On this year’s “worst of” list, I struggled to come up with 10 movies to include on it that I thought bad enough to earn a spot. The opposite is true here; I found it near impossible to dwindle my list of great films down to just 10. More than a few narrowly missed a spot, including the well-received “A Most Violent Year,” the quiet, but endlessly charming “Belle” and the dark, but fascinating Israeli film, “Big Bad Wolves.” But what it all boils down to is, which of these movies entertained me, touched me, excited me or affected me in some other way? I approached this list from a more personal perspective than I have in past years and it will likely differ, to a certain extent, from other critics’ top 10 lists (no, “Boyhood” does not make an appearance here), so with that in mind, these are the films I consider to be the best of 2014.
10) The Fault in Our Stars— It’s easy to roll your eyes when a film’s central theme is cancer. While such an affliction is inarguably sad, its handling in the movies is typically heavy-handed. The natural drama from the disease never seems to be enough for some filmmakers, who use manipulative tactics in a lame attempt to get the audience to cry, likely to hide the fact that their movie just simply isn’t very good (the maudlin “A Walk to Remember” comes to mind). However, “The Fault in Our Stars” avoids these tactics. Despite a moment or two of phony dramatics, this is an achingly real movie, one that explores the struggles of trying to live an everyday life with cancer and forming relationships that others take for granted. If the audience at my screening is any indication, both tears of joy and immense sadness will be shed by most who watch. Rarely have I ever had to fight so hard to hold back from sobbing uncontrollably in a theater as I did here. The story follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenage cancer patient who hauls around a portable oxygen tank wherever she goes so she can breathe. At a support group for young cancer patients, she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who has been in remission for some time, despite having to lose a leg to get to that point. She immediately finds him charming and he, unintimidated by the breathing apparatus she’s forced to use, thinks she’s beautiful. They strike up a friendship, which quickly evolves into something more. Prior to this moment, Hazel isn’t an entirely happy person, and why should she be? She’s suffering from a debilitating sickness that is likely to take her life sooner rather than later and every moment leading up to that inevitable conclusion is going to be filled with hardship and pain. When she finally speaks up in that aforementioned support group, she doesn’t offer words of encouragement as her fellow teenage cancer patients do; she instead comments on how everyone is going to die, that there was a time before humans and that there will be a time after and nobody will be around to remember anyone else. Essentially, life is meaningless, a stark contrast to the religious setting surrounding her. But Gus changes her. It may go without saying, but she finally starts living. She starts getting excited about the future, despite the knowledge of her impending death in the back of her mind. The story that follows is both beautiful and tragic, as you know that eventually the inevitable will happen. “The Fault in Our Stars” is, of course, a tremendously sad film, but it’s also a powerful one that reminds us that we should cherish our time on Earth and be thankful for the relationships we have because nothing lasts forever.
9) John Wick—Every “best of” list needs a movie that, technically and narratively speaking, isn’t particularly impressive, but is packed with so much fun that its viewers won’t care. “John Wick” is my pick for that movie this year. The story is thin and inconsequential, as it revolves around John (Keavu Reeves), who has just lost his wife to cancer. Soon after her burial, he receives a puppy with a note from his late wife telling him that he’s going to need something to love. So he takes care of the dog for about a day or so until some lowlife mobsters, led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), kill it in the act of stealing his car. John had nothing left after his wife died except for that puppy, so naturally, he decides to kill every person responsible for its death. And boy, does he. At a swift 95 minutes, “John Wick” doesn’t have the time to pussyfoot around with dialogue or character arcs. The movie’s focus is pure action and exploring the different ways one can shoot someone else in the face. Given that it’s directed by two stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, such a focus should come as no surprise. They know their strengths and they make no attempt at pretending like what they’re making is high art. Their goal was clearly to make a fun movie with a high body count and some truly impressive action sequences and in that regard, “John Wick” is a rousing success. This film knows what it is and various scenes and dialogue exchanges (what few there are, at least) confirm as much. There’s a very tongue-in-cheek attitude about it—it finds the perfect tone between taking yourself too seriously and all out self-parody—and there are some big, albeit dark, laughs to be had, like when John, in the middle of an action heavy killing spree, runs out of bullets just as he’s about to shoot someone in the head, so he casually reloads with an annoying look on his face while his soon-to-be-victim stumbles around. I’ll grant you that John isn’t exactly what one would call a hero, but hey, they killed the guy’s dog. And it was really cute.
