COLUMN: The 10 Best Films of 2014

Time and life gained on me this year as an amateur movie critic.  With the arrival of my second child in September, putting me in the "two-under-two" club, I had to choose my spots to see movies this year more shrewdly than ever, slipping out after bedtimes to evening shows or to morning matinees during midday nap times.  Last year, I was able to see and review 72 films.  This year, that number dipped to 57.  If you combine seven "Guest Critics" that helped me out (huge extra thanks, by the way), that number tops off at 64 reviewed 2014 films on this website.  As I stated in my recent "Worst of 2014" column, I feel that I avoided more bad films than missed any good ones.  I feel that I choose wisely from 2014's buffet of film choices and received a big boost (and a professional step up) from press credentials awarded to me for my published work on to attend and screen films at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  Three of my Top 20 films came from that event.

As with any year, I can't see everything before making a "10 Best" list.  Some are pure misses and others are late December films that haven't made it to Chicago yet.  Last year, my big omission was "Captain Phillips," where the dominoes never fell right to see it in time.  This year, that same missed and popular Oscar contender for me is "Fury," with a dash of smaller fare like "Under the Skin," "Blue Ruin," and "Rosewater" on the side.  Two Oscar hopeful films that haven't made to my neck of the woods yet and won't make this list are Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" and J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year."  I normally don't go back and edit my "10 Best" list after the fact, but if one of those films wow me, I may have to make an exception and shuffle the deck.

Getting into the 2014 numbers, I reviewed twenty four-star winners and twelve five-star gems.  That means my final "10 Best" list are all champs with two films that had to be bumped to lead the "next ten."  From there, my four-star reviews were ranked from 12-20 and then and honorable mention of overflow.  In keeping with the hook of my website, each of my "10 Best" are presented with their best life lesson and linked full reviews.  Enjoy and share your own picks for the best of the year!

HONORABLE MENTION (other four-star reviews, in alphabetical order):

"Big Hero 6," "Calvary," "Edge of Tomorrow," "The Equalizer," "Get On Up,"  "Magic in the Moonlight," "A Most Wanted Man," "St. Vincent," "Still Alice," "They Came Together," "Two Days, One Night," "X-Men: Days of Future Past"


11.  "Captain America: The Winter Solider"-- Seeing what I called the most complete Marvel Film entry to date land at #11 shows me (and should show you) how good and how highly I regard the full "10 Best" above "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."  This lost a coin toss with #10, but is really #10A.  "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" showed us how good a comic book film can be when the filmmakers invest in storytelling depth with complicated details and put that above the fist fights and gun battles.  The brawny elements are still there aplenty, but this film played as taut and calculated as those old 1970's political thrillers for a new age.  Looking back, I stand by my rank of this as the best Marvel film to date and I can't wait to see how Joss Whedon builds from "Captain America: The Winter Solider" to "Avengers: Age of Ultron."  Hail Hydra!  (full review)

12.  "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"-- This was the lowest of my twelve five-star reviews.  Someone had to miss the Top Ten with the Star-Spangled Avenger.  As long and drawn out as this trilogy was constructed, I will still preach its technical merits, its exciting storytelling, and the patience to see the whole story through.  This third and final chapter was a shade weaker than its middle chapter "The Desolation of Smaug" from last year, but still a bold and entertaining epic.  (full review)

13.  "The LEGO Movie"-- This was, flat-out, the best near-perfect movie I saw last year.  Its busy-body drive and somewhat cheesy human developments do not do enough to take away from this film's sheer enjoyment and fun.  I loved the double-edged lessons of creativity and conformity and how both are OK.  "The LEGO Movie" was an instant classic and will be your eventual Best Animated Feature Oscar winner.  (full review)

14.  "Guardians of the Galaxy"-- Right next to "The LEGO Movie" this was also one of the best near-perfect movies from 2014.  Cheeky fun, great adventure, and interesting anti-hero characters rule this D-list superhero flick that strengthened Marvel's dominance over the genre.  Only its terribly underwritten villains held it back from a full five stars and a higher place on my rankings.  (full review)

