Every year I tell myself I’m not going to make an end-of-year top ten list. I hate ranking films, but every year I cave and wind up throwing together a collection that I’m wholly unsatisfied with, and 2014 is proving to be no exception. Despite the fact that it was a terrible year in terms of overall box office receipts, that doesn’t mean there weren’t tons of great movies to be seen. I’m a firm believer that, no matter how fucked up the movie industry gets, there will always be people out there making interesting, worthwhile, badass cinema, you only have to look for it. Just check out all the amazing work on television right now, and all the big name filmmakers who are migrating that way in search of creative freedom. There will always be compelling stories being told.
While I’ve seen more than 200 movies for the first time this year (I stopped counting movies that I’ve rewatched dozens of times, like Pitch Perfect, or even twice, like The HungerGames: Mockingjay—Part 1, because then the count would get out of hand), there are still some notable absences on my list. Contenders I haven’t had the chance to see yet include the likes of Top Five, Inherent Vice, Selma, American Sniper, Whiplash, Under the Skin, The Overnighters, and Citizenfour (I’m woefully light on documentaries this year), among others. Still, I feel confident that this is a solid countdown of the movies I enjoyed the most over the past year. The order will probably shift some as time goes on, but for now, this works.
10. The Raid 2
Gareth Evan’s The Raid is insane. And his follow up, The Raid 2: Berandal, takes it to an entirely other level. While the first film is contained almost entirely within a single building, with a single goal—to fight to the top floor and take out a criminal overlord—Berandal opens up the entire world. The story is an epic, sprawling crime saga in the vein of The Departed, but it is truly all a vehicle for brutal fight scenes, crazy action pieces, and visceral, how-did-no-one-die-filming-this stunt work. No one working anywhere in the world right now films action like Evans, and the film is beautiful and raw and unflinching. Just saying: one, hammer fight on a subway; two, all out brawl in men’s room stall. For some reason, The Raid 2 has a glut of detractors, and I have no clue why. All I can figure is that those people hate action movies, because this movie is an intense, bone-crushing ride for the full 149-mintues.
9. The Guest
With You’re Next, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett turned in a fun, though hardly groundbreaking, take on home invasion horror. For their follow-up, The Guest, they choose to work in the stranger-comes-to town subgenre, and while it is similarly engaging as their previous effort, it’s also much more it’s own thing, and they add their own flourishes. Filtered through a synth-heavy, John Carpenter-esque ‘80s vibe, David (Dan Stevens), a too-good-to-be-true drifter, blows into town. He pays a visit to a family who just lost their son in the war, and wouldn’t you know it, David served with their boy and promised the dying soldier he’d check in on his beloved family. Handsome and polite, he injects himself into the fabric of the family, and though he appears perfect, you get hints of darkness that no one sees, or cares about, except daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). The Guest is a taut thriller, and a badass exploitation throwback, but it throws in enough of its own flavor that it’s not simply aping what came before. And however you break it town, it’s fast-paced, violent, wickedly entertaining, and takes a well-earned turn that changes how you view the entire picture.
Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch has put his distinct stamp on a variety of genres, like the gangster picture (Ghost Dog) and the western (Dead Man), but he’s never turned his sights on horror until now, with the dreamy, moody, rock and roll vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a world-weary musician who has lent his talents to the greatest composers throughout history, while Eve (Tilda Swinton) is his muse, his love, his soul mate on the other side of the globe. Together they haunt a single cluttered room, the desolate Detroit streets in the wee hours of the morning, and the lively Moroccan nightlife. Theirs is a normal life, lived within a supernatural context. Jarmusch, along with his stars, creates an atmosphere that is both surreal and mundane, alien and familiar, riding a deliberate pace and discordant score until you feel like someone slipped you a dose of heavy psychedelics on the sly.
Way more than Groundhog’s Day with aliens, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the most energetic, entertaining movies of 2014. For fans of Tom Cruise, this is as good as he’s been in years, playing against his usual heroic type, and kicks ass as Cage, a smarmy, fast-talking military PR officer without a whit of combat experience who is thrust to the front lines of a war against extraterrestrial invaders. And for those in the opposite camp, you get to see him die, repeatedly, brutally, and often hilariously. Killed within moments of his first action, Cage is reborn, reliving this one day again and again. Each time he survives a few minutes longer, eventually teaming up with Emily Blunt’s badass soldier Rita Vrataski, and together they hold the key to human survival. Fun and inventive, for a movie about repetition, Edge of Tomorrow never repeats itself.
Do you need anything more than a highly organized posse of hyper-intelligent apes attacking on horseback to get you to watch a movie? I don’t, but fortunately for everyone, there’s so much more to Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The revamped franchise has been better than anyone expected, and Dawn ups the ante even higher. Star Andy Serkis, who acts all of his scenes in motion capture, is getting serious awards consideration, and with good reason. He gives one of the most affecting, earnest performances of the year, despite being covered by layer upon layer of digital makeup and playing a monkey. The human side leaves much to be desired, but you connect with the apes in a way you rarely do with any characters. The performances and effects are so good that you quickly forget that you’re watching CGI and instead get swept up in the story of survival, friendship, betrayal, and more.
We waited a long time for Snowpiercer, but it was well worth every second. After picking up the distribution rights to South Korean hit machine Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of an obscure French graphic novel, The Weinstein Company engaged in a very public flame war with the filmmaker over 20-minutes worth of cuts that would have hamstrung things like plot and character development. Set on a train that endlessly circles the frozen wastes of a new global ice age, a rigid class system develops among the last vestiges of the human race. Having had enough of the proverbial boot on their throat, the passengers at the back fight their way to the front, where the upper crust live in luxury, with things like education for their kids, natural light, and food the doesn’t isn’t grainy gelatin. This isn’t a black-and-white story full of definites, and the story and interpretations continually shift and shimmy just like the titular train rattling down its post-apocalyptic track. Holding the film together are a great performance from Chris Evans as the insurgent leader Curtis, the most varied and intense work he’s ever done; and a brilliant wing-nut turn from Tilda Swinton as the vehement idealist Mason, who talks a much bigger game with a gun in her hand, and who occasionally wears a shoe on her head. Bleak and grim and damn near desolate, there’s just enough of a sliver of hope in Snowpiercer to keep it from being completely soul-crushing.
Going into Guardians of the Galaxy, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Granted, the Marvel hype machine was running at full steam, but this adaptation of one of the comic book giant’s lesser-known titles seemed like a gamble. Fronted by Chris Pratt, a guy best known for a supporting role on a sitcom, and featuring a gang of deep space outlaws, including a thief, a ruthless assassin, a literal minded thug, an anthropomorphic raccoon with a penchant for heavy arms, and a talking alien tree who only says three words, this is a chance that paid off big time as Guardians became the biggest movie of 2014 in the U.S. (second worldwide only to Michael Bay’s latest Transformers offering). It’s also one of the best times you had in a movie theater all year, mixing the high adventure and clever humor of an Indiana Jones movie with the swashbuckling deep space action of Star Wars. And yes, it’s just as awesome as that sounds.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in Nightcrawler is the most ferocious performance of 2014. It’s like watching a feral, hungry coyote scratching and scrounging for his next meal, all while spouting motivational poster slogans. He plays Lou Bloom, an insomniac hustler with an obsession for self-improvement who stumbles upon the blood-soaked world of freelance news stringers. Chasing accidents and tragedies all over nighttime Los Angeles, the overriding logic is “if it bleeds, it leads,” and Lou, ethically flexible as he is, shows himself a quick study. With a wicked, acerbic sense of humor and a vicious class divide, Nightcrawler crackles with excitement and energy, paints after-dark LA with eerily gorgeous cinematography, and is doubly impressive as it marks writer/director Dan Gilroy’s debut feature. Lou’s up-by-his-bootstraps-by-any-means-necessary story plays like a warped version of Horatio Alger, and Lou Bloom is this generation’s Travis Bickle.
2. A Most Violent Year
My only complaint about J.C. Chandor’s crime saga A Most Violent Year, a movie that, about an immigrant trying to live the dream, is quintessentially American, is that there’s not enough Jessica Chastain. Oscar Isaac as the lead, the owner of a heating oil supplier trying to navigate a corrupt, mobbed up business without being sucked into that world, is fantastic, but Chastain, as his mob-bosses-daughter wife is fierce as hell and so much more gangster than anyone else in the film. There are shades of The Godfather, with enough French Connection beats and early ‘80s New York texture to pull you in and set the film apart. One day A Most Violent Year is going to stand up there with the greatest crime films, and shows off a totally different side of the American Dream than Nightcrawler.
1. John Wick
John Wick was basically made just for me. It stars Keanu Reeves, an actor I’ve adored since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it’s a revenge movie kicked off by the title character’s dog being killed (if you know me at all, you know how that devotion hits home), and best of all, the directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have a background in stunts, so the action is clear, sharp, and damn near perfectly staged. Throughout the entire movie, it’s like the filmmakers asked themselves, “What would be the most awesome thing that could possibly happen here?” And then that’s exactly what they did, and the result is hands down my favorite movie of the year, not to mention one of the best straight up action movies of last decade.
I could easily keep listing movies from 2014 that you should take the time to go see, but here is a handful that almost made the cut. Despite being a sequel to a movie I disliked, The Purge:Anarchy is a badass throwback to gritty ‘70s exploitation actioners. Moody and desolate, David Michod’s The Rover is bleak and sparse, with an ending that turned many off, but this is exactly what I want out of a post-apocalyptic joint. Brendan Gleeson is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, and he’s rarely, if ever, been better than he is in Calvary, playing a strong-willed Catholic priest fighting for his flock when he knows one of them will murder him in a week. Captain America: The Winter Soldier adds depth and complexity to one of Marvel’s most recognized superheroes, and tells a deeply personal story of one character’s journey in a way that not many of their films do. If you’ve ever wondered what the death metal scene is like in a war torn African nation, or just have any interest in the redemptive, restorative power of music, Death Metal Angola is a documentary that you need to check out. If you’re not a fan of Wes Anderson, avoid his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but if that’s your jam, you’ll love his quirky, funny, sad, weirdly structured latest that’s as much about storytelling and the way we experience life through narrative as it is about a lobby boy who pencils in his mustache every morning. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Obvious Child should also both be on your must see list.