2014 was actually a pretty great year, movie-wise. Most of the biggest box office smashes were worthwhile films – Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie, for example. But it’s hard to track down every really great film, and this year, we’re betting you missed a lot – A LOT – of outstanding movies. But you can make up for that with this list of the films you may have missed and need to see. It’s our post-holiday gift to you! You’re welcome!
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s trippy vampire classic needs to be seen, but in all likelihood, you did not. You should remedy that situation.
Get On Up
How is it possible that this wonderfully acted biopic promising wall to wall great music drew such a tiny audience? Tragic! See it tomorrow when it comes out for home entertainment viewing!
This surprising, wearily funny, gorgeously filmed and spectacularly acted gift from Ireland did not get the reception it should have.
We Are the Best! (Vi ar bast!)
Two young girls with no musical experience start a punk band. This film is an absolute joy.
Hopefully its inevitable Oscar nomination for J.K. Simmons (and very likely win!) will give this remarkable little film second life in theaters. If so, do yourself a favor and see it!
It’s a tough sell: Tom Hardy, alone in a car for 90 minutes, but man, what he can do with a show to himself!
Another underseen Tom Hardy gem! His versatility is amazing, and here he gets a great supporting assist from James Gandolfini.
Under the Skin
Scarlett Johansson reminds us again of the superb talent she possesses in this hypnotic alien adventure.
Dear White People
Witty, incisive and one step ahead of you, this excellent indie comedy needs to make everyone’s home entertainment watch list.
Michael Fassbender as you have never seen him – stuck inside a giant false head. Funny, tender and woefully underseen, it’s another reason to be amazed by Fassbender.
Tanked by its own studio, the film found a market in home entertainment. If you haven’t found this ingenious piece of SciFi, do so right now!
2014 was a banner year, with great films in an enormous range of genres: blockbusters and indies, horror and SciFi, dramas and comedies, as well as films from first time filmmakers, a lot of great stuff from women directors, and an unusually high number of excellent films with one-word titles. No idea that that trend might mean. Anyway, today we walk through our 20 favorites of the past 365 days.
20. Into the Woods: Rob Marshall proves again that he’s the man you want filming a musical, using inventive techniques to bring the cross-cutting fairy tale narratives in this Sondheim musical to glorious life. Not your traditional Disney effort, Into the Woods offers a sophisticated, often dark but insightful and imaginative look at the other side of fairy tales.
19. The Lego Movie: The tone is fresh and irreverent, the voice talent spot-on, and the direction is endlessly clever. The Lego Movie was the most fun to be had at the cinema in 2014.
18. Guardians of the Galaxy: Director James Gunn nails the tone, the color, the imagery, and the sound of one Earthling dartin’ about space scavenging, smooching, and basically living the dream. The effortlessly likeable Chris Pratt leads a crew of ragtag misfits who collectively become the most enjoyable team of intergalactic scoundrels since Han Solo piloted the Falcon. This is the definition of a great summer movie.
17. Calvary: World-weary humor, brilliant writing and one stellar performance from the always remarkable Brendan Gleeson mark this underseen gem from Ireland about humanity, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption.
16. The Imitation Game: A wonderful mix of exciting historical mystery and heartfelt examination of the complicated man at the mystery’s center, The Imitation Game is a film about secrets boasting an Oscar-worthy performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
15. American Sniper: The bio of America’s most lethal sniper is tense, heartfelt, and wise. Director Clint Eastwood hasn’t been this invested in years, and along with an astonishing lead performance from Bradley Cooper, strikes just the right tone with a story that could have easily been mined for manipulation. It isn’t, which is another reason to salute American Sniper.
14. Locke: A masterpiece in simplicity, Locke tags along on a solo car trip: just you, the great Tom Hardy, and several simultaneous crises he handles on his mobile.
13. Under the Skin: This hypnotic, low-key SciFi thriller – the latest from filmmaker-to-watch Jonathan Glazer – follows Scarlett Johansson around Glasgow in a van. Light on dialogue and void of exposition, Under the Skin demands your attention, but it delivers an enigmatic, breathtaking, utterly unique vision of an alien invasion.
12. The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer.
11. Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest defies easy summarization as an inebriated PI (played by Joaquin Phoenix as you’ve never seen him) fits together pieces from several different puzzles to create an unpredictable, barely coherent but wildly enjoyable whole.
10. A Most Violent Year: This gem is a film about the merits versus moral compromise of the American dream, and a slow boil drama that keeps you on edge for its full 125 minute running time because there is absolutely no guessing what is coming next.