15.  "Chef"-- If there was one movie I recommended time and time again last year to friends who wanted a sure winner that was off the beaten path, "Chef" was my leading suggestion.  It's well-written, topical for its social media angles, and perfectly engaging.  The food alone was worth the ticket price.  Point of fact, my wife and I have turned pork shoulders into Cubano sandwiches at home five times since we saw this in May.  "Chef" was probably the best date movie of the year that didn't set out to be a date movie.  It is right there with "The LEGO Movie" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" as the best crowd-pleasers of 2014.  (full review)

16.  "Interstellar"-- As polarizing as it was received by so many people, including my film critic colleague Tim Day from Day at the Movies, I loved this film. Its sentimentality and visual awe grabbed me, no matter how long the movie ran or heady and thick the plot developed.  I could handle its overtones and was captivated the whole time.  (full review)

17.  "Wild"-- Reese Witherspoon's passion project, from the director of "Dallas Buyers Club," is an excellent film worthy of her Oscar consideration as Best Actress.  I was lucky enough to see "Wild" as the Closing Night Gala film of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival back in October before its December release.  It's an empowering film that all women should see and a "chick flick" of a different color.  (full review)

18.  "Nightcrawler"-- I can't put this film in the Top 10 like the other big-wig critics, but I have to give Jake Gyllenhaal and writer/director Dan Gilroy a great deal of credit to dive into the immoral and murky waters of "Nightcrawler."  No film went after potential controversy harder than this one.  This is easily the best Jake has ever been and he's an Oscar dark horse behind Michael Keaton in "Birdman" for Best Actor.  This was solid, provocative stuff.  (full review)

19.  "The Railway Man"-- This little British film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman and the captivity flashbacks of World War II veteran Eric Lomax is better than Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken" with the same themes.  "The Railway Man" hits them deeper and more completely.  Seek out this hidden gem of 2014, either before or after you see "Unbroken."  (full review)

20.  "Unbroken"-- Speak of the devil.  Even if "The Railway Man" is better, "Unbroken" is still no slouch.  It is a fine film in its own right and a worthy American story.  Jolie's film ranks right there with "Interstellar" for splitting audience opinions.  Locally here in Chicago, the beef between singer/personality Wayne Messmer and WGN entertainment reporter Dean Richards is a perfect example of how big of a lightning rod "Unbroken" has been.  Compared to something like "The Interview," this film is worth the fuss and is as good as advertised during this year-end push.  (full review)


10.  "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"-- I gave this sequel the edge over "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" because it is the more complete blockbuster and movie.  Its themes were heftier.  I'm still astounded, every time I watch "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," at what the filmmakers have created with the advancements of the performance capture CGI technology, led by Andy Serkis's incredible work as the lead ape Caesar.  It is seamless in every way and that visual effect is necessary to sell this movie and gain your buy-in, engagement, and acceptance of these characters.  I know I wasn't the only one rooting for the apes.  For that, this film had a harder mountain to climb than "Captain America: The Winter Solider" and the backing of the Marvel brand juggernaut.  I gave that the edge.

ITS BEST LESSON: APES AND HUMANS HAVE MORE SIMILARITIES THAN WE ALL REALIZE-- Humans and chimpanzees may be separated by one pair of chromosomes and different physical looks, but that's where the gaps start to end.  Yes, the nature of the apes' advanced intelligence in this film's world heightens this lesson a little, but, in an animalistic sense, we men and women are quite similar to them.  We both protect and love our mates, offspring, and families.  We both cling to our surroundings as shelter and home and, most importantly, we both have feelings and emotions that drive our actions and personalities.  We call most of these qualities "humanity," but it is really something shared with our primate relatives as well.  We don't have exclusivity to those behaviors.  In the end, we're not that different.  (full review)

9.  "The Imitation Game"-- The story of Alan Turing's heroic contributions and challenging science to the British war effort during World War II was the most polished "Oscar bait" film of the year.  I was lucky enough to see "The Imitation Game" early as a special presentation screening at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  Despite that stigma, the film backed up its anointed pedigree and offered a compelling slice of history with a fascinating central subject.  "The Imitation Game" was far better than the other intentional Oscar hopefuls of crafted prestige like "Foxcatcher" and "The Theory of Everything."  I called it better than "The King's Speech" and I stand by that.  Benedict Cumberbatch is the real deal and Oscar-worthy here.

