Looking Back: Ethan Picks His Own Top 10 Favorite Films of 2014
by Ethan Anderton
January 2, 2015
Just earlier today, we ran out last retrospective video looking back at the films of 2014, and today I'm chiming in with my final year-end list with my Top 10 Films of 2014. This year I had a hard time narrowing down my list, and I almost broke down and decided to do a Top 15, but I promised myself to be a little more disciplined to pick my absolute favorite films of the year. You can see how hard it was just by taking a glimpse at all the honorable mentions that could have made the list, and the ones that made the cut are a hodgepodge of indies, blockbusters, comedies, dramas and a couple more. So let's get to the actual list.
#10. They Came Together
Even though this was my #1 comedy of 2014, this almost didn't make the list (and actually my #2 comedy ranks higher on this list, but we'll get to that later). They Came Together might be the most divisive comedy of the year, because people either absolutely love it or hate it. And I think that's because of the classic spoof nature of the comedy. There aren't good comedies made like this anymore. This film has the DNA of spoof master like Mel Brooks and the trio of Zucker, Abrams & Zucker of Airplane! and Naked Gun fame. It doesn't need endless, stupid, dated pop culture reference, but rather masterfully parodies romantic comedy as a genre, and it does it with a certain amount of respect.
From the reiteration of New York City almost feeling like a character in the recounting of a love story between Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd to the use of every romantic comedy trope in the book, this is a perfect skewering of one of the most tired genres in film. The supporting cast is nothing to scoff at either with Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Cobie Smulders, Michael Ian Black, Jason Mantzoukas and Melanie Lynskey, plus several cameos that are just too good to spoil. They don't make comedies like this anymore, but I'm glad director David Wain took the time to make this one happen, because it's a riotously funny deconstruction of all the romantic comedy cliches that audiences keep absorbing over and over again.
#9. The Raid 2
It seems like American directors don't know how to put together riveting fight sequences anymore. Most action movies are overwrought with large setpieces, overwhelming visual effects, and ineffective editing once it comes time for our hero and villain to face off. They can all take a cue from director Gareth Evans, who directs some of the best fight sequences contemporary cinema has ever seen in this film that delivers endless action. And I know that the word "epic" gets thrown around a lot, but the adrenaline-fueled, fast-paced hits on display here are nothing short of top notch.
Aided by the flawless choreography and moves of stars like Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, there are long, exhausting, hard-hitting, cringeworthy fights, and I mean that in the best way possible. The sequel ups the ante from the original film in every way possible, hitting the streets for one of the most complex, impressive car chases ever seen on the big screen. And every sequence is shot masterfully so that no hit goes unnoticed, and you see and feel every punch, kick, slam, slice and everything in between. If you think Michael Bay is the master of action, watch The Raid 2 and rewire your brain.
Last year, director Alfonso Cuaron was the pride of Mexico with the mesmerizing Gravity, a film with incredible long takes and unbelievable visual effects. This time it's fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu who comes through with something equally, if not more, impressive. Birdman is made to look like it was shot in a single take, with every single scene blended seamlessly into the other, the camera sweeping in, out and around a theater where struggling actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) wants to revamp his career with a stage performance that will allow him to be a respectable actor again.
Anchored by a lead performance that should keep Keaton's career on the uptick after some missteps, one can't help but notice the meta similarities between the fake Riggan and real-life Keaton, but that's just a small part of what makes this film work. Emma Stone proves why she's one of the best young stars working today while Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis all contribute great supporting turns as well. Birdman is a masterclass in filmmaking, a grand achievement that has a lot to say about entertainment both as an industry and as an escape.
#7. Life Itself
For someone in my position, this documentary packs an emotional punch. Despite being a cinephile and writer of entertainment news and reviews, it would be outrageous to compare myself to Roger Ebert, but his influence on my life, taste in film and career is undeniable. Life Itself isn't just a touchy feely look back at the man who defined film criticism and inspired filmmakers and future film critics alike, but it's a chronicle of a man who simply loved film, wanted to see and experience all that cinema had to offer, and didn't let the struggles in his life stop him from doing that.
