The Ten Best Films of 2014
Well, it comes to the end of the year and everyone’s gotta do a top ten list. I still maintain it’s impossible to put films in any sort of sensible order, but I can pick ten that are among the best of the year and put them in a reasonable order. So, with no further ado…
10: Beyond the Lights
Everyone I know who saw this one said the same thing: it is so much better than the marketing campaign led them to believe. What promised to be another rich-girl/poor-boy romance turns out to be a much more nuanced reflection on identity and authenticity for both of the leads.
Disney has been on a roll the last few years, with thoughtful, entertaining films that at least depart from their more problematic past offerings, if not directly undercut them. But Maleficent is exceptional even among that crowd. Not just an inversion of the Sleeping Beauty story, the filmmakers turn the fantasy setting into a powerful fable on the difference between revenge and redemption.
8: The Imitation Game
It’s true that Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing falls short in its depiction of his homosexuality, but there are plenty of gay films out there. The Imitation Game is more about his possible neurodivergence — which seems to get lost in the rush to condemn it as “not gay enough” — and that’s a subject that doesn’t get much screen time yet. Military codes give way to social ones, and navigating a virulently homophobic society is one more layer of an already difficult task for those who do literally think differently.
7: Dear White People
Justin Simien’s debut feature is solid indie work, and it’s also a solid 102-level course in the systemic racism of microaggressions. If you’re at a graduate level — say, from living with it for a couple decades already — it might come off a little simplistic, but Dear White People has a great sense of humor and knows enough to punch up, not down.
6: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s best film to date. He’s shed the twee, self-satisfied air that irritated me in his earlier works, and presents us with a marvelously intricate Swiss clock of a movie world.
5: Top Five
Chris Rock gives his take on Woody Allen, but remembering that Manhattan extends past 110th street. As Andre Allen, he and Rosario Dawson walk and talk — a move cribbed from Richard Linklater’s Before series — and I would watch a whole movie just of that. But Rock packs in plenty of his own humor too, and a rogues’ gallery of comedy all-stars in the cameo-filled cast.
4: The LEGO Movie
There is no reason that a movie based simply on the LEGO modeling system should work. There is no story inherent to the bricks themselves, though they’ve already burrowed deep into the heart of geek culture with video game adaptations of many popular properties. But Christopher Miller and Phil Lord are masters at taking ridiculous concepts and turning them into movie gold, and this is no exception. Everything screams that The LEGO Movie should not work, and yet it fits together perfectly.
3: Under the Skin
One of the weirder movies I’ve seen this year, and an experimental high-water mark for Scarlett Johansson’s career, Jonathan Glazer’s latest is a long time coming and well worth the wait. Shot primarily with hidden cameras, most of the men Johansson meets on her drives around Glasgow have no idea that just beneath the surface hides something alien, and maybe even inimical to their interests. But most men don’t realize this about women in the real world either.
Under the Skin was in production for a long time, but Boyhood blows it out of the water. Shot in pieces over the last twelve years, we see a child grow from six to eighteen in a form of cinematic time-lapse. But, gimmick aside, Richard Linklater crafts a touching human story for Mason and his whole family. To get this movie made at all is impressive; for it to be this good is nothing short of amazing.
A late entry, and one that hurried list-writers may easily have missed. The story of the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King Jr.’s part in it could well get the full Spielberg hagiographic treatment — DreamWorks owns the rights to King’s speeches, in fact. But Selma director Ava DuVernay is the one who can bring out the passion and danger in David Oyelowo’s performance as the man we often like to think of as the nice, safe alternative. Even knowing what’s coming, the film ripples with tension. And it only gets stronger when the movie screen echoes back what we see on our television and computer screens every day, half a century later. Selma may come late, but it sure comes strong.