2014 has been a magnificent year for film, and now has finally come the time for me to honour my personal highlights. Just be clear: these films aren’t picked and ordered based on their achievements, merits or contribution to the art; that’s why it’s called a “favourites” list and not a “best of” list. These are purely the films I enjoyed most this year; the ones that got the most emotion out of me and that I’m sure I’ll watch several more times in the future, both foreseeable and distant.
Before I start proper, a few quick honourable mentions:
Bad Neighbours – Gut-bustlingly hilarious and surprisingly thoughtful, Bad Neighbours is the classic frathouse movie done right and features a wonderful comic turn from the often-maligned Zac Eforn.
Chef – Jon Favreau returns to his indie roots with this pleasant and comical road movie. If nothing else, it will make you really hungry.
The Fault in Our Stars – A film that is equally charming and tear jerking, The Fault in Our Stars manages to find the right balance of sympathy and sadness in this romantic drama.
The Skeleton Twins – Bill Hader delivers one of the most overlooked performances of the year in this charming but incredibly black comedy. Well supported by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Luke Wilson, it’s a depressing delight.
Snowpiercer – This one would have made the list if it actually got UK distribution (I was lucky enough to see it at the Edinburgh Film Festival), but because it didn’t I unfortunately can’t officially count it. But when and if it does, I urge you to check out this bleak Korean sci-fi actioner that is equal parts Paul Verhoeven and Terry Gilliam.
Starting off the list is a film I certainly couldn’t have predicted would make it. A delightful and unequivocally British film, Paddington perfectly captures the charm and spirit of the beloved children’s character. Mixing slapstick, Mary Poppins and the quirks of Wes Anderson into one, the fact that this film not only works but even exists is a marvel. Sure, it’s predictable and cheesy but that’s all part of the experience, and this movie just wouldn’t be a Paddington Bear film if it took itself any more seriously. If you’ve been holding out on this one for fear it’s another disaster on the level of Alvin & The Chipmunks, put your fears to rest and watch Paddington.
A shocking and no holds barred depiction of the events in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Selma is the Martin Luther King biopic this generation deserves. Featuring a fantastic leading performance by a nearly unrecognisable David Oyelowo and impeccable direction from Ava DuVernay, it’s one that has really been overlooked this awards season in major categories and certainly deserves an audience. It’s a brave, provocative and important film that isn’t afraid to show the depravity of the events it depicts, and you should be sure not to miss it.
- The Boxtrolls
Animation studio Laika continues to top themselves with this disgustingly charming creature of a film. Harking back to the days of Labyrinth and Return to Oz, when kids’ films weren’t afraid to be scary, The Boxtrolls is a quirky and humorous adventure that also manages to be a satirical jab at the class system. Featuring fantastic voice work from the likes of Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade and gorgeously grimy animation, this is certainly a film not for the more squeamish children but is perfect for those kids who are looking for something just a tad darker.
- Cold in July
A simple but suspenseful thriller that constantly changes gears, Cold in July is an old school film from its setting to its aesthetics to its amazing synth score. Michael C. Hall is great as a simple man who gets caught in an ever-deepening hole of an odd situation, finding himself caught up with an unstable Sam Shepard and a scene-stealing Don Johnson. The three of them together create one heck of an odd trio, and watching them delve deeper into one depraved situation after another keeps you hooked. A small but satisfying tale, Cold in July should be one to seek out if you like a dark mystery.
- The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything is a love story first and a Steven Hawking biopic second, and that’s what makes it so accessible and wonderful. Rather than glorifying Hawking’s scientific achievements, it focuses on the man behind those theories and the truly spectacular life he managed to live in spite of his unfortunate illness. The film could have been seriously trite in the hands of someone less skilled, but under the direction of Man on Wire’s James Marsh and with fantastic performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything is a sweet and heart-warming film that never becomes too treacley for discomfort.
