singer’s original X-Men trilogy. Contrary to what we thought, this HAS been one big franchise set over 50 years. When dealing with a film that attempts to connect two franchise using both casts and time travel, it can be understandable if you’re worried about it. I think that’s what made Days of Future Past so enjoyable. For me, there wasn’t too much hype and because of that I was able to be blown away by it. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he started (and perfected, X2: X-Men United is one of the all-time great comic book films) and he is joined by one of my new favorite screenwriters, Simon Kinberg. Together, along with every X-Men cast member ever (no really, ALL OF THEM), they created an amazing X-Men film that has both thrilling action and beautiful allegory the franchise has become known for. I truly believe it would be limiting to call Days of Future Past a “superhero” movie. I believe it to be a finely crafted piece of science-fiction filmmaking. Yes, the individuals have powers, but its not about costumed heroes saving the world. Days of Future Past has big set pieces, but it carries weight because of the emotional build up that comes from the writing/performances of its leads. There is a sense amongst fans that we are to dislike Fox because they own the X-Men and Marvel doesn’t. And while Fox has definitely made some poor films out of Marvel comic properties, X-Men: Days of Future Past proves that they can make amazing films out of these characters and I can’t wait for the future of the franchise.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
While watching this year’s Academy Awards, I had to try and explain what Birdman was to some friends who had never heard of it. You know how these things go, when a film is in contention to win Best Picture you can’t just explain what the film is about, you have to explain why it is winning so many awards and what is so good about it. I started my synopsis,
“Well, its the story of an actor trying to revitalize his career by doing a stage play.”
“Ok, seems straight forward enough.”
“BUT, he used to play a superhero in the 80’s, and now that character (Birdman) haunts him in his subconscious and in his professional life.”
“And though we’re not sure if it’s real or in his mind, Riggin Thompson uses supernatural powers like Birdman did in the movies, Birdman being the fictional movie that exists within this movie.”
“Wait, you’re losing me.”
“And its like super-meta because Thompson is being played by Michael Keaton! You get it? It’s like, Michael Keaton played Batman back in ‘89, and now his character is an actor that used to play a superhero! Isn’t that great?”
“I’m not sure if this film is for me.”
“No, I’m telling you, it’s great! Plus the whole movie is filmed to look like one long shot! And the whole score is just drums, but it adds to it, like the whole thing is improvised! Then there’s another level of meta because the movie is about actors acting while they teach us about how actors act……oh, you’re not listening anymore, that’s cool……OH MY GOSH BIRDMAN WON BEST PICTURE YEEEEESSSS!”
Though that may be a bit exaggerated, the point still stands. Birdman is a film that film geeks will love. It’s script, the way it is shot, the performances and its meta-story telling all make for a breathtaking experience. Usually I only buy blu-rays for the big blockbusters, but after seeing Birdman my wife and I agreed, we have to own this thing and go for the ride again.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe and Anthony Russo)
If you don’t know me, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a 23 years old, I have have been a Christian the majority of my life, I’ve been married for almost two years, I’m currently a supervisor at a call center and I LOVE MARVEL. While I didn’t grow up reading comic-books, between the cartoons as a kid and the films since I’ve been older I have fallen in love with all things Marvel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is amazing and there is always something to experience in it. Whether it be the films, the weekly TV shows, the soon-to-be-released Netflix series, spin-off comic books or just the overall fandom online, it is a great time to be a Marvel fan. While others have succeeded (i.e. Days of Future Past), no one handles Marvel properties as good as Marvel Studios.
While The Avengers is one of my all time favorites, the solo Marvel movies have always had something lacking. With Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, some of the films just felt like filler material leading up to another Avengers film. They would showcase our heroes fighting a bad guy of the week all while making references and dropping Marvel easter eggs throughout the experience. All that was changed with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. With The Winter Soldier, Marvel made a statement, “All of our films matter.” The Winter Soldier succeeds on so many levels, mainly because it is a perfect Captain America film while at the same time being a film that moved the entire Marvel Universe forward. It would have been a really great film if it featured the SHEILD/Hydra plot and had some fun action, but it is so much more than that. The Winter Soldier features so many great character moments that make you care about Cap, Falcon and Black Widow (screenwriters Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely understand the characters and are able to adapt them brilliantly). The film is also brutal when it comes to it’s action, not only does the movie feel like a spy thriller, it’s whole world feels “real” thanks to the great fight choreography. I can’t say enough about this film, all I can say is “In Marvel I Trust.”
Selma (Ava Duverney)
Selma is one of the best films I have ever seen, ever. It is not a biopic on the great Martin Luther King Jr. Though that could be an amazing film as well, Selma does much more than just show the bullet-points of an amazing leader. It looks to one point in his career, tells a story, shows the politics behind social change and packs an emotional punch to show why one bridge in Alabama is so important to American history. Some have reviewed Selma in light of the events in Ferguson, MO. Though that is not wrong, Selma can’t be limited to being a reactionary film that is commentary on a single current event. Selma is so much bigger than that. It is about how a great leader can still have family drama behind the scenes. It is about how big social change needs to have political deals and agreements made in order to be long-lasting. It is about how a man clings to his faith even if it is just via a conversation on the phone with a fellow believer. It is a film that just shows a small glimpse at the horrors of institutional racism in our country’s past (and sadly, our present).
