I don’t want to label 2014 as a good, bad, or average year. I want to call it inventive, original, and delightfully dark. Whether it’s doppelgänger paradoxes leading to murderous rage, the bleak carnage of war, prison violence, or psychologically debilitating struggles to be great, my favorite films had an edge that cut to the bone by credits’ end.
I’ve yet to catch a bunch of the acting biggies like Mr. Turner, Still Alice, Foxcatcher, or Cake, but I’m not sure any would replace what I’ve listed below, no matter how good the central performances. No, the ones I regret seeing before the end of the year are A Most Violent Year, The Better Angels, Blue Ruin, and Nymphomaniac — work with the potential to get the heart pumping, both aesthetically and emotionally.
The best thing I can say about 2014 is that my top ten (heck, maybe my top twenty-five) could be re-organized and re-listed without making me too angry about what is mentioned before my #1 pick (that one stays right where it is). So maybe it was a good year after all.
10. Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
This film is fierce and unapologetic — two things I can’t help but find myself investing in, no matter what the subject matter might be in the end. Jack O’Connell is a a wreaking ball; Ben Mendelsohn a conflicted father learning far too late what such a title means once reunited with his son behind the bars of a maximum security prison. The evolution screenwriter Jonathan Asser gives his characters in so short a time is an impossible feat that only someone who experienced such a world in real life could even dream to complete. When the system is rigged, you do what you can to survive it. Often times, however, it’s never enough.
9. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater‘s twelve-year-long passion project earns a spot on this list for its sheer scope alone. The confidence to set a movie in motion with a shooting schedule spanning longer than a decade and two unproven child actors at its center is unimaginable. Sure, it doesn’t necessarily say much beyond those universal truths about adolescence that we’ve all experienced (because that’s not important), but it does so with a level of honesty you cannot manufacture during a two-month production. Add an unforgettable turn from Patricia Arquette as the mother doing what she can to give her children a good life, and we’re for all intents and purposes shown our America in its full, tragically optimistic glory.
8. Fury (David Ayer)
For all who label it too brutal or too redundant compared to an ever-increasing catalog of authentic war dramas: shut up. With quite possibly the best ensemble cast of 2014 anchored by a supporting actor Oscar nomination-caliber performance from Logan Lerman, I was on the edge of my seat throughout. Fury, like 2009’s Lebanon, is less about the war or the vehicle wearing the film’s title proudly as it is the men packed within a ticking bomb. It’s a character-driven work expertly written to allow each actor room to deliver as much substance by expression as words. A devastating two-plus hours at the movies.
7. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
A massively overlooked gem from 2014, Coherence is the cream of the science fiction crop whether my next two selections accompany them within the genre or not. It’s a bona fide head-scratcher bringing the Schrodinger’s Cat conundrum (popularized in The Big Bang Theory) to life before our eyes. A working knowledge of the physics definition of the title definitely helps get a foothold closer to solving its mysteries, but this puzzle of doppelgängers, coded boxes, and quasi-time travel delights in its impenetrability, too. It also proves how a great film isn’t just about A-list stars or big budgets. All you need to manufacture a suspense thriller spanning infinite dimensions is a single set.
6. Enemy (Denis Villeneuve)
A24 had a memorable year with a massive slate topped by this and my following entry. The afterthought at TIFF 2013 with director Villeneuve also bringing Prisoners to light, Enemy is the one that stuck in my mind long after it ended. Darkly sinister, with a central mystery you’ll have to decipher for yourself, Jake Gyllenhaal provides a physical manifestation of the good and bad angel on everyone’s shoulder. He might not be as crazed as he is in Nightcrawler, but the ferocity bubbling underneath his nice-guy façade is definitely present. Oh, and how about that spider?
5. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Mesmerizing visuals, a singular central performance by Scarlett Johansson, and the provider of a bottom-less well of meaning, social commentary, and post-viewing intellectual discourse, Under the Skin is quite frankly a treasure in cinema’s new millennium. It’s definitely not for everyone, but those willing to give it a chance are going to at the very least partake in a theater-going experience like no other. Subtle sci-fi at its finest, you’ll either walk out halfway through or leave utterly shaken to your core.
4. Hellion (Kat Candler)
The knocks on Candler‘s latest feature seem to stem from a place of stark drama overkill on behalf of the critics watching. Had they seen it before all those that already saturated the market, I wonder what the consensus would have been. For me it’s simply the type of film I love to watch. Emotionally powerful, I never felt manipulated once as each character progression occurs naturally until its inevitable climactic moment of nail-biting violence, stemming straight from the heart. Aaron Paul stands out as a broken father unable to let go of the love he thought would be forever and Josh Wiggins is a revelation as the wild yet sensitive son traveling a dangerous road to maturity.
3. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
I won’t lie: my love for this film is 80% due to its brilliant visual device. How can you not get drawn into the faux one-take from start to finish, with each entrance and exit of a character so meticulously timed and planned to seamlessly flow into the next room? Pile on the other 20% coming courtesy of some of 2014’s best acting from a rejuvenated Michael Keaton, a fantastically playful Ed Norton, and the scene-stealing bite of Emma Stone, and the story almost doesn’t matter. After all, the plot is super contrived and perfectly cyclical, but for this well-oiled machine of a film, it must be.
2. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Precisely funny in the darkest way, considering a plot surrounding a priest awaiting his death by a parishioner searching for retribution against the Catholic church, this understated gem is all about its characters. Each is a little off-kilter; each a prospective suspect with the means and mindset to pull the trigger. Brendan Gleeson is at his best — conflicted, introspective, ever faithful — but so is John Michael McDonagh. I enjoyed The Guard enough, but the dialogue here is so sharp that I now see what everyone else did back then.
1. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
I didn’t give many films four stars this year (the top four entries here are it) and, until catching Whiplash, none hit me with the force that demanded I do so. The fact that it would be a breakout to finally give me that visceral punch to the gut makes it all the more astounding. Damien Chazelle‘s look into the dangerously volatile world of genius ran away with the 2014 crown before the last note of its mesmerizing, edge-of-your-seat climax cut to black. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller‘s powerhouse performances highlight the whole, but this thing is so much more than its stellar parts.