It’s a great twelve-month stretch when my enthusiasm for the best films of the year outweighs my anger at its most awful, and so in recognition of that, I’m about to count down my top 20 best films of 2014, having added a highly deserving extra five titles on top of my previously planned top 15.
2014 was a year in which the movies provided a rare surplus of optimism, standing in much-needed contrast to the grim headlines that demanded our attention. Beheadings and bombings, missing airplanes and Middle Eastern massacres, heightened racial tensions and heated protests – 2014 was in many ways a depressing year for humanity. Even Hollywood was effected, between the unexpected deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers (among others) and shocking moments like the nude photo leaks and the more recent Sony hack. So, it was relieving for many to be able to escape the world’s problems at the box office.
And escapism was always in style. Wes Anderson spirited us away to a long-lost European nation on the brink of war. Phil Lord and Chris Miller tapped into the endless creativity of our childhoods while creating the most effective advertisement for a children’s toy since… well, ever. Bong Joon-ho, overcoming unexpected off-screen obstacles, let us board one of the most entertaining and original sci-fi adventures in years. And James Gunn played to the outcasts in all of us by turning a gang of miscreants (including a talking raccoon and a sentient tree) into the coolest, most formidable fighting force in Marvel’s universe.
But even the more mainstream, less risky blockbusters found ways to surprise and delight. Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeded both as a thrilling superhero film and as an astute, slyly subversive political thriller. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opened with a brave, bold and brilliant sequence that, almost without a word, introduced us to an ape society that has flourished in the absence of humanity. Its grandiose, thought-provoking story and stunning acting capitalized on that opener’s promise. And The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 cleverly focused on the sneaky political maneuvering that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in the thick of, detailing a much murkier dystopia than the previous two films had led us to expect. 2014 taught us to expect more, even from our popcorn flicks.
On the indie circuit, too, imagination flourished. Intelligent sci-fi mindbenders, gripping documentaries, masterfully wrought tales of vengeance and violence, moody meditations on how we live now and much more found their way to your nearest theater. 2014 brought intriguing and original smaller films from filmmakers both established (Jim Jarmusch, Joe Swanberg) and emerging (Gia Coppola, Dan Gilroy). The mixture was exhilarating.
Some of the most remarkable films of the year also held a mirror up to their viewers even as they entertained, broadening horizons and sending those who saw them out into the world alert and aware. Perspective was the real buzz word of 2014, and the viewpoints provided to audiences by the year’s best were as fascinating as they were fresh. We saw life through the eyes of heroes and fighters, those who persevered against incredible obstacles, but also life through the eyes of creeps and criminals, shudder-inducing figures who’d be the stuff of nightmare if we weren’t convinced that there are people like them out there somewhere.
There were so many great films released this year that cutting my list even down to 20 was even harder than expected. So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some honorable mentions on this feature. Gone Girl was a delectably icy concoction gifted with David Fincher’s inimitable touch; Wild gave the incredibly talented Reese Witherspoon a stunning showcase; The Babadook scared the pants off me; Snowpiercer told its brashly original tale with gusto; Interstellar took us into the far reaches of space and (despite its flaws) made the trip a gorgeous and memorable one; The Raid 2 improved on the first’s already-classic blend of expertly choreographed action sequences and jaw-dropping badassery; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 made table-setting a thrilling and politically savvy game; Still Alice gave Julianne Moore her best role in years while providing an insightful look into a devastating disease; and Stretch let Joe Carnahan cut loose, allowing for one of the year’s most unexpectedly uproarious rides. These and many others were great but just didn’t make the cut for one reason or another.
I also must acknowledge that, being a human being, I didn’t have nearly enough time to see all the movies I wanted to this year. Those that evaded my grasp included Dear White People, Love Is Strange, Top Five, Rosewater, The Imitation Game, American Sniper, Big Eyes, Into the Woods, Unbroken and A Most Violent Year. Any or all of those could have made the cut, and I hope that as I catch up in the coming months, I’ll have reason to revisit this list.
For now, though, here are my top 20 films of 2014. Enjoy, and let me know your picks below.