- The Imitation Game
The story of Alan Turing is one that needs a movie in this day and age, and The Imitation Game fills that need stupendously. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is as great as you’d expect, portraying one of the most important but also overlooked and mistreated figures in World War II, but also features strong turns from the likes of Keira Knightley, Mark Strong and Charles Dance. It’s a story that shows the dangers of keeping secrets, why some should be kept and others brought to light, and what happens when one man’s simple choice negates the importance of his accomplishments. It’s a captivating and important movie, and one that should definitely be seen by fans of history and young people struggling to come to terms with themselves.
Jake Gyllenhaal is near unrecognizable as the darkly charming Lou Bloom in this dark look into the world of news broadcast, and his Oscar snub is a serious misstep in my book. It’s a film about a bad guy but one we disturbingly learn to understand as he manipulates his way to the top, leading to a finale that is both shocking and unprecedented for any film to take. Gyllenhaal isn’t the only one to shine, with both Rene Russo and Bill Paxton giving some of their best work as they get tangled in this one man’s unsettling job. Comparable to the likes of Taxi Driver and Network, Nightcrawler will get under your skin and make you feel incredibly uncomfortable, but you will be unable to take your eyes off it.
David Ayer’s had one schizophrenic year. After releasing Sabotage, one of the worst films of the year, he quickly follows it up with one of the best. Fury is bleak even for a war film, depicting the final days of World War II as depressing and scarring even in the wake of victory. Brad Pitt may be the one on the poster but it’s Logan Lerman who’s the real star here, perfectly portraying a boy forced to become a man in a war he wants no part of. Pitt and Shia LaBoeuf are equally terrific in their roles, whilst Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena are harsh but relatable in their parts. It’s a film full of dark characters, morbid situations and harsh imagery, but one with enough hope that you want to see it through to the end. Fury is not for the faint of heart, but it’s certainly a journey worth taking and solid proof that Suicide Squad is in capable hands for comic book fans.
- 22 Jump Street
Comedy sequels rarely ever work and this movie knows it. Through sheer personality and incredible self-deprecation, 22 Jump Street manages to be just as satirical, self-aware and absolutely hilarious as its predecessor, if not more so. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are among the best comedy duos in genre history and take everything up to 11 from the action sequences to the hysterically overt homoeroticism. All of that, plus the best credits sequence ever conceived, and you’ve got yourself not just the best comedy sequel, but also the best straight-up comedy of the year in general.
- The Raid 2
Gareth Evans’ The Raid was one of the most refreshing actions films in recent memory, and with the sequel he has done everything he can to try and top it. Whilst the plot is a little bloated compared to the first, the action sequences are far more varied and better in every conceivable way. The final third of this movie is an onslaught of fantastically visceral fight scenes that will leave you wincing but begging for more. Hollywood has already taken some notes from the first Raid, but now they really need to update them thanks to this gut-bustingly glorious follow-up.
Reese Witherspoon delivers a fantastic and emotional performance in this true story from Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee. Telling the story of a woman walking a thousand mile hike in order to figure out her life, Wild manages to avoid becoming a pretentious piece of nonsense about the human spirit in the vein of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and instead focuses on our character rather than the environment she is in. Featuring an equally spectacular turn from Laura Dern, Wild is certainly a journey worth taking.
- Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s artful and disturbing Under the Skin is certainly not for everyone, but I do urge you to at least try it; I won’t blame you if you decide to turn it off though. Scarlett Johansson has had a really successful year, but here she delivers one of the best performances of her career as a cold but alluring alien/sexual predator who slowly learns what it means to be human. The beautifully morbid cinematography, haunting imagery and eerie score all contribute to make a cinematic experience unlike any other, and one of the bigger surprises of the year.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past
Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he started 14 years ago to deliver another awesome X-Men movie that definitely pushes the series’ good/bad ratio over to the right side. Loosely adapting one of the comics’ most beloved storylines and combining the cast of the original trilogy with First Class, Days of Future Past delivers everything you could want from an X-Men movie: an entertaining story, a multitude of characters old and new, memorable action beats and, most importantly, a good heart. It’s rare to see a film series acknowledge the mistakes of its past and work so hard to try and fix them, but Days of Future Past does that to the best of its ability.
