2014 in Review: The Best Films of the Year

Wild, Mommy, A Most Violent Year, and Birdman are 2014's best films.
Hooray, 2014 is over! I’ll admit that I’m not sad to see this year kick the bucket. 2014 is probably the hardest year I’ve had both personally and professionally while running this blog and writing about film, and I think that my list of favourites from the year somewhat reflects this feeling. Films about confrontation and growth, fears and inadequacies, and artists and their loony minds; scathing satires; escapist romps—2014 has a lot of films that touch a nerve for a variety of reasons… and Boyhood doesn’t even make my list! Boyhood missed out by one slot and I somehow feel satisfied covering its greatest asset—Patricia Arquette—in the list of 2014’s top performances, but it has my admiration and full support as it heads into the thick of Oscar season as the frontrunner.

This year has had ample goodies, though, that made it all worthwhile. That’s been evident since The Grand Budapest Hotel gave the early winter an unusually strong film—just weeks after the Oscars were handed out, it seemed we had a frontrunner for this year’s race! 2014’s been a very good year for Canadian talents with three Canuck films making the list and, for the first time ever, a film by a Canadian director earning the top spot. Highlights of the year, as always, include the top moments from TIFF—getting to do my first roundtable with Jean-Marc Vallée and Laura Dern is a career highlight, as are a few other interviews and moments outside of my work on the blog that leave some great memories from 2014. On the other hand, covering the growing Ottawa film festival scene, especially the Animation Festival, marks additional highlights of the year, as does programming CDFF, and, finally, voting in the annual OFCS awards. It’s nice to be a bit more than an outside commentator, and any opportunities like round-tables, interviews, gigs, and voting privileges are appreciated boosts.

This list largely reflects my appreciation for the American and Canadian indies of the year, especially in a year when barely any of the major studio offerings were worth seeing at all. Only Gone Girl and Into the Woods really deliver among this year’s studio films (and to some extent Godzilla) and it’s been such a struggle to keep up with all the good indies that there just isn’t time to waste on sequels, prequels, Marvel movies, and other nonsense. Some of the year’s bigger releases have yet to make it to Ottawa—Selma, Inherent Vice, Mr. Turner, Cake, and American Sniper simply aren’t here due to availability. We’ll look forward to those films in 2015 as we bid adieu to the standout films of 2014!

The Top Ten Films of 2014:

1. Wild

(Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

It still surprises me that I love Wild as much as I do. I'm a die-hard Jean Marc Vallée fan, sure, and the film fits my trend of picking arty adaptations as the best of the year, but I rarely take to stories of outdoorsy inspirational types. Perhaps I connect to Cheryl Strayed's story so much because of how unhappy I am with where my life is right now, and I wish I had her courage to walk away from a life going nowhere. More than anything, I would love to hurl my metaphorical hiking boot over the side of a mountain and yell ‘fuck!’ at the top if my lungs, and I think it's no coincidence that Wild hooks me instantly on both page and screen. I love how vividly Vallée’s passion infuses each frame of the film and how the sharpness of his direction perfectly connects the fluidity of the cinematography by Yves Bélanger with the power of the performances by Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern to radiate with a spirit and burst of life that feels like the sun hitting your face on a warm fall day. The intricacy of the editing by Vallée and Martin Pensa, moreover, might be the single most bracingly cinematic coup of the year, for no film engages both the heart and the mind as powerfully as Wild does, playing on memory and creating associations between people and places as Cheryl overcomes her grief and finds herself on the PCT. Vallée’s kaleidoscopic vision makes the story both intimately specific and, in a way, universal as Wild invites viewers to glue the pieces with the shards of their own memory bank. Wild is more powerful and moving with each trip down the PCT: it’s the best film of the year.

(Wild is currently in theatres from Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

2. Mommy

(Dir. Xavier Dolan)

Leave it to Xavier Dolan to rejuvenate the Quebec box office. Mommy is a smash after Quebecois cinema has seen a bit of a slump, and the roaring success of Mommy is refreshing proof that audiences want to see films that are both original and reflective of their experiences. It’s fitting, since Dolan helped bring ample attention to Quebec and the so-called “Quebec New Wave” when he killed his onscreen mother five years ago, but he brings her fully to life in Mommy, his most mature and most fully realized film yet. It’s remarkable to see the growth of this filmmaker in the years since I Killed My Mother, and whereas Dolan’s early films show genuine visual audacity, largely rooted in homage and cinephilia, Mommy displays a masterful hand at innovation in film form as Dolan takes the social-media-friendly aspect ratio of the film as the perfect visual complement to the emotionally oversaturated frame. His writing is even more mature, as Mommy boasts wildly dynamic characters—especially the female ones—on par with those in films of Allen, Almodóvar, Cassevetes, and Arcand. Anchoring Mommy in every frame is Anne Dorval’s electrifying performance—the best of the year—and the high-calibre acting makes Mommy an invigorating film experience on all fronts.

(Mommy is currently in theatres from eOne Films and it screens at Canada’s Top Ten in January.)

(Dir. J.C. Chandor)

Many 2014 films confront the myth of the American Dream, but none does so as forcefully as A Most Violent Year does. This third feature from J.C. Chandor is his best film. A crackling and sharply layered screenplay weaves America’s three greatest institutions—oil, family, and violence—into a web of power, ideology, and criminality. It’s a system that corrupts everything, yet A Most Violent Year presents the one man determined to emerge unstained. A Most Violent Year is a simmering, slow burn of a film as Chandor plays with genre, perceptively folding the fate of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) into a parable that’s equal parts Death of a Salesman and The Godfather. Isaac is unwaveringly cool as the right-minded Morales while Jessica Chastain is ferociously explosive as his cunning wife. Anna flies under the radar and Chastain owns every scene in which she appears, and A Most Violent Year gives the world of the gangster film one of its shrewdest and strongest female characters. Dark, tense, and consistently riveting, A Most Violent Year is one of the decade’s best crime dramas.

(A Most Violent Year opens in theatres in 2015 from Elevation Pictures and beginning Dec. 31 in the USA from A24.)

(Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

The adaptation nut in me absolutely loves Birdman. The play on film and theatre is flat-out brilliant, for director Alejandro González Iñárritu and DP Emanuel Lubezki combine the disparate energies of stage and screen to make a film that consistently verges inward like theatre, but then leaps out of the limitations of the stage and soars as Birdman finding freedom in the distinctly cinematic escapism that the snobby theatre types of the film mock. The conceit of Birdman’s long-take is an imperceptible magic act, as the film brings a stage production to life in the most cinematic of ways and weaves the camera in and out of the backstage world as Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) merges film and theatre in a ballsy attempt to resurrect his fledgling career. The dazzling cinematography of Birdman also works as an ingenious expression of Riggan’s own madness as he soars around New York with flights of magical realism and/or insanity. The jazzy drum score by Antonio Sanchez brings everything in Birdman up a beat as it gives the action a sense of spontaneity and of live performance, which makes Birdman unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

(Birdman is currently in theatres from Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

(Dir. Michael Dowse)

The hopeless romantic in me just adores the charming pair of Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. They’re the sweetest, funniest, and cutest onscreen pair of the year, and I could watch their back-and-forth repartee every day of the year. Few comedies capture the honesty of the awkward grey area between friendship and love as authentically as The F Word does, but the ace script by Elan Mastai is witty yet believable from beginning to end. As Wallace and Chantry seemingly banter about nothing and make jokes about Elvis’s favourite sandwiches and the like, The F Word has a perfect ear for the way people bond over the most seemingly inconsequential things and find their compatibility by sharing experiences. It’s funny and heartfelt, especially since the clever back-and-forth between Wallace and Chantry doubles as a shield in the will-they-or-won’t-they dance they do as they tiptoe the line between friendship and love.

(The F Word is available on home video from eOne Films.)

(Dir. James Gray)

The Immigrant is another of 2014’s tales about the myth of the American Dream, but this elegant film by James Gray unfolds like a fable as it tells of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant, who is coerced into prostitution as a means to survive. Cotillard gives one of her most magnetic performances, while Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner offer strong turns as Ewa’s pimp and saviour. The real star, however, is the elegant cinematography by Darius Khondji, which shrouds Ewa’s ill-fated tale in glimmering sepia-tinged sadness. The final shot of the film, which splits Ewa’s destiny and reality in two, might be the most subtle and evocative image of the year. Gray’s direction is restrained and precise as The Immigrant somberly allegorizes the fallacy of the American Dream. Making it in American feels like a cross between a dream and a nightmare, and The Immigrant masterfully sits somewhere between the two.

(The Immigrant is available on home video from eOne Films.)