8) The Skeleton Twins—Now here’s one that took me by surprise. At the end of each year, movie studios send screeners of all the movies they have faith in to critics who vote in end of year awards, the ones they hope will be worthy of some Oscar nods and can gain some momentum by snatching up as many victories in other awards programs along the way. The load for a critic is overbearing. I received dozens and dozens of movies this year in the span of a few weeks and watched as many as I could before voting in the DC awards. Most didn’t receive any nominations. I assumed “The Skeleton Twins” would be one of those movies and popped it in with meager expectations, but luckily for me, it proved to be one of the best of the year, garnering multiple nominations from me, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Kristen Wiig, who is so achingly authentic in the role that your heart would have to be as cold as ice to not feel for her. She plays the twin sister to Bill Hader’s Milo, neither of whom are happy with their lives and have either attempted or considered suicide. They’re both broken individuals, but after not speaking for 10 years, they reconnect and their story is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and even occasionally funny. I have no idea how authentic this is to those who actually suffer from clinical depression, but I do know it simultaneously put a big smile on my face and a few tears in my eye throughout its brisk 93 minute runtime. It’s a small film, one with neither the exposure or acclaim as the others on this list, but it’s just as worthy of your time.
7) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes— Say what you want about their production values, particularly the cheesy, rubbery make-up the actors were forced to wear in the older films, but the “Planet of the Apes” series, at least thematically, is one of the best and most intelligent science fiction series ever created. Though not all were created equal, each movie had something fascinating to explore, but the first stands above the rest. With battling themes of science vs. religion and a controversial stance that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought (which remains controversial even to this day), “Planet of the Apes” cemented itself as a riveting, thought provoking science fiction film. The following films dealt with bigotry, slavery, war and more, which kept them interesting even as their overall quality declined. The 2011 series comeback, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” attempted to explore similar ground, but lacked its predecessors’ profundity. The newest entry, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” similarly fails to make much of a thematic impression, but it’s a damn fine movie nonetheless, a summer spectacle full of mind-blowing action, wonderfully developed characters and a surprisingly emotional story you won’t soon forget. Even with its thematic deficiencies, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” can stand proud as the best film in the franchise since the 1968 original and it makes up for that lack of thematic depth with interesting and well written characters—the best written in the entire series—which leads way to an incredibly moving story that proceeds the way it does not simply because the screenplay calls for it, but because the characters onscreen have developed realistic motivations based on the experiences they had before. This gives the action that follows more meaning than your typical summer fare. Only briefly does the story take a backseat to that action before it catches back up and gives it some narrative context. The death and destruction that erupts is heartbreaking due to the film’s delicate handling of its characters, which continues through these breathtaking action sequences, including a steady cam single take on top of a tank that is enough to impress even non-film enthusiasts who don’t usually notice those types of visual touches. If you’re a fan of the original films and are looking for some meaning in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” you’ll find some; you’ll get those themes of segregation, submission, control through fear and more, but we’ve seen these ideas before in other, more thematically focused films. Instead, this movie focuses on its finely tuned, character driven story, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you go in looking for something that ultimately isn’t there, you’ll leave happy after seeing what is.
6) Into the Woods— There’s a certain joy that washes over me when I watch a good musical. Movies and music are wonderful mediums for artistic expression, as each find their own truths and meaning in their own distinct, separate ways, but combining the two is complete bliss. Both complement each other, the music giving the visuals an extra flavor that would be missing had they been accompanied by silence, and vice versa. When those visuals are as striking and the music as wonderful as they are in “Into the Woods,” it’s impossible not to be enchanted. This is visually one of the best musicals since 1940’s “Fantasia,” full of all the grandeur and wonder that one might expect from a Disney movie. Adapted from the 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Into the Woods” tells a story that mixes together numerous childhood fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. Thrust in the middle of these stories is a baker and his wife, played by James Corden and Emily Blunt, who are tasked by an evil witch played by Meryl Streep to obtain four items for her in the surrounding woods: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a shoe as pure as gold. “Into the Woods” is a magical film, one that combines the natural wonder of the fairy tales it portrays with terrific songs that simultaneously poke fun of those tales and lovingly embrace them. It doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of these Brothers Grimm tales, but it never gets dark enough to lose its whimsy. Chris Pine, in particular, steals every scene he’s in with a self-deprecating performance that adds a satirical spin on fairy tale machismo as it upends the traditional character gender roles so many of these classic stories exemplify. But Pine is merely one part of one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Streep, as is expected at this point, gives one of the best performances of the year as the wicked witch. The nuance she brings to the character makes the witch all her own, as she crafts someone who is both terrifying and also immensely likable. Even as she threatens and frightens the baker and his wife, she charms, as does Kendrick, cast perfectly in the role of the disheveled, but nevertheless lovely Cinderella. For those more interested in visuals, however, the star of the show won’t be Kendrick or Pine or Streep or even Stephen Sondheim, but the fantastic art direction that somehow manages to give colorful life to the dark settings. The costumes, props and sets all create a vivid world, one that would be desirable to live in were it not for the witch curses and giants stomping about. With wonderful songs, awe inspiring visuals and uniformly excellent performances from its talented cast, “Into the Woods” proves itself as an absolute gem of a musical.
