MovieBuff’s Top 10 Films of 2014

Posted: February 23, 2015 by moviebuff801 in Lists

By: Michael “MovieBuff801” Dennos

Another year, gone.  So that means that it’s time once again to recount the films from the past year that had the most impact on me, and when I look over this line-up, I realize just how strong 2014 was overall for movies.  Without further ado, here is that line-up:

10. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal has sure had some interesting roles in the past few years, and Nightcrawler keeps that ball rolling with Lou Bloom, a dark, unsettling individual at the center of an equally dark and unsettling, but ultimately fascinating film. Gyllenhaal is at the top of his game as Bloom, a disturbingly driven man who finds work as a “nightcrawler,” i.e. someone who prowls the night with a police radio looking for accidents and crimes horrific enough to document to then sell that footage to any local news station. Bloom is creepily good at getting such footage, and most of the time, all it takes on Gyllenhaal’s part is just a widening of his eyes to communicate the fact that we should be sort of scared at his calm, calculating detachment in these kinds of circumstances. But that’s only a small facet of what’s overall a towering performance. The rest of what Nightcrawler has to offer is a sharply-written screenplay by Dan Gilroy, who also directs, and it’s a script that examines the various questions of moral and ethical issues that come with showing such graphic footage on television, and it really says a lot about how such questions can twist the people involved and it also shines a light on just how macabre the idea of “good news” has become. First-time director Dan Gilroy captures the nightlife of L.A. extremely well, along with the grittiness of the violence, culminating in a gripping car chase towards the end of the film. Dan Gilroy is of course related to Tony Gilroy, notable for Michael Clayton and his work on the Bourne franchise, and it would seem storytelling talent runs in their family.

9. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Oh boy, what a ride. Between this film and First Class, the X-Men franchise has definitely taken a turn for the best, and I can’t wait to see where they go with X-Men: Apocalypse. Out of the three X-Men films that Bryan Singer has now directed, this is hands down the best, and certainly the most ambitious of any film in the franchise thus far. The storytelling here is thoroughly compelling, alternating seamlessly between two equally captivating story/timelines and not letting either sag too much at any point during the runtime. The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been, and Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg make sure we feel those stakes continually. Bryan Singer’s filmmaking has noticeably grown even more confident from X2, which is a great thing, because a movie of this magnitude needed an incredibly sure hand behind the camera to pull it off. Hugh Jackman, James MacAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence all keep up their strong work, with the latter three in particular turning in the most interesting and sympathetic performances in the entire movie; MacAvoy is especially great, as he gets to explore some new depths to Xavier that we haven’t seen before. Then there’s the action…man oh man. Days of Future Past has a number of incredibly solid and memorable action set-pieces, handled with all the vigor of Matthew Vaughn’s action scenes from First Class, and maybe even then some. And like all great action films, the action scenes here serve a purpose and move the story along rather than just serving as entertaining diversions. But more than that, Days of Future Past has some very interesting themes and ideas running beneath all of the action that enhances the experience and serve to give the film as a whole an incredible amount of dramatic weight. X-Men: Days of Future Past deservedly ranks among the Best Comic Book Films Ever.

8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

If you had told me a couple of years ago that a Planet of the Apes movie would not only thrill me, involve me, make me think and even bring me close to tears on at least two different occasions, I would’ve called you crazy. But having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I’ll now gladly bask in said insanity. Four years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one hell of a surprise, emphasizing the emotional components of the story and characters, and winding up a much better movie than it probably had any right to be. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues that thread, not only making for an even better film than its already strong predecessor, but also just an incredibly strong movie in general. Despite the fact that most of the main characters are CGI apes, that does nothing to deter from how emotionally gripping and involving the film ends up being. A lot of that is owed to the stellar central performance from Andy Serkis, who plays ape leader Ceasar superbly, bringing out a tremendous amount of sympathy and layers in the character that’s just remarkable, all things considered. In fact, the film’s most emotionally moving scene has to do with Ceasar, and not one of the human characters. Speaking of, though, director Matt Reeves populates the rest of the movie with strong actors such as Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman — all of whom are more than up to the task of breathing life into their respective characters. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has all the trappings of a typical summer blockbuster, but it’s never confined to those trappings, and instead transcends them. This is also a very thoughtful film, portraying the conflict between humans and apes in a way that isn’t so black and white. In between some really thrilling bouts of action, we’re treated to some really intimate and carefully-considered character moments which provide a much richer and textured experience than perhaps we were expecting.

