Best of 2014 The Year in Reviews

The Year in Reviews: The Best Movies of 2014

December 25, 2014Ben MK

It's the end of the year as we know it...

It's hard to believe, but 2014 has come and gone. From delusional former movie stars to intrepid astronauts, this was yet another banner year, not just for movie lovers, but for the art of cinema in general. Now comes the tricky task of summing it all up for the obligatory year-end list. It’s a golden opportunity to look back at the past 365 days in film and — in a completely unscientific manner, of course — assess which movies really made it worth the trip to the multiplex. So without further ado, here are my top ten films of the year.

(Click on the film titles below for the full reviews)

1. Best Biography: The Imitation Game

Many may only be familiar with Alan Turing's academic accomplishments, but director Mort Tyldum’s The Imitation Game chronicles the exploits of the brilliant mathematician (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) during the Second World War, when he was part of an elite grouping of minds tapped by MI6 to crack the Third Reich’s Enigma code. But as classified as his work was, Turing guarded a more controversial secret: his homosexuality. And less than a decade after the war ended, his persecution for it — then still considered a crime — led to his suicide. The movie evokes not only heartbreak, but also humor and inspiration, thanks to Cumberbatch's impressively nuanced take on the role. Bolstered by a winning cast — including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Mark Strong — the result is a compelling portrait of a tortured genius that few people really knew, and even fewer truly understood. (Released December 12, 2014)

2. Best Horror: Oculus

Oculus taps into a tried-and-true staple of the horror genre — revisited time and time again by movies like The Ring and The Possession — with its tale of a cursed object known as the Lasser Glass, which is responsible for killing the parents of its heroine (Karen Gillan). Now, she and her brother (Brenton Thwaites) must destroy the mirror before it has a chance to kill again. Based on co-writer/director Mike Flanagan's acclaimed 2005 short film, the movie is a lesson in psychological terror that's all about questioning reality, and Flanagan is apt at structuring the narrative around that theme. The story alternates between two main timelines, presenting audiences with one disturbing scenario after another to keep them guessing about the truth of the situation. The results are chilling — not only does Oculus keep moviegoers captivated, it ensures they won't be prepared for its gut-punching twist of an ending. (Released April 11, 2014)

3. Best Comedy/Drama: The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins is a poignant film that casts Saturday Night Live alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as a pair of estranged siblings who reunite in the wake of a near-tragedy. It's ostensibly a film revolving depression, angst and suicide, but co-writer/director Craig Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman turn it into one of the most emotionally fulfilling movies of the year, thanks to the tremendous humor and heart Wiig and Hader bring to their roles. The film also dabbles in equally heavy themes like infidelity, sexual abuse and parental abandonment, but rarely does it ever dwell on the negative. The on-screen chemistry of its two leads — no doubt a byproduct of their shared years on SNL — is undeniable, and they radiate such endearing warmth and sincerity in their roles that only hardened cynics will exit the movie without a tear in their eyes or a smile on their lips. (Released September 26, 2014)

4. Best Animated: The LEGO Movie

No matter what your age or where you're from, odds are that you played with LEGO as a child. But you don't necessarily have to be young to enjoy building whatever your imagination desires — only young at heart. The LEGO Movie takes this theme to new heights, with its story of an ordinary LEGO minifigure (Chris Pratt) who must defeat a megalomaniacal villain (Will Ferrell) and save the LEGO universe. But writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller aren't just set on filling the standard mold of the hero's journey. No, they're out to explode it into a million colorful little studs. With a crazy cast of minifigures — including the likes of Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Gandalf, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C3P0 and Lando Calrissian — action-packed set pieces (pun intended) and trademark LEGO humor, The LEGO Movie is a fun-filled adventure for all ages — no assembly required. (Released February 7, 2014)

5. Best Sci-Fi: Edge of Tomorrow

Based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 novel, "All You Need is Kill", director Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow stars Tom Cruise as a reluctant solider thrust knee-deep into an all-or-nothing battle against an invading alien species. The film's basic concept has Cruise's character reliving the same day over and over again (bringing to mind the similarly-themed Source Code), but with each do-over Liman and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth continually provide viewers with fresh perspective, levity and emotion, ensuring the movie remains utterly engaging and engrossing throughout. Cruise is teamed with Emily Blunt (playing a strong female warrior), and their constantly evolving relationship dynamic also helps keep things interesting. Otherwise, the film is flat-out astounding from a VFX standpoint, with the visuals possessing a grittiness that helps in selling the reality of the storytelling. (Released June 6, 2014)

