We talk about movies a lot, and every year there’s the inevitable conversation where someone complains about how the business has run out of ideas. You know the complaints: some curmudgeon talks about the overabundance of remakes and sequels, noting how the dumbest properties now get a movie deal. Whenever this conversation happens, we think, “If you’re whining about the state of movies, obviously you’re not paying attention enough.” This year has been terrific for film buffs: there were intimate epics, multiple feminist comedies, bloody musical thrillers, and LEGO Batman. The breadth and quality of the year’s movies is, well, overwhelming. In a year like this, it’s difficult to pick a conclusive list of the best films, so the BYT film team got scientific. All our movie writers – Jeff Spross, Toni Tileva, Svetlana Legetic, Alan Zilberman, Kaylee Dugan, Rachel Kurzius, Vesper Arnett, Ross Bonaime, and Max Bentovim – submitted their top fourteen movies of 2014, which were then tallied and ranked. So, without further ado, here are our top fourteen movies of 2014, complete with a silly (but still relevant) superlative and our concluding thoughts.
14. Most thematically essential use of rock monsters: Noah
In a recent interview, Ridley Scott could not get over the rock monsters in Noah. He dismissed them as “fantasy” elements, an odd sentiment coming from a man who just directed a story about twelve divine plagues. But the comparative listlessness of Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings illuminates what Darren Aronofsky did right with Noah, and why the rock monsters were so essential: they indicate the writer-director’s complete devotion to the story on its own terms. Aronofsky takes with deadly seriousness the idea that the creator-god of this pre-Christian, pre-Judaic primitive religion really does exist, and has decided that humanity was a mistake that needs to be wiped from the slate. The rock monsters may be a bit much, but they are also a creative elaboration on textual elements of the story in Genesis. They testify to the vibrancy of Aronofsky’s creative investment in the story and his determination to ask a very real question. Just what would it mean if humans had a creator, and if that creator decided – based, I think we all have to admit, on some pretty obvious evidence – that humanity is simply not worth the love or the effort? Relying on Russell Crowe’s tortured performance as the titular hero (and eventually anti-hero), Aronofsky relentlessly digs into that vision, sloughing off the cultural baggage of the “biblical epic” along the way. Noah is a dark and sometimes unsettling journey, but one that ultimately wonders – quite in keeping with the Old Testament – if perhaps God is not some implacable, unchanging tyrant, but can grow and surprise even Himself. It is arguably pre-Christian in this way as well, that it lays the conceptual groundwork for how God could become the deity who ultimately go to the cross on behalf of His creation. –Jeff Spross
13. Best movie to watch after the CIA torture report and if you still might enlist: The Kill Team
Director Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team is an absolutely enthralling tour-de-force documentary that stares unblinkingly down the ugly, dirty face of war, offering a sobering look at its specters. There are no heroes to be found here, only the very banality of extreme violence. As Specialist Adam Winfield says, “There are no good men left here.” The Kill Team is the story of a platoon that made headlines in 2010 after it was discovered that 5 soldiers in the group had essentially murdered 3 innocent Afghani civilians “for sport.” The film focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield who had attempted to alert authorities to the “kills” taking place, only to himself be charged by the Army and face a lengthy prison sentence. The absurd dichotomy of someone being labeled a whistle blower and a murderer in the same breath lies at the crux of The Kill Team’s main argument: the military can be a ruthless machine that often victimizes its own, not just the enemy. The terrible face of the “war on terror” is made poignantly human here: “The constant pressure to having to kill and being shot at is overwhelming. It is impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.” –Toni Tileva
12. Best revitalization of an old cliche: Ida
11. Best soundtrack filled with songs you hoped you’d never hear again: Boyhood
10. Best alcohol-soaked priest fight: Calvary
Brendan Gleeson is a delightful man, but his latest film Calvary is not necessarily a feel-good film. It’s an incredibly bleak drama that follows a small-town priest, Father James (Gleeson), and his congregation. When Father James is seriously threatened during confession, he tries to move on and continue to help the people of his town, but he is continuously presented with different spiritual dilemmas. Finally, the man can’t take it anymore, and he begins to let loose at the local pub. When the barkeep and another patron decide it’s time for James to be cut off, he doesn’t take it very well (in fact, he shoots up the bar) and things get… violent. Most of the scene is left to the viewer’s imagination, but Gleeson as a drunken enraged priest is both hilarious and deeply sad. Like most of the movie, there’s an oppressive hopelessness in the air punctuated by some deeply funny jokes. –Kaylee Dugan
