Some SPOILERS may occur, because I don't like censoring myself when talking about movies. Snape kills Dumbledore.
Special Award: Ghostbusters
Why?: My best friend's favorite film is Ghostbusters and I got to enjoy it with him in the theater this year. I had never seen it on the big screen before and it was an unmitigated blast. I haven't laughed as hard during any other film this year. The 4K restoration was gorgeous, and much like my Wizard of Oz entry last year, this will be a moviegoing experience I'll never forget. Bustin' never felt so good.
20. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Why?: As time goes on, I start debating whether or not I should call myself a DC Comics fan anymore, because Marvel is just killing it. Cap 2 is definitely one of their crowning achievements, managing to be the most adult-oriented story of any of the MCU films yet. It's action is flawlessly directed by Joe & Anthony Russo, and Chris Evans' portrayal of Steve Rogers gives the world the Superman it so rightly needs. A villainous turn from Robert Redford and a tone dripping in 1970's paranoid thrillers is just more icing on this badass cake. Fun, grown-up and secretly smart.
19. Grand Piano
Why?: I think I love Elijah Wood even more post-LOTR because he's embraced his love of dark genre fare (like last year's masterpiece Maniac) so completely. Grand Piano is wonderfully Hitchcock-ian, and plays like the more intriguing and propulsive version of Phone Booth. It's gorgeously shot and manages to keep the tension steady throughout its running time. And it's just plain fun to hear John Cusack be all cheesy bad guy. And hey, there's Alex Winter!
Why?: Darren Aronofsky is one of our greatest living filmmakers. Noah was his passion project, and it's kind of incredible how personal and unflinching the end result is. It's his prettiest looking movie since his other misunderstood masterwork, The Fountain, and it tackles the subject of faith in the most challenging and human of ways. It also revels in the bizarre fantasy elements of its source material like no other Biblical adaptation has dared to do. It's not an easy movie (Noah's descent into madness and turn from protagonist to antagonist is a tough one for most people to get on board with), but it's a deeply rewarding one.
17. Cheap Thrills
Why?: I love how exploitation films can use their grungy premises to explore ideas in ways that mainstream films may not dare to attempt. Cheap Thrills is a brutal examination of the American class divide, all wrapped up in the blackest of comedy. But what makes Cheap Thrills really work is that it doesn't sacrifice the believable nature of its characters or their plight in favor of shock humor. The shock and disgust is there, but it fuels a story that is genuinely compelling, if admittedly a bit simple. And you get to see David Koechner be scary. Whammy, indeed.
Why?: (my review) If you haven't figured it out by now, I love the horror genre. I love that it can encompass so many different genres and illicit a multitude of emotional responses, not just fear. Housebound achieves that across the board, It's goofy, spooky, sweet, sad and even a little dark. And it looks like it's been shot by an old master instead of a first-time director. I tend to throw my support behind most horror films that aren't cheapy, found footage cash-ins, but this is one that is honestly a great piece on its own, especially as a debut.
15. Edge of Tomorrow
Why?: There was no reason for this movie to be as entertaining as it was. But through some movie magic, Edge of Tomorrow ended up being one of the most thrilling popcorn sci-fi flicks I've seen in a while. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are both crazy watchable, and the time loop plot is handled so surprisingly well. The movie is secretly hilarious, and the action is badass and coherent. Even though this was based off of a graphic novel, Edge of Tomorrow is really the first great video game movie.
14. The Lego Movie
Why?: I have no nostalgia when it comes to Lego. I never really cared for them as much as everyone else seems to have. That should tell you how good The Lego Movie is, because nostalgia didn't factor into my ridiculous enjoyment of this film. The stop-motion animation is superb, and the eventual message about creativity is one that kids and adults should wholly embrace. And Will Arnett's Batman is the best version of the character since Kevin Conroy's landmark performance in Batman: The Animated Series. Yyyyyup/
Why?: (my review) This is going to be the Jake Gyllenhaal performance I go to when I argue that he's one of the best actors currently working. Nightcrawler is completely Gyllenhaal's movie. Louis Bloom is the American Dream revealed to be a nightmare, and it's hypnotic to watch that nightmare unfold. We aren't supposed to be making these kinds of movies these days, and that's reason enough to check out Nightcrawler. It's vicious filmmaking at its razor-sharp finest.
12. The Babadook
Why?: (my review) The best horror fable since Pan's Labyrinth. This is a film that deserves to be brought up alongside The Exorcist and Halloween as a simple story taken to its creepiest extreme. The steely direction by writer/director Jennifer Kent is fantastic, and Essie Davis' performance anchors the whole ordeal. I sincerely believe that The Babadook could be the spark that sets off the kind of fire I've been waiting for in the horror genre. An absolute masterpiece.
Why?: (my review) I'll admit to being spellbound by Boyhood when I first saw it, and while the spell has worn off, it doesn't take away from all the things the film masterfully pulls off. The twelve year experiment certainly adds a documentary level of veracity to the story, but it's in the performances that the believable nature shines through. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are sometimes too real, allowing a kind of vulnerability that everyone can relate to. No matter your feelings about it, this is an immensely important and beautifully crafted piece of cinema.
Why?: I didn't really like Godzilla on my first viewing. Like most people, the movie I was sold was not the movie we got. But once I revisited the film and knew what was in store, the kid inside me woke up and jumped for joy. Not only is the film gorgeous to look at, but once you realize it is purposefully acting as counter-programming to the glut of "destruction porn" brought upon us by the Transformers films, you start to see the method behind the kaiju madness. For a Godzilla fan, I don't know how you can't love a film that has the Big G as the hero, and also has one of the absolute best kaiju kills in the entire franchise. Haters be damned, the King of the Monsters is back in style. I can't wait for round two.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Why?: If you love Wes Anderson, this film is pretty much his stylistic bible. He's honed his craft to the finest possible point, and distilled it into this (appropriately) grand work. But it's not Anderson's meticulous eye that puts this film on the list. It's Ralph Fiennes just winning every scene he's in. I never knew he could be so charming and funny. I hope he'll be collaborating with Anderson again, because this teaming provided us with a performance that is insanely Oscar worthy. Anderson hasn't made a bad film yet, but after The Grand Budapest Hotel, I can't imagine he's going to be able to top himself. Start tempering your expectations now.
Why?: (my review) When people bemoan the state of popular science fiction films turning into meaningless trash with no substance or social commentary (yeah, I'm talkin' 'bout Transformers), I want to slap them across the head for not seeing Snowpiercer during its brief theatrical run. This is a grim and brutal piece of agitprop that somehow manages to stay exciting without losing its bite. Chris Evans is a beast, giving the best performance I've ever seen from him. The premise may be unbelievable, but the conviction and energy completely sells it. If we could get one aggressive sci-fi flick like this a year, I'd be a happy social miscreant.
7. Blue Ruin
Why?: I love a good revenge film (ask me about my Rolling Thunder t-shirt). There's something so visceral and satisfying about the genre. So of course, here comes a movie that takes the genre and turns it into something far more realistic, disturbing and ultimately sad. But somehow, Jeremy Saulnier also manages to find humor and pathos in the story of one man taking revenge for the murder of his parents. Not only does the film nail its decidely unique thematic take on the genre, but lead actor Macon Blair gives one of the years absolute best performances, often without speaking. That dude's eyes are incredible. This is a high point for the revenge genre, and deserves to mentioned in the same breath as Death Wish and Oldboy. Yup, it's that good.
Why?: This is the part of the list where my personal taste takes full effect. Yes, plenty of the films above are "better", but these films just click with me on a level where objectivity gets thrown out the window. Filth is juvenile, base, not as transgressive as it thinks it is, and pretty goofy. But man, does it work for me. James McAvoy continues to be one of my favorite leading men, and he's exploding with brilliance in this film. I also love that the film magically manages to use overplayed songs and make them work. This is a film where Radiohead's "Creep" regains its power. That's a testament all on its own. What makes the film so smart is that it sets itself up as a gonzo Bad Lieutenant type comedy, but then ends up being a pitiful and bleak character examination. The very end of this film is one of my all time favorites, and it is cruelly hilarious. That's my kind of movie.