(Dir. Wes Anderson)

Bust out the courtesans au chocolat and dab on some Eau de Panache to cheer on The Grand Budapest Hotel! This zany lark might be Wes Anderson’s finest film and it set an high bar for 2014. Layer upon layer builds a story within a story within a story as The Grand Budapest Hotel whisks viewers to the fictional land of Zubrowka and cordially invites them to stay at one of the finest establishments that Anderson has ever created. It’s always fun to see how Anderson situates a story around a singular setting, and the intricately designed hotel is the perfect setting for the slapstick chorus of wacky adventures that come and go from the doors of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Budapest boasts one of the most colourful ensembles of the year, headlined by a riotously poncey and deadpan Ralph Fiennes, who gives one of his most unexpected turns as the mannered concierge Gustave H.

(The Grand Budapest Hotel is available on home video Fox Searchlight Pictures.)


8. Gone Girl

(Dir. David Fincher)

I still love the fact that Gone Girl, the book, had me rooting for Amy throughout every one of its crazy pages, yet Gone Girl, the movie, puts me on Nick’s almost every frame of the way. Gone Girl is the big bold blockbuster that many of us say the studios should be making instead of mindless comic book films, sequels, and remakes, so anyone who doesn’t recognize the brilliance of David Fincher’s taut drama deserves every Transformers flick and Marvel movie that comes his or her way. This spot-on adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel is the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner as Fincher’s cool, calculated vision cuts through the turbulent marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne with fierce precision and a wicked sense of humour. The film perfectly casts Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as Nick and Amy, two beautifully awful people whom one alternatively loves and hates with every one of Gone Girl’s crosscut scenes.

(Gone Girl is currently in theatres and on iTunes, and it comes to Blu-ray/DVD on January 13 from Fox.)

(Dir. David Cronenberg)

Maps to the Stars, like Gone Girl, is a deliciously unnerving satire. What Gone Girl is to love and marriage, Maps is to fame and fortune, and this darkly hilarious film from Canadian master David Cronenberg exposes the grotesqueries of celebrity and sends up our own fascination with the strange and unusual world of the rich and famous. Cronenberg makes the rare move of both setting and shooting much of his film outside Canada, and Maps depicts the most garish image of Hollywood that Tinseltown has ever scene. Cronenberg dashes a wild mix of sex and violence as he boldly realizes the brilliant screenplay by Bruce Wagner along with a mix of Hollywood stars like John Cusack and Robert Pattinson with top Canadian talent like Sarah Gadon, and Maps to the Stars crafts a wicked ghost story about the emptiness of Hollywood and the decay of celebrity. The skin of a fifty-year old actress might be the greatest coup of body horror that Cronenberg has ever done, and Julianne Moore’s maniacal performance as fading actress Havana Segrand deservedly puts the film on the map among the best films, Canadian or otherwise, in 2014.

(Maps to the Stars is in limited release from eOne Films and screens at Canada’s Top Ten in January.)

(Dir. John Maloof, Charlie Siskel)

I’ve reviewed more documentaries than ever before in 2014, and Finding Vivian Maier easily stands at the top of a very good year for docs. This breathtaking voyage through the archive unearths a wealth of hidden art as photographer/historian/filmmaker John Maloof discovers the world of Vivian Maier after he stumbles upon a collection of her photographs and negatives. As Maloof sifts through the remnants of Vivian's life, one sees how little one can know about a person through the fragments of her life, but learn so much through the intimacy of her work. It’s easy to see a bit of oneself in Vivian Maier as Maloof and fellow director Charlie Siskel unearth the inadequacies and insecurities shouldered by the reclusive artist. There’s something ineffably beautiful amongst the bittersweet tragecy of Maier's life as the film tells of an artist who simply found joy in creating her work and scraped by on a piecemeal life to do so. The more the filmmakers uncover about the loneliness of Vivian Maier, however, the more they reveal about the politics and fundamentals of art that keeps talented individuals outside of the canon. What makes a great artist is truly subjective, yet the more one learns about Vivian Maier, the more one appreciates and understands the many exquisite photographs that appear onscreen.

(Finding Vivian Maier is now available on home video from Films We Like.)

Picks for the Best Documentaries of 2014: Available in the annual Nonfics poll!

Shout out to the best unreleased films from 2014: Sunshine Superman, I am Big Bird, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ned Rifle, The New Girlfriend, The Riot Club, The Wanted 18, Wet Bum.

What are your favourite films of 2014?

Previously in the ‘2014 in Review’ series:

Thanks to all the friends, publicists, contest partners, festival friends, fellow writers, and, especially, readers for making this another good year!
Happy New Year!