Film in Review: Looking back at the best films of 2014

Jan 22 • ARTSY SMARTSY, Film, Reviews, Interviews and FeaturesNo Comments on Film in Review: Looking back at the best films of 2014

At the end of the year, critics have a tendency to affix a rating. They combine all the movies they saw over the past 12 months and determine if it was a good or bad year in film. Lots of my peers have given 2014 a drubbing because there was no standout film: no cinematic experience that cut through the treacle and defined itself as the best of the best. I find this entire practice barbaric and frankly a tad bit pedestrian. Every year has its fair share of good and bad movies. There was a lot to like in 2014, including a handful of instant classics. It was a year that produced some fantastic big-budget blockbusters and some challenging smaller films that made a strong impression. Here it is: the crème de la crème.

Birdman
Directed by  Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis
Rated R

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has created the near-perfect motion picture. A tale of sound and fury, it ultimately signifies both everything and nothing.  It’s the story of an aging movie star desperate for artistic respect from a world that only sees him as the rubber-suited superhero that made him famous. It’s a masterpiece of technical filmmaking, buoyed by the tragic vapidity of characters obsessed with the most frivolous pursuits. “Birdman” is genius at work.

The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
Rated PG-13

The most heartbreaking movie of the year is the true-life story of Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane. A passionate romance and a brilliant mind are ultimately ravaged by a debilitating illness. Eddie Redmayne turns in a career-defining performance as Hawking. He captures Hawking’s charisma even when confined to a wheelchair. I’m not at all surprised that “The Theory of Everything” is about sacrifice, given the subject matter. But when you realize that all the work and effort poured into a relationship can still lead to failure, it creates a gut-wrenching sucker punch that makes me love this movie.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
Rated R

I’ve always loved Wes Anderson’s body of work. I was a little let down by “Moonrise Kingdom,” which felt like his most uninspired movie. I was starting to wonder if Anderson’s shtick had become tired. This year he came back with the best movie of his career: a somber and surreal tale of an old hotel, with a rich ensemble of characters. Ralph Fiennes shows his comedic chops may be even more finely honed than his dramatic ones as the amazing Gustav H. The latest Wes Anderson storybook takes viewers to a bygone era of service in a gilded hotel that no longer exists. Anderson’s regulars, including Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Tilda Swinton, return to deliver the most charming movie of 2014. It’s a fable about the ills of chasing fortune and the simple pleasures of our youth that most would give anything to get back.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper
Rated PG-13

The most fun movie of the year is a wild romp through outer space. Marvel Studios continues to have their finger on the pulse of pop culture. While the plot makes little sense to anyone who didn’t have their head buried in comic books throughout their adolescence, the inspired cast of “Guardians of the Galaxy” deliver an engaging ensemble of lone wolves. They are forced to team up to try to save a friendly planet from the evil machinations of a religious zealot with a world-smashing hammer. It’s crazy fun, crazy good, and just plain crazy. Chris Pratt is the breakout star of the year and a fascinating, unconventional leading man. 

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Snowpiercer
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Starring Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton
Rated R

I love surprises. I was familiar with director Joon-ho Bong from a slate of widely praised Asian films. In “Sonwpiercer,” he takes on a story, based on a popular manga, about a train that houses the last of the world’s survivors. His first English-language film is a manic blend of action and drama. The front of the train shelters the elite, who live in a life of borrowed luxury. The back of the train comprises the dregs of humanity, as they are forced to live a servile existence in squalor.  When the natives become restless, they fight their way to the front of the train, crossing through one car at a time. “Snowpiercer” is an exceptional potboiler of a film that features way more depth than other movies of the same ilk.

Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher
Starring  Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
Rated R

“Gone Girl” makes me realize just how much I miss those grand old thrillers of the 1980s and ‘90s.  In those days, this movie would have starred Michael Douglas. Now, it’s Ben Affleck, who plays a troubled husband who seems oddly calm when his wife vanishes from the face of the Earth. The investigation begins to point toward him as the primary suspect. Everyone turns on him, but there may be more to his wife’s disappearance than he first thought. Director David Fincher delivers an extremely tense movie about dysfunction, drama and the unseen dangers of married life. Rosamund Pike comes seemingly from nowhere to deliver the most inspired performance of the year. Ben Affleck continues to ascend higher and higher from the ash pile that was once his career. It may be the most fascinating comeback in the history of Hollywood.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis
Rated PG-13

The first new “Planet of the Apes” film was a great reset for a series in desperate need of some invention. It gave a glimpse into the origins of the intelligent apes and just how they were unleashed onto an unsuspecting society. The sequel ups the ante by pushing audiences 10 years ahead. At the end of the first film, viewers know there are smart apes and a virus that could potentially wipe out mankind. “Dawn” shows the fulfilment of that promise. Humans are struggling to survive. When an encampment of survivors tries to repopulate San Francisco and power up a dam in Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) territory, the peaceful negotiation soon degrades to age-old hatreds and distrust. This is fast becoming the smartest and most fun franchise in show business.

The Raid 2
Directed by Gareth Evans
Starring Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra
Rated R

You know what I miss? Action films: good, old-school action films that aren’t afraid to pull punches. “The Raid” was a great action movie, but “The Raid 2” takes away the confined settings for some breathtaking spectacle and jaw-dropping (or is that jaw-breaking) fun. “The Raid 2” throws a lot of good punches, as well as throwing the gauntlet down to every other action film on the face of the Earth. This is the bar to which other action films should aspire to.

Noah
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly
Rated PG-13

Darren Aronofsky’s sort-of-biblical epic is a polarizing piece of cinema. Some people find “Noah” too weird. I think it’s just weird enough.  Russell Crowe plays the instrument of salvation for the animals of the Earth, but believes The Creator wants him and his family to finish their duty and then die. The question of man’s place in the world is questioned with great fervor and passion. If the moral and ethical dilemmas don’t satisfy you, there are giant rock monsters finding rabid hordes of sinners. The greatest compliment I can pay the film is, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” which is probably why I love it so much.

The Double
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska
Rated R

Richard Ayoade (“Submarine”) has turned into a subtle, deft director. His second film tells the story of a troubled young man whose existence is upended when his doppelganger arrives at work. They walk alike, they talk alike, but only one seems able to capitalize on the many opportunities presented to him. Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) does a great job in a dual role that sees Ayoade paying tribute to the works of filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, with some strange, stylized shenanigans.

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