I said that 2014’s films delivered so many emotions. While others on this list brought something to the table, Selma is the film I was thinking of when I wrote that. Selma is the first (and maybe only) movie to cause me to truly cry while watching it. Some of these were tears of sadness, but others were tears of true joy and inspiration watching this group of people move forward in the midst of tragedy. There are two scenes of violence in the film. We knew they were coming. It is a movie that features protests and responses from police after all. I went into these scenes as a critic, I was ready for the scene of the protest followed by the government causing some violence to show them who is boss. This would add drama to the story as they move forward and “win” in the end. This is such a clinical way of viewing the movie. That is limiting Selma to a screenplay, to something you could learn in a filmmaking classroom, and it is so much more than that.
These scenes destroyed me. While it was happening I was forced to reckon with the prejudice our country has shown and maybe even the prejudice in my own life. I was ready for “movie violence,” but sometimes a film can portray something so much more powerful than just a rehearsed scene of violence. That’s not to say that Selma is a historical documentary that features re enactments, it is definitely still a dramatic film that tells a story in two hours. It is just that the story it tells is both compelling dramatically and inspiring as a piece of historical reporting. I have said so much about how the violence in the film hit me emotionally, but Selma follows up that violence with a beautiful portrayal of King’s leadership in action. David Oyelowo masterfully performs as King, and the writing of this man is beautifully portrayed in the film. It is stunning to think that all the speeches in the film were written for the film (due to right’s issues, the filmmakers were unable to use King’s real speeches). This gives Selma it’s own voice, not simply showing us history, but adding to the conversation on what King means to this country and how prejudice still needs to be addressed today.
The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
How is it possible that The Lego Movie is so good? Everything was stacked against it. It is a movie based on a toy and those toys are usually based on movies. In the current trend of name recognition even legos seemed like a stretch. At least other toys (Transformers, G.I. Joe) have some form of characters and the bare minimum needed for a story (defeat the bad guys). How could there be a movie based on legos?
**After some research, I have decided that I am going to write the plural version of lego as legos. That may or may not be correct, but for the purposes of this review I will stick with it. I also will not be capitalizing lego, so not to cause a distraction. Also, it should be noted that I have read the word lego so much that it has lost all meaning**
There isn’t a main character when you play with legos. Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, what is the setting for the lego realm? There isn’t a clear answer because when you play with legos you create a new world every time you buy a new package. There are Star Wars legos, race car legos, animal legos, construction legos, other movie-based legos and so much more. When you open up one package those pieces determine the characters and the setting. Once you have two packages it becomes fun to take your generic race car, add a gun to it and make it fight the Millennium Falcon. When you play with legos YOU are the main character. YOU create the story and YOU are the focus because YOU are creating the world in which these pieces in habit.
That’s the point of legos.
And The Lego Movie captures that perfectly.
Written and Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, The Lego Movie is the story of construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt). He is living his normal lego life, working his normal job, saying hi to his normal neighbors and doing things all normal lego people should do. As far as he is concerned, everything is awesome. Soon he is introduced to a wide arrange of characters and locations. He learns that there are tons of different lego worlds and people out there. Whether they be cowboys, medieval knights, superheros, pirates, they are all here and accounted for. He also learns that there is more to life than just being normal. In order to fully live his lego existence he needs to take the normal pieces around him and create new things.
The Lego Movie is not about Emmet and his hero’s journey. It is about legos themselves and the joy that comes from playing with legos. When you play with legos, you make the rules and you create the adventure. You want to have a pirate and an astronaut create a new space boat to go fight the bad guys? Go for it! Do you have a car that you wish was actually a jet with weapons? Make it happen! Do you ever wonder what would happen if Batman were to party with Han Solo? With legos, you can make that party happen!
I can’t stress this idea enough. While the lego movie features a great story of becoming who you are supposed to be and creating new things, it is really about capturing the creative joy that comes from playing with legos and the innocence that comes from childhood itself. Things happen in this movie and it hits a nerve in your core that says “I know that, I’ve done that!” in regards to lego construction. It is amazing that the filmmakers were able to take the concept of a movie based on legos and were able to create something that gets right to the core of creativity.
Lord and Miller have proven their tremendous talent in their wide range of work. Whether it be 21 and 22 Jump Street, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or the brand new Fox comedy The Last Man on Earth, Lord and Miller have shown themselves to be masters when it comes to combining comedy, action and nostalgia. “Comedy, Action and Nostalgia” could be the tagline for The Lego Movie as it describes it perfectly.
A movie that shows this much creativity would be good in its own rite, but Lord and Miller fill it with so many jokes you almost feel spoiled having a movie this good. Within 20 seconds of the film we are already treated to 2-3 very funny jokes and the movie just keeps going. The pacing of the film is lightning fast. We go from scenes explaining the world, to slower moments where we learn about the characters through comedy, to crazy action scenes that show the full potential of a child playing with legos.
The movie is funny. The movie is smart. The movie promotes anarchy and following your dreams. The movie also promotes structure and following the instructions. There is a time and place for both in the story of The Lego Movie. There is a time to laugh at the ridiculous nature of lego laser sharks, but there is also a time to reflect on how a father and son can connect over toys that help them show creativity.
I can’t recommend The Lego Movie highly enough. Whether young or old there is something for everybody. It also helps that Batman is involved in a lot of the plot…and Batman is awesome (if you want me to like your movie, include more Batman). Everything truly is awesome when it comes to The Lego Movie. I’ve watched it multiple times since it came out and I plan on watching many more times with various audiences in my home. If 2014 was the year of emotional movies for me, then the The Lego Movie represents the emotion of joy. And the joy that The Lego Movie gave me was so strong that it had to be settled that this was my favorite film of 2014.