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The Top Ten Films of 2014

January 17, 2015



The top five of my top ten were either true discoveries or had some of the most memorable moments or characters in 2014. As I compile such a list, those are the ones that stand out. Those are the ones I’ve been championing the most, the ones I’ve turned others on to and the ones, years from now, will still be discussed and studied. Like previous years, choosing my 1 thru 5 wasn’t hard, unlike my 6-10. That’s always a struggle, since each of those films could be rearranged in any order and I’d feel just fine about it. I could also easily come up with a 11-20 list – but, this is a top ten list and an order must be determined. Also, like in previous years, I feel I could’ve easily extended this list to 20, knowing there were certainly more than 10 films that I’d recommend.

Some will say what we hear almost every year, that it was a weak year in film. They’re wrong. It wasn’t. You just got to know where to look. I looked within – at the films that moved me the most and the ones that surprised me and, of course, the ones I couldn’t get out of my head.

What can I say about my Top Ten? Well, there were definitely some similarities in the films I chose. Many of the characters had to come to terms with their own identity as well as determining who they are and who they want to be. Several of the films were made by directors who also wrote their film and a couple were directorial debuts. The most memorable films, however are the ones that stood out by doing something different – either with the genre or the approach. Some of the those films introduced me to actors and directors that I’d never even heard of, which is always a treat.

Once again, it is my pleasure to accompanied in this year-end endeavor by my contributing writers: Matt Streets, Tim O’Brien and Mark Pracht. It’s always interesting to see how similar and different out lists are. Without further ado, here are our Top Ten Films of 2014….







Simply the best piece of Hollywood franchise filmmaking I saw this year.  One could speak about the amazing technology on display, but I feel the real story lies in how well that technology was used to execute an emotional, strikingly paced story. The genius of how both this film, and the previous entry, work is that they provide a fully-rounded, compelling, fulfilling story that ends at the exact point where the audience does not feel cheated by the story in front of them, and is still dying to know what happens next. (available on DVD/Bluray & iTunes)


Okay, bring it on. Yes, I’ve read all sorts of reviews and listened to quite a few more that listed this action sequel as one of the worst of the year. I don’t care. More and more when I’m watching movies, all I’m looking for is to be entertained. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’re all back and with Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes and Kelsey Grammer all joining the crew along with a new crew of younger Expendables. I’m not saying this was a great movie – and maybe not even a good movie – but dammit, I was entertained from beginning to end in a big way. (available on DVD/Bluray)


A low-budget indie that was virtually ignored upon release, but found a second life on DVD and Netflix.  This gritty, bloody and shocking film succeeds through the performance of wide-eyed Macon Blair, a quiet beach bum who goes on a violent quest for revenge, even though he doesn’t even know how to fire a gun.  Filled with a dark, macabre sense of humor, “Blue Ruin” is reminiscent of early Coen brothers.


A revenge flick in reverse. Most films build-up to the act of revenge. Well, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier opens his taut thriller with his mysterious protagonist (Macon Blair) committing his act of revenge and then the rest of the film unravels to reveal the who and why of it all. And boy does it ever unravel. It’s the kind of violent and uneasy thriller that you wish you could look away from, but there’s just no way that can happen. It’s that rare film that had me guessing throughout and not knowing what to expect next. It’s also the opposite of “John Wick”, a revenge flick I also liked. (available on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming on Netflix)





Mark – WILD

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoirs, but what I didn’t expect was to find tears running down my face when I reached the end.  The film itself benefits from the simplicity of its execution, from Reese Witherspoon’s performance to Nick Hornby’s straightforward script.  The story proceeds and the dawning self-forgiveness sneaks up on the character as much as it does on the audience. (still in theaters)


Nick Frost has been Simon Pegg’s loyal sidekick for a trio of movies so it’s cool to see scene-stealing Frost get his chance at a starring role. Here, Frost plays a middle-aged man who has to embrace his salsa dancing past if he wants to get noticed by his new boss (Rashida Jones). I loved Frost, the supporting cast is very good, and I laughed out loud more than I can remember in a comedy in a long time. (available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes & Amazon)


Possibly the greatest pure action movie ever made, Raid 2 Redemption is filled with one jaw-dropping spectacle after another.  Words cannot really do this film justice, but witness a bloody brawl in a muddy prison yard, a beautiful ten minute ballet of carnage and controlled chaos. (available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes & Amazon)


Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s excellent “The Babadook” has been hailed as a horror film, I’d classify it as a high anxiety thriller. Yes, there are creepy moments and images, all revolving around the most unsettling children’s pop-up book ever, but what Kent does is devote plenty of time getting to know her two main characters. Those two, exasperated mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her exasperating son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), happen to be portrayed by two outstanding actors. They deliver a truly riveting mother-son relationship, that is haunted by feelings of grief, depression and resentment. On top of that is their encounter with Mr. Babadook, confounding them even more. It may have similar horror conventions, but what Kent does with them is quite impressive, especially for a directorial debut. It’s a film I’ve grown fonder of long after viewing. (available on iTunes and Amazon, on DVD/Bluray on April 14th)






What should’ve been a disjointed exercise in art-house navel-gazing with a clever gimmick surprises with the crystal-clear unity of vision that somehow survived shooting a film in short chunks over twelve years. The story isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the somewhat overwhelming sense that you are literally watching a young man grow up in front of your eyes gives the entire enterprise true depth. Richard Linklater deserves every accolade for keeping the project alive and on-track.  Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke must also be noted for giving freely of themselves to aid such young, and amateur, actors in revealing the little truths that make up the fabric of life. (available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes & Amazon)


There’s just a polish to these Marvel movies that’s fun to sit back and watch. I loved The Avengers, but the Captain America entries have been my favorite among the franchise. Chris Evans again shows why he is such ideal casting for the titular character, blending the action, drama and laughs of the character. Add Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie to the mix, and you’ve got a pretty good blueprint of how to advance a series and make an excellent, enjoyable, entertaining and professionally done blockbuster flick. (available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes & Amazon)


An unemployed stand-up comic, perfectly played by Jenny Slate in a career-defining performance, has her life turned upside down when she gets pregnant after a fling with a dopey yet earnest grad student.  A very touching comedy-drama that treats pregnancy and abortion issues in a calmer, more understated (i.e. realistic) way than is normally seen in movies.  Refreshingly honest, candid and true. (available DVD/Bluray, iTunes & Amazon)


When I heard it’s a story about a family of four vacationing in the French Alps who experience an avalanche, I instantly thought this would be like “The Impossible”. Well, I was surprisingly wrong. Indeed, Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure” is full of surprises. There is a natural catastrophe and a family involved, but that’s probably all you should know. That and the fact that “Force Majeure” is an awkward, darkly funny and unnerving look at the family dynamic, specifically marriage. It’s also a look at who we are, who we become under extreme situations and how that affects us and the ones we love. With it’s confident direction and resonating performances, this is a film that will certainly go down as one of the most memorable of the year for me, one which will warrant indepth discussion afterwards and one which I’ll be directing others to. (in select theaters, on DVD/Bluray February 10th)





Mark – SELMA

A striking and powerful telling of a specific moment of Martin Luther King Jr’s life.  David Oyelowo finds just the right tone to make MLK a man, and not an unreachable symbol.  Yet, he also nails the big moments. The speeches we have all heard, the cadence, the, frankly, symbolism.  Which leads to the other element that Ava DuVernay’s  film openly grapples with, King was a political animal.  We see that the marches, the expectation that violence would be endured, was orchestrated and managed just as much as Lyndon Johnson handled legislation from the Oval Office.  It’s an amazing, visceral choice. (now in theaters)


I missed out on Gillian Flynn’s novel a few years back but caught up with it this fall prior to seeing the screen adaptation. What a frightening and at times downright terrifying portrayal of a modern marriage. Stylish and twisting and well-told, it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in years. Ben Affleck is excellent as a married man who comes under extreme scrutiny when his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing. An easy one to recommend, both the film and the novel. Now about that ending…(available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes & Amazon)


This was pure movie fun for all ages, a whiz-bang 90 minute ride through the Lego universe and all its accompanying properties.  Supported by an insanely catchy theme song (“Everything is Awesome”) and a wry, self-deprecating and self-aware sense of humor, The Lego Movie overachieves and wins at all levels. (available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes & Amazon)


Wes Anderson wrote and directed another delightful and colorful film consisting of whimsical and witty characters portrayed by a fantastic cast. Surprise surprise, right? Sure, all the Anderson quirks and idiosyncrasies are in place here, but, if you’re like me and you’ve always loved that about Anderson, then this was another wonderful entry. What separates “Budapest” from his other films is a certain madcap and irreverent tone laced with a ribbon of nostalgia. Joining the usual Anderson players (Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, etc.) is Ralph Fiennes as the incorrigible lead concierge of the titular hotel in a fictional eastern European country. He’s a cad of a character who gets in over his head, leading the story into a sort of whodunit caper. While it’s humor isn’t for everyone, there’s plenty here for me to savor over and over again. (available on DVD/Bluray, re-released theatrically on January 16th)





Mark – LOCKE

Of any film on this, possibly the one, for me, that struck me the closest to the bone.  There is a certain belief that is hewn into the notion of “manhood,” that, somehow, there is a formula, the right words to say, an amount of planning that can be executed, that will allow one to “fix” any problem.  For myself, it has driven a hero complex that has been as destructive as anything in my life.  As we watch Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke take his harrowing hour-and-a-half drive, shot in real-time, we see a man who has every relationship that has given his life meaning stripped away, and yet there is hope. There is hope. (available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes, Netflix & Amazon)


I’m not a huge Wes Anderson fan, but I fell for this one hard. It’s sometime in the 1930s as we’re introduced to Monsieur Gustave H, played to perfection by Ralph Fiennes, and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) at the distinguished Grand Budapest Hotel. When a guest and friend of Gustave’s dies, both Gustave and Zero are thrust into a race for survival, intrigue, backstabbing and all sorts of Wes Anderson zaniness. Fiennes is an absolute scene-stealer, and I loved the humor (both subtle and stupid) from beginning to end. It features all sorts of Anderson cameos from Adrien Brody to Bill Murray and just about everyone who’s ever worked in Hollywood at some point. Just a fun, charming movie.


Perhaps Wes Anderson’s most completely realized film, filled with all of the hallmarks that we’ve come to know and love: a sprawling all-star cast, beautiful, tightly controlled camera work, a perfect soundtrack and immaculate set design.  Anderson toys with plot a lot more than usual here, and it doesn’t always work, but by the end what we have is a masterpiece suffused with gorgeous melancholy.


There were moments where I was fidgety while watching “Whiplash” and not because I was bored. Far from it, actually. It’s because I was uncomfortable watching Miles Teller’s freshman drummer Andrew be subjected over and over again to the humiliating and abusive methods of jazz band instructor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Of course, I was mesmerized and thrilled as well by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s film, with it’s impeccable editing, nerve-racking tension and propulsive energy. But most of all, I was reminded how powerful a film can be when it is devoted to a primarily two character storyline. The commitment and energy that Chazelle, Teller and Simmons give to their respective roles is obvious and inspiring. One could even categorize this as an action film. I was definitely sweating at the edge of my seat once the film ended. (still in theaters, on DVD/Bluray on February 24th)






A film that cannot be separated from the epic, terrifying performance of J. K. Simmons, who provides a screen villain that is among the greatest of all time.  This film immediately made my top 10 when I began engaging in conversations about our own teachers, and what being a teacher means.  Simmons’ Mr. Fletcher may be a terrible teacher, and a horrifying person, but when the image fades out on the last shot, it’s hard to deny that he has inspired greatness from his student.


Jake Gyllenhaal, that boy can act. I thought I was getting one movie and ended up getting one so vastly different I struggled to describe it when talking to friends about it. What can I say without giving too much away? It is a startling, frightening, darkly funny movie that you can’t look away from. I hope Gyllenhaal picks up an Oscar nomination for this performance, one of his best as he brings his Lou Bloom character to life. Also look for Rene Russo and Bill Paxton.

Matt – FURY

Grossly overlooked and underrated upon release, David Ayer’s “Fury” is simply the best WWII movie since Saving Private Ryan”, an unflinching look at the horrors of war.  Ditching the dopey sentimentality and rah-rah patriotism of movies like “Private Ryan”, “Fury” shows the brutal realities and pointlessness of the waning days of the war, as we follow a US tank crew through occupied Germany.  Sporting fantastic performances by Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Pena and a slew of terrific, nail-biting battles, “Fury” will end up being the “Das Boot” of tank movies. (available on DVD/Bluray January 27th)


Louis Bloom. A quick study, a petty thief and an entrepreneur. Also a name and character I will not soon forget, thanks to an uncanny performance by Jake Gyllenhaal in screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s director debut. Bloom is a Nightcrawler – not a furry blue teleporting mutant, mind you, but a freelance crime videographer capturing the calamities that occur in the wee small hours in and around Los Angeles. This is a captivating film from start to finish with scenes I haven’t forgotten months after viewing. Scenes of uncomfortable behavior, nerve-racking surveillance and awkward yet amusing conversations. Greasy-haired, bug-eyed and gaunt Gyllenhaal carries the film but supporting turns by Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton really add to this delirious and disturbing tale. (still in theaters. available on DVD/Blu-ray on February 10th)






OK, yeah, sure…It’s Christopher Nolan trying to make his “2001”. However, even with that knowledge, the film is a truly thrilling, beautiful piece of work. It’s a melodrama, with meticulous consideration of actual (if not 100% accurate) physics.  Nolan’s always-excellent sense of reality gives us a world that supports several truly excellent performances (Matthew McConaughey watching 20 years of missed messages from Earth is, for me, THE acting moment of the year), as well as offering questions about not only our stewardship of this world, but strong arguments for why we should always be looking beyond it.

