The Best Movies of 2014 (According to Mike Sampson)
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: No one likes putting together a Top 10 list. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it’s fun at a party if someone asks you, “What were your favorite movies this year?” and you can just rattle off a list of titles in no particular order, not overly concerned if you accidentally left something off. But this list is formal. Published on the Internet. This will be my legacy. And that’s not something to take lightly.
So, as you’d imagine, there was a lot of hand-wringing over the choices that follow (even more so than normal). My list was in flux up until yesterday, with one movie sneaking in last night, and only after a crucial second viewing. Which means something had to get bumped, which means I feel incredibly guilty. And now, the part of my best-of list where I attempt to atone for my sins by listing some movies that I really enjoyed, but just didn’t make the cut, like ‘Neighbors,’ ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ ‘The Imitation Game,’ ‘Foxcatcher,’ ‘John Wick,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘Citizenfour’ and plenty others.
I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of the movies on this list, but really that’s the point. My list is different than ScreenCrush critic Matt Singer’s list, which is different from your list. So with that in mind, read on to see what I loved this year, and share in the comments what you agree with, what you disagree with, and even your own personal Top 10. Hey, if I have to go through this torment, so should you.
It’s a shame that more people saw ‘Ouija’ than something like ‘The Babadook,’ a truly insane horror movie. Anchored by an unsettling performance by Australian actress Essie Davis, the movie is so scary not because of the Babadook itself, but what that titular monster represents: A woman, crippled by grief, overwhelmed by her child, and losing her grip on reality. These are the demons inside, which make for the scariest movie monsters.
I’ll be honest: ‘Inherent Vice’ wasn’t originally on this list. But then, on the recommendation of a few friends, I watched it again. On a second viewing, you’re not thinking about trying to make sense of the film’s deliberately muddled plot, or about director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work. You just let the pot-soaked haze wash over you and open your mind up to all it offers. Like the film many compared it to, few loved ‘The Big Lebowski’ the first around. It took time and repeat viewings to turn that movie into an underground hit. That's what I suspect will happen here. In a few years, we’ll all be talking about Anderson’s paranoid cult classic.
In the hands of any other director, ‘Gone Girl’ is probably a disaster. It’s trashy, pulpy material, and to his credit, David Fincher (maybe one of the smartest directors working today) knows this and embraces it. I mean, he cast Tyler Perry in a major role. ‘Gone Girl’ is the perfect example of all its parts—Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ haunting score, Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her own book, Rosamund Pike’s ice-cold performance—coming together to form a deliciously satisfying whole.
It’s not a coincidence that ‘Force Majeure’ appears on this list directly next to Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl.’ If there was ever a double feature designed to ruin your date night, this is it. This squirmy film from Swedish director Ruben Östlund follows a young couple and their two children on vacation in the French Alps, and the ensuing struggle for pride and power. The comedy is as dark as the snow is white, and plays out like the most brutal episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ you’ve ever seen.
When I first saw ‘Wild,’ I enjoyed it well enough and went on my merry way. Solid performances from Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, sure. But then a funny thing happened: I couldn’t get this movie out of my head. Days later, I was still thinking about it, humming “El Condor Pasa.” This may not sound like a compliment, but the best part about this movie is how little actually happens. There is no manufactured drama; Reese Witherspoon doesn’t fight a bear. It all feels real, which is a testament to Witherspoon (who delivers a career-best performance) and director Jean-Marc Vallée, who does such a great job of capturing the hazy feeling of a memory and what sparks those moments. Fitting for a movie that sticks with you.
Sad confession: I’ve seen ‘The LEGO Movie’ more than any other movie on this list. This should probably be more than enough to make me not want to remember it (parents still listening to "Let It Go" know what I’m getting at). But, where ‘Frozen’ gets stale after multiple viewings, ‘The LEGO Movie’ just keeps getting better. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have packed this movie so full of laughs and action and joy and fun, that there’s always something new to discover. A movie based on a corporation and a bunch of interlocking blocks probably should’ve been on a worst-of list. Instead, we can watch ‘LEGO’ over and over again, and everything is still awesome.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s sunken-eyed creepazoid Lou Bloom might be ‘Gone Girl’’s Amazing Amy’s spirit animal. Gyllenhaal—who, between this and ‘Enemy,’ had a banner 2014—turns his preternatural charm on its head to create one of the most disturbing villains of the year. ‘Nightcrawler’ is the rare kind of suspense movie in that a lot of the tension rises from the fact that you have no idea where this character is going to take you. Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is so unhinged and unpredictable that both the viewers in the theater and the characters in the film have absolutely no idea what he’s capable of.
I feel guilty putting a Marvel superhero movie that is currently the biggest movie of the year this high on my list (what am I, in grade school?), but dammit I’d just be lying to myself if I kept it off. Let’s face it: Superhero movies have gotten stale. We’ve seen the same stories and the same visuals over and over. It was all starting to feel a little tired (especially after this year’s ‘Amazing Spider-Man 2’). But ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ director James Gunn sensed the need for change and wisely got out in front. ‘Guardians’ plays in the same sandbox as most other superhero movies, but brings a healthy dose of humor, splashes of color, and a universe so expansive, it could spawn its own separate world of cosmic franchises. If this is the future of superhero movies, I’m glad we’re along for the ride.
Is there such a thing as jazz-ploitation? If not, I’m coining that phrase now. Like a fetish movie for Charlie Parker fans, ‘Whiplash’ is all sticks and sweat and blood and beats. First-time director Damien Chazelle ratches up the tension like the skin on a snare drum, teasing us along to the bravura final sequence; a musical showdown between teacher (J.K. Simmons, in what should be an Oscar-winning performance) and student that ends like the bang of a crash cymbal.
I knew that a lot of critics (including our own Matt Singer), would have ‘Boyhood’ at the top of their year-end lists, so I consciously thought as I was making mine, “What could top ‘Boyhood?’” And the answer, ultimately, was nothing. Whereas the ‘Birdman’ extended-take gimmick wore off rather quickly (right around the first time they leave the show’s Broadway theater), the central gimmick behind ‘Boyhood’ actually makes the film so much stronger. And ‘Boyhood’’s not just about a boy. It's about parents and families and love and hardship and confusion and the choices we make and ... well, it's such a personal film, it’s about whatever it means to you.