ITS BEST LESSON: THINKING DIFFERENTLY-- So many great minds and innovators in our history share this lesson.  The people that distinguish their talent and intelligence from the masses are the ones that blaze new trails and think differently than others.  When faced with a problem as difficult as the Enigma code and the repetitive failure that continued for years, it was going to take a different approach.  Alan Turing saw computation and new engineering where others saw equations and riddles.  His creation and theory behind his computation machine was radical thinking.  Groundbreaking results come from radical thinking.  Just look at how computers have progressed from his innovation, much of which was kept secret for years.  (full review)

8.  "Birdman"-- Plenty of the big-wig critics are putting "Birdman" higher on their lists, even at the top.  I can't go that far, but it's still a five-star effort and creative achievement.  I won't call it fully over-loved, but it's close.  This too played as a special presentation at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  Still, I'll contribute to its kudos more than steer people away from it.  Michael Keaton, in a role shrewdly parallel to his own career, has probably locked up the Best Actor race with this ballsy performance, and for good reason.  Edward Norton and Emma Stone add stellar supporting roles behind Keaton.  Alexander Gonzalez Inarritu's dark comedy about an aged former superhero actor throwing himself to the Broadway wolves in a play he's directing and starring in offers some of the deepest and sharpest commentary on Hollywood, celebrity, artisitc integrity, and talent vs. popularity seen in quite some time.  "Birdman" is not a film for everyone, but it's a virtuous success.

ITS BEST LESSON: REGAINING YOUR ARTISTIC INTEGRITY-- This lesson is the driving mission of Riggan's journey.  Because of the ignorance and lack of love shown to him and the lack of real respect and appreciation, he seeks to regain his artistic integrity with getting this play made.  He bets everything on it.  He could take the easy route and make superhero sequels, but wants this challenge to show others and himself that he's not just a costume and catchphrase.  Anytime, in any profession, people want to know they are taken seriously and honored for their quality work.  Riggan is no different and this quest consumes him.  (full review)

7.  "The One I Love"-- Chances are, unless you follow my website on social media, none of you have ever heard of this movie.  No film surprised me more this year, literally and figuratively, than "The One I Love."  Low and behold, I have it here higher than "Birdman" and "The Imitation Game."  That ought to grab your interest.  Starring TV stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a struggling married couple off to a therapeutic getaway rental that is more than what it seems, this "Twilight Zone"-esque curveball and mind-melter came out of nowhere for me.  I went into this one blind, with no trailers or advance research, and ate it up, hook, line, and sinker.  I'm confident you will too.  The trailer gives just enough of a taste without killing the fun.  Since this movie is still undiscovered by so many, I refuse to give away clues or spoilers beyond that.

ITS BEST LESSON: FINDING THE MOST IDEAL VERSION OF YOURSELF OR YOUR PARTNER— If your relationship spans years, inevitably, your spouse or significant other is going to change in temperament, maturity, attraction, etc.  Some couples find that those changes reduce or take away from the man or woman they remember falling in love with.  The goal becomes either to regain or maintain those ideal qualities of yourself and your partner.  Staying true to your best traits is a hopeful step to never losing that spark in a long-term relationship.  (full review)

6.  "American Sniper"-- I've always put Clint Eastwood on a pedestal higher than his peers.  He's an all-time great in my eyes and even his weaker efforts are better than half of the crap Hollywood churns out every year that is louder and dumber.  Well, this isn't a lesser effort from Eastwood at all, not for a second.  If anything, at 84, he has raised his game with "American Sniper."  Eastwood has always had the ability to combine grit and heart together in dramatic films with difficult themes.  He put on a stoic clinic in that regard with "American Sniper" and his telling of the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper).  I'll go so far as to call it a near-masterpiece and a film I'd gladly revisit over and over before something similar, but more glorified like "Lone Survivor" from last year.   