Tim – LOCKE 

One of my favorite actors currently working in films, Tom Hardy is one of the few stars/actors I’ll give a movie a try solely because he’s in it. This is a prime example. This is 90 minutes of Hardy driving in his car, on his phone the whole time with a handful of different people as his Locke character rotates from one to the next. All the while, he’s juggling this and that, trying to keep it all together. A movie equivalent of a one-man show, Hardy absolutely nails the part. It didn’t get much of a theatrical release in the U.S., but seek this one out. Track it down!


A tense, nasty thriller about the price of fame, the flexible nature of journalistic ethics and the cost of an unchecked rise to power.  Jake Gyllenhaal, in the creepiest performance of the year, plays the unblinking Lou Bloom, a shady, unemployed thief who takes on the profession of “nightcrawling”, chasing car crashes and shootouts in order to film them for later sales to local news stations.  Nightcrawler asks some uncomfortable questions by implying that we are complicit in Bloom’s success, as the TV ratings spike with the more salacious footage, and we creep closer to edge of our seats.

David –  MOMMY

The bizarro parallel universe of “Boyhood” is Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy”. The 25 year-old Canadian writer/director has crafted one of the most raw and real mother/son relationships I’ve ever seen on-screen. The film follows a brash widowed mother (Anne Dorval, absolutely tremendous), overwhelmed by her explosive teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who’s prone to explosive outbursts, and the relationship they build with their new neighbor (Suzanne Clément) as it develops into something of an unlikely family triangle. This is an impressive and complex film dealing with delicate and heavy themes in a bold and stylized manner that always relies on the strength of its characters. Dolan has three stunning actors who are more than up for taking viewers on a powerful emotional journey. “Mommy”, which had a limited release at the end of the year, is one of my discovery films of 2014, introducing me to actors and a director I was unfamiliar with, all of whom are now on my radar. (limited release on January 30th)






I had a revelation about this film this very evening.  For all the spectacular camerawork and performance that swirls throughout this film, the core, the very beating heart of it is about having the strength to tell your own, personal story.  Your story is yours, and it is not beholden to anyone else, not critics, not even an audience.  The story of Michael Keaton’s Riggan struggle against producers, agents, critics, other actors, his fans’ expectations, and even himself, to tell a story that is very nearly meaningless to anyone but him.  We see, explicitly, how easy it would be for him to give in to the easy, lucrative path, and how hard it is to make your own road to travel. (still in theaters)


Approaching Clint Eastwood in the aging legend and crotchety old guy role, Bill Murray is supremely excellent in this comedy/drama that sure looks and sounds pretty familiar but ends up being much more. Murray is a man in his 60s, living on his own and set in his ways, who gets some new neighbors, a single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her somewhat nerdy son (Jaeden Lieberher). When she needs help, Murray’s Vincent steps in as an unlikely babysitter. Funny, dark, emotional and moving, I loved this movie with also stars Chris O’Dowd and Naomi Watts.


Scarlett Johansson plays an alien from another world that lands in Scotland, and lures men in off the street to trap in black pool of suspended liquid goop.  Difficult to describe, hard to watch at times, but ultimately thought-provoking, Under the Skin is truly a  unique and unforgettable viewing experience, and one of the strangest sci-fi films I’ve seen in awhile, a call back to early David Lynch and David Cronenberg.  (available on DVD/Bluray, iTunes, Netfix & Amazon)


The film that pulled my heartstrings the most in 2014 is writer/director Richard Linklater’s undeniably semi-autobiographical ode to growing up. Not just as a boy, but as a daughter/sister and as a parent. He captures real and truthful moments from the perspective of a child and a parent in such an honest and relatable manner. It doesn’t matter that Ellar Coltrane, who plays the titular character that we follow from age six to eighteen, isn’t all that charismatic. He has great supporting performances by Lorelei Linklater (the director’s own daughter) as well as Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his separated parents. As Linklater recalls the precious passages of time, taking us through the highs and lows of family life, he reminds us of the good/bad moments we may have forgotten in our own lives. So many times, we try to imagine what we would do in a protagonist’s shoes, in “Boyhood” we know what we would do, because we’ve been where these characters were/are and that’s a rare shared experience to connect with at the movies. (available on DVD and Blu-ray)