Bravo, Matt Reeves. Bravo.

7. Whiplash

“Whiplash” is certainly an accurate term to describe the way this movie leaves you feeling, because this is a surprisingly and darkly delightful intense movie experience that definitely earns its right to rank among the best of the year. Whiplash is one of those small independent films that serves as a welcome reminder that not every film needs to reach for lofty heights in order to achieve greatness; an interesting juxtaposition of the central idea at the heart of the movie itself. Make no mistake, though: writer/director Damien Chazelle isn’t content to simply show you people playing band instruments. Instead, every beat of the drum and tap of a cymbal has a powerful and visceral force behind it, to the point where we feel every ounce of sweat, drop of blood and vicious cut that results from Miles Teller’s Andrew Nieman’s battle for perfection. This is a film that grabbed me, shook me and squeezed me until I left the theater nearly having to catch my breath and with a newfound respect for band players. Chazelle treats this as much as a claustrophobic psychological thriller as he does the typical mentor/student drama turned on its head. It sparks a very interesting debate on the cost of achieving greatness and wisely blurs the line enough so that we find ourselves sort of seeing the logic of JK Simmons’ drill instructor-like Terence Fletcher. There’s been quite a bit of Oscar talk for Simmons in this role, and it’s completely justified. He alternates between terrifying rage and cool collectiveness with the kind of ease a seasoned character actor such as him can pull off. Miles Teller impresses again as Andrew, and I like how the portrayal of his character walks the line between determination and overconfidence to the point where some of Fletcher’s unflinching aggression might just feel justified. And to top it all off, the film builds to a frenzied and gripping climax that leaves you with a smile on your face.

6. American Sniper

Finally. American Sniper represents the return to form for director Clint Eastwood that I’ve been waiting for in the gap between this and his magnificent Letters From Iwo Jima. Much like Iwo Jima, American Sniper finds him back on the frontlines of war, but this time, it’s more modern. This is the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a soldier stationed in Iraq who gained the reputation of being “the most lethal military sniper in U.S. history.” The film follows his exploits in the war zone, interweaving tense and suspenseful action with snapshots of his domestic life back home with his loving wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their two children, focusing primarily on the toll such a job takes on someone whenever they’re not doing what they’re trained to do. Among a few of the criticisms from the naysayers of this film is the fact that it recycles a bunch of war movie clichés that we’ve seen before while not adding anything new and that it has too much of a “GO AMERICA!” feel to it. Well, to address those issues: we are now in a day and age of filmmaking where it’s more about HOW you do something rather than WHAT you do, and in that respect, American Sniper is executed with the kind of expert craft and skill that easily manages to place us right in the center of everything. Clint Eastwood stages perhaps the most intense shootouts in any movie this past year, creating an atmosphere where we as the audience are just as on-edge as the people on-screen whose lives are at risk, showing that he’s still got his touch at the age of 84. Especially in scenes where we see Kyle have to make tough calls with his finger on the trigger, Eastwood makes sure we feel the gravity of those moments. In terms of the emotional aspect of the film, that’s just as well-handled because Eastwood and his actors are so good at bringing that to the surface. The way Eastwood chooses to handle the ending hits pretty hard in its own right. Bradley Cooper delivers another great performance as Kyle, finding the right balance between the stone-faced resolve of a soldier and the vulnerability that slowly creeps over him as a consequence of his actions. Sienna Miller may be delegated to a more typical “worried wife” role, but she still gives it real heart. As for any overt patriotism on display, I personally never felt that way because I was so wrapped up in the story and characters. To me, it was just Eastwood showing the experiences of Chris Kyle, but more importantly, what snipers and combat-ready soldiers have to go through on a daily basis and in that respect, American Sniper is enormously effective and (I have to say it) hits its mark.

