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The 10 Best Films of 2014

Marvel dominated again. The box office waned. Sony was hacked. Chris Pratt blew up. Transformers 4 made way too much money. Phil Lord and Chris Miller continued their winning streak. Tom Cruise made an awesome action movie that few saw. The Hobbit Series finally ended. Netflix and Amazon made some great content. Streaming soared. DVD and Blu-Ray Sales plummeted. Some theaters revamped their seats to completely recline in an effort to draw people out of their living rooms. 

2014 was a pretty amazing year for the movies. Here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of 2014:

10. Birdman

That cast, the improvised jazz drum score, those uninterrupted long-takes. OK, I will be the first to admit that the insistence on long-takes (which is what excited me most about the movie) was at times distracting and even unnecessary. Still, the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) made the entire film feel like an off-broadway play, with a sense of immediacy which is broken only when the camera magically flies through a glass window, or floats through times lapses that transition from night into day. Still, Birdman is bold, at times depressing, frequently hilarious. It had a few unnecessary sub plots, but the impressive special effects, the whimsical tone, and the great performances made watching Michael Keaton's descent into madness (or transcendence) a lot of fun to watch.

9. Gone Girl

David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's slightly superior novel is certainly well crafted. Both Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck give nuanced, intriguing performances that show the darkness that can bubble underneath the surface of a seemingly pleasant relationship. Fincher sticks pretty closely to the source material, which makes sense, but the few changes he does make only add to the cleverness of the plot structure and make already dark scenes even more disturbing. The many plot twists are well executed, with the only flaws coming from the film's slightly uneven tone: certain moments near the end that should read as serious come off as slightly awkward and comical. Still, I cannot imagine a director better suited to adapt this than Fincher, and he gets the visuals, the brooding music, and the twisted story very right.

8. Chef

Do not watch this movie on an empty stomach. It is the perfect mix of food porn and family comedy. You can't keep your mouth from watering or your foot from tapping during the many food preparation sequences set to cuban music. Director Jon Favrea also stars as the chef who quits his job at a fancy restaurant to pursue his dream of starting a food truck. It features a great supporting cast that includes Scarlet Johansen, Dustin Hoffman, and a brief cameo by Robert Downey Jr. At the center of it all is a simple story of a man reconnecting with his son, and the film takes this cliched premise and turns it into one of the most satisfying and heartwarming films of the year.

7. The One I love

This movie has an extremely intriguing premise, but I have to be vague for fear of spoiling the surprises that await anyone watching The One I Love. It is a twisted, clever, romantic comedy, but one that will keep you a little bit uneasy throughout, as you try to determine what exactly is going one. It shares a tone with another excellent movie also produced by the Duplass Brothers (Jay directs, and Mark stars), Safety Not Guaranteed. In a movie landscape full of sequels and remakes, it is refreshing to find an independent movie that is so consistently original and unpredictable. You can check it out now on Netflix Instant Play. 

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I know most people would argue that if one Marvel movie deserves to be on this list, it is The Guardians of the Galaxy. I did love that movie, and it was a hard decision to leave it off this list, but hear me out on Cap 2. It was so successful at adopting it's own unique genre and becoming a paranoid political thriller that happens to star an established super hero. If the Russo Brothers keep up the great work they've been doing on Winter Soldier, Community, and Arrested Development, the The Avengers: Infinity War is in good hands. These guys balance action and humor to great effect, and this film had some of the best action scenes of the year. The best part? You could actually see what was going on, none of the choreographed fight scenes were obscured by quick cuts or shaky cameras. The attack scene on Nick Fury's car is nothing less than awesome. This is old school blockbuster movie-making at its best. Also impressive was the bold impact this film had on the Marvel cinematic universe, upsetting the status quo and ensuring more drama and intrigue to come. 

5. Whiplash

This is a film about obsession, featuring two of the very best performances of the year. One by Miles Teller as a man so determined to be the best drummer he loses sight of everything else, and J.K. Simmons his captivating and abusive teacher. When Simmons is on screen you cannot look away, somehow his words cut through the screen and even you want to impress him. Moments in the film are cringeworthy, as in, you can barely stand to keep watching due to the horrifying self inflicted injuries Teller's character is willing to endure to make it. Blood, sweat, and tears literally fall from him as he continues to push himself and be pushed farther than what seemed humanly possible. And then there is that final scene, which contains one of the most spectacularly satisfying moments I have ever sat through in a film. I found myself holding my breath, watching the two performers bounce off each other and letting sounds of the amazing drumming sweep over me.