ITS BEST LESSON: THE POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER OF SOLDIERS AND VETERANS COMING HOME-- "American Sniper" takes the time to compose a solid example of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans coming home from war.  On one level, Chris Kyle was called upon to be a killer and had to find the right mindset to accomplish that difficult duty in the name of serving his country and his cause.  Soldiers are put in that position all of the time and have to deal with those repercussions and consequences.  The internal scars are always harder to heal than the physical ones.  We witness that with Chris and his attitude on his own feelings and healing.  We see what it takes for him to live with himself, his wife, his children, and his fellow veterans.  That realization and healing process is tremendously difficult, even for a "living legend" that everyone looks to and depends on for strength.  That healing is greater than any victory in the trenches.  (full review)

5.  "Gone Girl"-- Much like Eastwood, David Fincher is on a very short list of directors for me that can do no wrong.  Fincher creates meticulous and engrossing films every time he steps behind a camera.  His resume speaks for itself.  He was the perfect director to deliver Gillian Flynn's twisted, best-selling, and scandal-filled mystery novel.  "The Imitation Game" may be the most polished movie I saw this year, but "Gone Girl" was the most calculated and exact.  Every inch of the film had a design and purpose towards an intentional ambiance and bigger picture in mind.  Ben Affleck may have been the headliner, but Rosamund Pike stole the show.  The film adaptation delivered the jaw-dropping moments we were promised and backed them up with layer upon layer of follow-through and additional question-stirring suspense. 

ITS BEST LESSON: LEARN ABOUT YOUR SPOUSE-- Ben Affleck's Nick quickly comes off as the stereotypical clueless husband when his wife ends up suspiciously missing.  After years of marriage, he doesn't know the books she reads, the diary she keeps, the money she spends, the friends she spends time with, or the places she carries on in her free time.  Maybe their later marital troubles (see later lesson) played into this, but a better effort needs to be taken.  Fellas, take time to learn your wife's likes and dislikes.  Pay attention more and be interested instead of act interested.  Be looking over your shoulder, because, your wife assuredly knows everything about you right down to the way your underwear gets folded (because she probably folds it and not you).  Watch out, dudes.  We are the drooling dogs and they are the devious cats of internet meme equivalency.  (full review)

4.  "The Grand Budapest Hotel"-- If there is a film that can match the meticulousness of "Gone Girl," it's the intentionally anal and hyper-detailed imagery and style of Texas filmmaker Wes Anderson.  I was never an Anderson fan until "Moonrise Kingdom" in 2012.  I could never tolerate his weird over-the-top style, but that film and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" were comprised of stories that better suited and better tapped into his manic combination of romantic quirk and creative oddity.  Ralph Fiennes leads this sprawling caper film of unabased fun and feverish intrigue.  In my opinion, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was the best written screenplay, original or adapted, of the year.  

ITS BEST LESSON: REMEMBERING AND EXPERIENCING A DECLINE OF GREATNESS-- This film's story is a passed down saga of oral history, experienced by a former lobby boy reminiscing to the fascinated audience of an eager writer who appreciates the former greatness being described.  Every little dated old place in this world, from a declining grand hotel all the way down to a simple park bench, were once new, were once perfect, and have been the setting for someone's greatest moments and fondest memories.  Like many say often: "If these walls could talk."  Those old places and objects might not look their best anymore, but they are still special to everyone who had those experiences.  People have their periods of greatness too that decline with age.  The unassuming old man you see on a bus or in an obituary may look unremarkable, but, chances are, they too have their own poignant and rigorous history and stories.  (full review)

3.  "Boyhood"-- This movie, above all others this year, is a special kind of ambitious filmmaking and realistic fiction.  Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture and, to me, it's easy to respect and see why (check out my 2015 Awards Tracker page for more detail).  By now, you all have heard about the movie's 12-year journey to follow a fictional family played by the same actors (led by parents played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) each year and create a collective narrative.  Centered around a 5-year-old boy named Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, that ages to 18 from 2002 to 2013, "Boyhood" is one of the most fulfilling and unique slices of American life and coming-of-age stories that I think I will ever see.  I wouldn't bat an eye if it eventually won Best Picture.  It counts as a watershed experience, especially for this current generation of Millennial youth. 