6. Best Fantasy: Guardians of the Galaxy

Although they've taken the superhero movie to new heights with characters like Iron Man and Captain America, all of Marvel's films thus far have been predominantly earthbound. But with Guardians of the Galaxy, the studio has finally taken that next giant step, crossing the threshold into the vast and starry expanse of space. Based on the 2008 revamp of a 45-year-old Marvel Comics property, co-writer/director James Gunn delivers a rip-roaring pic that, at times, channels the serialized, Saturday morning swagger of Star Wars and, at other times, is an edgy send-up of the genre. And while stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista fill their oddball antiheroes with appropriate pathos and humor, it's really the CG realizations of Rocket Raccoon and his partner-in-crime Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel) that steal the show. Ultimately, the film is just plain fun. Even the oftentimes tongue-in-cheek tone of The Avengers pales in comparison. (Released August 1, 2014)

7. Best Action: John Wick

Hitting cinema screens over a decade after Keanu Reeves closed the curtain on his most iconic action role — playing Neo in The Matrix trilogy — John Wick sees the actor back in black and once again venturing deep into action-hero territory. This time, he's playing a retired assassin named John Wick, who must mount a one-man assault against a ruthless crime syndicate, all in the name of avenging his dead dog. Admittedly, this isn't the kind of motivation that revenge-thriller vendettas are typically constructed from, but you have to at least give screenwriter Derek Kolstad and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch credit for trying something different. The upshot is that the visceral action is spectacular, with fluid camera movements and a restrained editorial style that make it easy to appreciate the fight choreography. The film also boasts a formidable cast and an incredible amount of world-building, small details that go a long way in elevating it above the usual genre fare. (Released October 24, 2014)

8. Best Suspense/Thriller: Enemy

In director Denis Villeneuve's psychological thriller, Enemy, a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself in the throes of an existential crisis, when he learns that he isn't — as he had always assumed he was — unique in the world. The discovery sends him spiraling into the depths of despair and darkness, forcing him to confront his own worst enemy: himself. Based on the 2002 novel, "The Double", by Nobel Prize-winning scribe José Saramago, Enemy is precisely the type of film that would find itself in good company among the ouevre of David Lynch or David Cronenberg. Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón plant clues throughout the film, hinting at something more sinister afoot, while leaving many aspects of the plot wide open to interpretation. Perhaps repeat viewings will reveal the answers to its riddles. Irregardless, Enemy will get in your head and stay there for days, burrowing deep into your skull and depositing its mysteries within your subconscious. (Released March 14, 2014)

9. Best Musical: Into the Woods

Based on Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award winning 1987 Broadway musical, director Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods boasts a cast of characters that reads like a who's who of classic children's literature, including Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame), Cinderella and Rapunzel. But its actual cast — including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp and James Corden — is equally impressive, if not more so. Telling the story of a baker and his wife (Corden and Blunt) who must venture into the woods to retrieve four special items for a witch (Streep) in order to lift a curse that has left them childless, the movie interweaves several well-known fables into one lyrical adventure. Longtime fans may find some of the changes made by this adaptation irksome, but it's impossible not to be won over by the standout performances. Whether or not you're familiar with the stage production, Into the Woods is one magical, musical time at the movies. (Released December 25, 2014)

10. Best Romance: Only Lovers Left Alive

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive may not meet the average moviegoer's criteria for a movie romance, but at its core is a gothic love story for the ages. Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are the film's titular lovers, a pair of centuries-old vampires just trying to survive in this mess of a modern age. But doing so involves more than just finding the blood — preferably type O negative — to quench their insatiable thirst, it involves finding ways to make tolerable the slow passage of time, which they spend living an ocean apart from one another: he in a decrepit Detroit, and she in the exotic Tangier. Hauntingly atmospheric, darkly funny and gothically romantic, it's a modern take on the age-old vampire archetype — or rather, it takes on age-old vampire archetypes living in the modern world — with a sharp wit... and an even sharper set of fangs. (Released April 25, 2014)

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