Hello there, and welcome back to my first-ever Rankings Series: Movies of the Decade (2010s)! Last month, I talked about my Top 10 Movies of 2013, and mentioned that that year marked the first half of a quiet goodbye to how 21st century filmmaking had initially been approached; 2014 makes up the other half of that bittersweet farewell. Once the following year hit, things would never be the same. People would become more spoiler-wary, marketing campaigns would evolve into teasers for teaser trailers for movies (especially concerning one such film from December 2015) with “announcement” trailers, and the cinematic landscape would alter in ways none of us would be able to predict or come back from. But for the purposes of this list, we’re focusing on the ten films at the caboose of a two-year train, waving goodbye with hope in their hearts and a drive yet undiscovered. (Side note: this is the last of the re-edited lists, which was updated in its re-editing due to never having officially published it before; all Top 10s in this series from here on out will appear in their original forms). Here are my top 10 movies of 2014.
Richard Linklater gets a lot of flack for making what some people call an “overrated” slice of life film over the course of 12 years with all the same principal cast members throughout, but while it’s easy to see where that criticism comes from, I’m just not quite sure I felt the same way. To be sure, the film is somewhat drawn out, but so if life, and that is the point Linklater is trying to make here: life feels drawn out sometimes, but before you know it, it’s moved on, and you’re either with it or not. Getting to watch the same cast move through a little over a decade of their lives together does yield some occasionally lackluster results on the performance side of things, but overall creates a beautiful effect in viewing these characters the same way people who know them would, as people growing up right next to us. There’s more to it than that, I’m sure, but since I haven’t seen it in a long time, those things are really all I can talk about at the moment.
9. Gone Girl
I remember being hesitant about this one when I saw Ben Affleck (director and lead actor in the 2012 Best Picture winner Argo) would be starring in this adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel by the same name; I didn’t consider him a bad actor, but up to this point, he had never done anything that impressed me as far as his performance chops were concerned. Luckily, David Fincher is a master filmmaker, and knows exactly how to use each of his actors to their fullest potential. This might well be the best Affleck has ever been, and the script is so sharp, you could cut Neil Patrick Harris’s throat with it. Rosamund Pike is terrific in her role as Amy as well, and I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say that without Pike’s brilliant performance and Fincher’s taut direction, Affleck would have had yet another career middle-grounder on his hands.
8. How to Train Your Dragon 2
The first How to Train Your Dragon (as many of you who read this know already) is my favorite animated movie of all time, and I was so stoked to see the second one that I jumped out of bed at 11 a.m. just so I could attend the 2:00 IMAX screening and beat the crowds (reserved seating wasn’t as…everywhere then as it is now). While not quite on par with that first entry though, this middle chapter in the HTTYD trilogy is nonetheless enthralling, funny, heartwarming, more mature than its predecessor, and jaw-dropping in its use of animation. Making a good sequel to any movie is incredibly hard, but director Dean DeBlois knew exactly how to challenge these characters to make them grow, and John Powell’s score once again soars.
7. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Although this has fallen by one or two spots upon reflection, I don’t think the Academy made a bad choice by selecting this as their Best Picture winner that year. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about the breathtaking all-one-shot cinematography or Michael Keaton’s outrageously good performance, but the way this film weaves in a social commentary about the state of the entertainment industry (particularly where it concerns movies) is a ballet most films wouldn’t even attempt, much less succeed at. As it happens, director Alejandro González Iñárritu knows how to walk the fine tightrope between pretentious and artful so well, you barely notice how poorly his commentary could come across to the wrong audience. This would also be the second of three films in a row for which Emmanuel Lubezki would win the Oscar for cinematography.
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Planet of the Apes franchise had always been a bit of a mixed bag since its inception in 1968, with most entries after that not living quite up to snuff…until the 2011 prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, blew everyone out of the water and began a trilogy that soon became one of the most critically acclaimed of all time, despite being heavily under-discussed by those who saw them. Dawn marks the second entry in that trilogy, and in my opinion, the all-around best. The film doesn’t go where you might expect it to with almost anything, and the motion capture performances of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell in this film are some of the best I’ve ever seen, layered with spectacular visual effects work from Weta (the company behind the VFX in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Add in Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman as a sympathetic “villain,” and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes truly is the Empire Strikes Back of its trilogy, an astounding achievement in sequel quality and elevated storytelling.
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Before Winter Soldier, most people thought of Captain America as somewhat of a joke character. I mean, he was fine, but he wasn’t anyone’s favorite Avenger (although he was mine). Much of this largely stemmed from his combat sequences simply not being very interesting beforehand, but when the Russo Brothers took over this franchise, everything changed. No one expected two TV comedy directors to be able to take on an action franchise like this in any fashion, but not only did the Russos up the ante (like, by a lot) in the action department, they also gave us one of the tightest scripts, most character-challenging stories, and fast-paced films in the entirety of the MCU, so much so that many still cite this film as their all-time favorite in the series. The Winter Soldier himself is a perfect foil for Cap at this point in his life outside of his own time, Black Widow gets even deeper characterization, and Steve Rogers himself is tested in his beliefs and resolve like never before. Plus, it boasts two of the all-time best action sequences in the MCU in the elevator and highway fights, and it’s got Robert Redford as the secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could that not be cool?
4. Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow
Easily the biggest surprise of the year due to one of the worst marketing campaigns ever, Edge of Tomorrow’s title changes could give you whiplash if you try to go through them all at once, but if that doesn’t work, the break-neck pace of this film will do the trick. It’s been an idea for a long time in Hollywood to figure out how to do Groundhog Day as an action movie, but Doug Liman got there first, and the film was such a critical success that a sequel is currently underway (via the Avatar school of taking forever) despite this film’s box office flop. Pay more attention to the critical success than its box office, though, and it’s easy to see why everyone who’s seen this film seems to just love the hell out of it: the characters are fun to hang around, the concept makes for some really inventive action and comic sequences, Emily Blunt damn near steals the show from Tom Cruise (who’s playing against type as a military PR coward), and the script is endlessly smart. Oh, the movies we could have gotten if the marketing team hadn’t dropped the ball on this one.
3. The Lego Movie
In my original unpublished ranking, I think I had this film closer to #9, and while it may still rank there quality-wise, this film’s legacy since its release elevates it all the way to #3. Yet another of my Top 10 Animated Films of All Time, The Lego Movie is about as creative as you can get with a movie of its nature, and the fact that all the visuals (apart from a stellar and surprisingly emotional third act live-action sequence) are made out of actual Lego pieces astounds me to this very day. Each character, location, and action set piece carries an entire life all its own, and some of those characters (basically just Batman) were so successful, they even got their own spin-offs which were almost equally as great. 2014 was the year of surprises, because despite this and Edge of Tomorrow not having great marketing campaigns, I fell completely in love with both films, the lack of The Lego Movie’s nomination for Best Animated Feature that year remains one of the most egregious Oscar snubs in Academy history.
The fact that this movie only got two Oscar nominations (one for Best Picture and the other for Best Original Song, the latter of which it won) is an absolute travesty, because this is by far one of the best directorial showstoppers I have ever seen. This was where Ava DuVernay cemented herself as a force to be reckoned with, and while not quite as egregious as leaving out The Lego Movie for animation, David Oyelowo’s lack of a nomination for Best Actor shocked a good many people that year, including me. Many biopics about larger-than-life figures end up eventually tearing down their heroes to reveal an insidious nature underneath what society has lionized, but with Selma, DuVernay comes to a different conclusion by the same method, namely that MLK Jr. really was every bit the hero we’re taught about in the history books, albeit one with a few more human flaws than we might be comfortable to admit. The final walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge, with MLK leading a score of people black and white across, is one of the most cathartic moments in any 2014 film, and the choice to focus on one of the most essential moments of the civil rights movement involving MLK, rather than his entire life or his tragic assassination, remains of the film’s most subtle strengths.
La La Land may have made Damien Chazelle into a household name, but this is the movie that got him the house in the first place. Whiplash moves with such a kinetic energy, it’s like a drumbeat unto itself, and if it hits one false note, J.K. Simmons will chuck another chair across the room. The editing is so fast sometimes one can barely keep up, but we do, and it’s an exhilarating ride through the dichotomy of pursuing one’s passions vs having time for love or family or stability, or anything other than that pursuit. Chazelle understands in his break-neck script (which was filmed over just 19 days, by the way) that if you want to follow a dream in the arts world, you have to give well over 110%, and along the way, you’ll probably have to sacrifice things most people only dream of having in the first place. Miles Teller gives one of his best performances thus far in this movie, and the writing of each insult thrown at or by him is as close to perfect as any of them could be. The final ten minutes of this movie alone could win an Oscar just for how tense everything becomes, largely thanks to a masterclass performance by J.K. Simmons, who took home the 2014 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor by playing a villain far more terrifying than any comic book writer could conjure in Terrence Fletcher, whose insidious quote “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” lays out perfectly his character’s philosophy. There were many movies in 2014 that impressed, but none so thoroughly or viscerally as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.