ITS BEST LESSON: WHAT YOUNG EYES AND EARS CAN OBSERVE-- Throughout all of the lessons, it comes down to witnessing an arc of one's life.  We are watching one family's domestic life over time unfold through the eyes and ears of a boy growing into a man.  This is Mason's view of the world.  We are seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly and how it changes in impression and impact with a child's maturity and understanding.  Kids pick up on more things than we tend to realize.  At a young age, they can see stress, anguish, and irregularity.  They know when something is wrong.  They can see through a lie or a sugarcoated response over time.  Their gap is being able to fully interpret the "why" behind the "what" of their observations.  (full review)

2.  "Selma"-- I literally just saw this film today, January 1st, the date of this column's publication.  I had a good feeling it was going to be a moving experience and make my Top 20, but I didn't realize it was going to be as profound as it was.  So, here I am, re-writing my "10 Best" list to include "Selma" close to the top.  In my review that I just posted, I had the gumption to call this historical drama, based Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s leadership in the Selma, Alabama voters rights marches of 1965, better than last year's Best Picture winner "12 Years a Slave."  Even after short reflection since earlier today, I don't see myself changing my mind and I even had this film nearly overtake my #1 spot.  The dignity, honesty, and humanity put forth by lead actor David Oyelow and director Ava DuVerney terrifically honor the history, the leadership, the people, and the man himself being presented and portrayed.  Go see this film immediately when it hits your local theaters this month. 

ITS BEST LESSON:  THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RIGHT TO VOTE-- After you learn about and watch this recreation of the efforts from "Selma," you should have a renewed spirit towards the importance that is the right to vote in this country.  King and the other Civil Rights leaders knew that voting was the first and most basic expression of a citizen's opportunity to participate in the democratic process.  Without being a registered voter, they couldn't select their leaders, exercise their rights, or participate in juries in court to represent their peers.  Voting is your direct voice and people don't know what they have unless they didn't have it before.  We should be appalled and disgusted that more people vote for the winner of "American Idol" in this country than for the Presidency and other government positions.  Rights such as this should be priorities and "Selma" is a history lesson to remind us of that.  (full review)

1.  "Whiplash"-- Try as "Selma" did, I couldn't lower this dynamite little film from my top spot.  Coming from unexpected places and humble origins, no film in 2014 raced my pulse, glued me to my seat, pushed my thinking, grabbed my attention, and held it better than Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash."  A movie of this size shouldn't be the perfectly-tuned force that it is, but these were the most electric and riveting 106 minutes for me all year and that punch followed me out of the theater.  I've been stumping on my social media pages for "Whiplash" since October and I will keep doing so.  It will never win the Oscar for Best Picture, but a big part of me roots for this little-engine-that-could to be a scrappy contender for Best Original Screenplay against "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Birdman."  Even the nomination would be an honor for Chazelle and company.  "Whiplash" will likely have to settle for earning J.K. Simmons, the villain of the year, the trophy for Best Supporting Actor.  That too would be a crowning achievement that will bring this film the attention it deserves.  

ITS BEST LESSON: THE DEMANDS OF PERFECTION-- Musical performance on the level of competitive bands requires an nearly inhuman amount of perfection.  With some many moving parts working together, one imperfect flaw can break an entire group or performance.  Therefore, the demands to always operate at this needed level of perfection are enormous.   The room for error is a fraction of a second.  Spots on these top group are earned and lost over it.  Reputations are won and lost over it.  Careers are made and killed over perfection.  These demands put psychological and physical tolls on people, but some people eat that up.  (full review)