5) Interstellar— As a general rule, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad movies. In regards to consistency, at least, one could argue he’s the single best director working today. Naturally, hopes were high for “Interstellar”; some reports even stated that it was on a philosophical level of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I feel I can definitively say that it’s not quite up to that level, but it’s nevertheless Nolan’s most narratively exciting and ambitious film to date. Not all of its philosophizing lands, but when most science fiction films these days involve little more than assault-on-the-senses action, one can’t help but appreciate that this one strives to be intellectually more. And it’s that intellectualism that gives “Interstellar” its edge. In a real world that seems increasingly anti-intellectualism and anti-science, with societies hell bent on holding onto archaic beliefs and ideologies, it’s a breath of fresh air to see onscreen characters portrayed in a way that highlights scientific curiosity and hope, even in the face of extreme adversity. The lengths “Interstellar” goes to be scientifically accurate are both welcome and impressive as well. It takes liberties, of course, to form its story, but it dares to show its scientific literacy when other movies would have taken the easy way out. These details show a genuine love for the subject matter, for space and even for the unknown, as early dialogue discussing the merits of scientific study highlight a passion for scientific endeavors as well as the wonders of both the human spirit and the insignificant role we play in the immensity of the cosmos. This is a movie that understands not just the frightening and dangerous nature of our universe, but also its grandiosity and quiet beauty. If you too share such awe, as I do, then you’ll find plenty to love in “Interstellar.”
4) Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—As I went through all my end-of-year screeners in preparation for voting in the Washington, DC film critic awards, I would occasionally post to social media what I was watching, just to engage with other film fans and gauge their reaction on it. Naturally, my curiosity in their opinion was reciprocated by them in mine. As someone asked what I thought of “Birdman,” I said that I very much liked it, but wasn’t sure it was going to make my top ten. Yet here it is at my number four spot. As the days went by, I kept thinking about the movie more and more, fascinated by its technical prowess, stellar performances and unique story that explored strange, but relatable themes. Shot to look like one continuous take, “Birdman” tells the story of Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, a washed-up Hollywood actor most famous for his silly Birdman superhero movies, who is trying to reinvigorate his career by adapting a Broadway play. What follows is hard to explain; the first moment of the film shows Riggan floating in the air, almost like a mystical Buddhist monk, and it just gets weirder as it goes on. Keaton gives the performance of his career—don’t be surprised if he walks away with an Oscar win for it—and the supporting cast is no slouch either. As the camera weaves in and out of the hallways, transitioning from person to person, scenario to scenario, layered characters come into being, some excited about their first gig on Broadway and others struggling with their own unhappiness. The film gives you so much to think about that you never truly settle in. When you think you might, it throws a curveball, ending on an unexpected note that forces you to go back and reevaluate everything you’ve just witnessed. Part of the charm of “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is in discovering it for yourself, so I hesitate to go into further details, but trust me when I say it’s worth experiencing. There’s nothing quite like it and you’ll be thinking about it long after the credits roll.
