Top 10 Films of 2014

After Dark counts down the best of the year in cinema — and lets you know how you can see our picks.


 

In any given year, there are only a few truly great movies. It’s tough to make films that are likely to be accepted as classics a decade or a half-century after their release.

But I’m always staggered by the number of very, very good movies that appear annually; these are movies that I wouldn’t call perfect, but I would instantly recommend that everyone rush out and see. For lack of a more eloquent description, pictures that get a nine rather than a 10 — the number of those is staggering.

What I’m saying, then, is the top few spots on this list were easy to name. After that, it nearly was impossible. (The list of honorable mentions at the bottom of this page will reflect that.) There’s a ton of great stuff out there, and as streaming services get better and independent theaters get bolder, it’s easier to find excellent cinema than ever. So go find it. Starting with these, The Top 10 Films of 2014.

One bit of self-promotion before I get to the list: If you think I know what I’m talking about, consider tuning in next Thursday, Jan. 15, for the 20th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards. As a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, I’m lucky enough to vote for the awards, and I truly feel they’re a better representation of the year in film than just about anything. The star-studded show, hosted by Michael Strahan, will air at 9 p.m. on A&E.

Now then.
 

10 — “Into the Woods”
By turns delightful and heart-wrenching, Carnegie Mellon grad Rob Marshall’s interpretation of the Stephen Sondheim musical brought tears to my eyes on two separate viewings. The cast couldn’t be better and, at the risk of using the biggest movie cliche of all, the art and design of “Into the Woods” are nothing short of magical. Sure, it’s slightly Disney-fied, but there are countless little treasures here.
How to see it: In theaters now.

9 — “Obvious Child”
Jenny Slate perhaps is the most underutilized comic talent in Hollywood. In this indie hit, the former “SNL” cast member plays a struggling stand-up trying to eke out a New York existence; she discovers she’s pregnant after a drunken, post-show encounter and has to confront the sort of decisions (and emotions) that my generation always is trying to dodge. Don’t let that heavy description trip you up, though — it’s also really, really funny.
How to see it: Available on DVD and for digital rental.

8 — “Snowpiercer”
This science-fiction haymaker is the movie that every Marvel movie wants to be. In a post-apocalyptic future, the only surviving humans live on a hulking, self-sustaining train that completes one circumnavigation of the globe per year. The rich live pampered lives at the front of the train, and the poor barely survive in the caboose; when a team of rebels led by Chris Evans decides they’ve had enough, they begin working their way to the engine in a frenzy of violence and mind-bending. Tilda Swinton stands an outside chance of getting an Oscar nod for her role as an officious villain.
How to see it: Currently streaming on Netflix and available for digital rental.
 

7 — “Wild”
The best performance of Reese Witherspoon’s career (yes, better than her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash) is in this hiking odyssey, adapted from the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed and directed by “Dallas Buyers Club” helmer Jean-Marc Vallée. Strayed started a highly difficult, thousand-mile-plus hike from rock bottom, reinventing herself in a ritual of pain and tenacity; it’s rendered beautifully and played perfectly.
How to see it: In theaters now.

6 — “Gone Girl”
David Fincher’s delightfully deranged missing-persons case brings a new definition to the phrase “guilty pleasure.” With “Gone Girl,” that’s a literal term: You will have a great time and feel bad for enjoying such a nasty film so very much. The mystery works, the characters somehow are as compelling as they are despicable — and the whole package is as irresistible as a “48 Hours” marathon drenched in fondue. No spoilers, but a certain third-act scene of violence still gives me shivers . . . and the need to see it again.
How to see it: On DVD (and in RedBox) now. Available for digital purchase via iTunes, Google Play and other services.

5 — “Whiplash”
You’ll find yourself agreeing with the explosive, vicious jazz professor played by J.K. Simmons much more than you’d like. While many of us would never hurl a chair at a 19-year-old drummer’s head or berate a quivering trombonist into submission, it’s hard to argue: Everyone-gets-a-trophy culture produces a lot more complacency than brilliance. The faceoffs between Simmons and the fragile percussion prodigy played by Miles Teller are the best showdowns of the year.
How to see it: We’re between theatrical and DVD releases right now. This should be out on DVD within a month or so, and it could reappear in theaters after Oscar nominations are announced next Thursday.
 

4 — “Selma”
Its message is resonant, its timing is uncanny and its performances are moving. Director Ava DuVernay’s civil-rights drama would be among the best films of any year, but it’s chillingly relevant to the current race dialogue — more so than it would’ve been even a year ago. More than that, though, it’s a powerful historical document led by a virtuosic portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by David Oyelowo. If you have kids, pull them out of school today and take them to see “Selma.”
How to see it: In theaters now.

3 — “Foxcatcher”
It’s a testament to how many excellent performances we’ve seen in 2014 that Steve Carell’s chilling, beguiling turn as deranged millionaire John du Pont probably won’t even score an Oscar nomination. Pay that no mind: Alongside similarly piercing work by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, Carell brings one of the most bizarre true-crime stories in American history to life under the surgical camerawork of Bennett Miller. You won’t understand why it all happened at the end, but that’s because no one does.
How to see it: In theaters now.

2 — “Birdman”
Homerism for Michael Keaton aside — OK, mostly aside — “Birdman” is the only 2014 film I’ve eagerly watched three times, and (to paraphrase Beetlejuice) it keeps getting better every time I see it. On the surface, it’s a simple story about art and artists; in execution, it’s a madcap, stream-of-consciousness rampage through the minds of a half-dozen unforgettable characters. There’s no shortage of praise-worthy topics when it comes to “Birdman” — the score, the camerawork, the design — but breaking it into parts undermines the unbelievably artful whole.
How to see it: It has left local theaters but will definitely return after it gets nominated for just about every Oscar.
 

1 — “Interstellar”
Believe me: I’m well aware of the fact that I’m taking a bizarre, contrarian stand with this choice. The critical and popular consensus on Christopher Nolan’s cosmic epic is that it was occasionally brilliant but over-reaching and flawed. Forgive my hubris, but everyone who thinks that missed the boat. It’s hard to open up one’s self to a movie that goes so deep on both science and spirituality at the same time. But those who do will find an otherworldly, sublime film — not only the best of 2014 but one of the best of all time. This isn’t just science fiction at its finest, it’s filmmaking at its most fully realized and one of the most overwhelming — in a good way — experiences I can recall.
How to see it: A DVD and Blu-Ray release is expected sometime in March.

Honorable Mentions
I could name 50, but I’ll limit myself to 20, in alphabetical order: “The Babadook,” “Big Eyes,” “Boyhood,” “Citizenfour,” “The Double,” “Fury,” “Get On Up,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” “The Imitation Game,” “Inherent Vice,” “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” “Life Partners,” “Locke,” “The Overnighters,” “The Railway Man,” “St. Vincent,” “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” “Unbroken” and “Under the Skin.”

Categories: After Dark