Best Films Of 2014

2014 was possibly the best year for film since 1997 when Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential, Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, Wag the Dog, In the Company of Men, Titanic, Jackie Brown and The Full Monty invaded cinemas with a diverse and delectable line-up. Seventeen years later, I feel that way once again with a mass of films that confronted the viewer, remunerated them and opened up worlds to them. Whether it was the high octane punch of Guardians of the Galaxy or the humble nature of everyday life portrayed with splendor and curiosity in Boyhood I walked away from the cinema contemplating, questioning and thankful for every breath that escapes my lips. It's been said that film is in a creative funk with television taking over the social dialogue and grip film once had. While I can't disagree, I saw entirely too many dazzling films this past year to outright dismiss the joys of entering a cinema and having the lights go down. Below you will find more than sixty films worth your time. Not every film was in the mainstream or had prominent advertising, but these are the stories that took hold of my imagination and allowed me to escape the world for a few hours every week.

2013 Honorable Mentions
I don't belong to any guild that gets me screeners in advance and because I work a full-time day job, this is a passion for which I do a lot of homework. The truth is I simply do not get to see every film I want every year and usually one or two slip out of my view when I make my year-end list. After I published my 2013 list, I caught the following five films and each one deserved a spot on my top-twenty list last year. Many are now on your respective cable movie channels, so keep your eyes open for them.

Rush: Ron Howard's adrenaline rush focusing on the 1976 Formula One motor-racing season focuses on its two main opponents; James Hunt and Niki Lauda. I don't watch car racing and if I had known Rush would have been so gripping, I would have ensured I saw it in the theater last year. It's a film you don't have to love cars or even sports to love and admire.

About Time: Richard Curtis may be best known for Love Actually but this quirky love story wrapped up with a time travel slant may have come across offbeat in the film's trailer, but it's a vigorously affecting film about love and one of the best I've seen in recent years. Bill Nighy gives a performance that could have been overly sentimental, but he plays it close to the vest thus allowing the anguish and the eventual miracle be all that more real. It's one of the truly great comedic performances in recent years.

Blue Is The Warmest Color: Capturing the essence of teen love is missed continually in film but this foreign film. The film is sadly best known for the controversy surrounding the graphic love scenes between two young women and the ensuing fallout with the film's director, while the raw emotions displayed by the films two leads have been overlooked. Each woman held nothing back and tapped into the very essence of what it is to be human and that is nothing to be ashamed of but should be heralded and encouraged.

All Is Lost: Robert Redford is a one-man show in this film of survival and isolation. He speaks few words, but his face tells us everything we need to know as we see trepidation and horror nearly define him as he is lost at sea.

The Kings of Summer: Coming of age films are a dime a dozen, but the inventiveness of the script and downright charming teen leads will make you smile from beginning to end and I can offer no film a higher compliment than that.

As long as we give of ourselves in a prolific and progressive fashion, then these films help remind us that not only do our lives matter, but they're also extraordinary. So here's 2014's list:

The Best Films of 2014
#1 Boyhood
What can you say about Richard Linklater's twelve-years-in-the-making epic surrounding a boy's growth into adulthood? Some have been critical that the unique shooting nature of the film is why it's receiving all of its accolades, but the real reason this film resonates with so many is because it feels more like a documentary than a dramatic film. There are scenes where I revel in their joy, their fears and at times the sheer horror that life births. It's the simple moments of singing a song, taking a picture, going to a ball game, bowling, sitting at a dinner table, watching your parent share their disappointments with you and falling in and out of love. My daughter will be six years old within weeks of me writing these words, the same age that actor Ellar Coltrane embodied the fictional character of Mason Evans, Jr. I sit back and look at all of the life I have shared with her so far and yet, it's gone by in a blink of an eye. Films like Boyhood remind us of the shortage of time we all have. Since seeing this film last July, I am not sure if there's been a day that has gone by where I haven't thought about this film. More than anything, Boyhood reminds us of the passage of time we all experience. It's awareness of this passage that makes our lives extraordinary.