3) X-Men: Days of Future Past—The “X-Men” movie franchise has had a bumpy ride. It started off strong, but then stumbled with “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006 before hitting its lowest point with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009. It has been on a steady upward swing ever since and once again found its footing with 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.” But the newest film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” is on a whole other level. This is easily the best “X-Men” movie to date, a wildly entertaining, perfectly acted, visually stunning comic book movie that reaches levels few other comic book movies have. The buzz this year was all about the latest “Captain America,” but after sitting through this, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering what all the fuss was about. “Days of Future Past” is a brilliantly constructed film, a cohesive whole in every way. Not once does it hit a narrative lull or forget to follow up on side stories. It takes dozens of characters, from both the past and present, and juggles them all flawlessly, with characters disappearing only after their narrative usefulness has concluded. No single character is included as fan service, but rather because they are necessary to tell the story at hand. The beauty of it is that “Days of Future Past” never sacrifices story for spectacle. Everything that makes the X-Men characters great is intact here, including the overall themes of tolerance, acceptance and doing right to others despite the wrong they may do to you. In today’s world of rampant homophobia and other forms of bigotry, the X-Men have never been more relevant and “Days of Future Past” benefits from a setting where such bigotry was more commonplace and when America had just been on the losing end of an unpopular war. Even if you took away the terrific story and thought provoking themes, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” would be a mesmerizing film, thanks to some of the most mind-blowing superhero action ever put to screen. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” sets a new standard for superhero movies. It reaches about as close to perfection as is possible and easily nabs a spot on this list. X-Men fan or not, you’re going to want to see this one.
2) The LEGO Movie— When “The LEGO Movie” was announced, the world let out a collective groan. At the time, it would not have been unfair to assume it would be a 100 minute commercial and, in a sense, it is, but the final product is so much more than that. This is not a cheap cash grab by the company and the movie doesn’t have a singular purpose to sell product (though I imagine that will be an added bonus). This is a funny, thoughtful film with a surprisingly resonant story that warms the heart. It’s a fast paced film and as it starts to introduce its multiple universes angle, you start to wonder if it’s going to go completely overboard. But then something magical happens. A twist brings everything together. It explains why the story jumps around and why all of these seemingly unrelated characters from the vast Lego collection (which ranges from Shaquille O’Neal to Michelangelo the painter to Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle) have come together in one place. Unexpectedly, the film finds a purpose. In this silly, joke-a-second corporate product pushing movie with what appears to be, at first, a sporadic and inconsequential narrative, a giant heart is found. What happens is something that will seem all too familiar to certain members of the audience. While hardly revelatory, its ultimate message of letting loose your imagination and creativity is nevertheless endearing. It’s enough to make the parents in the audience want to take their kids home and let them run around and explore, creating wondrous worlds in their heads that only they can comprehend. It is that impactful. It’s about as magical a movie as I’ve seen with more laughs per minute than any movie in recent memory. “The LEGO Movie” is marvelous entertainment.
1) The Theory of Everything—Have you ever watched a movie that felt like it was made precisely for you, as if the filmmakers took everything you love narratively, visually and thematically and wrapped it into one? That’s how “The Theory of Everything” felt to me. The movie portrays the relationship between famed theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his college love, Jane (Felicity Jones), a wonderful, if bittersweet, story in itself, but it wraps in philosophical underpinnings of life, death, infinite wonder and, most importantly, the inescapableness of time. As Jane and Stephen fall in love, the former a religious woman with faith in God and the latter an atheist scientist who sees no evidence for a creator, an interesting dynamic emerges between the differing beliefs. At certain points in the movie, both gravitate towards the other, Jane finding a brief moment of respite when Stephen mentions God in his book and Stephen’s theories, along with Jane’s struggle to find happiness in an increasingly difficult situation, forcing her to speak on the death of God in the name of finding truth. It’s an intriguing dichotomy that “The Theory of Everything” never forces. As it connects its themes to the characters, real meaning is found. Specifically, its study of time, from both a scientific viewpoint and in its importance to Hawking, who time is an enemy to, is one of the best and most intriguing angles any movie had this entire year. As days go by, Hawking starts to deteriorate and lose his ability to voluntarily move, but it’s his understanding of his own predicament that leads him to some of the theories he penned of space time and his famous book, “A Brief History of Time.” In space, time can be manipulated and though it isn’t explicitly stated, you can feel such a realization means something to Hawking, for obvious reasons. When the movie ends on a rapid reverse back to the beginning of the movie, a profound beauty is found as it brings that all too important theme full circle. If that isn’t enough, the credits are accompanied by astounding imagery of constellations and galaxies, magnifying the beauty of an already touching movie. With some of the best acting of the year, particularly from Eddie Redmayne, who gives the performance of a lifetime and deserves an Oscar come February, and more emotional depth than the rest of this year’s movies combined, “The Theory of Everything” proves itself as a special movie. It is easily the best film of 2014.