I saw 57 movies that were released this year. Despite my best efforts to keep up, I’ve missed a lot of high profile films, including some that might have made my Top 10 (most notably Boyhood and Whiplash). The list below is the best and worst of what I saw, but my list may shift over time as I catch up on the movies I missed. Thus ends my disclaimer.
The Passion of Father James….director John Michael McDonough (In Bruges) created the most spiritually powerful movie of the year, a potent depiction of a man of faith in the crucible of suffering. Brendan Gleeson is an Irish priest in an increasingly post-Catholic Ireland, ministering among people who hold him in contempt because of his office. That one of them is also planning to kill him for the earlier sins of a pedophilic priest seems only a more extreme version of the treatment Father James endures in the course of his ordinary work. Calvary is a packed with religious symbolism, and the parallels between this week in Father James’ life and Christ’s journey to the cross make this much more than a suspense thriller. I should add that Gleeson’s performance is perhaps my favorite of the year. He’s brilliant as an ordinary man being asked to carry the sins of the whole church.
2. Force Majeure
What happens when you’ve been caught in your worst moment – of weakness, cowardice, selfishness? How do you come back from that? This Swedish film begins with a happy family on a ski vacation, and a near disaster becomes the catalyst for dealing with that question, and more. Force Majeure is a darkly funny comedy that deals not just with a suddenly-strained marriage, but our often unspoken ideas about masculinity and gender roles. Director Ruben Ostlund shows real insight into how we behave with each when we are ashamed, disappointed, struggling to forgive. By the end of Force Majeure, everyone is given a chance to fail and be restored to community.
3. Life Itself
I’m a life long fan of Roger Ebert’s film writing – and toward the end of his life, his more personal writing. He was the subject of a documentary in those last years, from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams); and the film does a superb job of telling not only the story of a famous career but of a life deeply lived, right to the end. Ebert opened himself up to a sometimes shockingly intimate record of his physical decline, but he never seems pitiable. There’s too much humor and light in both his eyes and the words he taps out as long as his body will allow. Life Itself is also a deeply moving tribute to the relationship between Ebert and his wife, Chaz. No drama or romcom this year could compete with the love story in Life Itself.
One of the quietest films of the year, hands down. Ida is about a young novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) in 1960s Poland. She’s been raised in a convent but before taking her vows discovers that she’s Jewish, and has one living relative, an aunt (Agata Kulesza) – a hard living Communist party insider. Together Ida and Wanda go on a journey to learn what really happened to the rest of their family. The black and white cinematography is stunning, and with limited dialogue the expressiveness of the actresses faces carries the weight of the movie.
5. The Imitation Game
It’s the sort of prestige project that sometimes collapses under the weight of its subject matter and star power, but The Imitation Game largely avoids that trap. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a rock solid performance as mathematician Alan Turing, and highlilght his work in cracking Germany’s Enigma Code in World War II. The Imitation Game may amplify Turing’s role for dramatic effect (it was more than a one man show, after all), but it rightly draws attention to this little-known piece of wartime history. It also draws attention to the vile treatment Turing endured because of his homosexuality. The contrast between Turing’s service to his government and how he was persecuted by the same left me outraged at the end of this film. That’s not a bad thing: we need reminders not to let history repeat itself.
6. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy was the sort of pure cinematic fun-fest that some of us remember experiencing with the first Star Wars trilogy. And sometimes, that’s all you really want in a movie, right? Fun? Guardians offered memorable characters, action, humor and a terrific soundtrack, and was a movie you could enjoy with the whole family – as I did. This was Chris Pratt’s breakout year, and I’m sure he’s given thanks many times for the opportunity to star in a vehicle that was so very easy to love.
7. The Lego Movie
Another Chris Pratt performance as Emmett provides a sweet, silly center to the chaos of The Lego Movie. The visuals are spectacular, it’s indisputably funny, and packed with a surprising amount of social commentary. I also appreciate the redemption offered to the “villain” at the end of the story. The Lego Movie also has an astounding cast – from Will Arnett’s spot-on Batman, to Liam Neeson’s Janus-voiced Good Cop/Bad Cop, to Alison Brie’s manic Unikitty. And let’s be honest: “Everything is Awesome” was the best cinematic ear worm of the year.
8. Still Alice
How do you make a movie about early onset Alzheimer’s that isn’t unrelentingly depressing? Still Alice manages, in part by exercising remarkable restraint. Julianne Moore plays a linguistics professor who finds words slipping away as Alzheimer’s progresses. It’s a terrifying journey, but Still Alice handles it with quietness and control. Alice tries to hang on to her sense of self, and her husband and children do their best to love and care for her at each step along the way. That’s what most families in this situation do, after all – the best they can. Moore gives a great performance as a woman whose sense of identity is bound tightly to her intellect. Even when speech leaves her, the longing to communicate burns out of her eyes. Kristen Stewart is also a standout as the daughter who loves her mother well by treating her losses with respect.
9. We Are the Best!
The second Swedish film on my list – the Swedes are killing it this year! We Are the Best! is the episodic story of an all-girl punk band in 1980s Stockholm. But these girls are very young (13, 14) and the idea of having a band is a whim. Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Clara (Mira Grosin) are not musicians, but they eventually recruit a schoolmate who is, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), and manage to play at least one concert. The performance itself turns into a riot, the sort of thing that makes the truly punk heart proud. We are the Best! is the best depiction of adolescent friendship that I’ve ever seen: the wild devotion, the petty jealousies, the threat posed by crushes on boys. It’s also very insightful about what it’s like to be young and an outsider, the way that teenagers try to craft identities to feel less alone in the world, and includes a respectful treatment of Christian characters. None of this is handled heavily, though: We Are the Best! is buzzing with energy and flat out funny. (And “Hate the Sport” is the second best ear worm of the year!)
Jon Favreau wrote, directed and starred in this little movie that slowly built both buzz and a satisfied audience this year. Favreau plays Carl Casper, an impassioned chef who finds himself suddenly unemployed. The loss of his prestige job leads to a new, if initially humbling, approach to his career, and a deepened relationship with his young son. Chef has real sweetness to it: imperfect but loving relationships between parent and child, an ex-wife who is not a monster, friends who care enough to push each other toward change. It also has a rousing Latin-flavored soundtrack and foodie scenes that will leave you salivating.
The Runners-up, 11-20
11. The Skeleton Twins
12. Inherent Vice
13. Obvious Girl
14. Gone Girl
16. The Edge of Tomorrow
18. Rich Hill
20. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Worst of the Year
1. God’s Not Dead
2. Into the Storm
3. Dracula Untold
4. Earth to Echo
5. The Taking of Deborah Logan
My Favorite Performances of 2014
1. Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer (I hear she was also terrific in Only Lovers Left Alive)
2. Jenny Slate in Obvious Child
3. (Tie) Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Ida
4. Julianne Moore in Still Alice
5. Mira Grosin in We Are the Best!
1. Brendan Gleeson in Calvary
2. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler
3. Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice
4. Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins
5. Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
What about you, readers? What did you see and enjoy in 2014?