Well here we are at the end of another varied and overall impressive year for film. Sure there were some horrendous duds along the way – make sure to check out our Top 10 Worst Films of 2014 list – but for the most part there was much to enjoy.
Below are my top 20 films from the last 12 months. As always, there are is only a finite number of spaces available and the fact that certain films failed to make the cut just goes to show how strong of a cinematic year it was.
Note: The list goes by the UK release schedule so the likes of Whiplash and Birdman weren’t eligible, while certain movies that were 2013 for some territories were released early this year here. Also, I’d just like to point out that Snowpiercer most definitely would have made the list however it never received a UK release (shockingly it doesn’t even have a distributor over here yet!) so it also wasn’t eligible.
Anyway, without further ado, enjoy!
20. Two Days, One Night (dir. Dardennes brothers)
We kick off the list with this subtly moving and thought-provoking film about a mother and wife who has to fight to keep her job when her boss makes her fellow colleagues choose between keeping her on and getting their annual bonus. As you’d expect by now, Cotillard is nothing short of spectacular in the lead role of a woman desperate to maintain her livelihood, bearing her soul as her character does when she has to practically beg each of her colleagues to choose her over money. The repetitive structure is there by narrative necessity rather than any sort of laziness or gimmick and it works a slow, understated magic on you to makes sure you’re right along with this woman, desperate for her to achieve her goal.
19. Pride (dir. Matthew Warchus)
Every so often a British film comes along that has that special quality to it with the ability to charm audiences both at home and abroad. Pride was one of those films. Featuring terrific performances from the likes of Bill Nighy, George Mackay and Imelda Staunton, to name but a few, this was a charming, heartfelt, uplifting and achingly passionate tale of courage in the face of adversity and prejudice, dealing with a complex subject and important period of British history head-on while still being extremely entertaining with it.
18. Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)
After impressing mightily with his feature directorial debut The Guard, writer-director John Michael McDonagh (brother of In Bruges/Seven Psychopaths’ Martin McDonagh) managed to top his previous effort with this multifaceted Irish tale of faith, redemption and forgiveness even in the face of circumstances that seem impervious. A vein of jet black humour runs throughout a supremely moving and, in its own unique way, uplifting film which is anchored by one hell of a lead performance by Brendan Gleeson. Full review here.
17. X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Bryan Singer)
Bryan Singer returned to the franchise for the first time since X2 in spectacular fashion, delivering a film that perfectly mixes the new era of the mutant-powered (anti)heroes with what made the second film in the franchise work so well. This was achieved both literally in how the time travel device allows us to be both past and future at the same time and in the overall approach to the action and characters. It also provided a Quicksilver-led slow motion set-piece that threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the summer action movies in a fashion that proclaimed, “beat THAT!”
16. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)
Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career and arguably the best of the year in Dan Gilroy’s film about a driven man who dives into the world of night-time crime journalism. This is a film that’s successful at being a lot of things at once; a savage satire on (particularly American) news media and the responsibility thereof, a look into the mind of a disturbed/exceptionally motivated individual, an exploration of gender struggles and job hierarchy, the morality of how far is too far and above all else a compelling watch that’s as thrilling as it is unnerving. Full review here.
15. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson’s visually sumptuous multi-time period tale of a hotel concierge and is faithful lobby boy saw the inimitable stylist director utilise his idiosyncratic approach to quite perfect effect, at once unmistakably one of his films without tipping over into cloying eccentricity. A beautifully structured script, pitch perfect pathos-tinged comedic performances (who knew Ralph Fiennes had such wonderful comedic timing, for instance?) and resplendent visual style helped make this as appealing to Anderson newcomers as it was a joy for ardent fans. Full review here.
14. Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)
Fast-rising British star Jack O’Connell proved once again that he is one of the country’s best young acting talents in this raw, frighteningly believable prison drama. He turns what could have been a clichéd young offender character into something complex, fascinating and even empathetic in spite of his at times horrendous actions. On the surface it seems like a hackneyed relaying of familiar prison movie tropes but it quickly reveals itself to be a smart, brutal, unnerving and uncompromising look at life behind bars and the potential for redemption for those who find themselves there. Full review here.
13. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Matt Reeves)
Having reinvigorated a dwindling old franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn upped the ante even more with a decisively more action packed but no less emotional film. It was filled with astonishing motion capture CGI, terrific performances from the actors playing the apes by utilizing that technology – Andy Serkis was again predictably brilliant but Toby Kebbell surprised with his pleasingly complex portrayal of the villainious Koba – and some of the year’s best action set-pieces. Apes. Together. Strong, indeed.
12. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas meets Wall Street true-story based film about corrupt, materialistic stock brokers was a blistering three hour epic of debauchery and excessiveness. A breathlessly energetic film that, despite its lengthy runtime, battered along at a good old pace thanks to some of the year’s most enjoyably foul-mouthed dialogue, cracking performances particularly from Leonardo DiCaprio (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and a general devil-may-care attitude. I’d argue this is the director’s best film since Goodfellas.
11. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
One of the year’s most divisive films sits just outside my top 10 for many reasons. I loved Christopher Nolan’s unique brand of ambition that saw him try to explain love and human connection through the medium of wormholes and quantum physics. I loved the performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain. I loved the epic visual style, jaw-dropping spectacle and Hans Zimmer’s wonderfully ethereal score. I loved that it mixed hard science with unashamedly sentimental emotion. But above all else I love that it just goes for it, no matter the weird or, yes, narratively flawed places it may take it. I thought it worked brilliantly in spite of, maybe even in the face of, its faults. Full review here.
10. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel (in a rather shrewd decision she also wrote the screenplay) was a delectably dark and provocative affair, taking the viewer on a twisty-turny mystery ride that constantly forced us to reassess what was going on. Ben Affleck gives maybe the performance of his career, while Rosamund Pike was an absolute revelation which helped to make the disappeared, flashback-narrating “Amazing Amy” Dunne one of the year’s most fascinating and complex female characters. Fincher’s film was as much a commentary on how both the media and the public react to a sensational news story as it was a compelling puzzle box that reveled in you squirming trying to solve it.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn)
Who would have thought that the wacky, wisecracking cousin in the corner of the Marvel Universe featuring a ragtag group of disparate heroes, including a talking racoon and a giant tree that only proclaims its own name, would be the best blockbuster of the summer? But that’s exactly what happened with James Gunn’s ridiculously enjoyable space adventure that brought something new to the Marvel Universe – both in terms of content and the way it moved away from endless Avengers-related sequels – and featured a deft mix of quotable dialogue, instantly iconic characters and terrific action sequences. An admittedly weak villain aside, this ruled the summer blockbuster roost of 2014 as far as I’m concerned.
8. Life Itself (dir. Steve James)
Sadly little seen over here in the UK (due to very limited releasing), this heartbreaking documentary chronicles the life and career of the late-great film critic Roger Ebert, from his childhood through to his early days as a critic up until his tragic illness and eventual death. I didn’t see as many documentaries this year as I would have liked but this was definitely the best of what I saw. A supremely moving, thoughtful and insightful portrait of an incomparable man who lived and loved cinema.
7. The LEGO Movie (dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
Just like the popular toy on which it’s so lovingly based, I’ve yet to come across anyone who doesn’t at least like, if not outright love, The LEGO Movie. In terms of pure enjoyment it would wrestle for the top spot on my list. The Jump Street/Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller brought us a hilarious, clever, eminently quotable and utterly loveable film featuring action sequences that would give the best live-action blockbusters a run for their money. The controversial last act may have left some miffed or disappointment but for me it was the poignant icing on an already layered, hugely enjoyable cinematic cake.
6. The Raid 2 (dir. Gareth Evans)
Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his sledgehammer to the face of an action movie took things in a decisively more open and over-arching direction than its predecessor, adding an hour to the runtime in the process. Some found it overstretched but I still found it every bit as exhilarating and jaw-dropping as the first film with some of the most brilliantly brutal fight sequences ever committed to film. The expansive Godfather-esque crime saga aspect only helps give it that extra bit of dramatic weight into which you can invest yourself while you enjoy watching a plethora of bad guys being dispatched in a smorgasbord of increasingly violent ways.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Coen brothers)
The inimitable Coen bros. delivered a melancholic slice of musical brilliance in this story of a Bob Dylan-esque folk singer in 1960s New York who’s on the cusp of stardom but never quite making it. The duo utilise their incomparable brand of clever and quotable dialogue, plethora of quirky characters and attention-grabbing visual style to brilliant effect as they explore fame and the psyche of a not exactly loveable but, thanks to the performance of Coen newbie Oscar Isaac, never unsympathetic artist. All of which is punctuated by maybe the best soundtrack this side of Once. Full review here.
4. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
The Best Picture winner from earlier in the year deserved all the praise and accolades that it received. The performances within were universally fantastic, from Chiwitel Ejiofor at the centre to Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano and particularly newcomer Lupita Nyong’o around him, the latter of whom won a deserved Oscar for her performance. An intensely powerful experience surrounding one man’s quest to survive and live in even the most horrendous of circumstances, featuring many-a-scene that were both extremely hard to watch and heartbreakingly memorable. Full review here.
3. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s monumental task of filming the literal growing up of one young boy over the course of 12 years is an achievement truly worthy of admiration and respect in and of itself. And yet going beyond just the novelty of the idea itself, he also manages to make it one of the most heartfelt, endearing and compelling dramas in recent memory. A fascinatingly constructed, yet effortlessly natural voyage through one boy’s adolescence that also allows us to see a bit of ourselves in the journey.
2. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze delivered his best film yet with this intensely moving, thoughtful and pertinent mix of soft sci-fi and heartfelt romance. Future-set though it may be, there’s no flying cars or intergalactic space travel in Jonze’s vision of what’s to come. Instead it presents a believe future that feels at arms reach and says a lot about the ever technology dominated times in which we live while also having a lot to say about gender, relationships and human connection. Joaquin Phoenix has rarely been better while Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast as the sultry-voiced computerised half of a relationship at once unconventional and believable. Full review here.
1. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
Despite an excellent year for film my number one choice was actually pretty easy. No other film in 2014 mesmerized, bewildered, confounded, amazed, astonished or enthralled me as much as Jonathan Glazer’s masterful Glasgow-set sci-fi. The mixture of surreal and utterly haunting visuals – the likes of which I literally haven’t seen before and thus haven’t been able to shake from my mind since – beguiling score by Mica Levi and Scarlett Johansson’s alluring performance helped make this an unforgettable cinematic experience that went straight to the top of the pile and, as it turns out, nothing managed to topple it. I genuinely think that in decades to come this will be looked back on as one of the cinematic masterpieces of our time.
Honourable mentions: Paddington, The Skeleton Twins, The Rover, Fury, 22 Jump Street, Cheap Thrills, Blue Ruin, Locke, The Boxtrolls, Next Goal Wins.
Notable films/possible contenders I missed: What We Do in the Shadows, We Are the Best, Nymphomaniac, Ilo Ilo, The Past, Obvious Child, Wakolda, Heli, Serena, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.