#2 Interstellar
Aside from Martin Scorsese, there is no greater living filmmaker than Chris Nolan at this moment. His ability to tackle any type of film and make it unlike anything I've seen before is no easy feat. Interstellar is the type of film I watch and when the lights come on as the credits begin to roll, I am emotionally spent. He's part Kubrick, part Spielberg but in the end, he's vision is singular as he doesn't let his influences overwhelm. I sit there and ponder what I witnessed, I envisage the life I have and above all else, I ruminate about where I am going. I was flabbergasted by the science, I was awestruck by the performances, I was electrified by the special effects, but in the end, it was the underlying transcendent element that has left an impression on me. Families that are torn apart by space and time and yet the film's lead Cooper (played with inconspicuous ease by Matthew McConaughey) has to look within for a reason to keep searching every possibility not for himself, but for the survival of his family and everyone else on Earth. His mission is based on science, but his decisions are based on faith. The script by Jonathan Nolan (originally written for Steven Spielberg to direct) was enhanced by his brother Chris and it's one of the most ambitious stories to be given the silver screen treatment in recent years. In the end, science will save us, but it's the wonder of this world and the next that will fuel us when all else is lost.

#3 Whiplash
Miles Tellar wants to be the greatest jazz drummer who ever lived but his teacher, played with brutal brilliance by J.K. Simmons pushes him to edge of sanity. Teller and Simmons don't just face off in the rehearsal room but on screen pushing and pulling one another in a acting fist fight that is not just brilliant but bloody as hell. There is an underlying tension throughout the whole film that culminates in a finale you quite simply will never forget as it is one of the greatest climaxes in film so far this century.

#4 Grand Budapest Hotel
It's like watching a "Greatest Hits" collection from Wes Anderson. Never one to shy away from quirkiness or large casts, Anderson has managed to take everything he's learned in all his previous films and infused it into this perfect cinematic creation. Every Anderson film takes you into a world we can marvel at, smile at and at times, cry. His characters intrigue me, the art direction is unparalleled and an ensemble cast that relishes every second of their screen time. Whenever I enter the world of Wes Anderson, my only regret is when the film ends because I wish I could spend more time with each and every one of these characters.

#5 Birdman
Why is it in the entertainment game that if you are not on top, you don't matter? Riggan Thomson, performed in a career defining performance by Michael Keaton, is a man who is lost literally and figuratively. The film delicately dances around what it means to be a relevant artist but the real heart of the film is the emotive underbelly where Thomson can never see beyond what he once was and it nearly destroys every important relationship in his life. There is redemption in Birdman but to whether it's redemptive in the spiritual sense or the artistic sense I can't say, but it will left me wanting more.

#6 The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the man who helped crack the German's Enigma in World War II, with intense authenticity. Shifting between his mathematical brilliance and his suffering for harboring a secret that could land him in jail, Cumberbatch owns this film and draws the audience in. The film brings to light the importance of the team who cracked the code, the horror of the war and the awfulness of what eventually happened to Turing.

#7 Life Itself
Steve James's documentary on the late Roger Ebert is largely based on his best-selling memoir, but something unexpected happened during the filming; Ebert died. James doesn't just go to the heart of Ebert's gifts as a writer, but his importance in bringing cinema to a wider audience. This would make for a fascinating story, but he goes further exploring all aspects of Ebert's life, both good and bad and this is what makes the film so engaging and important. In the end, we see how Ebert combated illness and even when in great pain, tried to make those around him smile. In the end, he understood the meaning of life and those watching it will hopefully learn the same.

#8 Nightcrawler
To say this film is creepy is an understatement. It's commentary on modern journalism is sadly spot on but like the shows portrayed within the film, you can't keep your eyes off this one thanks in part to the astounding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. As a morally off-center man who will do anything to succeed you are drawn into his darkness and will revel in the horror as he drives towards success at any cost. One of the year's great surprises and a film that will be the topic of discussion for years to come.