9. Most touching on-screen friendship: Guardians of the Galaxy
I saw this movie three times in theaters, and now that it’s out on Blu-Ray I’ll probably see it a hundred more times. What better movie to watch with pals than one where the biggest jerks in the ‘verse have to work together to save it from Lee Pace (The Hobbit, Pushing Daisies)? You don’t have to be a comic book nerd to appreciate the fine art that is a tree that walks and kinda talks, and is friends with a feisty and definitely feral raccoon that is also a gun owner. Maybe you’re more into movies with humans in them: Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) plays the only human, and brings everything back down to earth with his sweet dance moves to an old-school soundtrack. Did I mention that the tracks are compiled on cassette by his mom in what’s probably the most heartbreaking opening scene since Up? I was not expecting feelings so quickly. Hug your friends and family tight like a cocoon of tree limbs at the end. We Are Groot. –Vesper Arnett
8. Best merchandising tie-in: The LEGO Movie
The LEGO Movie could have just been the latest unnecessary movie adaptation of a kid’s toy (Battleship, anyone?). Instead, it’s a hilarious, imaginative film starring the likes of Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Shaq, and a cat with a very rectangular head. The gorgeous animation actually builds the LEGOs in front of your eyes. The movie manages to be a cash grab with an anti-corporate story. It’s central tension is whether to construct the blocks as the instructions say or to connect them however you want, which is the exact same question a person playing with LEGOs must ask. It is for children, smart adults, and modern aesthetes who still care about art. It is us. –Rachel Kurzius
7. Best fake country that tells real history: The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is about modern European history, but perhaps even more importantly how this history is remembered – or how it isn’t – and how the act of reconstructing of these memories into narratives defines our modern moment as much as those events themselves. Yes, the country Zubrowka and its flagship titular resort is fictional. In a way, so is all history, so this battered nation and this enormous, once-grand hotel stand as real a vision into the past as so many histories today. That story is also hilarious. Wes Anderson is the modern master of finding humor in even the darkest and most difficult corners of life, and The Grand Budapest Hotel finds him expanding his scope from the personal, familial, and communal all the way to the national and continental. Anderson frames the whirlwind central plot is carefully framed in triplicate, first as oral recounting, second as written record, lastly as silent but profoundly tactile remembrance.
That story – complete with fascist thugs, modernist art, wild chases, and Jeff Goldblum – is so engrossing and vividly recounted it makes it easy to forget that framing; yet that story’s sharp, sudden conclusions and its subsequent chronological leaps reveal ambition instead of simply refracting classic slapstick. The Grand Budapest Hotel features everything that makes Wes Anderson great (and probably everything that annoys people who don’t like him, too). There’s the delicate balance of whimsy and tragedy, the ability to juggle a star-dense cast while allowing lead performances to shine through, as well as storybook framings and music (Alexandre Desplat, brilliant). In an amazing and perfectly elliptical sort of way, Anderson has managed to make what might be the only possible cinematic adaptation of Tony Judt’s Postwar, precisely by making his story one of memory and elision, of what is told and what is forgotten, of when history starts and when it stops. It is a film of words and objects, and the ways those can both complement and compete with each other, supporting or discomfiting personal and political narratives. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a masterpiece of history via ahistory, reality via fiction, memory via story, and present via past. It is at once beautiful, sad, and hilarious in that way that only Wes Anderson is able to convey, which makes him one of the world’s finest working filmmakers. –Max Bentovim
6. Best act of chivalry: Obvious Child
Ok, so picking a superlative for Obvious Child is like a Sophie’s Choice of the highest pop culture order. It definitely IS the “Most crushworthy cast of the year” (but then I’ve already used that one up on Safety Not Guaranteed two years ago). It is nearly certainly “The most quotable” (“I’ve peed in every pool I’ve been in” is something I wear on a t-shirt daily). It is also “The most uplifting abortion story” and the “Best nickname generator for no nicknames you’d ever actually use” (PEE-FARTER!). Not to mention “The greatest put-down of Natural Deodorant Uses,” “The most adorable post-break-up stalking scene” and, of course, “The strongest crocs endorsement ever.” Still, hands down, in a sea of superlatives, if you are a girl, and you are watching Obvious Child, you gotta talk about that first sorta date scene. Donna and Max have already met. They’ve also already had sex, peed next to each other on the street, and yes, gotten pregnant. She knows it , he doesn’t, and while she awaits her abortion date, he randomly stumbles upon her. Over lunch, as they chit and they chat and we slowly but surely develop massive crushes on them both, he hands her a roll of bread, and then puts the butter between his hands and warms it, so she could spread it more easily. She says, losing her perma cool: “Did you just warm that butter for me between your hands?” and he just shrugs, and at that very moment, you can’t help but root for him, and her, and him WITH her. Men everywhere in the bleak, first date tundra out there: take note. Now, please read my Obvious Child review so you can understand all (other) great things to love about this movie and then watch it (maybe on repeat). –Svetlana Legetic
5. Most terrifying monsters of the year: The men of Under the Skin
With a torrent of middling entertainment that dominates the Oscar season, I keep returning to Under the Skin because it’s cinema at its most pure. There are no character names, no explanations for its frightening absurdist imagery, and the only thing that resembles an emotional arc is a creature who falls victim to patriarchy. By stripping the film to its essential elements, Glazer shows how purity of form can lead to depth. Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien succubus, one who drives around Scotland, seduces men, than saps their essential life fluid in servitude of, well, I don’t know, exactly. Glazer does not make this conceit easy: there are long stretches of Under the Skin that are repetitive and obtuse, yet our patience leads to gorgeous, haunting rewards. Two interesting things happen to Johansson’s creature: it develops curiosity, and internalizes the limits of its existence (there is a moment where it attempts a meal, failing miserably in a way that would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic). With a modicum of intelligence and self-awareness, the creature in Under the Skin learns that its Black Widow methods are no match for a world where men are dominant, controlling, and ultimately cruel. In a year when the media failed women, Under the Skin is a stark illustration of how #NotAllMen leads to another lost, naked, terrified casualty. –Alan Zilberman
4. Most gratuitous yet weirdly appropriate use of a perpetual motion machine: Only Lovers Left Alive
Specifically, the machine is a creation of Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a vampire who’s clocked in a few centuries at this point, and lives in a dilapidated Victorian-style house on the outskirts of Detroit. He keeps the machine – which he built after studying up on Nikola Tesla – buried in his backyard, and uses it to power the house and his wealth of amps and electric guitars. It’s an odd detail, but just the sort of thing a vampire might do with (literally) all the time in the world on his hands, and of a piece in writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lover’s Left Alive. Other flourishes include the oddball friendship Adam’s wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), keeps with the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) – both of them also vampires – along with the hospital runs for blood Adam and Eve make thanks to their amoral-yet-fastidious refusal to kill, and the wooden bullet Adam has crafted when he contemplates suicide. To the limited extent the film has a plot, it concerns the way Adam and Eve’s carefully crafted existence is hurled into turmoil by the arrival of Eve’s juvenile and destructive sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). But what Only Lover’s Left Alive is really about is Hiddleston and Swinton’s mesmerizing performances, their odd outsider perspectives and running debates on the supposed hopelessness of the human condition, and Jarmusch’s lovingly crafted world and his darkly hypnotic score. The result is a remarkably creative and languorous contemplation of time and immortality. At one point, driving through the streets at night, Adam laments the physical and cultural decay of Detroit. “It will come back,” Eve gently retorts. “It’s near water.” –Jeff Spross
3. Most likely to be one of Stefon’s hottest nightclubs: Snowpiercer