9. Snowpiercer: Though incompetently marketed and abysmally underseen, Snowpiercer is an immediate dystopian classic. Visionary direction from Joon-ho Bong maximizes claustrophobic tension while brazen casting victories (Oh my God, Tilda Swinton!) and another solid lead turn from Chris Evens work together to create an enthralling allegory of the makers and the takers.
8. Foxcatcher: Director Bennett Miller’s understated true crime film benefits from seriously unusual casting. Steve Carrel is revelatory as John du Pont, millionaire weirdo and wrestling enthusiast who bankrolled Olympic hopefuls (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, both award worthy), ensnaring then in his unpredictable psychosis. It’s riveting stuff.
7. Only Lovers Left Alive: The great Jim Jarmusch (Ohio boy!) updates the vampire genre with a well conceived twist on the unusual, aided by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s wonderful performances as well as his own dry humor and magnificent eye for visuals.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The great eccentric genius Wes Anderson inches his way closer to mainstream acceptance and Oscar with the most meticulously framed, wickedly clever dark comedy. Filled with melancholy and whimsy, full to bursting with fascinating cameos, and boasting an almost unimaginably perfect performance by Ralph Fiennes, it’s a work of genius that could spring only from the mind of Anderson.
5. Whiplash: As sure as J.K. Simmons will walk home with his first Oscar this year, Whiplash will astonish you. No film this year ratchets tension like this one, as one musician and his mentor do battle that makes the Hobbit look light hearted. Brilliantly written, expertly directed, and boasting two excellent performances (not to mention some really great music!), Whiplash is easily one of the best features of 2014.
4. Nightcrawler: No telling why it took so long to combine Network and American Psycho, but Nightcrawler is here now, so buckle down for a helluva ride. Jake Gyllenhaal is at his absolute best in a film that is as scorchingly relevant an image of modern media as it is a brilliant character study in psychosis.
3. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will nab some Oscars this season. This is a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at their playful, creative best.
2. Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut.
1. Boyhood: Richard Linklater manages the impossible. By checking in on one family every year for 12 years, collecting not the major incidents but all those everyday moments, he provides an achingly, hilariously, touchingly realistic impression of an entire childhood. The cast is brilliant, and the sense of family they evoke is as authentic as anything you will ever see on film. Boyhood is a film like none other ever made, and it is imperative viewing.
Weird theme for great 2014 movies: one word titles. The oddest trait we saw emerge in great films this war was the one-word title film. A full 15 of the best films of 2014 had single-word titles – who knows why? Whatever the reason, in no particular order, are the best of the one-word-title films (and some of the very, very best films of the year.
1. Wild: Reese Witherspoon will no doubt garner her second Oscar nomination and quite possibly her second Oscar starring as a woman who walks 1100 miles solo to get her head together.
2. Selma: Ave DuVernay’s powerful, painfully relevant biopic on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marches on Selma, Alabama delivers all the punch it needs with one word.
3. Unbroken: Angelina Jolie returns to a spot behind the camera for this true tale of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis Zamperini.
4. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will scoop up some Oscars this year.
5. Calvary: Woefully underseen, this wry, weary and brilliant look at the affects of Catholicism’s abuses boasts the great Brendan Gleeson’s best performance.
6. Whiplash: Holy shit! JK Simmons gets the role of a lifetime as an abusive music teacher who is either trying to push his students to greatness or is trying to get away with absolute sadism. This may be the most tense film of the year.
7. Nightcrawler: Another amazing film, this one positing a weirdly sometimes likeable sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal at his absolute best) in the context of local news – what better fit could there be?
8. Frank: Another underseen gem, this one has the great Michael Fassbender hiding inside a giant plastic head in an exploration of madness and music.
9. Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller returns with another masterpiece in understatement, a true crime tale of Olympic wrestlers and insane billionaires that could bring Oscar nominations to the unlikeliest of actors: Steve Carell and Channing Tatum.
10. Rosewater: Jon Stewart proved his mettle behind the camera with this touching, insightful and underseen true story of a journalist jailed during the Iranian elections of 2009.
11. Boyhood: The best film of 2014, Boyhood’s filming spanned 12 years and let us glimpse something no other film has ever captured.
12. Wetlands:Underneath the shock and body fluids is a deeply human story boasting a fearless and nuanced performance.
13. Snowpiercer: The best SciFi in a year of especially great SciFi, the film was sabotaged by its own studio and still wound up wowing audiences everywhere.
14. Interstellar: Not Christopher Nolan’s best, but when his intergalactic epic is working, it is a mind-bending ride.
15. Locke: A one man show that highlights the talents of perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, Tom Hardy. See it. Do it!