#9 Chef
Sometimes you watch a movie and it appears so graceful you wonder why there are not more films like it. Jon Faverau's Chef is one of those films. The last several years have found him deep in Marvel territory as a director and executive producer of the Iron Man and Avengers films, but this is a breath of fresh air because it's so simple, so true and so profoundly real. It manages to demonstrate the highs and lows of life naturally and above all else, it's endearing message of being true to what you love.

#10 Foxcatcher
A disturbing portrait of a man obsessed with winning. Bennett Miller, who helmed Moneyball, takes no prisoners in this story "based upon true events"; he messed with the true timeline for dramatic effect, but it works. Steve Carrell is a revelation as John du Pont in a bone chilling performance that leaves you uneasy from the moment he arrives on screen. Equally mesmerizing is Channing Tatum who never quite gets the credit he deserves. He's a muscular heartthrob at this moment, but the steely innocence and later the dread he displays is nothing short of extraordinary. Tatum does more than play an athlete physically; he tackles the expressive weariness with succinctness.

#11 Snowpiercer
The year's most inventive film that was almost cut down by Harvey Weinstein and when director Bong Joon-ho refused, the film was almost buried. Thankfully it wasn't and the media came to its rescue praising it for its brilliance. Is it a simple dystopian story, a commentary on our society as it stands today, a morality lesson from the past we should take notice of or a warning shot of what is to come? I love films that have a foundation strong enough to be interpreted in numerous ways. Chris Evans may be Captain America, but here he's a different kind of hero and one that leads us through a train that is full of surprises.

#12 Finding Vivian Maier
A documentary you can't take your eyes off of once you start watching. Vivian Maier was a nanny in the Chicagoland area and took her camera with her everywhere she went. She never published her images and in 2009, someone bought her negatives in an auction, which led to a storage facility and led to the man on a search to find out specifically who Vivian Maier really was. The documentary is a picture of what goes into a life. Imagine having a gifted eye

#13 A Most Violent Year
An invigorating crime thriller where Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain plunge head first into a world where one man wants to keep his morals in a world that won't allow him. This was a film I did not see until recently and despite not receiving any Oscar nominations, but the bedroom intimacy of several of the scenes have a Godfather aesthetic as the characters in crisis mode trying to find a way out of the mess they have found themselves in. I watched from the edge of my seat as each scene unfolded waiting for the next move on the metaphorical chess board.

#14 The LEGO Movie
This was insanely great family entertainment.

#15 The Theory of Everything
Everything about Stephen Hawking's life is a miracle of some sort and this film is no different. Showing an unflinching portrait of his life and marriage to Jane Wilde, the film highlights his triumphs, their marital struggles and the triumph of his survival. Eddie Redmayne physical transformation is on par with Daniel Day Lewis' in My Left Foot and Felicity Jones is equally impressive as she steers the audience showcasing strength and vulnerability.

#16 Wild
If you felt Reese Witherspoon's career was over, you were sorely mistaken. After her first decade of brilliant (and mostly indie) performances, she became a part of the Hollywood machine and (mostly) made good films but in Wild, based on the best-selling book, she plunges further into the darkness of the human psyche than ever before. It's a performance for the ages and one I think that will be talked about for years to come.

#17 Guardians of the Galaxy
This is arguably the greatest film adaptation from Marvel and one that could have been strong enough to nab a Best Picture nomination. If every comic adaptation is as good as this one, all I can say is bring them on.

#18 A Most Wanted Man
Watching this film made me realize how much I am going to miss Philip Seymour Hoffman, in this disparaging look at the war on terror. Director Anton Corbijn doesn't sugar coat any frame in this film with patriotic majesty, he breaks down the distrust between governments in a devastating manner that leaves you in shock as the credits roll. Hoffman balances his characters brilliance against his faults, which are equal with one another. Because of these vulnerabilities, Corbijn is able to pull his audience into his world of dread.

