10 Best Movies of 2014 (and the 5 Worst)

As critics, we spend countless hours in darkened theaters, scribbling cryptic notes to ourselves and hoping beyond hope to get lucky enough to see something truly transcendent. In a good year, we might experience such a thing three or four times amongst the dirge of focus-groups-lead, clichéd drivel.

A fellow critic was describing the fare at Toronto this year as being very well made and acted, but not terribly moving, a description I felt was perfectly apt at the time. But then I got to see the Dardennes’ absolutely brilliant Two Days, One Night, and the joy I felt upon leaving the theater that September night was perfectly delirious. One film in a week of solid viewing, but it made it all completely worth it.

The year certainly didn’t start with a bang. In fact, as compared to the glory that was 2013, for many long months, it seemed as if 2014 wasn’t going to have many cinematic crown jewels, but then things started turning around after last winter, and have picked up the pace since then. Fortunate are we all, for 2014 now appears to be another rock-solid year. I’m always happy when the number of films I list as Worthy Mentions far outnumbers the Other Dishonorable Entries category. My ranking below:

The Best Films of 2014


Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida

10. Ida
Pawel Palikowski’s drama centers around a young nun-in-training (played excellently by Agata Trzebuchowska), who is encouraged to spend time with her only living family member—an aunt (Agata Kulesza) with a sweet disposition and extensive backlog of pain—before making her vows. It’s an absorbing and emotionally wrenching film that sticks to your psyche like a cold, grey fog. Full Review

9. The Guardians of the Galaxy
Rare enough, in the age of the ubiquitous would-be summer blockbuster, that such a film is actually entertaining and not just prepubescent, but James Gunn’s comic-book action goof-off is thoroughly winning: a boisterous, slightly punchy giggle at the end of an exceedingly long, hot summer day. Full Review

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson takes a lot of undeserved heat for making “Wes Anderson movies,” which has always seemed very silly to me. You’d prefer he try some outlandish and ill-fitting different style just to show his versatility? This lavish film, filled with great performances, inventive visuals, and exquisite comic timing, was one of the most fun experiences I had in theaters this year. Full Review


Force Majeure

7. Force Majeure
Partially, a well-observed familial relationship film; partly, a jet-black comedy (albeit with some odd beats to it), Ruben Östlund’s ski-vacation drama, set on the stunning French Alps, is never less than fascinating. It takes the theme of family dissonance and blows it up to reveal the horrific truth about our irrational breaking point, whether we choose to admit it or not. At our core, we’re nothing but survival, cowardice, and neurosis. Capsule Review

6. Life Itself
The most fitting tribute to Roger Ebert would of course have to be a film, and one as rich and poignantly honest as this one from Steve James. It follows the life and phenomenal career of one of our best-known (dare I say beloved?) film critics, but it’s no paean or ego cruise in homage to the man. It shows his darker side, including his love/hate relationship with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, and the effects of the cancer that spread through the lower part of his face, ravaging his body, and taking away his ability to speak. Somehow, mute, Ebert became an even more accomplished writer, and amazingly, a more vibrant person. Full Review

5. Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
There was a good deal of critical hype about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s backstage theater drama coming out of the NYFF, where it had its premiere, and it turns out that the considerable smoke lead to a raging bonfire. The film is a technical marvel, shot as it is as one long, sweeping take (albeit with generous edit points), but beyond the bells-and-whistles, there’s a film of considerable power concerning the nature of artistic creation and sacrifice (something of an accompaniment to Whiplash, a bit further down this list), and all while keeping a strong and unflinching sense of humor. A marvel. Full Review

Film Review Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

4. Under the Skin
An exquisitely obtuse sci-fi freak out from Jonathan Glazer, that finds Scarlett Johansson as an alien cruising the city streets of Scotland in search of willing men she can lure into an oily-based death prison. The film gives us precious little in the way of exposition or explanation, leaving Glazer’s superior storytelling and Johansson’s extraordinary (and brave) performance as all we have to divine the nature of the narrative, which leads to a disturbing and remarkable cinematic experience. Full Review

3. Boyhood
In many critic circles, the film of the year, and deservedly so, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making bittersweet coming-of-age-and-beyond drama is highlighted by incredibly deep performances from Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and newcomer Ellar Coltrane, but the real stand-out of the film is Linklater’s unwavering and unsentimental vision. One of this country’s most humanist directors, he’s created a document of aging and parenthood that’s as indelible as it is provoking. Full Review


Downingtown’s Miles Teller in Whiplash

2. Whiplash
Young Damien Chazelle’s film is bristling with power and angst, but it also makes a valid point about the nature of greatness and the enormous sacrifice it takes to achieve it. We might dislike individual artists personally, but, in the end, it’s their work that endures long after our petty differences have been forgotten. You want immortality, you have to start earning it, and the price is far too much for most people to bear. Full Review

1. Two Days, One Night
The Dardennes’ film is an emotional knock-out, to be sure, but it’s also an example of one of the rarest types of dramas: A story about personal morality that sheds a glowing white light onto human nature, and, quite possibly, the pathway to ethical happiness. After seeing it in Toronto, I compared it favorably to Bicycle Thieves, and I stand by that now. Capsule Review

Other Worthy Mentions: Nightcrawler, Fury, We Are the Best!, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Trip to Italy, film title, film title, Palo Alto, The Skeleton Twins, Foxcatcher, Calvary, The Raid 2: Berandal, The Unknown Known, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Enemy, The Lunchbox, Tim’s Vermeer, Gloria, Mr. Turner, Blue Ruin, It Felt Like Love, Wild, Jodorowsky’s Dune

The Worst Films of 2014


Diogo Morgado as Jesus in Son of God

5. Son of God
On the one hand, you have to hand it to mega-producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey. They managed to take already existing footage of Jesus from their wildly popular History Channel cable mini-series, “The Bible” and cut it into a feature-length flick that made close to $60 million simply by tweaking the Christian community to come and see their would-be epic, double dipping, in effect, on their investment. So, kudus to them on a winning business scheme. Unfortunately, the film they produced, which stars the winsome Diogo Morgado as Jesus and Downey as the long-suffering Virgin Mary, is every bit as lifeless and cheap looking as an under-budgeted cable TV show. Bonus points for making sure Downey’s contorting face dominates the screen during Jesus’ suffering at the hands of the Romans. Full Review

4. Magic in the Moonlight
Inexplicably, there were some critics (Richard Brody, I’m looking at you) who found this trumped-up treacle captivating and sweet. I found it wretched, poorly conceived and unbearably sloppy. It also doesn’t help that it matches as mutual love interests Emma Stone (26) and bloody Colin Firth (54), a creepy May-December romance that Allen has absolutely got to stop celebrating. Tone deaf and idiotic, it takes what could have been a brilliant set-up and absolutely decimates it with its ineptitude, leaving its talented cast to languish on the screen. Full Review

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy

3. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them
There are actually three films in this would-be romantic opus: A version from the male protagonist’s POV; one from the female’s perspective; and this hybrid one, which combines the two. It’s an interesting sounding experiment from Ned Benson, but only if the characters are truly compelling and the stakes of their doomed romance are genuinely significant. This film manages neither. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, a pair of gifted actors, are thoroughly wasted in their bland roles, and the story, which more or less follows the romantic comedy model minus even the hint of laughs, is thoroughly drummed up and manufactured-feeling. I suppose you’re meant to watch the His and Hers versions separately before watching the combined story, but you wouldn’t want to have to spend even another minute in the presence of these two drab sops. Full Review

2. The Reach
Technically, it hasn’t been released yet, but I managed to catch this “action thriller” up in Toronto this year, and felt it really deserves a special shout-out as being the worst film I’ve seen in three years at TIFF. It stars Michael Douglas as a … wait for it … incredibly rich and priggish big game hunter, who blows into a small New Mexico town one morning in a suped-up Mercedes SUV in order to bag himself some sort of rare Big Horn, and handsomely pays a young tracker (Jeremy Irvine) to help him find one. Naturally, the film quickly devolves into a “most dangerous game” scenario, with Douglas’ Madec, terrorizing the poor kid in his giant truck and shooting at him indiscriminately. Insanely idiotic, poorly made, and thoroughly nonsensical, the film lacks even the barest vestiges of common sense. Not at all sure what Douglas was thinking of here (he’s also one of the producers), but one hopes it was nothing like this finished product. A straight-to-video release, if he’s lucky. Capsule Review

are you here

Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis in Are You Here

1. Are You Here
Not only was this wan comedy from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner the single worst film I’ve seen this year, it’s also the most perplexing. How can such a gifted writer, one whose pilot script for his wildly successful and influential TV show remains one of the most riveting hours of TV in the last decade, produce such an incredibly poorly conceived and executed mish mash such as this? It’s so interminably bad, it takes the formidable, charismatic talents of its stars (Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, and Zach Galifianakis) and reduces them to unwatchable boors. Trite, poorly made, and wildly unfunny, the movie can’t even perform the basic rudiments of filmmaking with any degree of competency: Even the scene-blocking is absolutely atrocious. As I wrote in my review at the time, “It’s so bad it brings to question whether Weiner was actually at the helm or trying to set up scenes while simultaneously on his phone, story-boarding the final season of his TV show.” Full Review

Other Dishonorable Entries: Cuban Fury, Tammy, This is Where I Leave You, Need For Speed