5. Begin Again

The exact phrasing is escaping me at the moment, but there’s a saying that has to do with a great movie having at least three great scenes. Well, in the case of Begin Again, I can think of at least five great scenes – and more – this film has to offer that solidify it as probably 2014’s most pleasant surprise of a movie. Not to mention it sports one of my favorite endings to any movie in 2014. I could almost just post Youtube links to a few of those scenes in question and simply let them speak for themselves, but Begin Again deserves to be talked about as much as possible. Among its many accomplishments are two revelations: one, that Keira Knightley has a hell of a singing voice and two, Adam Levine has the potential to be a very strong actor. A good portion of the film centers around the relationship of their two characters, and all of those scenes carry a natural honesty that makes them riveting to watch. Knightley in particular gives one of the best, if not the best performance of her career as Greta, a singer struggling to find her place in the world. Knightley brings such innate charm and effortless likability to the part, and Greta turns out to be a wonderful character whom you genuinely come to root for. Concurrently, Mark Ruffalo is just as great as the down-and-out record producer who discovers Greta (in the scene that officially made me fall in love with the film), and the two have fantastic chemistry that makes it a joy to see them interact with each other, but most of all, I love how smart the movie is in how it handles the progression of their relationship. One of the film’s best moments comes when the two characters walk around New York one night, enraptured by Greta’s Ipod playlist.

Begin Again is written and directed by John Carney, and while I thought John Carney’s Once was good, curiously, the rough and tough style of the film left me pretty cold towards it. Begin Again, by comparison, is more polished and smooth…and it left me feeling incredibly warm and fuzzy as I was leaving the theater. Things are particularly lively and smile-inducing whenever Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley share the screen, but the whole movie just has a nice tone that makes you feel at home. Also, whereas Once really only had one memorable song (“Falling Slowly”), I loved nearly every song in Begin Again so much, that I downloaded the soundtrack almost immediately after getting home from the theater. And in the weeks since I re-watched it again on Blu-Ray, I’ve listened to the soundtrack nearly every day. That is the mark of a truly special film. If you haven’t discovered this gem yet, do yourself a favor and seek it out.

4. Gone Girl

Not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, it’s difficult to really get into talking specifics about Gone Girl without giving away a lot of the film’s surprises — especially if you’re someone who hasn’t read the 2012 source novel — so I’ll keep this as basic as I can. Director David Fincher (one of the best in the business today) and Gillian Flynn (adapting her own book) instill the film with the same sense of uneasiness that permeates the whole story as in the novel. This isn’t simply another mystery from Fincher; the mystery is instead the vehicle used to explore what the story is really about: marriage. Gone Girl has quite a bit to say on said subject, and it’s all fascinating stuff that not only makes you think, but also unsettles you at the ideas and implications it presents. Not to mention it has a GREAT ending. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are phenomenal as Nick and Amy Dunne, and I think Pike in particular is certainly deserving of her Oscar nomination. The rest of the cast is populated with names like Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon and Neil Patrick Harris, and all turn in work that proves that David Fincher never miscasts his films. He also knows how to make long films that don’t feel as long as they really are, and such is the case here. And in this film, he and Flynn put in touches of dark humor that blend in with the rest of the proceedings very well.

Gone Girl is without a doubt yet another hit for the amazing David Fincher.

3. Boyhood

Boyhood was a film twelve years in the making, and it’s a terrific and unique achievement on every single level. Richard Linklater has this uncanny ability to instill his films with a great sense of reality, and there were times while watching Boyhood where I forgot I was watching a film. That in and of itself is the biggest mark of the film’s effectiveness, because Linklater isn’t going for a conventional movie in any way. Instead, he’s going for a series of real, relatable moments, moments that can both define and shape our lives. Boyhood doesn’t have a traditional narrative in any sense of the word, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, it adds to the experience. The greatness of this movie is in its subtlety, in how it’s quietly powerful and never disingenuous. It captures so many beats of adolescence with impressive clarity and skill. Linklater is also adept at showing the passage of time here in obvious yet subtle ways, without ever having to spell it out too much, and the transitions are just so naturally flowing. Ellar Coltrane is phenomenal, portraying different moments in young and older Mason’s life with surprising naturalness and Patricia Arquette is beautifully understated as Mason’s mom, but Ethan Hawke is just as great as Mason Sr. and proves to be the most charming and likable adult as the film goes on. Even stuff that seemed a bit too cliché to me at first — namely Mason’s mother being in relationships with drunken assholes — ended up serving a purpose and fitting in with what Linklater was going for and the points he was making with all these characters.

Boyhood is a marvelous film.

2. Interstellar

With Interstellar, Christopher Nolan — who has become one of the best modern day film directors — intends to reawaken a desire for discovery, and his appropriately-themed film does just that in spades. It’s experiences like the one I had while watching Interstellar that remind me exactly why I love movies in the first place. It’s about wanting to be transported somewhere exciting, to feel like you’re going on a journey to somewhere incredible that you don’t want to leave, and Interstellar is a film equally powerful enough in both scope and pure, raw feeling that it accomplishes that feat. Three comparisons to other similar science films immediately come to mind: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact. Interstellar is very much in the tradition of those films, wherein all of the more lavish and extraordinary aspects of the story are firmly in support of the emotional proponents that essentially drive the film, especially as they relate to the characters. For all of the vast and sheer scope on display in this film, Interstellar always remains an intimately personal affair, and as a result, it’s all the more engrossing. If the big ideas and ambitions of Kubrick’s 2001 were combined with some really emotionally resonant drama — ideas and ambitions that are fascinating but which I don’t consider myself well-read enough on scientific theories to even attempt to try to dissect — then the end result, I think, would look something like this. Interstellar marks an invigorating accomplishment for Christopher Nolan, whose credits already included The Dark Knight and Inception, and he’s certainly proven himself worthy of being among the stars.

1. Birdman

This is such a tour-de-force experience of a movie, both exhilarating and entertaining at the same time. From the moment the camera starts following the characters around (and doesn’t stop), Birdman is difficult to look away from in the best way possible. If I had to describe it with one of those “combination comparisons”, I’d say it’s sort of like Noises Off! meets Black Swan, and the tone is SO well-captured. In fact, and I mean this as a compliment, watching Birdman is almost like watching a stage play, especially since there’s no typical movie editing and the film has the appearance of one long, continuous shot. This style is also effective in that it simultaneously serves to put us in the headspace of Riggan Thompson, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Keaton. The performances are all stellar across the board, but Michael Keaton…damn. This really is THE leading performance of 2014. Watching Michael Keaton in this movie is incredible. He makes his way through a wide variety of emotions throughout the film, and not once does he strike a false note. Obviously, a lot of the performance’s power – not to mention irony – comes from Keaton’s time playing Batman so many years ago, but that fact is never a distraction, because the performance is still strong enough to stand on its own as a tremendous piece of acting. The rest of the cast, which includes the likes of Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifinakis, are all up to Keaton’s high standard, and I’d go so far as to say that Birdman may just be the best-acted film of 2014. It’s also one I most can’t wait to see again, because ever since I saw it in theaters, Birdman has stayed with me and grown on me in a way that makes its sheer effectiveness crystal-clear. Very few movies ever feel this alive, nor are they often made quite like this, but Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and his cast and crew have truly pulled off something pretty incredible, and there’s no other film from 2014 quite like Birdman.

  1. polarbears16 says:

    Not a fan of American Sniper, but I love the rest of your list. My favorite was Whiplash, which was truly phenomenal, and I also loved Birdman, which is a great #1 choice as well. Always nice to see Gone Girl high up there, too, considering everyone seemed to forget about it come award season.

    • moviebuff801 says:

      Thanks. Yeah, it’s sort of disappointing how Gone Girl largely vanished (no pun intended) from the conversation when it came to Awards Talk.

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