This list might as well be copied from the list of top ten box office performers. Maybe it should be embarrassing. But I see Goodbye To Language and Boyhood heading most serious critics’ lists and can’t help but feeling as though they don’t like movies. It’s one thing to rail against what is popular (or meant to be) when it is drowning in its own mistakes. But when that ship gets right and you keep doing the same thing, you are the one who looks dumb. Or crazy. Or both. This list has 3 sequels and something based on three dimensional puzzle pieces. It’s the riskier proposition choosing these over a movie that has no intention of making any sense or another with the emotional resonance of looking at a yearbook. This sort of typically celebrated cinematic achievement cannot compete when mainstream Hollywood is going right. And in 2014, it went righter than it has in a very long time.
1) The LEGO Movie – The bar for 2014 was set so high so early it could never recover. It tried and tried and really turned out to be a pretty amazing year for movies, but there was barely any hope that it would ever get better than it was the first week of February.
And really, it didn’t have to. The LEGO Movie is everything a movie can be. It is for absolutely everyone and anyone. It is relentless in its action and its humor and is visually stunning to go along with it. It has simple lessons for younger viewers and more complicated ones for whoever wants that. It has a turn that ratchets every aspect that had been working perfectly up to a level for which you might not be prepared.
It appeals to the people who want to say “that was fun” afterwards as well as to the people who want to say, “that was smart” as well as the rest of us who hate when that’s what anyone says after a movie. The LEGO Movie does not leave anyone out.
2) X-Men: Days Of Future Past – It is both imperative and unfair to bring up all that came before this in the cinematic world of the X-Men. It can’t exist without that history, of course, and it has the benefit of choosing the best of all of them. But everything that might help along the way could serve just as easily as a detriment.
Trying to merge a successful but largely free standing prequel with a bunch of movies that mostly necessitated that very free standingness is not a promising scenario. And so to emerge from that morass with something better than the average of everything that came before seems unlikely at best. Overcoming all of that is worth mentioning, worth praising, before you get to anything else.
But X-Men: Days Of Future Past does not need that comparison to be one of the best movies of the year. It is ultimately it’s own movie. One that can weave together a giant cast and give them all just the right things to do. One that can make everyone matter while never inflating anyone’s importance. Once that can exist within both the history of its own universe and of ours. One that can take breaks from glorious action for just as glorious character moments.
And perhaps best of all, though ultimately superfluous, X-Men: Days Of Future Past wipes the muddled slate clean for all future endeavors. Which seem all the brighter after this. It’s not overstating things to call this a miracle. And yet it’s already become expectation rather than aberration.
3) Guardians Of The Galaxy – You heard it here first.
You loved this movie and for good reason. The best reasons. But then also a dancing tree.
4) Whiplash – I’m obviously having trouble writing about anything that was good this year and I think it might be Whiplash’s fault. It tells us all what most of us cannot bear to hear, that we’re not good enough and worse, maybe we could have been but we didn’t want to bleed or get anything thrown at us to get there.
5) Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Chris Hemsworth came from nowhere to forge a dull Norse god into a luminous presence in a landscape quickly filled with them. It isn’t quite as shocking for Chris Evans to have turned this otherwise bland character into one on equal footing with all the other giant Marvel personalities. But while Thor movies have never matched Chris Hemsworth’s enthusiasm, with Winter Soldier, Captain America, the franchise, has proven it can more than handle the cornerstone it’s been called upon to be.
6) Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance – Even while the central tenant of Birdman was proven wrong at every other turn this year, it somehow still manages to seem more righteous rather than pretentious. It is just another source of accolade that I want to hate this movie and find myself completely powerless to do so. It is made too well. Which is a vague and empty notion that cannot be put any other way.
7) Frank – In a year when movies wanted to show us how easy and wonderful making music could be (We Are The Best!, God Help The Girl, Jersey Boys, Begin Again, even Get On Up) it is refreshing to see it portrayed as difficult, almost impossible, unless of course you are insane.
And even then it’s not so simple to find an audience. In a year when movies wanted to incorporate social media into their plots and somehow got it all wrong (Chef, Annie), Frank was decidedly humble and sometimes even insipidly accurate about it.
Nothing about Frank is easy and yet it still manages to be a light-hearted unconventional comedy. Not a dark comedy, but a comedy that can be dark if it wants to be. Allowed to find humor in anything, but without leaning on those things you aren’t supposed to laugh at for its laughs. It’s a complicated movie inside a pleasant and expressionless papier-mâché head.
8) Edge Of Tomorrow – Any Groundhog Day premise is welcome. I will sing you the praises of a Stargate episode that uses it even. So perhaps this movie didn’t have to try so hard.
And that’s the thing. It does not appear to be trying. At all. This is the most relaxed sci-fi comedy filled with brutality and death there has ever been. Nothing can prepare you. Except maybe that new title.
9) The Raid 2 – Unfortunately for The Raid 2, The Raid exists. If it didn’t, you might feel as though you’d never seen anything like The Raid 2 before.
But The Raid does exist and nothing will ever be the same. The Raid 2 though, is not The Raid Too. It is its own entity and goes what seems like a really long way out of its way to differentiate itself. There are still fights that seem designed to thrill you only before exhausting you. There are still weirdo villains you’re not sure you can root against. And there is a palpable desperation to every movement. But this is the second album by that band you like whose fist album was made in a garage and now they’ve been signed to a major label and there’s a team of producers involved. You might resent all that new stuff, but it’s still the same band. It’s your own fault for not giving them the same chance you did originally. If they put the same album out, you’d complain about that too. You’re never satisfied, are you? Well, you will be. The Raid 2 will see to that.
10) Coherence – Do you love Primer but wish you understood any of it? Then Coherence is for you. Just esoteric enough to make you consider that either you are too dumb or the movie is just pretending to be smarter than you, but adept enough at an impressive web of interpersonal drama to make your waffling not make much of a difference.
Maybe most impressive is how funny this movie can be without ever really making a joke. Everyone tries to recreate that funny evening you had with your friends only to realize if you weren’t there, it just plays like a bunch of people trying too hard. Coherence gets that impossible thing just right, which should really be enough, but then there’s a whole confusing low level science fiction plot to contend with too. And when I say confusing, I do mean for you, sure, but more importantly confusing for everyone in the movie. Watching everyone work everything out (or not work everything out) is like watching a very entertaining scavenger hunt of sorts which sounds horrible so there’s yet another impossible thing this movie did.
Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal took a Daniel Day-Lewis turn in this and will probably go largely unrecognized for it which is too bad because this movie might be slightly more accessible than There Will Be Blood.
Blue Ruin – Things can be exciting and tense even when everyone is blinded by revenge and terrible at everything they try to do.
Enemy – Jake Gyllenhaal again (twice maybe sort of!) in what is probably the creepiest movie of the year, which is quite an accomplishment considering what he does in Nightcrawler alone.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 – I’ll never forgive it for not being called How 2 Train Your Dragon but if there was ever a movie to teach me about forgiveness it’s this one. Jesus.
John Wick – Proving great action does need a story and character to thrive but maybe not quite as much as we thought.