- The Guest
From the creators of the indie horror gem You’re Next comes this 80s throwback picture that should not be missed by any genre fan. Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame is creepily charming as a soldier staying with the family of his deceased friend whilst hiding a dark secret, and whether busting school bullies or just having a beer he’s a magnetic presence. Mixing elements of thriller, horror and action in a fashion most comparable to the early works of John Carpenter and James Cameron, The Guest is a gloriously entertaining hodgepodge of a movie.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Who would have thought that one of the best superhero movies in recent memory would star Captain America? But once you’ve seen The Winter Soldier, you’ll understand why. Harking back to the classic political thrillers of the 70s whilst mixing in elements of their contemporaries, The Winter Soldier asks more difficult and divisive questions than most straight thrillers of its type. Analyzing the ethical problems surrounding drone warfare, pre-emptive strikes and the warped world view of the American government, and then pitting that against a hero so patriotic and optimistic that even Superman would say he’s overdoing it, creates for a superhero movie that is far more than it seems on the surface. Featuring fantastic action sequences, great chemistry between Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie, and one hell of a twist that shifts the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves that superhero movies can be both entertaining and thought provoking.
- Edge of Tomorrow
One of the most disappointingly unseen films of this year, Edge of Tomorrow may suffer from a troubled production history, misrepresentative marketing and a title that makes it sound like a bad soap opera, but it is certainly worth far more than that. Tom Cruise lets go of his ego and allows himself to play the coward in this sci-fi action flick that plays like a mixture of Aliens and Groundhog Day, in turn delivering one of the most honest performances of his recent career. Emily Blunt steals the show consistently, proving she has serious action chops and providing one of the best examples of a female badass since Ellen Ripley. As funny and clever as it is bombastic, Edge of Tomorrow is a perfect blend of brains and brawn that should satisfy any audience.
Richard Linklater spent 12 years slowly making this deceivingly simple little film about one boy’s life, and in the process created a coming of age tale that truly encapsulates what growing up is like. This isn’t a sentimental film that paints youth like a corny piece of nostalgia where everything is perfect. It has its highs, but it also has its lows as we follow this boy deal with pretty much everything a child deals with at some point. Featuring wonderful supporting work from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, Boyhood is a remarkable and unmissable film that would be a landmark even without its strange production history.
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Rise of the Planet of the Apes reignited the long dormant franchise and provided both an interesting sci-fi tale and some of Andy Serkis’ finest work to date. That’s a high bar for a sequel to cross, but Dawn leaps over that hurdle effortlessly. The film has plenty of entertainment value packed into its action beats, but it’s the quieter moments that make Dawn so special. It balances that fine line that most movies fail to stay steady on by making every character relatable and justifiable in their actions; no obvious heroes and villains here. It paints a dour picture of our future, but one still filled with hope, and in doing so creates one of the best sci-fi dramas since District 9. Apes together strong indeed.
- How to Train Your Dragon 2
The tale of Hiccup and Toothless continues in this animated fantasy adventure, and I do mean continue. The creators could have easily rested on their laurels and made a rehash of the first film, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 moves the story forward in a natural, meaningful and surprisingly adult way. It is just as fun and full of whimsy as its predecessor, but the story has matured with its characters and audience, allowing the franchise to go to places most kids’ films are too afraid to go. With endearing characters, breathtaking animation and plenty of heart, How to Train Your Dragon 2 surpasses the original and is easily DreamWorks’ finest achievement to date.
Want to make your biblical epic more than just the usual pandering nonsense made purely for devout Christians? Hire an atheist director. Darren Aronofsky’s daring, grand and often bizarre interpretation of the tale of Noah’s Ark often resembles The Lord of the Rings more than The Ten Commandments, creating something very different from the director’s usual work but one that also perfectly fits in with them thematically. His vision of Noah isn’t a paragon of all that is good, but a flawed and possibly deranged man whose decisions are constantly questionable, and that skewing of the norm is something found throughout the movie. It makes for a story that works for both a religious audience and a general one, painting everything from its characters to its message in an ambiguous light. It can be enjoyed as a religious film, an art film or a straight-up fantasy film; it’s all up to your own taste. It’s divisive for sure, but if you haven’t seen Noah yet I urge you to at least try.
- Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Birdman is easily one of the most cynical films I have ever seen, which I usually don’t like especially when targeting this subject matter, but it does it so right. The film doesn’t just go on about how film and acting and the media are bad but offer nothing in return. It approaches everything with a sharp and biting wit that points out everything wrong with the Hollywood machine and the egos of its stars. However, it does so whilst being self-aware, ripping to shreds even the cynics who do that all the time. Michael Keaton’s performance here is sure to define his career and I would be overjoyed if he picked up an Oscar this year, and the rest of the supporting cast including Edward Norton and Emma Stone deserve similar praise. Alejandero Gonzalez Inarritu’s engrossing tale of art and insanity is an absolute joy from start to finish, and anyone with an interest in any creative medium needs to see this now. You may learn a thing or two.
- Gone Girl
Gone Girl is a stellar example of a simple premise done to perfection. This is the type of film that most directors would do in their sleep, but David Fincher’s meticulous directing style means this is far more than just another mystery thriller. The story starts out as typical as you could imagine, but soon spirals down paths that cannot even be discussed without going deep into spoilers. Ben Affleck gives a fantastic performance as Nick Dunne, an imperfect man who is looking for his missing wife, but maybe not because he loves her and he quickly becomes as big a suspect as anyone. The entire supporting cast is equally excellent, especially those playing against type; this is a film that makes Tyler Perry look awesome if you want proof of that. But it is Rosamund Pike who steals the entire show, ridding herself of her usual persona and giving us one of the most fascinating characters of the year. I can’t say much more without giving the whole thing away, so just stop here and go see Gone Girl.
Whiplash is an experience more thrilling, suspenseful and eerie than most major motion pictures, and that’s saying a lot considering it’s a film about jazz drumming. Damien Chazelle’s directorial debut is both an inspirational and cautionary tale about the lengths one must go through to achieve their dreams, and the toll it can take when pushed too far. Miles Teller is fantastic as a talented but egotistical drummer who will do anything to be the best, but it’s J.K. Simmons that’s the one to watch as an incredibly deranged music teacher but with methods to his madness. Exciting, shocking, and with a catchy jazz soundtrack, Whiplash is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before.
- The LEGO Movie
You would have every right to be suspicious about The LEGO Movie on first glance, but you would have to be a complete idiot to right it off as nothing but corporate pandering. Taking the typical hero’s journey formula and flipping it on its head, The LEGO Movie is a deconstruction and a celebration of every classic story told that pulls everything apart and sticks it back together in new and creative ways; much like real LEGO when you think about it. Everything from the animation to the writing to the voice acting is pitch perfectly off kilter, filled with that infectious charm and wit that permeates all of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller’s work. It’s a film that works just as well for adults as it does for children, teaching both audiences a valuable lesson about creative freedom and examining the nature of our increasingly controlled society. As the movie so often declares: “Everything is awesome!”
- Guardians of the Galaxy
There were certainly more important films made this year; films that say important things and revolutionize the art form. But in terms of pure entertainment and enjoyability, in terms of what impacted me and pop culture at large as well, my favourite film of the year has to be Guardians of the Galaxy. An irreverent, humorous, action packed and heartwarming romp of a sci-fi adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that out of the box concepts can be successful in this day and age. Sure, a large part of its success is down to its connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it stands well enough on its own too. Chris Pratt owns it as the lovably goofy Star-Lord, ably supported by Zoe Saldana’s deadly assassin Gamora, Vin Diesel managing to gain huge sympathy with just three words as the sentient tree creature Groot, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket is as awesome as you’d expect as a gun-toting raccoon, and Dave Bautista is a deadpan revelation as the literally confused Drax. The story may be standard and the message can be summed up as “having friends is good”, but it’s the characters, the world and that rocking soundtrack that keeps me coming back. It truly is the Ghostbusters of this generation: a concept so bizarre on paper but also full of so many fun ideas and quotable lines that it manages to break through to the mainstream. I truly hope this film’s success encourages Hollywood to take a chance on more risky ideas, and I can’t wait to see the further adventures of these space-faring rapscallions.
And now, as is my tradition, please enjoy this video compilation of my picks for you to reflect on: