With Christmas behind us and a new year ahead, it would be easy enough to simply mark off time until I finally get around to seeing Into the Woods (with its unfortunate Christmas release date) or until Oscar speculation starts taking over the internet completely. Far more worthwhile, however, would be to look back on the films of 2014 and take stock of the year in film. And while I certainly haven’t seen everything that I want to from this year yet – particularly the end-of-the-year “prestige” films that have only gotten limited releases so far – what I have seen, paired with an uncommonly strong blockbuster season, amounts to a surprisingly strong list of films that’s not likely to change all that much when all is said and done.
10) The Book of Life – Even though this movie is almost assuredly going to be axed from the list after I see the likes of American Sniper, Foxcatcher and Into the Woods, it never-the-less speaks to what a remarkably strong year 2014 has been for animation that this uniquely animated Día de los Muertos musical could still round out this list in late December. The Book of Life earnestly, unironically and completely embraces Mexican culture on every level of its production: from its almost exclusively Hispanic cast, to its true-to-form depiction of Día de los Muertos, to its vibrant art style. While it does poke some kid-friendly fun at the culture, it is neither derogatory nor stereotypical – going exactly as far as The Lego Movie‘s Brickberg went in satirizing mainstream American culture.
9) Justice League: War – Along with Batman: Assault on Arkham and Son of Batman, Justice League: War proves not only that DC is the name in animated comic book adaptations, but that the best films of the year don’t always need a theatric release. Justice League: War works for the same fundamental reason that The Avengers did: meaningful and entertaining interaction between a roughshod team of typically stand-alone superheroes. Like Marvel’s recent big screen team-up, the film is confident enough to allow Darkseid to take the back seat to Green Lantern’s and Batman’s buddy cop routine, Captain Marvel’s wide-eyed adoration of Cyborg and Wonder Woman’s Themiscyran culture shock.
8) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – Of the recent trend of dividing franchisable books into two (and occasionally three) films, Mockingjay – Part 1 is easily the least superfluous. Despite the myriad of misgivings that I had concerning the novel, Mockingjay was never-the-less a surprisingly meaty text, with most of the action (ie, the districts-wide rebellion) relayed secondhand and after the fact. Director Francis Lawrence expands both the scope and depth of the narrative, clearing up every issue that I ever took with the novel. And while it may have been reasonable enough to cram everything into one film, giving it room to breathe over the course of two movies invariably did far more good than it did harm.
7) The Lego Movie – This is a movie that, by all accounts, should never have been as good as it ended up being. In the hands the team behind 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie became more than just a ninety-minute toy commercial: transforming into one of the strangest, most enjoyable and most memorable films of the year. It works so perfectly well because it is absolutely the kind of narrative that would come from the mind of a ten-year-old: epic, hilarious and fluidly nonsensical. It’s the kind of film that will only become better regarded in the coming years and inevitably this year’s Best Animated Film winner at the Oscars.
6) Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – An unsettling meta-commentary on superhero films and those that star in them, Birdman is like a latter-day cross between Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and the unhinged career of Michael Keaton. Its star-studded cast – including the immeasurably talented Michael Keaton and Edward Norton – goes for broke with what can easily be described as the best performance of their careers. I fully expect this to be this year’s big Oscar winner, including Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Editing and Cinematography
5) Oculus – With films like The Conjuring, Sinister and Oculus, Blumhouse Productions continues to prove why they are the definitive name in 21st Century horror films. Oculus’ parallel storylines, which rapidly blur to the point of indistinguishability, make it the best directed horror film since 1978’s Halloween. Frighteningly intelligent and possessing and uncanny sense of timing, Oculus is easily the most horrific film of the year, if not the decade.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy – How Marvel took an obscure, c-list team of superheroes, divorced from the rich continuity that the studio had been meticulously developing since 2008, and turned them into the breakout franchise of the year I will never know. And yet somehow a talking raccoon, an Ent, a dim-witted brawler, an Orion Slave Girl and a self-described asshole become the most endearing set of characters to hit the big screen this summer. Despite existing in the same tradition as Star Wars and Firefly, Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a fresh look at cosmic action-adventure films, going boldly where no Marvel film has gone before.
3) Interstellar – It is safe to say that Interstellar is the science fiction film of the Twenty-First Century – a century, mind you, that includes not only Gravity, but Inception, Children of Men, Looper, District 9 and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While Gravity’s exceptional direction, stunning lead performance, adherence to scientific realism and absolutely spectacular special effects make it a watershed film within its genre, Interstellar – simultaneously Christopher Nolan’s most epically scoped and stylistically reserved film – makes it look like its retarded little brother drawing stick figures in the dirt. Interstellar is hands down the better written, better directed, better acted and better visualized film of the two: a space odyssey for a new generation of theater-goers.
2) X-Men: Days of Future Past – Days of Future Past lives up to the promise of not only the original X-Men film, but of the reinvigorating First Class. Returning to the franchise after 2003’s X2, Bryan Singer tackled the darkest, most ambitious and best remembered storyline from the comics with uncharacteristic skill and sophistication. In plumbs the depths of the civil rights movement which informs its central premise and provides the most riveting action scenes of the year between two intercut climaxes (one set in the dystopic future, one in the uproarious past). This is easily the best X-Men film to date, and one that is not likely to be surpassed anytime soon.
1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Given how thoroughly I praised the film back in September, it should come as no surprise that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is hands down my favorite film of the year. Combining the very best of superheroic action and Nixon-era espionage, The Winter Soldier is an absolute masterpiece of Twenty-First Century paranoia: one in which everybody is suspect and nobody is innocent. Its world-sundering climax – which dissolves S.H.I.E.L.D. and redefines the political landscape of the MCU – is brazen territory for a mainstream action franchise, whose business models have historically idealized the comfortably familiar. I can only hope that The Winter Soldier is a preview of what is to come in Age of Ultron and Civil War.