Just see it, OK?  It’s important.  Remember a great man who lived well, rose above the challenges the life handed him, and just loved film.  Steve James has crafted a love letter to a man who’s words, upon loss of his voce, truly became transcendent.  Roger Ebert would’ve been a man I looked up to if he’d only written about film.  He went beyond that, and the idea that life would see such a heartfelt and moving monument on film is so utterly poetic that my heart may burst. (available On Demand & iTunes)


If there’s a such thing as a “risky Marvel movie,” then this was it. Not a huge cast with generally unknown characters, ‘Guardians’ was a gem and made boatloads of money. A great, if unlikely cast – Chris Pratt as a Han Solo-like anti-hero, Zoe Saldana as the femme fatale-like assassin, Dave Bautista as an alien strongman, Bradley Cooper as a smart-mouth, gun-toting mercenary, Vin Diesel as a talking tree – combine for this space adventure as a team of five unlikely prisoners end up together, potentially saving the world. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this one but a movie that’s just so much fun. Loved it throughout with too many cool scenes and good laughs to mention. (available on DVD/Bluray)


The most exciting, edge-of-your-seat scene I saw in any movie this year was in the final ten minutes of Whiplash, a virtuoso, nearly-dialogue free showdown between a young drummer wunderkind (Miles Teller) and his emotionally abusive and psychologically manipulative teacher (played perfectly by JK Simmons).  I practically leapt in the air when the credits hit.


I vividly recall which theater I saw this uniquely strange slow-burn sci-fi tale. I’d call it a thriller, but it kinda defies a subgenre. It’s more akin to a Lovecraftian Twilight Zone episode. I found this weird and unique adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel wholly engrossing, filled with unforgettable scenes that are bizarre, quietly revealing and at times, poignant. Scarlett Johansson, surrounded by predominately nonactors, is outstanding as a mystery woman with an otherworldly aura, picking up guys in a van as she drives through Scottish towns late at night. Using abstract imagery and an eerie score by Mica Levi, English director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer has made a haunting, cold and revealing look at human interaction, attraction and vulnerability. Easily one of the most fascinating, albeit polarizing, films of the year.





Christianity, and specifically Catholic Christianity, has endured much in recent years.  As with most things, we are inundated with the ugliest of stories, and we often do not acknowledge the people who toil within that institution for all the best and right reasons.  Who do, in every day of their life, find the strength and faith to embody the teachings of Christ.  Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is yet another towering performance and collaboration with writer/director John Michael McDonagh.  The film is dark (it is an Irish story), and does not shy from the failings of the Catholic Church, but also finds the moments to fully and wildly embrace the humor that pervades life.  It is the most stunning experience I’ve had in a theatre this year. (available 0n DVD/Bluray) 

Tim – FURY 

There are two genres I love more than others, westerns and war movies. This David Ayer-directed World War II film looked like a throwback to men-on-a-mission war movies from the 1960s but mixed in with the extremely graphic violence of a movie like Saving Private Ryan. Familiar stuff in terms of the war genre but done with a fresh eye, a new look. Brad Pitt is excellent as Wardaddy, the veteran commander of a Sherman tank trying to get his crew and tank through the war unscathed. The end of the war seems close – very close – but nothing is guaranteed as the tank (dubbed ‘Fury’) heads out toward the front lines. Very good cast – Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal – works well with a well-written stories, some horrific action and violence, and a very moving finale. The definition of an uncomfortable movie but a modern gem, a classic war film.


Why is “Birdman” the best film of the year?  Is it the whip-smart dialogue, the astonishing supporting cast led by Ed Norton and Emma Stone, or the dizzying, how-did-they-do that, “single take” camerawork?  Is it the double meta structure of the play within the movie format, or the career-saving, Best Actor-worthy performance of Michael Keaton?  Could it be because of the pulsing, drum-based jazz soundtrack or the giddy flights of fancy that send the film fearlessly into orbit?  Yeah, it’s all of that and more: funny, strange, dark and effortlessly original, a pure joy on every level

David – IDA

I’d never heard of the two actresses in this captivating black and white Polish film and I had a vague recollection of the director. I hope to make discoveries among the hundreds of films I see each year and “Ida” was the most memorable discovery. The film introduced me to talent in front and behind the camera and also happened to offer exquisite cinematography and compelling themes of identity, family and faith. The work from director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski, first-timer Agata Trzebuchowska and veteran Agata Kulesza, is phenomenal. All of them really caught me by surprise with an emotional story that effortlessly takes us on a journey of self-discovery, in the process discovering an amazing and absorbing emotional film. (available on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime)





We’ll continue to review more films from 2014, but these are the ones we consider to be the best – at least the ones that would fit in a Top Ten list. What about you? What are yours?





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