Happy New Year. That means it’s time to publish our Top Ten list.
Performances, cinematography, the human spirit, and the sheer passage of time helped make the movies that were memorable in 2014. Here’s hoping there’s something on our list you haven’t seen yet, along with one or two things you already agree with us on.
For 2014’s top ten, we calculated two lists.
As usual, our official list is weighted by the number of contributions of the author supplying the list. We figure that someone who has only seen 10 movies all year will have a less valuable list than someone who saw every single film released in the year.
But since Marty and Matt can’t seem to keep up with Robert, we also calculated the "popularity" value of a movie as well — how high and on how many lists a movie might have appeared — for a little perspective.
This list of 13 titles encompasses both our official top ten, and also our top ten by "popularity." The bar chart for each title shows the weighted score on the left and the popularity score on the right.
- Score: 100
- Popularity: 36
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Director Richard Linklater’s 12-year portrait of contemporary childhood offered the best depiction yet of the fragmented lives that define more and more American families. Linklater focuses on Mason — played by Ellar Coltrane — from ages six to 18. Linklater obtains great work from Coltrane throughout, as well as equally rich contributions from both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason’s estranged parents. Linklater shot the movie in 39 days over 12 years, employing the same cast throughout. As a result, we watch young people grow and mature until time deposits them — uneasily, I think — on the cusp of adulthood.
A Most Violent Year
- Score: 86
- Popularity: 30
The third film from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call and All is Lost) casts Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, an ambitious and emotionally controlled man who’s trying to make his mark in the heating-oil business in New York City. Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) keeps the books. Unrecognizable after playing a folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac gives a singularly focused performance as a businessman who’s trying to be as straight as he can in an industry rife with corruption. Chastain makes a major stretch as a Mafia princess who sometimes wishes her husband would play dirtier, and Albert Brooks gives an admirably understated performance as Abel’s attorney. A slice-of-life movie set in 1981, A Most Violent Year never resorts to melodrama as it assays the meaning of ethics in a morally compromised world.
- Score: 77
- Popularity: 26
You’ll see the Polish movie Ida on many 10-best lists, and there’s no question that director Pawel Pawilkowski’s drama — shot in beautifully composed black-and-white images — is worthy. Look for it to win an Oscar as best foreign-language film. For me, though, the work of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return) stood out more. In Leviathan, Zvyagintsev immerses us in a small Russian coastal town that serves as a microcosm of a faltering society. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) works as a mechanic in a fishing village in northern Russia. A corrupt mayor conspires to take Kolya’s property. The land grab sets the stage for an unvarnished portrait of a society in which no amount of vodka can still the pain inflicted by a boundless corruption and betrayal.
- Score: 67
- Popularity: 23
Watching director Ava DuVernay’s Selma recreation of events in Selma during the Civil Rights era proved moving and evocative, a reminder of a time when moral lines were drawn with unshakeable force. DuVernay builds her movie around David Oyelowo’s portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but reminds us that we needn’t canonize King in order to admire him. DuVernay also doesn’t flinch from portraying dissension within the civil rights ranks, either. The performances — notably from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King — are memorable, and the bravery of those who lived in or traveled to the South to rid the nation of Jim Crow proves incredibly stirring.
- Score: 62
- Popularity: 30
Those who were looking for a Network-style criticism of the sensationalized approach to TV news probably were disappointed, but Nightcrawler was about more than a crime-hungry media. Writer/director Dan Gilroy created one of the year’s most memorable characters, a frightening autodidact who gave Jake Gyllenhaal an opportunity to find his inner freak — and to give his best performance to date. Gyllenhaal plays a freelance TV news photographer who seems to have been assembled from all the worst elements in contemporary society: the bromides of self-help manuals, the instant knowledge provided by heavy Internet browsing and coldhearted ambition. Credit Rene Russo with one of the year’s best supporting performances as a news director desperate to boost her station’s ratings.
- Score: 57
- Popularity: 20
South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host) whips up one of the wildest and weirdest movies of the year, a dystopian adventure that turns a speeding train into a metaphor for a class-bound society. Finally, an action movie with starkly powerful political overtones, a wild sense of humor and an unrecognizable and ferociously funny Tilda Swinton. Alfred Hitchcock made the classic Strangers on a Train. Bong has made a movie that might be called "Strangeness on a Train," and moviegoers are better off for it.
- Score: 44
- Popularity: 46
Nobody in Under the Skin gets a name. Naming characters is a human convention, and Under the Skin has an alien perspective. A mysterious black widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, seduces single young men, who follow their lust to their own death. The mystery is enhanced by the cool, detached style supplied by cinematographer Daniel Landin and composer Mica Levi. Director Jonathan Glazer gives us a cinematic, intriguing, and emotionally honest sci-fi mystery.
- Score: 38
- Popularity: 13
Not many performances could come close to challenging what Tom Hardy accomplished in the 2008 movie Bronson, the story of a notorious British prisoner — at least not until Jack O’Connell hit the screen in Starred Up. O’Connell found himself as the center of a scorching drama about Eric, a 19-year-old prisoner who survives by smashing just about anything and anyone in his path. Ben Mendelsohn plays Eric’s father, another prisoner. Psychologically astute and entirely gripping, this prison drama hits home with the force of a cold shiv in the ribs. I’m of course, speaking metaphorically, and not from experience.
- Score: 32
- Popularity: 40
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a remarkably clever piece of filmmaking that is a tribute to and an exorcism of the creative spirit. It’s a blast to watch. Without even getting into the great casting and witty dialogue, there’s big fun in simply watching how director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Babel) has staged this movie miracle.
- Score: 31
- Popularity: 30
Lukas Moodysson has shown us grim portraits of teenagers. This time he returns to teenaged protagonists — 13-year-old girls, but in We Are the Best!, treated gently, sweetly, and with the perfect blend of love and freedom both by their parents and by their director. He shows that rebellious punk music seems to come naturally to 13-year-olds. It’s not learned, it’s innate.
- Score: 27
- Popularity: 26
The first thing to know about Frank is that he never goes anywhere without his big fiberglass head. As his friend Don says, “you’re just going to have to go with this.” Based on a true story, the film follows a keyboard player (Domhnall Gleeson) as he gets to know the avant-garde band, Sonorprfbs. One of the most convincing aspects to Frank is the earnestness behind the film’s strangeness. It’s relatively easy to be weird. But it’s much harder to be weird, and also earnest about it.
- Score: 24
- Popularity: 33
Based on the true life story of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken is about the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Zamperini started out as nothing more than a hooligan, but he was nurtured into Olympic stardom thanks to the dedication of his brother. That background imbued him with a tenacity that helped him survive the horrors of World War II, including several weeks adrift at sea in a lifeboat and internment in a Japanese POW camp that proved man’s capacity for evil wasn’t confined to Nazi concentration camps. Zamperini’s story is inspiring and humbling. And Angelina Jolie brings it to the screen in a majestic, epic style that recalls the cinematic sensibilities of David Lean.
The Man Who Saved the World
- Score: 19
- Popularity: 26
The Man Who Saved the World is a screenwriter’s dream story: A Soviet soldier single-handedly prevents all-out nuclear war while also caring for his ailing beloved wife. Exhausted from the stress of work, he falls asleep, and his wife dies while he’s resting. Guilt. Strained family relationships. Politics that lead to the soldier’s dressing down instead of lionization. And all true. This is an incredible movie; part documentary, part dramatization, and thoroughly mesmerizing. Balancing the drama behind Stanislav Petrov’s strained relationship with his mother is a humorous side that involves Stanislav’s fandom for Kevin Costner and a gentle running joke about Matt Damon that translates very well.