#19 Locke
Tom Hardy spends 90-minutes driving in a car talking to his wife, his lover and his employer as his life dissipates. The nuanced direction grips you and Hardy plays his character so close to the vest you forget you are watching a movie. On paper this doesn't sound like a film that can invigorate a mass audience, but trust me on this, you will be thankful once you see it.

#20 Big Hero 6
Disney animation continues its run of spectacular non-Pixar films with a perfect balance of action and heart.

#21 Blue Ruin
A film that doesn't have any actors that can drive audiences to the box office, nevertheless, it intrigued me and then absorbed me wholly within the first 30-minutes. Just when you think you know what is going to happen next, it steers off into a different direction. Lead actor Macon Blair is a revelation in this tale of revenge that is as good as the best Coen Brother blood bath.

#22 Selma
A film every single person should be forced to see to remember the horrors of the past so they never happen again. David Oyelowo is a revelation as Martin Luther King Jr. He speaks and embodies King with authority, burden and veracity.

#23 Lance Armstrong: Stop At Nothing
If you feel Lance Armstrong has been treated unfairly by the press, by the end of this film, you will despise what a sociopath this man truly was and is and how many lives he destroyed as a result of his lies. Like any great documentary, once you start watching, you will not be able to stop.

#24 St. Vincent
Bill Murray is good in everything he does, but he elevates this grumpy old man tale to another level. Is the film predictable and possibly tied up nicely a little too much for its own good at the end but I still loved every second he was on the screen and you will as well.

#25 Ida
Stoical, pure and desolate, Ida should win the foreign Oscar for its starkness and story about deep and dark secrets. The film's real revelation is Agata Trzebuchowska, whom the director found in a coffee shop with no acting experience, but he felt she looked the part. Prepare to sit back and be awed by what she brings to the role and the film.

#26 Super Mensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon
Mike Myers directs this documentary on Shep Gordon, the manager of Alice Cooper and the man who invented the celebrity chef. He's one of the most powerful men to ever be a part of Hollywood, but what makes his story so engaging is the man himself who, like Roger Ebert in Life Itself, is not afraid to hold back on his faults and mistakes.

#27 The Wind Rises
The legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is responsible for a whole generation of animator's (including most of the Pixar team) and this film appears to be his swan song. Focusing on the career of Jir´┐Ż Horikoshi who created planes used in World War II, this film will divide some audiences, but the scope in which Miyazaki creates is a world filled with great love, inspiration and above all else, beauty. The theme of "beauty" comes up time and time again and instead of focusing on what the planes were ultimately used for, Miyazaki, in his final cinematic adventure, urges his audience to fill their lives with "beauty", which will stay with me forever.

#28 Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Marvel is on a roll and while I may prefer the first Captain America film, there's no denying the impressive nature of The Winter Soldier.

#29 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The reboot from 2012 made my top-ten list, and in any other year this one might have as well. In what could have been a film that was rushed to production to make a quick buck, the filmmakers wisely kept the Caesar storyline from "Rise". Director Matt Reeves deserves immeasurable credit for keeping the Caesar storyline in tact because without it, the series and franchise wouldn't have as much heart and in the end, we wouldn't be as emotionally invested in these characters. What could have been a throw away sequel is now part of a larger franchise that I will return to again.

#30 Still Alice
What can you say about Julianne Moore as she plays a character with the early-onset Alzheimer's disease? She's one of our greatest treasures in the world of acting and she brings the disease into focus and into the lives of those who have been fortunate to not experience this most painful of diseases.

#31 How To Train Your Dragon 2
This sequel to the 2010 animated film takes the audience into a broader world full of complexities one would not expect from a family film. Don't let this film's ranking put you off, in a different year, this could have been a top-ten contender because of the depth of the script.

#32 What If
Every once in a while there is a perfect romantic comedy and in 2014, this was it, as its feet are clearly set in reality. The films leads Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan capture the difficult nature of being friends who deep down have strong feelings for one another. What I loved most about the film was how it didn't create scenarios for cheap laughs, but respected these characters and their feelings. One of the great surprises of 2014.

#33 The One I Love
On the surface this film looks like a standard indie film sent straight to video, but within 15-minutes, it becomes clear this film is a nightmare that you can't take your eyes off of. Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss is a couple on the verge of a divorce when they go off to a cottage for a weekend away as suggested by their therapist (played by Ted Danson). Simple arguments aren't that simple as their world in invaded by mystery I would not dare reveal here.

#34 Joe
The saddest part of Nicolas Cage's descent into C-level films is how brilliant he can be with the right material. Joe is an incredible return to form for director David Gordon Green who understands and films rural disconnect as well as Scorsese directs films about organized crime. Cage is downright dazzling in this film as he is able to flex all of his acting muscles for once in a film that captures a part of America we know about but don't often see every day.

#35 Neighbors
Big laughs ensue in this Nicholas Stoller directed comedy. Stoller is now four-for-four (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him To The Greek, The Five Year Engagement) and his direction takes the characters to extremes that keep the audience on the edge of their seat but more importantly, laughing.

#36 Jodorowsky's Dune
A documentary for a film that sadly never came to be and yet we finally get a sense of what could have been. Alejandro Jodorowsky in the early 1970s started the process of making the most ambitious film ever made around the best-selling book Dune. He lined up Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and every top tier designer to make his vision a reality. What happened? Watch and find out what went wrong, but more importantly, how this vision, while never produced, went on to be seen in dozens of other films.

#37 Under The Skin
A polarizing sci-fi film with a mesmerizing performance by Scarlett Johansson who is ice cold as an alien sent to Earth to seduce. Her resolute mannerisms are a revelation and despite being an object of lust for many, she reveals several shades of skill over the course of the film from a lack of emotion, to confusion, to growing into someone with a moral center.

#38 Gone Girl
No one captures humanity at its worse than David Fincher. He has an ability to reveal ugliness from mass murderers, jealous wives, sociopathic inventors and schizophrenic fighters, he is able to dial into this madness and somehow not make it feel alien. His ability to translate this best-selling book into a mind bending date night is a testament to his talents.

#39 Begin Again
I love music and unapologetically love this film. Director John Carney (director of Once) gets to the core of music as a lost soul, played with great vulnerability and heart by Keira Knightley who simply needs to express herself after a break-up. Mark Ruffalo is the washed up label executive who hears salvation in her voice and songs. Their journey to capturing the intrinsic beauty of her music is at the heart of the film and it's a joy to watch.

#40 The Interview
The most controversial film of the year was also one of the funniest. Seth Rogan and James Franco play off one another perfectly as they go to interview and potentially assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Let's just say this, while the film is not set in reality, it gives credence to why Katy Perry may be responsible for our freedom and that was enough for me.

#41 -50: X-Men: Days of Future Past, Fury, Maleficent, American Sniper, 22 Jump Street, Calvary, Labor Day, Cuban Fury, The Best Offer, Unbroken

#51-60: The Obvious Child, Lucy, The Boxtrolls, The Railway Man, The Monuments Men, Grand Piano, Edge of Tomorrow, Afternoon Delight, Veronica Mars, Fading Gigolo

Also worth seeking out: Inherent Vice, Godzilla, Magic in the Moonlight, Hector and the Search for Happiness, Frank, Only Lovers Left Alive, We Are The Best!, Edge of Tomorrow, The Overnighters

What's Missing?
I missed Citizenfour when it had a brief theatrical run in Chicago (I would have paid for VOD) but it airs on HBO on February 23rd. The Judge never felt like Oscar bait to me but I'll need to see it in coming weeks to check out Robert Duvall's Oscar nominated performance. Ditto for Marion Cotillard's award winning turn in
Two Days, One Night. The foreign film entry for Russia, Leviathan never appeared to open near me (yet another reason why VOD should be standard for these films) and I simply ran out of time in getting to the theater for Mr. Turner, which I regret.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter

Best Films Of 2014

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