2014 has been quite the exciting year for Hollywood. While box office receipts are down from 2013, movie-goers enjoyed a rare coupling of blockbusters that were both critically acclaimed and financially successful. As 2015 rolls in with promises of new Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Avengers movies, it’s time to close the door on 2014. Without further ado, here are Halftime’s Top 10 Movies of 2014:
Honorable Mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow, The LEGO Movie. These three movies were easily the biggest surprises of the year. LEGO trumped all expectations by showing that a film about a child’s toy could be both emotional and hilarious at the same time; Edge proved that Tom Cruise still has it; and Guardians ruled at the summer box office thanks to a witty script by director James Gunn and crackling chemistry among its leads. Also noteworthy is The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, solely for the scene when Saruman (Christopher Lee, who doesn’t look a day over 90) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) team up against the Nazgul in Dol Guldur.
Now, the Top 10:
10.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Is it time to give Andy Serkis an Oscar yet? After Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised everyone by not being totally awful, Dawn took the groundwork laid by Rise and ran with it. Set some time after the outbreak of the simian flu, Dawn tells of the conflict between the apes, led by Serkis’ Ceasar, and the humans, led by Jason Clarke. Just when you think you have the story figured out, the script throws a curveball. The effects are stunning, and Tony Kebbell’s turn as the villainous Koba is legitimately terrifying. The dialogue is heavy handed at times, but the film is expertly directed by Matt Reeves. His direction is highlighted by a long take in which the camera appears to be mounted on a rotating tank, allowing the viewer to take in the carnage and death the war between the apes and humans has created. The violence is emotional and difficult to watch: Who would have thought that a film about monkeys firing machine guns while riding on horseback would be so moving?
9.) The Grand Budapest Hotel: Anytime you watch a Wes Anderson movie, you know what you’re signing up for. Hotel ratchets the quirk factor up a few notches, and the result is visually stunning and oftentimes funny, if emotionally vacant. Ralph Fiennes leads an ensemble cast in an adventure concerning a hotel, a family fortune, and a missing painting that is creatively told by Anderson through his trademark use of tracking shots, miniatures and color schemes. Hotel’s convoluted plot makes it difficult to get involved in the movie, but a clever script and an endearing performance from Tony Revolori as Zero keep the viewer engrossed.
8.) Nightcrawler: Jake Gyllenhaal continues to prove that he’s one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. His character sinks to the greatest depths of human depravity to get the best shot for his news station, and it’s impossible to tear your eyes away from Gyllenhaal’s performance. The film is expertly crafted, and directed with an understated flair that leaves the viewer feeling grimy afterwards. The twists and turns are harrowing to experience, even if the supporting characters aren’t thoroughly developed. This is Gyllenhaal’s show, and he sinks his teeth into his psychopathic character’s mindset. The transformation is unbelievable to witness, and should yield him an Oscar nod.
7.) The Babadook: Easily the least known movie on this list, The Babadook was produced for a paltry $30,000, but makes every penny count. Writer and director Jennifer Kent tells a seemingly straightforward, traditional horror film about a monster from a children’s book that comes alive to terrorize a mother and her son. However, the relationship between the mother (brilliantly played by Essie Davis) and her son is the real scary story in the movie. Their interactions are portrayed as so tense and realistic that the reveal of the monster is practically extraneous. The lower budget forces Kent to use a minimal amount of special effects, which, quite fortunately, makes the film more psychologically terrifying than anything else. The lack of cheap jump scares and gore is also a breath of fresh air, as The Babadook is easily the best horror film to come out in the past couple of years.
6.) Boyhood: The film that won the hearts of so many critics and fans, Boyhood comes in surprisingly low on this list. Why? I personally liked the idea of the movie more than the movie itself. The patience to film vignettes over the course of twelve years is certainly admirable on the part of director Richard Linklater, who beautifully glorifies the mundane over the course of the film. The entire film stresses the importance of ordinary events throughout our lives, which is a wonderfully optimistic sentiment. With that being said, I found that I grew to dislike the protagonist Mason over the course of the film, but Ethan Hawke’s surprisingly warm portrayal of his stepfather redeems this complaint. Boyhood will undoubtedly receive awards buzz, and does deserve it, even if its reach does exceed its grasp.
