Best Films of 2014

Annual Media Matters index of top films

Three of our Media Matters reviewers offer their “Top Ten” lists for 2014, each in their own format. Also, be looking for Michelle Sinclair reviews Selma in Thursday’s review.

Vic’s Top Ten Films of 2014

Counting down from ten, here are my ten favourite films of one of the best years in the history of cinema (in my opinion):

  1. Interstellar. The only Hollywood film in my top ten, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic is one of the wildest rides in the history of film, an audio-visual feast for the senses that engages both our minds and (unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey) our emotions, though its underlying message that we should consider giving up on earth is a dangerous one.
  2. Ida. This small Polish film by Pawel Pawlikowski, set in 1962 and stunningly filmed in black & white, tells the moving and compelling story (featuring exceptional character development) of a young woman, about to take her vows as a nun, who discovers her Jewish roots and the horrific history of her family during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
  3. The Congress. Ari Folman’s partly animated (gorgeously so) sci-fi film is based on a 1971 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, an aging actor who is offered a form of immortality in this sharp satire of the Hollywood film industry, ‘celebrity’, the pharmaceutical industry and individuality/identity.
  4. Locke. Tom Hardy is the only actor we see (and he delivers a wonderful nuanced performance) in Steven Knight’s film about a man whose life crumbles around him (despite his efforts to do the right thing) as he talks on the phone during a two-hour drive across southern England.
  5. Selma. David Oyelowo is perfect as Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1965, led the campaign for voting rights for African Americans in the southern U.S. Focusing on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Ava DuVernay’s film is an inspiring, moving and gripping drama and a powerful depiction of a story everyone needs to see and from which we all have much to learn, even in 2014.
  6. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Another of his trademark quirky, intelligent and surreal comedy dramas, this film may be Wes Anderson’s best yet. It’s full of superb acting, clever dialogue, gorgeous cinematography and pointed satire (of authority, governments and attitudes toward immigration).
  7. The Great Beauty. This Italian film from Paolo Sorrentino won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013, but was not released in North America until 2014. A breathtakingly beautiful and thought-provoking satire about life in contemporary Rome, The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as an aging journalist looking for moments of great beauty in his pointless existence.
  8. Only Lovers Left Alive. I’m no fan of vampire films, but Jim Jarmusch’s slow-paced, gorgeously-filmed (at night, in Detroit and Tangier) drama about the lives of a very old vampire couple (played wonderfully by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) provides a profound and unique perspective on the history of human civilization and the dangers we are facing in the 21st century.
  9. Boyhood. Richard Linklater almost had my favourite film of the year for two years in a row with this amazing drama which he filmed over a period of twelve years. By allowing us to watch family members naturally grow and change over twelve years, as if we’re viewing a documentary, Linklater (one of the greatest filmmakers of our time) gives us an insightful cinematic masterpiece about everyday life.
  10. Calvary. This small Irish film by John Michael McDonagh stars Brendan Gleeson in an Oscar-worthy performance as a small-town priest slowly losing the respect of his parishioners as the church becomes increasingly irrelevant to their lives. While this dark (but often funny) film is not for all tastes, Calvary is a sublime meditation on the future of the church, on violence, on forgiveness and on what it means to be faithful to Jesus.

—Vic Thiessen

Gordon’s Top Ten Films of 2014

Noticeably absent from my list are documentaries. Many good ones are still being made, but they seem to be less available. And not being near a major city limits what’s available in time for this list. Nevertheless, here are 10 good films (among many more).

  1. Boyhood. Beyond its uniqueness for having been filmed over 12 years and telling the story of a boy’s life from age 6 to 18, this film confronts viewers with the poignant passage of time and how quickly our lives go by. This leads to questions about our mortality and what meaning our lives hold. It has its flaws, but it is an epic tale that feels intimate.
  2. Ida. This brief, black-and-white Polish film is a masterpiece. An orphaned young woman about to take vows as a nun learns from her aunt that her Jewish parents were killed in World War II. The two embark on a journey to learn what happened and who was responsible. This beautiful film, both contemplative and shocking, treats faith and nonfaith with great respect.
  3. Whiplash. This riveting film about a young jazz drummer and his emotionally abusive teacher asks, How much should one sacrifice for one’s art? But it goes beyond the creative arts. Is it good to push ourselves (or be pushed) beyond our perceived limitations in order to reach our full potential? J.K. Simmons’ performance as the teacher is outstanding.
  4. Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). This intense film is about a washed-up actor who 20 years earlier played a superhero called Birdman and now wants to be recognized as a serious artist. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s satire skewers blockbusters and theater while presenting serious questions about our search for significance and recognition. The cast here is excellent.
  5. The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is another zany yet moving film by Wes Anderson, who has established a unique visual and narrative style among filmmakers. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, it tells a fantastical story of a concierge who teams up with one of his employees to prove his innocence after he is framed for murder. Ralph Fiennes’ performance stands out as he deftly combines humor and pathos.
  6. Calvary. This well-acted film about a priest begins with a shocking scene in a confessional. The middle is somewhat cursory, touching on various topics related to religion, but the stunning ending redeems the film, which is aptly titled.
  7. Under the Skin. This science fiction thriller about an extraterrestrial (Scarlett Johansson), disguised as a human female, who drives around Scotland and tries to lure unsuspecting men into her van. This is not your standard thriller but an artistic, brilliant, stunning exploration of being marginal. This creature who preys on men to take their skin becomes, in the end, a sympathetic character. Not for everyone, this film stayed with me a long time.
  8. Selma. This film tells the story of the voting rights marches in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in which Martin Luther King Jr. had a key role. While many have noted its historical inaccuracies, it’s a powerful drama about the efforts of courageous people to fight injustice nonviolently. David Oyelowo’s performance as King is gripping.
  9. The Imitation Game. Another historical film, this one is about Alan Turing, a British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist who led a team of cryptanalysts in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code during World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch is especially good in capturing Turning’s tics and submerged emotions. The film is suspenseful and heartbreaking and opens up an era where men were put in prison for being gay.
  10. The Immigrant. Set in New York in 1921, this film is a portrayal of spiritual and psychological struggle. Marion Cotillard heads an excellent cast as Ewa, who falls prey to Bruno, a pimp who forces her to become a prostitute in order to make enough money to gain her sister’s freedom from quarantine on Ellis Island. It is a powerful film about forgiveness.

—Gordon Houser

Matthew’s Top Ten Films “Worth Seeing”

My annual disclaimer: I haven’t seen most of the Academy Award nominees but here are 10 films worth seeing, counting down:

  1. Alive Inside. Music has always been therapeutic for me, but this documentary about how music soothes, inspires, and jogs the memories of Alzheimer’s patients offers emotional and scientific proof that music can heal.
  2. Ida. Filmed in black and white, this Polish-Danish film of an orphan-turned-nun looking for clues to her family’s history post-World War II is a subtle and beautiful film.
  3. Pride. Even though it is over-dramatized at times, the true story about the unlikely bond between the gay rights advocates and the striking miners in mid-80s United Kingdom is an entertaining feel-good underdog story.
  4. Skeleton Twins. Saturday Night Live alums Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader prove their dramatic chops in this dark comedy about troubled siblings who re-connect with each other as their other relationships crumble.
  5. Chef. Jon Favreau’s portrait of a acclaimed chef/not-so-acclaimed father at a career/personal crossroads is witty and heartwarming.
  6. Next Goal Wins. American Samoa was the worst soccer team in the world and holds the dubious distinction of suffering the worst defeat in international soccer history, losing 31-0 to Australia. This documentary chronicles the team’s attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and reverse their historic bad fortune.
  7. Snowpiercer. The first half is much more violent than I can normally tolerate, but the second half of the movie is compelling. Yes, the premise of the last of the earth’s humans living riding an eternal train around the world is far fetched, but its Speed-meets-Children of Men juxtaposition makes for a highly entertaining film.
  8. Ernest and Celestine. OK, you can get me on a technicality because this was nominated for an Academy Award last year. However, this animated tale about an unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse, didn’t receive a major release stateside until this year. My daughters, age 10 and 8, loved it.
  9. We Are the Best. This Swedish-Danish film about three 13-year-old girls who form a punk band to perform their song “Hate the Sport” may seem like a film about rebellion. But at its core the film is about finding joy and acceptance through music. The band is loud and terrible but their happiness is undeniable.
  10. Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s movie is brilliant in its simplicity. Filming the same cast over a 12-year period yielded a unique style of plot-less storytelling where we see a boy – and his family – stumble and evolve, just like the rest of us.

—Matthew Kauffman Smith