First, though, some runners up. These are the movies that I really enjoyed, though not quite enough to put them on an actual list of the best movies of the year, but enough to mention them anyway out of some kind of impulse to cram more titles into this thing. Don't judge me.
I wanted to mark this down because I hate the idea of splitting a book adaptation into two parts. It's money-grubbing crap and they could have figured out a way to put the entire book into one movie if they wanted to. But you just can't argue with how good this is. Francis Lawrence wields his directorial hammer once again and crafts a masterpiece. This has gorgeous cinematography and visuals, acting so good you feel like even the fantasy-politics they're talking are real, characters you care about and a cool, smart social commentary on how media can be used as a weapon to incite fear and change social opinions. I know a lot of people like to puff themselves up and talk about how this series is just teen crap with love triangles, etc, but it's a lot more than that, and this movie proves it. I'll see the second part too.
In my worst movies list, I talked about The Equalizer and why Hollywoodized revenge films portraying revenge as cool and stylish are shit. Blue Ruin is the antithesis to those movies. This is a down-and-dirty, Dennis-Lehane-styled Southern thriller about this little dude who comes home to get revenge for his parents' murders years earlier. I like that this doesn't give you the typical rugged, super-attractive Christian Bale-esque main lead character, the kind of guy who despite being at the end of his rope and half-insane, still manages to brush his hair and put on moisturizer every day. No – the main guy here is this meek, awkward, nervous little guy who seems like he's got a real short fuse. That's realistic and the character is interesting. With a bunch of bloody violence and a fast pace, this movie gets to business quick and remains entertaining throughout. Go see it.
Weird, spastic, out-there horror. This evokes Lynch and Kubrick at times and makes for a creepy, imaginative romp. The second half sort of becomes a different movie entirely and explodes into a gala of gore and alien serial-killing and body-metamorphoses. I also enjoyed the sort of commentary on hipster-types saying they're going to do things but usually just being pretentious fops about it and spending their time drinking and doing drugs. It's also a story about acting and the way art eats you alive. Go see it now.
And now for the real heavy-hitters – the actual Top 10 of the year, according to me!
10. The Skeleton Twins
Really raw, powerful and funny dramedy about two twins who reunite in the middle of some personal crises. Powerful performances by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are only part of the appeal, with the rest being the stunning writing – you really get into this story and it affects you. The characters are flawed and human, and it's interesting to watch. You get a very good blend of the drama and the comedy here, and so it's a very complete, professional feeling film that will satisfy every need you have in watching one. Well, maybe not the need for sci-fi action, but even so.
9. Gone Girl
David Fincher returns with an adaptation of mega-hit novel Gone Girl from rising star Gillian Flynn. This story about a marriage gone horribly wrong is delivered with a dark sort of humor just like the book had. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as lead characters Nick and Amy are masterful, and the rest of the supporting cast does awesome, too. There's a lot of commentary here on the media cycle and the way public opinion matters in high profile crime cases, as well as commentary on the way women are treated in modern American relationships – all of this is attacked with a satirical, barbed spear and a dark cynicism and humor. I would probably love this more if I hadn't read the book, as they're almost the same thing with very few differences, but even so, Gone Girl the movie is a masterful, deftly-made piece of art.
8. The Fault in Our Stars
Another great book from the last few years hit the silver screen. This romance story about two teens with cancer is just an all around great film, tugging at your heartstrings, delivering funny moments and setting up a world you can't get enough of. The performances are intense and feel like the characters are real and the story moves along so expertly that you barely notice two hours have gone by. I actually enjoyed Shailene Woodley's portrayal of main character Hazel even more than the character from the source material – this girl deserves an Oscar already. This is just an essential film that anyone can get into.
7. The Babadook
The scariest movie of the year, as well as one of the very best new horror films I've come across. This story about a mother and her child in Australia being stalked by a storybook monster has much more to it than just that, as I've talked about already. This is a story about parenting and the scariest parts of it. The mother's character arc is just chilling and the way the visual setting and tone of the film subtly changes over the course of the film is just masterful. The lighting, camera angles, directing style – all of this comes together and makes The Babadook a chilling fucking experience. The real cincher though is just the pure fear of a parent that might kill her child – that is what makes The Babadook scary as hell.
Christopher Nolan is back with his best film in years. He directed, wrote and produced this, so I guess it's more of a personal project than something like The Dark Knight Rises, and you can tell. This is a story about space exploration and a dying world, but it's also a story about the old American pioneer spirit – and what it means for the world. There's a lot of talk here about the consequences of exploration as opposed to practicality, dealing with the world as it is, and the film weighs both sides pretty equally.
Matthew McConaghuey is the lead and he does a good job, and his daughter played by Jessica Chastain is outstanding. Like the best Nolan films, this combines conceptual sci-fi ideas with a sort of raw, intense, focused emotion – here being the father-daughter love and all the buried emotions beneath that. Visually this is also the most interesting film of the year, with some really amazing looking outer-space landscapes that will just floor you. I mean they're seriously just awesome. The visuals combined with good characters and a thought-provoking story about where mankind is going makes Interstellar one of the year's finest.
5. Men, Women and Children
I feel like a lot of Jason Reitman films don't really appeal to the sort of college-aged crowd that really obsesses over and talks about movies all the time. They're very much about characters who you don't like all THAT much and who represent the sort of mainstream, regular Americans that said college-aged crowd doesn't gel with. This is a movie about very regular, average people who you wouldn't care about in an individual film, dealing with the repercussions of the Internet in middle-class America. It's an anthology-type of story and when combined together, they form a very powerful statement. This is a movie unlike most others out right now, because it's about something very current and important to almost everyone who would come across it. No, it doesn't tackle people with the most serious or grave of problems, but it does talk about very real things.
The fact that it's about the Internet and shows people of all ages using it is fascinating because the Internet is still evolving as we speak – every day we write history and forage into new territory with it, and rather than wait 30 years and then make a historical fiction film about the early 2010s, Reitman chose to do it now. That's important. This is maybe not for everyone in terms of sheer enjoyment, but in terms of scope and dynamic and social relevance, this is one of the most important films of the year, as it talks about the Right-Now, in very candid, blunt language – showing us a mirror of ourselves and what our Internet culture does to us. It's also Reitman's most mature work to date.
This is a much-talked-about film and for good reason. Filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast, the film was then compiled into a coming of age epic about, well – boyhood. It's a stripped down, unpretentious film and works well to show a very down-to-Earth story. There's really nothing Hollywood about it – no adornments, no dramatic flourishes, very little “witty” dialogue...it's very much like what you'd see in real life. Some people go to movies to get away from real life, but this movie pretty much just shows life how it is, complete with great acting and a lot of memorable scenes. It's a long movie that doesn't bore you – instead there are just that many more great moments to choose from.
There's a beauty to the simplicity of this and a real appeal to how genuine and detailed this all is – I guess that's a product of 12 years of filmmaking. Even if this weren't a top-10 movie for the year though, it would deserve accolades for the sheer effort and scope of it. 12 years of filmmaking is a long-ass time and the effort shows here very clearly. This is a monument to the power of film, and what it can accomplish in its most creative and long-form styles. Brilliant work.
3. Obvious Child
A very low-key sort of indie comedy about a comedienne who gets an abortion after a one-night stand with a guy. I really like this just for the way it humanizes a hot-button topic like abortion. Made by less-talented folks, this would be a propaganda film that demonized antiabortion folks and had some sort of domineering religious parent and a chief “bad guy” in some sort of Christian fundamentalist character who would try and block the main character in everything she did. But as this is a movie made by adults, instead we get a subtle, very interesting comedy with great characters telling great jokes that don't at all diminish the serious undertones of a character getting an abortion. It takes a lot of talent to balance comedy and drama this well, but Obvious Child pulls it off.
It's just a delight of a film. The lead played by Jenny Slate is just awesome and Slate just does such a fucking good job at delivering her lines and making you like the character – she's funny, sympathetic, tough, vulnerable, etc. The other leads are all good too. The way the story is told just draws you in instantly and keeps you hooked, despite its rather simple plot. The decision she makes to get the abortion doesn't feel too easy or too hard and the film doesn't moralize on you or try to take a stand – it just humanizes a really complex issue. In these incredibly polarized times politically, I think that's really, really important. That's why this one gets the #3 spot.
One of the most intelligent, ruthless and creative films of the year. Jake Gyllenhaal gives probably the performance of his career so far as a guy with extremely wide eyes who wants to get into crime journalism's seedy underbelly – i.e. basically going around in the middle of the night filming bloody crash sites and shit. This is an incredibly nuanced and complex film. Through its darkly comedic lenses it satirizes the 24/7 media cycle and the desensitization of modern society to violence. It also has this quite underplayed riffing on the start-up business culture our generation has cultivated. There's one scene where Gyllenhaal and his sidekick are running away from a murder scene and Gyllenhaal is lecturing the other dude the whole time about how he needs to prioritize his work, etc – it's so fucked up, but it's brilliant, and that sums up most of the movie. This is satire with a black wit and genius intelligence, and I love the hell out of it.
This is simply the most artful, passionate, weird and wonderful movie of the year. Michael Keaton delivers the greatest acting of 2014 – he's just amazing in this, stealing every scene he's in. The directing is madcap-insane, with these huge stretches with no cuts or breaks, often delving into close-ups of the main characters and showing all their flaws and fears and insecurities. That's what Birdman is about – acting as an art and a lifestyle, and how the public opinion and expectations eats you alive. There is just so much in here, so much complexity and meaning, that I could never do it justice in this little blurb.
There's a reason Keaton appears in a few scenes in nothing but his underwear, is all I can say – it's about revealing one's bare soul and darkest secrets and most embarrassing moments. That's what this movie is about. Anyone who dabbles in any kind of art – acting, music, writing, whatever – will find this a treasure. Birdman is movie of the year and if you haven't seen it yet, you're missing out.
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