If you’ve ever wanted to experience the lavish on-the-go lifestyle of the rich while simultaneously surviving the collapse of society, then have I got the club for you: Snowpiercer. Located somewhere on the frozen ball of ice that is Earth in 2031, this massive circumnavigating train has everything: parties, spas, a propaganda school, an aquarium, Tilda Swinton. The whole train is self-sufficient enough to live in for years, and it never stops. Ever. All you have to do is purchase a ticket, but if it’s full, you can jump on in the last car with the rest of the puke people. Of course, this means that there’s no space at all for movement and you’ll inevitably run out of food… Hey, is that some hunger-crazed cannibal? No, it’s Captain America and he’s leading a revolution! Sometimes action movies feel very paint-by-numbers, with a clear morality and a set of rules that do not get broken. Snowpiercer brings a heightened awareness to the cost of trying to do the right thing to the forefront of the minds of the audience. Director Bong Joon-Ho brings a perspective to both the style and message of action movies, reminding us that violence isn’t always mindless. It’s on Netflix now, so you’ll have a better with at home than you would trying to wrestle your fifth vodka soda anyway from a human parking cone. –Vesper Arnett
2. Most functional marriage of the year: Nick and Amy Dunne, Gone Girl
Upon first glance, the year’s best mainstream thriller is a searing indictment of modern marriage and relationships. With terrific procedural details, Gone Girl is about the dormant resentments that sometimes exist between husbands and wives. Nick (Ben Affleck) is smart but unambitious, the sort of guy who can be described as a “hunk,” at least until that charm is lost and a meager “guy” is all that’s left. Amy (Rosamund Pike, in a star-making performance) is a secret sociopath, a bitter, beautiful woman whose disgust with Nick and herself leads to a convoluted, calculating scheme of revenge, then sinister manipulation. In the hands of David Fincher, a director who keeps a clinical distance from his actors, no character in Gone Girl is especially likable (the best way to view the film is as a misanthropic comedy). Still, Gillian Flynn’s pitch-black script ends with a damning conclusion: on the cusp of mutually assured destruction, Nick and Amy discover they complement each other well. On one level, anyway, their marriage is a functional one, and while that conclusion is too much for people who want a clear victor in the battle of the sexes, Fincher and Flynn have the admirable courage to let no one off the hook. –Alan Zilberman
1. Most metaphorical blood, allegorical blood, and physical blood: Whiplash
Jazz percussion isn’t the kind of movie subject that brings blood to mind. When somebody tells you a movie is bloody, you think of screaming teenagers chased by monsters through the woods, soldiers gunned down on European beaches, or whatever. Yet Whiplash is a movie soaked in blood, whether it’s metaphorical, allegorical blood, or literal. Debut hyphenate Damien Chazelle sees blood everywhere in his tale of a shockingly violent and visceral duel between a young musician and his demanding instructor. Blood seeps into jars of ice water as pulverized hands plunge in. Blood dances to chaotic rhythms on cymbals as hands move faster than eyes can see. Blood forms in hardening crusts around never-healing wounds as bandages are stripped and replaced. Blood comes from shattered glass and twisted metal as the metaphorical and the literal converge. There is an off-screen death in Whiplash; described once, it’s bloody, but later is revealed to be terrifyingly bloodless.
Blood is also the perfect metaphor for Whiplash, a film about drive and destiny, family and friendship, student and master. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) doesn’t want to play drums well; he we wants to be one of the greats. At New York’s legendary Shaffer Conservatory (a barely-masked stand-in for Juilliard, natch), he soon collides with infamous instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and the battle of wills begins. Fletcher, you see, obliterates the divide between demanding and psychotic, utilizing a boundless wellspring of abuse, rage, and tyranny to drive and, if necessary, break and discard his charges. As he escalates his own single-minded drive to match Fletcher, Andrew soon warps all his other relationships and his connection to anything else human. Whiplash is exquisitely written and filmed, a masterpiece of craft about masters of craft. Never has the performance of music been expressed visually with the verve, tension, and narrative thrust that Whiplash marshals to nail-biting and soul-searching effect. Anchored by two astounding performances (at least one of which is destined to seep into pop memetics alongside analogs like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket) Whiplash is a snarling, red-eyed beast. Fundamentally, it’s about what sacrifices can be asked of others to achieve the kind of greatness that can define a craft, art, or human endeavor. In the end, like all great art, rather than answer its central question, it poses it back to us. Cutting to black at the apex of an unparalleled spiral of music and mania, Whiplash shows us the peerless wonder and grave costs of exceptional achievement side by side, leaving us to wonder just how much blood must be spilled on the path to greatness. –Max Bentovim
and that’s all folks. feel free to agree or disagree in the comments.