Don’t be off put by the hashtag in #Stuck. Writer/director Stuart Acher’s film is less a glib comment on social media alienation and more a savvy reimagining of the romantic comedy.
Holly (Madeline Zima) and Guy (Joel David Moore) are stuck in an epic traffic jam. To make matters worse, this is simply the “morning after” ride back to Holly’s car, which is still at the bar where the two hooked up the night before.
“It’s easier to have sex with a stranger than make conversation with one,” notes Holly early in their uncomfortable alone time.
On its surface, the script feels almost like a writing workshop challenge, but Archer’s assured direction and game performances from the two leads make it work. Acher’s story weaves from the shame and claustrophobia of the morning after to the drunken debauchery of the night before.
The flashback is told in reverse order, allowing us to learn more about the two based on what they’ve forgotten, just as they learn about each other based on the time each must now spend in the other’s company.
It’s hard to sustain interest with little more than in-car acting – unless you have Tom Hardy behind the wheel – and there are certainly times when #Stuck strains to keep your attention. But on the whole, the slow revelation of character feels natural and the performances are sympathetic enough to keep you invested.
Zima has a real Meg Ryan quality about her, which may make the film feel more like an outright romantic comedy than it would otherwise. She and Moore have an uneasy chemistry that suits the begrudgingly burgeoning relationship, and while their banter is never a laugh riot, more often than not it’s bright and enjoyable.
To alleviate the tension for the audience, anyway, Acher’s camera periodically swings out of Guy’s car and takes a peek at the goings on in the other cars sitting motionless on the LA freeway. It’s a fun distraction and a light handed way of underscoring the overall theme of the film: that often, time wasted is more valuable than time spent on task.
This week offers several excellent options for your queue, but the best among them is Locke. So let’s all get geeked for the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road by taking in a couple of flicks from one of this generation’s most explosive, most talented actors, Tom Hardy.
A masterpiece of utter simplicity, Locke tags along on a solo road trip, the film’s entirety showcasing just one actor (the incomparable Hardy), alone in a car, handling three different crises on his mobile while driving toward his destiny. It may sound dull, and it certainly can be challenging, but it may just restore your faith in independent filmmaking.
While you’re queuing up, look for the film that best encapsulates the ferocious talent that is Tom Hardy, Bronson. Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) chose a path of blatant, often absurd theatricality to tell the tale of Britain’s most violent, most expensive inmate. In Hardy’s bruised and bloodied hands, Bronson can be terrifying and endearing inside the same moment. Hardy finds a way to explore the character’s single minded violence, pinpointing the rare moments of true ugliness. The rest is just a guy beating his chest against his own limitations. But when this guy beats his chest, it’s usually with the bloodied stump of what was once a security guard or four.
Give him the chance and Steven Knight will restore your faith in low budget filmmaking. All you need is a well written script, a car, hands free mobile, and Tom Hardy.
Actually, maybe all you really need is Tom Hardy.
In writer/director Knight’s Locke, Hardy plays Ivan Locke, and he and Knight invite you to spend 85 minutes in the car with him. The entire duration of the film takes place inside that car, alone with Ivan, who handles a crisis at work and a crisis at home simultaneously, all on the phone. Roll credits.
While it may sound boring as hell, please give it a chance, because Tom Hardy – and probably only Tom Hardy – has the natural charisma and bone-deep talent to keep every second of the film riveting.
Lucky Knight’s such a fine writer. Having penned the Cronenberg masterpiece Eastern Promises as well as Stephen Frears’s darkly winning Dirty Pretty Things, Knight’s proven to be a nimble storyteller. Locke offers none of the sinister, international dread that saturates those other efforts. Rather, like the driver of the car himself, we are trapped and yet propelled forward in a story confined to the immediate decisions and potentially disastrous effects spilling at the second.
It doesn’t just give Locke a powerful sense of immediacy. The simplicity of conversation and traffic and moments of silence between calls offer an undiluted image of action and consequence situated in such a familiar setting that it can’t help but feel universal.
Ever the chameleon, always an actor who leaves himself behind and utterly inhabits a character, Hardy’s performance here is nothing short of an education. He reveals more with less than any performer you’ll see this year.
He feeds off the talent of the ensemble – all vocal talent only – and it’s truly like nothing else onscreen. He establishes a character, authentic and whole, and though you are ostensibly trapped with him as he grapples with the collapse of his painstakingly crafted life, you cannot look away.
I can imagine no better antidote to a summer of monsters, mutants, super-this and exploding-that than a film so simple and powerful as Locke.