[Note: In 2014, as in 2012 and 2013, this article will be published over a span of several days, with the reveal of two or three new titles every day during the December 25-30 period. It's done that way to generate some suspense and keep the website active during a period when there's nothing new to review. If you want to skip the "countdown" element, just check in on New Year's Eve and the whole thing will be there.]
We start every year the same way: a countdown ushering out the old, a kiss, a song, and best wishes for the next twelve months. Rinse and repeat about 90 times over a lifetime then go into a box under the ground. Some years fulfill the promise that exists at 12:01 on January 1; many do not. It takes 365 days to make a determination. In the world of film, there are various metrics that can be applied to decide whether a year is successful or not. Studios get out their calculators and examine the box office gross. Casual movie-goers may look at the level of excitement or anticipation generated by the year's biggest releases. Critics often compile Top 10 lists and use the strength of the titles on that roster to suggest something about the year as a whole.
If one was to judge 2014 solely on the basis of box office, it would be an unmitigated disaster. When the last ticket is bought at 11:59 on New Year's Eve, the total box office will send Hollywood executives in search of stiff drinks. 2014 was when what I call the "one-and-done" phenomenon exploded, spraying shrapnel across a weak summer blockbuster landscape. Not a single 2014 release managed a domestic gross north of $335M. Only two made more than $260M. Last year, four films exceeded $335M (three of those >$400M) and seven extended beyond $260M. The 2012 numbers were similar to 2013. In fact, you have to go back to 2001 to find a year that looks like 2014. If one adjusts for inflation, it's necessary to go all the way back to 1987-88 when the entire motion picture landscape was different (fewer theaters, smaller multiplexes, teen boy domination). Box office doesn't tell the whole story but it's reflective of how the public felt about 2014 in theaters: bad, lackluster, meh.
For the second straight year, no sequels made it into my Top 10 proper (although there are two in the honorable mentions list). There a pair of carry-overs from 2013, although neither was released with any vigor in U.S. theaters until this year. In terms of potential Top 10 films deferred to 2015, I can think of two off the top of my head: Selma and Still Alice. Both will be reviewed in January and will be in contention for the top spot of 2015 alongside the likes of Taken 3 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.
One curiosity: 2014 was less back-loaded than most years. By that, I mean that all the really good films weren't crammed into an eight-week release window at the end of the year. By design or coincidence, they were spread more evenly across the 12 months (if you include the general release dates of the two carry-overs). On the one hand, this means there were great things to see in almost every season. On the other hand, it meant that things were a little less festive during November and December. In fact, only two December films made it onto the list and one could make a compelling case that neither is *truly* a December release.
Honorable mentions - five films that didn't quite make the cut but which I still highly recommend (alphabetical):
#10: Fury: Fury is the perfect blending of WW2 verisimilitude, Hollywood heroics, and Saving Private Ryan grit. It is, put simply, a great war movie that gives viewers everything they need from the genre: edge-of-the-seat battles, a larger-than-life protagonist (Brad Pitt in a role that will sadly be overlooked when Oscar nominations are handed out), and an ending that doesn't cheat the characters or the viewer. You don't have to like war films to become absorbed by this one but if, like me, you appreciate them, this is a member of 2014's "don't miss" class.
#9: The Wind Rises: Even with no Pixar films released in 2014, it was a solid year for animated fare due in large part to a couple of February releases. One was, of course, The LEGO Movie. The other was Hayao Miyazaki's directorial swansong, The Wind Rises. "Officially" a 2013 film (and therefore eligible for the 2014 Oscars), this didn't reach more than a small handful of theaters until Disney ushered it into the February wilderness. It is, without question, the best animated film to be released in at least the last 12 months (and perhaps much longer). Falling into the "animation for older viewers" category, there's nothing cute or cuddly about The Wind Rises. It's just a tremendous story told by a visionary director who, for better or worse, apparently hung up his pencil and paper after finishing this film.
#8: Gone Girl: I'm a sucker for twisty movies where I'm never quite sure what's around the corner and, having not read Gillian Flynn's source novel, I was in unprepared territory when it came to Flynn and director David Fincher's adaptation. Headlined by a diabolical performance from Rosamund Pike (showing tremendous range, essentially playing two different characters), this is great neo-noir entertainment with a nihilistic ending that gives everyone pretty much what they deserve. Not nearly as serious as most of the Oscar contenders, this one gets by on pure, pulpy enjoyability.
#7: American Sniper: American Sniper is a lot of things - Clint Eastwood's best movie in a decade, Bradley Cooper's best performance ever, a loose adaptation of a true story - but one thing it isn't is political. The film doesn't have an ax to grind regarding the "rightness" or "wrongness" of the Iraq conflict. Instead, it keeps things personal and this results in white-knuckle tension and powerful moral dilemmas. I'm not a fan of the "platform" release strategy that results in movies like this opening in "select" theaters in late December but at least American Sniper's January wide arrival will give movie-goers a reason to visit multiplexes once the holidays are over.
