Here are the 20 best films of 2014, well worth seeking out if you missed them.
Whip-smart, cuddly and regularly hilarious, this modern adaptation of Paddington by Mighty Boosh director Paul King is the perfect way to introduce Michael Bond’s bear to a new generation. Ben Whishaw is top-notch as the voice of the bear and the immigration allegory feels very relevant. It’s doing very well at the UK box office – a well-deserved hit. (Full Review)
19. Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel took a huge risk with Guardians of the Galaxy. At a time when superhero movies are becoming moody and introspective, Guardians embraced silliness and offbeat comedy. Packing top performances, a mastery of tone and a killer soundtrack, it’s yet another triumph for the MCU. (Full Review)
18. Cold in July / The Guest
Two 80s-homaging thrillers share this spot, with Adam Wingard’s The Guest and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July impossible to separate. The former is a stylised, horror-inflected tale of a mystery house guest that takes a deliciously demented turn. Cold In July is a shockingly violent, pitch-black story of a suburban father driven into a horrifying world when he kills an intruder in his home. Both are blackly comic and genuinely thrilling. (CiJ Review / Guest Review)
17. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
In the second Marvel movie to make this list, the MCU was shaken up when it was revealed that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a hugely satisfying second solo outing for Chris Evans’ patriotic hero, balancing superhero mayhem and carnage with the joys of a tense political thriller. (Full Review)
Jake Gyllenhaal is a wonderfully slippery presence in this thriller about the men who go out at night to film footage of crimes and accidents for TV news. It’s a dark, Recession-appropriate tale of desperation and bleakness, anchored by Gyllenhaal’s transformative performance. (Full Review)
15. The Lego Movie
The best kids’ film of the year comes courtesy of Jump Street writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The Lego Movie is a smart consumerist satire, peppered with the self-aware comedy you’d expect from the pair, enough mayhem to keep the kids happy and a ballsy third act twist. (Full Review)
14. The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch is the man of the moment right now. Perhaps his most impressive work yet is as Brit mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, which dramatises the mission to crack the Nazi’s unbreakable Enigma Code. Cumberbatch shines and director Morten Tyldum brings real energy to what is essentially a few people standing around a machine. (Full Review)
13. The Fault In Our Stars
Young adult adaptations reached critical mass this year. However, The Fault In Our Stars rose above the rest to deliver heart-breakingly real drama. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort do a great job with John Green’s novel, creating genuine emotion with subtle performances from a solid script. (Full Review)
12. The Riot Club
Powered by an incendiary performance from Sam Claflin, The Riot Club is a vicious tale of privilege and lack of consequence that takes aim at Britain’s class system. Adapted by Laura Wade from her own stage play, it’s a tense story that builds to a genuinely shocking climax. (Full Review)
11. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Andy Serkis continues to move the field of motion capture forward in this latest entry to the Apes franchise. Toby Kebbell is terrific as his violent lieutenant who starts a brutal conflict between man and monkey. Any film that features a chimp firing a machine gun whilst riding a horse definitely deserves a spot on the best films of the year list. (Full Review)
One of the best British films of 2014, Pride tells the little-known story of a group of homosexuals who raised money for a village of striking Welsh miners. The tensions between the two groups are initially tough to overcome, but their similar struggles against Thatcherism bring them together.
Ben Schnetzer, Paddy Considine and Imelda Staunton shine amongst a hugely talented ensemble cast made up of the best British talent. The script, by Stephen Beresford, is full of instantly quotable dialogue and remarkable warmth.
It’s remarkable that the true story behind Pride never received much press attention, but hopefully this excellent film will help remedy that.
You can read my full review of Pride here.
Spike Jonze’s delightful techno-romance Her walked away with the Best Original Screenplay prize at the 2014 Oscars. It’s a sincere, subtle story that creates its sci-fi concept by shifting reality so slightly that it’s genuinely difficult to tell where the embellishment begins.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who helps his clients write love letters. He purchases a new computer operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and finds himself developing complex romantic feelings for “Samantha”.
The genius of Jonze’s films is in the subtle believability of his future setting. This world is a utopia, not a dystopia, in which technology weaves its way seamlessly into human life. Jonze isn’t interested in the scaremongering perspective of Transcendence or Men, Women and Children – it suggests that technology and humanity can comfortably exist simultaneously.
You can read my full review of Her here.
8. Starred Up
There’s no doubt that 2014 was a breakout year for Jack O’Connell, with the Skins alum leading gritty drama ‘71 and Oscar hopeful Unbroken. However, his best performance of the year was as the aggressive young con at the heart of brutal British prison movie Starred Up.
O’Connell’s criminal finds himself banged up alongside his father (Ben Mendelsohn), but begins to make progress with the help of an understanding therapist (Rupert Friend). Friend’s character is based on writer Jonathan Asser’s own experiences as a prison therapist and, like the rest of the film, is imbued with a powerful sense of realism.
Starred Up doesn’t hold back in its depiction of prison life, with brutality and bizarre homoeroticism at the centre of everything. It’s not the most unpredictable of stories, but it has genuine punch and really leaves an impression behind.
You can read my full review of Starred Up here.
7. 12 Years a Slave
A deserving Best Picture winner at the 2014 Oscars, 12 Years a Slave pulls no punches in its portrayal of free black man Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and sale as a slave.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s soulful central performance makes the extreme suffering feel very real, aided by Lupita Nyong’o’s terror-filled display. Director Steve McQueen refuses to turn his camera away from the horror on the screen, creating a shocking and stomach-turning account of history.
You can read my full review of 12 Years a Slave here.
6. Life Itself
The death of legendary film critic Roger Ebert in 2013 had a huge impact on the world of cinema. For critics like myself, Ebert’s passing marked the loss of an iconic and inspirational figure – a true titan of his craft.
Steve James’ documentary Life Itself weaves talking head interviews about Ebert with extracts from his memoir and footage of the man himself during his final months. A project that was initially supposed to be a mere autobiographical adaptation ended up as an affectionate tribute to a legend.
The film nimbly takes a tour through the highs and lows of Ebert’s life, refusing to gloss over the darker, flawed aspects of a man who could be childish, petulant and grumpy.
It’s a real portrait of a remarkable human that sticks out as essential viewing for every film fan.
You can read my full review of Life Itself here.
5. The Babadook
Underseen on its UK cinema release, Aussie debutant Jennifer Kent’s spooky horror film The Babadook is a spine-tingling tale of loss, grief and horrifying children’s literature.
Essie Davis is frazzled and believable as a mother haunted by the loss of her husband and the increasingly difficult behaviour of her son – played by terrific youngster Noah Wiseman. Matters are made much worse when a delightfully Burton-esque pop-up book brings the embodiment of her grief into their lives.
There isn’t a single jump scare in The Babadook, which relies on tension and subtext rather than loud noises. As a study of grief, it’s heart-breakingly potent, and it’s also guaranteed to leave you with a knot of terror in your stomach.
You can read my full review of The Babadook here.
4. The Raid 2
Few expected Gareth Evans to echo the success of his 2011 actioner The Raid with its grander, more expansive, sequel. However, The Raid 2: Berandal shocked the world by surpassing its predecessor in almost every way.
Iko Uwais shines as an actor, capable of emotional weight, as well as a martial arts genius. Here, he must befriend the son (a sensational Arifin Putra) of a mobster in order to bring down the organisation he runs.
Evans thrives with a larger canvas, weaving a complex, multi-layered crime yarn peppered with balletic fight choreography. One late sequence in a kitchen is perhaps the most impressive display of on-screen martial arts violence ever committed to cinema.
You can read my full review of The Raid 2 here.
3. Gone Girl
Pulpy airport thrillers aren’t often the fuel for great films, but novelist Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her own story – Gone Girl – made for one of the best films of 2014. With the help of director David Fincher and top-notch central performances from Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, the thrilling source work became a gripping, absorbing movie.
Pike plays Amy Dunne, who is in the midst of a rocky period in her marriage to Affleck’s Nick when she disappears without trace. Nick immediately finds himself at the centre of a media storm, but did he really have something to do with his wife’s kidnapping?
Gone Girl has twists and turns to spare, but the real strength is in the performances. Fincher combines the wit of The Social Network with the bleakness of Se7en to produce a movie that pleases the arthouse every bit as much as the mainstream.
You can read my full review of Gone Girl here.
Another underseen film, Calvary is the sophomore feature of The Guard writer-director John Michael McDonagh. Every bit as sombre and mature as it is witty and irreverent, the film is a remarkable bit of filmmaking, aided by the gorgeous landscapes of rural Ireland.
McDonagh’s premise is an ingenious one. The gut-punch opening scene sets up the murder of Brendan Gleeson’s priest in a week’s time. However, far from following a whodunnit storyline, the film then depicts Gleeson going about his business, fully aware of who he will meet at the beach on Sunday.
The film’s script is quotable and incredibly smart, packed with reliable stalwarts of British comedy, including The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd and Black Books’ Dylan Moran. By the time the conclusion is set into motion, the film has cemented itself as one of the year’s best.
You can read my full review of Calvary here.
From the moment the credits rolled on Boyhood, there was no other film that could fill the number one spot on this list. Richard Linklater’s decade-spanning coming of age tale is an inventive and beautiful film that shows the room for innovation left in the form.
Ellar Coltrane, filmed from the age of six, grows up before our eyes with the film subtly leaping through time as it visits him and his parents – Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke – throughout their lives. Subtle clues indicate the passing of time, with the film resisting on-screen titles or overly obvious pop culture references. Just as in life, time flashes by without anyone really noticing.
Rather than visiting Coltrane during the major rites of passage, Boyhood opts to drop in unnanounced on the average days of his life. Via this choice, we see the truth of humanity and the small nuances that define us, rather than performative events.
Coltrane’s performance is wise beyond his years, whilst Arquette is terrific as a woman who misses opportunities with unfortunate frequency. In an emotionally potent late scene, Arquette steals the show with one horrifying line, surely winning herself the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the process.
Boyhood, more than any other film this year, is exactly what Ebert defined cinema as – “a machine that generates empathy”.
You can read my full review of Boyhood here.
Do you agree with my best films of 2014? Do you want to suggest others that could be included? Let me know in the comments section and keep coming back to The Popcorn Muncher for more from my Review of 2014.