5.) The Imitation Game: This is a rare film that is equal parts drama, action, and romance. Game tells the true story of Alan Turing, a brilliant British mathematician who cracked the Nazi Enigma code during World War II and helped the Allies win the war. Turing is sublimely played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who holds nothing back as he delves into Turing’s personal struggles with his homosexuality. He is surrounded by too many great performances to name: The highlights include Keira Knightley as Turing’s manipulative wife, Matthew Goode as his womanizing best friend, and Charles Dance, as his sardonic superior. Director Morten Tyldum allows the tension to ramp up throughout the movie, and chooses a minimalistic ending that lets Cumberbatch’s performance shine through. Turing’s physical decline is gut-wrenching to watch, and Cumberbatch proves what he is capable of in a role that should land him an Oscar.
4.) Gone Girl: Director David Fincher isn’t exactly known for his uplifting movies. Gone Girl is based on the best-selling book of the same name (the book’s author Gillian Flynn also wrote the screenplay for the movie), and takes the audience through the disappearance of the protagonist’s (Ben Affleck, whose chin looks primed and ready to go for Batman’s cowl) wife. To say any more about the plot would spoil the shocking twists the story takes, but what elevates the film is Rosamund Pike’s chilling performance as Amy, the wife who goes missing. The film is entertaining with a dark sense of humor, and also paints a dour picture of marriage. Fincher’s visual style is on full display here, and although the film feels a little overlong at a whopping two and a half hours (come on, Battle of the Five Armies is shorter than this!), it still is a crackerjack of a thriller that will both amaze and entertain.
3.) Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance: Michael Keaton finally gets the comeback role he deserves. In what is certainly one of the strangest films of the year, Keaton portrays a washed-up actor who made a name for himself by playing the superhero Birdman. The parallels between the story and Keaton’s career are too obvious to miss, as he’s joined by Edward Norton who essentially plays himself. The film is extremely self-aware, and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s decision to make the film look like it was shot in one take is a bold technical achievement. Just when you think you have the movie’s mishmash of symbolism and visual trickery figured out, Inarritu pulls another trick out of his bag, leaving the viewer questioning the entire movie by its end. It’s an ambitious undertaking that demands repeated viewings and a bevy of analysis to decipher exactly what it all means.
2.) The Theory of Everything: Stephen Hawking is a fairly obvious choice for a biopic, but the brilliance of Theory lies in the fact that it foregoes an attempt to encapsulate the entirety of Hawking’s scientific achievements and instead focuses on his personal life. This choice humanizes a figure that has been idolized by so many. The film portrays Hawking’s physical decline, and the effect that it had on his wife with a certain simplicity that is beautiful and poignant to behold. Eddie Redmayne completely transforms into Hawking to the point where you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re watching an actor and not the actual man. The ending is touching and emotional, and cements Theory’s position as the most underrated movie of 2014.
1.) Interstellar: Was there any other choice? Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus tells a hugely ambitious story about the attempts of a select group of scientists, led by the post-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey, and their efforts to save a world dying from blight. Interstellar is a film that demands to be seen in the full glory of an IMAX theater. Nolan creates an incredibly immersive film that’s both visually and aurally stunning, and Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score only heightens the experience. The film is smartly centered around the relationship between McConaughey and his daughter, played in her youth by Mackenzie Foy and portrayed as an adult by Jessica Chastain. This emotional core helps the rest of the movie thrive. Nolan seamlessly moves from set piece to set piece, taking great pain to explain the nitty-gritty science of black holes and relativity to the audience. These exposition dumps would derail the film in a lesser director’s hands, but Nolan, ever the auteur, crafts some of the most tense and exciting scenes of any movie in 2014 (the docking scene was a particular nail-biter). The ending does lose the scientific authenticity that marked the rest of the film, but the characters are layered enough and the performances (including one surprise cameo that sparks the best sequence in the film) are sublime, all around. Interstellar is why movies are made, and the hopeful sentiment of its ending is a creative decision that few directors are capable of pulling off. The film’s reception was hugely divisive, as unfavorable comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey damaged its chances at the Oscars. But once the dust settles, Interstellar may be looked at as the science-fiction cinematic achievement of the 21st century.