#6: The Imitation Game: The Imitation Game, like Fury, is a World War 2 tale. Unlike Fury, however, this takes place far from the front. The battlefields are intellectual and character-based. By turns riveting and melancholy, the movie takes an unflinching look at unsung hero Alan Turing and his work in breaking Enigma. It also examines the ways in which Turing's detractors and the morals of the time worked in concert to destroy someone whose activities saved countless lives. A multi-layered drama with a top-notch performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, it's not hard to understand why this won the Toronto Film Festival's People's Choice Award. I have to wonder, however, whether The Weinstein Company's strange platform release schedule may have limited the movie's ability to attract audiences.
#5: Whiplash: My love for Whiplash isn't fully reflected by its position on the list; for pure, intense enjoyment, it's my #2 film of 2014. It features hands-down the Best Supporting performance of the year (J.K. Simmons) and a Lead Actor (Miles Teller) who falls into the "should be but won't be nominated" category. The movie kept me guessing with many of the key moments having multiple interpretations. What's genuine, what's an act, what's part of a brutal training regimen? Although the story isn't "realistic" in the truest sense of the word (the biggest complaint I've heard against it), it's no less credible than every other college-oriented film committed to film and its sense of character is more honest. It's a thriller and a drama, and damn good as both.
#4: Boyhood: The little film that could? As I write this, Boyhood stands as the favorite to win the Best Picture award at the 2015 Oscars. One could view that as an indictment of the 2014 film class, high praise for one of the most ambitious cinematic endeavors in recent memory, or both. The gimmick is that it took Linklater and his cast a dozen years to complete Boyhood, infusing it with the kind of realism that only the passage of time can confer (just ask Michael Apted). What's amazing, however, is that the gimmick enhances the story rather than becoming a distraction. As coming of age tales go, this one is spare and simple, focusing on the characters rather than the situations and eschewing melodrama for straightforward storytelling. If nothing else, this is by far the year's best edited production and, whether it wins Best Picture or not, it should definitely win in the Editing category.
#3: Life Itself: This is the Ebert documentary. I have often wondered whether I should have recused myself from reviewing it considering how close I was to the subject. However, since I hadn't seen Roger for several years prior to his death and was not privy to his end-of-life struggles, I decided that there was enough distance. The Ebert in Life Itself comes across as a brave, flawed man and the film's "warts and all" chronicle of his last months is both provocative and painful. That's not to say the movie is entirely a downer. In addition to depicting Ebert's 2013 decline, it celebrates his life as a journalist, writer, TV personality, raconteur, husband, father, grandfather, and humanist. For anyone who cared about Ebert or is merely curious to learn more about a man who was on so many TV sets every week for years, Life Itself is a peerless opportunity.
#2: Like Father, Like Son: Although technically a 2013 film (that I saw in October 2013), Hirokazu Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son didn't open in U.S. theaters until early 2014. A story about identity, parenting, and what constitutes family, this is a deeply emotional experience. The premise is simple - two children are accidentally switched at birth and the parents learn of hospital's error when the boys are six years old. The ramifications are powerful and painful. The movie calls into question what's more important: years of nurturing or biology. The answer isn't straightforward especially in a culture that so strongly values the continuation of the male line. Kore-eda's decision to end the film on a hopeful note softens things, making the production suitable for multiple viewings. Those who avoid Like Father, Like Son because of the Japanese subtitles are depriving themselves of an amazing theatrical experience.
#1: Interstellar: I thought about tying Interstellar with Like Father, Like Son for the #1 position but I dislike ties and felt that Interstellar, because of its unambiguous 2014 release status, deserved to occupy the top spot on its own. That's not to say Christopher Nolan's visionary space-faring epic isn't worthy of standing alone at the pinnacle of 2014's cinematic mountain - it is. No movie filled me more with awe than this one. The story is simple yet told with grandeur. The twists aren't oversold and there are plenty of issues to mull over once the tale has been told. It engaged me intellectually and emotionally from start to finish. I don't understand the backlash against this movie, although there's anecdotal evidence that some of the anti-Insterstellar sentiment has its roots in the age-old Marvel vs. DC fanboy conflict. This is a decidedly "adult" movie and the box office numbers reflect that - no "one-and-done" trajectory and a much higher Cinemascore from the 35+ crowd. Some have observed that Guardians of the Galaxy did much better than Interstellar in the domestic blockbuster space race (although, worldwide, they are very close and, when the dust settles, Interstellar could emerge ahead), but my contention is that in 20 years' time, it's more likely that Interstellar will be remembered than Guardians. That latter is a pure popcorn movie with little staying power. The former achieves something few big movies even attempt: to provide a cinematic spectacle without sacrificing the viewer's need to think and feel.