With fond memories, stories and remarks from some of the best filmmakers in cinema's history, along with personal friends, colleagues and Ebert's wife Chaz, this is the best way to remember the bespectacled film journalist who will forever be at the movies. No one loved, respected or absorbed films the way that Ebert did, and seeing how our consumption of entertainment and those who write about it is changing, no one may ever love film and be known for it the same way ever again. Life Itself is full of passion, and it's only fitting that Ebert's own book became a film that he likely would have given two thumbs up.
#6. Gone Girl
Leave it to David Fincher to make the crumbling of a marriage between two despicable people one of the most thrilling and compelling stories of the year. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, Fincher's filmmaking style turns makes the trashy, pulpy drama of Gone Girl pop on the big screen. The film uses a dastardly scheme by insane wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) to frame her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) to paint a scathing picture of the justice system and the media circus that surrounds the people and cases that don't deserve 24-hour coverage and endless scrutiny by complete strangers.
What's great about Gone Girl is that the first hour is this compelling mystery that the audience feels compelled to figure out, but then it's spun of its head when it's revealed that the titular missing wife is in the middle of a plan to get away from her husband, middling life and overbearing parents. The film isn't subtle, but in a self-aware fashion that makes the events of the thriller that much more captivating. Fincher knows that he's telling a story, and he wants the audience aware of that too, going out of his way to make sure it's not exactly grounded in reality, but not fantastical in nature either. It's preposterous, but with purpose, and that's what makes Gone Girl simultaneously maddening and captivating.
#5. The LEGO Movie
Now you might be wondering how The LEGO Movie can be #2 in the list of my Top 7 Favorite Comedies of 2014 (or you just don't care), so let me explain. While I find They Came Together to be the best comedy of the year, I actually think that The LEGO Movie is the better film of the year. Writers and directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller took a project that could have been just a cash-in on a brand name, and turned it into one of the most creative, wonderful and fun movies of the year. Even better, it's a film that anybody can enjoy, from kids to adults, boys to girls, and that's not easy in the least.
The LEGO Movie takes what's great about the LEGO brand in general and applies it to the film, complete with some mesmerizing animation, meta humor, and an eclectic voice cast. But the stroke of brilliance comes in the third act when Lord & Miller take our hero, a LEGO construction worker named Emmet, into the real world, showing that the animated world we've been in for the majority of the film is merely inside the imagination of the kid. But it's not a "this is all a dream" cop out, because Emmet also has consciousness outside of his LEGO world, which makes this development all the more magical. The LEGO Movie isn't just awesome, is a masterpiece of resistance to the lack of creativity prevalent in Hollywood.
#4. Guardians of the Galaxy
The success of this Marvel Studios film is impressive in itself, but the fact that director James Gunn made an obscure comic book title so accessible and satisfying is the real achievement. This is one of the best ragtag assembly of heroes cinema has seen in a long time, and they might even be a better than The Avengers, if only due to how well these misfits come together, especially with Groot and Rocket Raccoon stealing the show. The film still has some of the overarching problems that Marvel has in general (a weak villain and familiar plot), but everything else is so good that it makes you forget the shortcomings.
Guardians of the Galaxy shows that even the weirdest characters that Marvel's comic books have to offer may have a life on the big screen and audiences are ready for anything the cinematic universe has to throw at them. And by taking the comic book action to space, James Gunn has delivered the Star Wars for a new generation. The film fits in with Marvel's bigger plans, but has a style all its own, paving the way for an even bigger universe (literally) to unfold around our new space heroes. The LEGO Movie puts you in touch with your childhood, but Guardians of the Galaxy high fives the adult and kid inside you.
When I saw this film premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival nearly a year ago, I didn't anticipate it staying with me for the rest of the year. But this little indie from Damien Chazelle, a story of masculinity, respect and inspiration amongst a generation coddled by political correctness and participation ribbons is powerful, memorable and really sneaks up on you. The film takes some elements we've seen in military dramas, and splices them with the art world to great effect, mostly because of the unnerving performance of J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, a drill instructor of a jazz band instructor.
But Miles Teller holds his own as the rising drummer who realizes that being one of the greats will be anything but easy, especially with someone like Fletcher conducting him. The movie deals tough blows to the lead character, an aspiring musician so likeable and desperate for success that you feel every insult and slap that Fletcher dishes out in the band room. And then when it seems like the film is slowing down and running out of steam, that final face-off between student and instructor is just as satisfying and thrilling as the climax of any great blockbuster.
For a long time, I thought this coming-of-age epic would be my favorite film of the year. This nearly three hour journey is nostalgic, but not in the same way movie studios are trying to deliver with remakes, reboots and sequels. The film reminds you of what it's like to grow up, but without hitting all the milestones you might expect from your average coming-of-age drama. Of course, what makes this particular film even more special is Richard Linklater's choice to shoot the film using the same principal actors stretched over a 12 year period, allowing us to follow Ellar Coltrane as he grows up.
This unique method of storytelling allows us to connect to the lead character in a way that no other film has. We all become parents, worried of what lies ahead for this young man. I remember feeling the tension in the theater in a scene where a teenage Coltrane is merely hanging out in a house still under construction, drinking beer and messing around with saw blades. People were nervous that something bad was going to happen, though it never did. Linklater allowed us to connect to these characters (including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) on an unprecedented level, and it makes for a moving and lovely experience.
Since Boyhood was so firmly at the top of my list for pretty much the entire year, when I headed out early on Christmas Eve, I was not expecting to get lost in Wild, but here we are. The film from director Jean-Marc Vallée is simple in its execution as it follows Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), a troubled young woman coping with the death of her mother and the crumbling of her life due to infidelity and drug addiction by taking a life-changing hike. This isn't a tale of woman vs. nature, this is a tale of woman vs. herself as she leaves the wilderness of her life to find the woman her mother always wanted her to be out on the Pacific Crest Trail.
We only learn of Strayed's struggles in chunks as she continues to hike the trail, and her coming to terms with these memories and mistakes in her life are illustrated in flashbacks and in metaphor as her pack, referred to as "The Monster" gets lighter along the way as well. That may sound cheesy, but the struggles of Strayed are executed with such powerful, genuine emotion that you'll feel every twinge of pain, both in the hike and in flashback, right along with Strayed. It plays out like Slumdog Millionaire, but a little more subtle, allowing the audience to absorb things for themselves instead of having everything spelled out.
But to me, what's most impressive about this film is just how hard it hit me, despite the fact that I have so little to relate to. I've never lost myself to drug addiction and endless sexual escapades. I've never been divorced. And both of my parents are alive, still happily married to each other and neither of them is a raging, abusive alcoholic. But this film just overwhelmed me. I found myself welling up with years in several moments, and feel them a bit as I write this now. Maybe it's a reminder of mortality because my parents are alive and healthy, but could end up gone at any minute. Or maybe it's because I'm nearing 30, still not entirely sure of the trajectory of my life as a whole, and this young woman took it upon herself to figure out her own life amidst struggles much more troubling than any that I've ever encountered. I'm not entirely sure, but Wild blew me away, and it's undoubtedly my favorite movie of the year.
Honorable Mentions: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Jodorowsky's Dune, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Under the Skin, Blue Ruin, Chef, Edge of Tomorrow, Obvious Child, 22 Jump Street, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Begin Again, What If, The One I Love, The Skeleton Twins, The Boxtrolls, Frank, Dear White People, Snowpiercer, Listen Up Philip, Enemy, Nightcrawler, The Double, Interstellar, Rosewater, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, Top Five, Big Hero 6
What I Missed: The Overnighters, Force Majeure, Selma, Big Eyes, The Gambler, The Babadook, The Guest, Still Alice, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Rover, Cheap Thrills, Cold in July
Both Jeremy and Alex said this when listing their own Top 10 Films of 2014, but this was an incredible year for movies, especially when it comes to independent films and limited releases. Blockbusters like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers: Age of Extinction were massively disappointing despite winning at the box office, but there were so many phenomenal specialty releases this year that deserved your attention. Make sure you check out all of our previous year-end posts Looking Back at the movies of 2014, and get excited about our 20 Most Anticipated Films of 2015.