5. The Guest
Why?: (my review) Two words: Dan Stevens. I had never even heard of the guy and now he is at the top of my watchlist. His character "David" can be charming, sweet, funny, unnerving, terrifying, and badass all in one single moment. I can't get enough of him. It certainly doesn't hurt that this film is a homage to such films as Halloween and The Terminator, mixing in some strong commentary about American intervention and violence as the ultimate solution. Plus, this film has a killer soundtrack. The undisputed best of the year. And it's willingness to remain vague and not play down to its audience is yet another example of its strength. But at the end of the day, dear God that Dan Stevens is the ultimate.
4. John Wick
Why?: (my review) Out of all of the films on my list, John Wick is the one I think I'm going to rewatch the most. This movie came out of nowhere, and provided me with the most fist-pumpingly good time I had in the theater this year. Keanu Reeves proves he's still got it and never lost it, turning in a character that isn't just the Jason Voorhees of hitmen, but also has honest emotional weight behind him. Combined with some of the best choreographed action scenes I've seen in years, a comic book-like world of gangsters, and a relentless pace, I don't find it hyperbolic to call John Wick an action movie masterpiece. Man, I want to watch this movie right now.
3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Why?: (my review) I have to be honest: these next two entries kept swapping places the entire time I was making this list. They still keep swapping in my brain for the simple reason that they both provide me with everything I want out of a summer popcorn movie. The only reasons Apes is here instead of the number two spot is because the human storyline is just a little too basic and unfulfilling. But this isn't Dawn of the Planet of the Humans. This film is all about the apes, and it is the best film in the series in that regard. Even more than Caesar (who is just as compelling and complex as he was in Rise), it's the antagonist Koba who steals the show, creating one of the decade's best villains. This movie is dark without being pretentious, thrilling without glorifying violence, and is intently focused on its characters before its plot. Much like Snowpiercer, if we got one movie like this a year, it'd help rekindle my faith in popular cinema.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
Why?: (my review) I don't care that I'm jumping on the bandwagon. I don't care that this is an easy pick. There's a reason this film is the highest grossing of the year. Guardians of the Galaxy is the punk rock Star Wars we never knew we wanted. It's the ultimate outsider story. Not just in the film itself, but with writer/director James Gunn coming up during the heyday of Troma and never losing that "fuck you" attitude. The fact that he was able to channel that spirit into what is ostensibly a kids movie is miraculous and awesome. This is the best Marvel movie yet, and it's the best by leaps and bounds. Chris Pratt is our new leading man, and thank goodness because we don't have enough good ones. Everyone in the team shines brightly, but it's the unexpected turn by Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer that is the film's secret weapon. The action is fun, the camaraderie is palpable, the comedic elements are non-stop bullseyes, and the narrative impact of the soundtrack is one of my favorite tearjerkers of the year. This is a perfect film.
Why?: No film I saw this year (and I didn't see nearly enough) hit me on such a deep and affecting level than Frank. Yes, Michael Fassbender continues to prove he is the best actor we current have, even when he spends the majority of the film masked inside of a giant head. Yes, there's plenty of awkward comedy. What made this move destroy me was its overall message about the cost of genius and the sacrifice that comes with being truly creative. Frank is miraculous being in an uncaring and vicious world. His oddball beauty longs for recognition, but folds under the pressures of the "normal" world. Frank's inspiration comes from figures like Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, and Jeff Mangum. At the end of the film, Frank and his band perform a song that is worthy of any of those artists. It's a moment that has stuck with me so deeply that it trumps every other moment I experienced on film. Frank is honest without feeling mean-spirited, but also never dips into saccharine fluff. This is a film that isn't afraid to get uncomfortably real, and I love films that are willing to go to unconventional places like that. Even more than all my testosterone-influenced choices, Frank is the film that will stick with me the longest and will continue to affect me as I make my way through this bizarre journey called life. That's why it's my number one film of the year.
So, what films did you like this year? Like I said, I missed a whole bunch of stuff and I'm always looking for personal recommendations (I put much more stock in those than a general consensus on a film), so fire away in the comments. 2014 is going to be a tough year to beat. Let's hope 2015 can muster up some worthy contenders.