For a while it looked like 2014 would go down as a very weak year in cinema. It took time for me to come down from the high of Gravity the year before, and the first half of the year didn't impress (save for a few sprinkles of quality here and there). Thankfully, the second half of 2014 offered up a feast of treats that were varied in flavor--some as nuanced as a bite of small-batch cheese, others as satisfying as chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven (this is CineMunch, we're allowed to use food imagery as often as we'd like).
As is always the case, this list is incomplete and in flux (I just finished my 2013 list after all). I average 100 or so films any given calendar year, and, as you can see from our current list of films screened, I'm sitting at a (relatively paltry) 65. Simple statistics say that I have yet to see one or two films that will weasel their way into this top tier, but for now (or as of January 26th when we recorded our end-of-the-year podcast) these were the final ten.
But first, some necessary Honorable Mentions!
Summer was bookended by a pair of Marvel comic book films that refreshed the oh-my-God-this-genre-needs-to-go-away-ness of it all with the smart and engaging Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the supremely awesome Guardians of the Galaxy. In between those, Edge of Tomorrow proved to be just as entertaining and nearly as cool as any great summer blockbuster before it. Autumn brought the darkly comedic duo of Gone Girl and Nightcrawler. Love is Strange added to an already impressive year in GLBT cinema, CITIZENFOUR was a breathtaking and thrilling document, and The Babadook was much more than just 2014's greatest horror film. In any other year (or truly in this year if and when I change my mind or adjust these rankings) that grouping might've placed, but for now the ten below have edged them out.
And now the semi-official, wholly personal, and 100% accurate ten best films of 2014:
To kick it off, let's begin with what is certainly NOT one of the ten best films of the year by any measure other than this is my list and I'll do with it what I want. G.B.F. (which stands for Gay Best Friend, naturally) is a derivative high school comedy that very clearly owes its style and wit to Mean Girls (which itself was borrowing from many that had come before). Indeed, the high school genre need not stray from a standard formula to be successful, but this one took what should've been a reductive and shallow mess and surprised me with its heart, integrity, and verve. It's sitcom-y and only half of the jokes really land, but it won me over (with an assist from some endearing performances, namely Megan Mullally and lead Michael J. Willett).
9. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
What an insane ride. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu broke out of his miserablist streak (Biutiful, Babel, etc.) to deliver a jaw-dropping collection of artistic achievements. Incredible cinematography (by the always genius Emmanuel Lubezki) and the best original score of the year (by Antonio Sanchez) propel you through one of the most daring and thrilling meta-adventures ever put to screen. Michael Keaton, in my favorite leading male performance of 2014, leads an exceptional cast that pokes fun of and honors the absurdity and occasional brilliance of acting, art, and the very industry in which the film itself was made.
A modern day Shakespearean tragedy. Calculated, controlled, and chilly, it wasn't for everyone, but I was entranced by director Bennett Miller's confident precision. The slow and ominous pacing provided me breathing room to consider every frame and line delivery. And each of these decisions detailed what the filmmakers chose to say about America, success, and the haves and have-nots. The rich ensemble (led by career-best work from each of its stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and a wonderful Mark Ruffalo) stimulated what was essentially a slow-motion car crash that its characters didn't know was coming and you couldn't look away from.
7. Stranger by the Lake
Haunting, frank, and explicit. It was the year's best horror movie that wasn't technically a horror movie. Provocative and voyeuristically filmed, Alain Guiraudie's alluring thriller allows (or forces) you to become a prying observer, peering through the trees at a secluded French beach that doubles as a gay cruising spot (and eventual crime scene). You're seduced by danger as the tension mounts and everything (and everyone) you know to be hazardous becomes all the more enticing. Until it's not and you remember that Little Red Riding Hood already taught you to be leery of strangers...
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Grand, indeed. Aided, as usual, by a remarkable cast, Wes Anderson crafts another idiosyncratic gem. This time, his meticulous world-building is elevated by historical heft (albeit entirely fictional) and a sublime Ralph Fiennes as the central oddity in a movie full of eccentric characters (including the eponymous locale). In addition to being immensely re-watchable, it has a real streak of melancholy that manages to sneak up on me with each viewing, deepening my experience and persuading me to check back in again.
A masterful piece of art that is deceptive in its simplicity. Concise like a great poem that's been whittled down to the perfect word selections while still maintaining its layers and poignancy, there's not a wasted or superfluous moment. Two symbolic and towering performances alongside magnificent and unexpected cinematography convey so much depth beneath the surface. A timeless instant-classic that will be studied for years to come.
The biggest crowdpleaser of the year that unfortunately never found its crowd. All the more special then that we did discover this delicious British confection. A well-balanced and well-rounded ensemble (our pick for best of the year) enrich the relatively formulaic tale of underdogs coming to the defense of other underdogs and learning about each other in the process. It charms the pants off of you and ultimately moves you, but never in a cloying or manipulative way. It may not push the boundaries of film as art, but sometimes a great story well told is all it takes to break through the pack and warm your heart.
A true journey. Reese Witherspoon, director Jean-Marc Vallée, and screenwriter Nick Hornby masterfully position you in Cheryl Strayed's boots, accompanying her on each step of her physical and emotional expedition. An inventive soundscape and unsentimental landscape sync you to Cheryl's every thought and feeling, fully earning that final catharsis. Never romanticizing or embellishing the story or the flawed character at its center, its honesty is refreshing. Similarly to my #1 film of the year, it doesn't push for climactic moments (though there are plenty) or force meaning on its audience. This was a personal odyssey we were privileged to traverse.
Powerful and vital filmmaking. Never has a history lesson been so visceral. Smartly eschews many tropes of the traditional biopic to show us a movement and a moment in history when individuals collided and came together to enact change. David Oyelowo's commanding Martin Luther King, Jr. may be our leading player, but he's just one voice in a community of many (add this one to the lengthy list of great ensembles this year). Ava DuVernay's dynamic direction places you right there in the middle of history--be it on a bridge, in the White House, or in someone's well-loved kitchen--all the while illuminating the unfortunate connections to today's complicated world.
The defining film of 2014. Fitting, in a year when I turned 30, that I found myself pondering age and the passage of time. Richard Linklater has always had a gift for capturing moments (Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy), but here, along with the tool of 12 years of actual time elapsing, he's able to take a string of mundane events and create a profound whole. Resonant and effortless, Boyhood connects you to a life (or, indeed, life) that may be far from your own, but lets you experience each minute, day, year as if it were. A true work of love and a very special film (and not simply because of the novelty of its creation), this is one for the ages.