4. The Lego Movie

The most fun to be had at a movie all year. Whether you were a big lego fan as a child or not (and I certainly was) I cannot imagine anyone walking out of the theater post-lego movie without a huge smile on their face. Part of that can be attributed to the all-star cast: A tongue in cheek Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Charlie Day, Will Arnett as Batman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, etc, but the heart of the movie is a charismatic and hilarious vocal performance by Chris Pratt. I think the most credit, however, belongs to directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). The visual gags are so frequent that they cannot all be appreciated after one viewing, and a surprisingly emotional sequence near the end honestly made my eyes water. What could have been a cynical toy commercial is instead a hilarious, witty, imaginative film (and toy commercial) that delivers a heartfelt message about the need for play and creativity. 

3. The Babadook

More than just the best horror film of the year. This Australian film is terrifying, not only because of the demonic monster threatening this mother and son, but because of the serious psychological questions it raises that some find too taboo to talk about: what if a mother is conflicted by love and hatred for her own child, what does that do to a person? Essie Davis gives a gut wrenching performance as the mother, and the young Noah Wiseman acts well beyond his age, while always maintaining his innocence. The Babadook is introduced while reading the creepiest pop-up 'children's' book ever set to page. The film uses this monster to symbolize the way children deal with traumatic events, and how they cope with adversity; all children have nightmares about the boogeyman. What is so amazing about this film is the way it works on so many different levels. Like a great piece of literature, looking at it through a different lens can completely change its meaning. The Babadook itself can be read as either a supernatural being, a psychological delusion and manifestation of the child's trauma, or a manifestation the mother's conflicted hatred. The child and the mother are nuanced and understandable, and you sympathize for both of them even as they make bad but understandable decisions. Things that seemed horrifying at first become innocent, things that seemed innocent at first become horrifying. If you have a chance to see this, please do. It will stick in your head long after you leave the theater.

2. Boyhood

I find it amazing that this film was ever made, let alone that it ended up being not just good, but one of the very best films of the year. Filmed over 12 years, director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight) just gets so many details about growing up so right. He makes the important choice to skip over the major moments that most movies would focus on, and instead zero in on the small moments that form us into the people that we become. By throwing in current (at the time) events such as the 2008 election and the release of the final Harry Potter Book, as well as time-period appropriate music for a nostalgic soundtrack, Linklater made a film that speaks to the real experience of growing up in the 90's and early 2000's. But it's more than just that. In a span of 3 hours, you feel like you've grown up all over again with Mason (Ellar Coltrane), experienced your first act of rebellion against your parents, been bullied, fallen in love all over again. The scope is expansive and intimate at the same time. What this movie gets right that was so powerful for me is the moment when you start to realize that your parents are not all-knowing, but rather are just as flawed and inherently human as you are. This movie is worth sitting through the long runtime, it is worth seeking out. It will move you.

1. Nightcrawler

"If it bleeds, it leads." Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler, hits it out of the park. The visual style shows the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles at night, reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Jake Gyllenhaal's portrayal of Lou Bloom is nothing short of masterful. He is determined, manipulative, seeking his own version of the American dream in the smarmy business of freelance news videography. For all his quirks, it's surprisingly easy to root for him, and we watch as he crosses line after line, revealing a complete lack of empathy. Yet somehow the audience feels a sense of culpability as we allow, even support, him pushing his ethical boundaries so far to get the best shot. By finding beauty in violence we become accidental accomplices, allowing horrific events to take place in the name of giving the people what they want. Once the plot gets going there is the sense that there is no turning back. The action sequences kept me on the edge of my seat, and I had to hold my breath during a scene when Lou enters a house where a murder has just taken place to film the events before the police arrive. This film is filled with some of the most shocking moments, and they hit hardest because they come from a desire that news programs latch onto, a deep fascination with violence. For me, Nightcrawler was the most disturbing, involving, darkly comical, best film of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy, The Imitation Game, Snowpiercer, Verunga, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes