Believe it or not, there are still films from last year I haven’t seen, but if I don’t do this now, I may never actually get aroud to doing it. Also, I feel like the day of the Oscars is the official cut-off point for posting your list of the best movies from the preceding year. (I’m basing this on literally nothing. Just work with me here.) I’ve decided not to rank these, in part because I do enough ranking for work, but also because how do you compare 22 Jump Street and Selma? (I’m sure there’s a way to do it. Feel free to email me with your suggestions.)
So here, in alphabetical order, with some thoughts on each, are my 20 favorite films of 2014:
1. 22 Jump Street. 21 Jump Street was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2012, but the biggest surprise was that 22 Jump Street was even better. Channing Tatum got plenty of accolades for his performance in Foxcatcher, but honestly, he’s way more in his element in 22 Jump Street. His chemistry with Jonah Hill is extraordinary, and the film as a whole is that perfect blend of action and comedy that many movies aspire to but few attain.
2. Boyhood. While it’s probably going to lose the Academy Award to Birdman, which I really didn’t like, Boyhood is perhaps my favorite “Oscar movie” of 2014. Much has been written about Richard Linklater’s unprecedented feat of filming the same actors over 12 years, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive to watch. And Patricia Arquette’s “I just thought there would be more” scene, which will win her an Oscar, is heartbreaking and perfect.
3. Citizenfour. Say what you will about Edward Snowden — actually spare me, because I’m not really interested in having that debate right now — Citizenfour is unlike any other documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s that rare combination of unbelievable access and a stranger-than-fiction story. Even though you know where the story is going, because it played out over international headlines, it’s still a thrilling, relentlessly challenging journey.
4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It did earn one technical Oscar nomination, but I’m a little disappointed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was so quickly forgotten. I was a big fan of Rise, which aptly rebooted the dusty Planet of the Apes series, and Dawn expands on the story with some exceptional world-building and gorgeous character development. Caesar is truly one of the best developed characters of any 2014 film.
5. Edge of Tomorrow. Another underrated sci-fi gem, Edge of Tomorrow was a pleasant surprise on every level: It breathed fresh life into the been-there-done-that Groundhog Day conceit, it gave me a newfound appreciation for Emily Blunt’s badassery, and it made me like Tom Cruise again. Seriously, he is great in this movie, playing a total coward who emerges as a hero only because he has no other option, a gorgeous subversion of the roles he usually plays.
6. Enemy. How did this film slip under the radar? Jake Gyllenhaal delivers one of his best performances as two different characters in a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing and leaves you breathless with its stunning mindfuck of a final shot. Without revealing too much, Enemy can be interpreted literally or as an extended metaphor, and it works either way, grounded in solid acting and tense, restrained filmmaking.
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s not like I had any doubts about embracing a Persian feminist vampire flick, but I still loved A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night even more than I’d expected. It’s such a uniquely realized vision, a seductive blend of style and substance. Ida earned praised for its gorgeous black-and-white visuals — and rightfully so — but, as far as I’m concerned, Girl is just as beautiful a viewing experience.
8. The Guest. It’s rare to find a movie that’s as fun as it is expertly made. The Guest is a taut thriller with a wicked sense of humor, and I’ve come to expect as much from director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. They’re so good at blending sharp dialogue with shocking bursts of violence, and making it all look seamless. They are two of the most creative minds working in film, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
9. Happy Christmas. Like other Joe Swanberg movies, Happy Christmas is quiet but endlessly charming, the kind of film that washes over you and continues to grow on you long after you’ve finished watching. The largely improvised dialogue gives it a wonderful authenticity, but it’s anchored by some terrific performances from Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick. Not to mention the finest baby acting ever captured on screen. A tiny Oscar for baby Jude!
10. Jodorowsky’s Dune. The thing about Jodorowsky’s Dune — the film he tried to make, not the documentary about the film — is that I’m reasonably certain I would hate it. I’m not really a fan of Jodorowsky, and maybe that’s a failing of mine, but no matter. The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune is still stunning as a reflection of the futility of artistic pursuit, and the persistence of creative minds in spite of the odds.
11. The Lego Movie. Yeah, that Oscar snub hurt, because The Lego Movie isn’t just a lot of fun — it’s also a thoughtful, engaging, and beautiful artistic achievement. When the film hit theaters (over a year ago, at this point) I already knew it would be one of my favorite movies of 2014. That’s rare for me, but it’s also rare to watch something that’s such an overwhelming pleasure from start to finish. Also, best Batman ever, if we’re being honest.
12. Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal was incredible in Enemy, but he was even better in Nightcrawler. (I’ve had such a crush on him for so long that sometimes I forget what an amazing actor he is.) Nightcrawler is one of the best LA movies I’ve ever seen, a wicked satire of the city’s class divide and bloodthirsty media culture. It’s the Network for our generation, and the fact that so many people seemed to miss the point just makes me love it more.
13. Obvious Child. I’ve loved Jenny Slate for several years, so it’s nice to see the rest of the world catching on. But she’s just one part of what makes Obvious Child one of 2014’s best films. As a staunch advocate for women’s health, it’s refreshing to see a film that is entirely about abortion without treating abortion as anything but a fact of life. There is something so progressive about that, and it still doesn’t feel like an “issues movie.” An impressive feat.
14. Selma. Yeah, it got a Best Picture nod, but in so many ways, Selma still got shafted. The film wouldn’t be what it is without lovely, nuanced performances from David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo. But most importantly, it’s a singular achievement because of director Ava DuVernay’s vision. She deserved a nomination for transforming Selma from a white savior story into the most complex and human portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. ever committed to film.
15. The Skeleton Twins. Full disclosure: Co-writer and director Craig Johnson is a friend of mine. But long before we connected, I was blown away by his talent. The Skeleton Twins looks very Sundance-y on paper, but it manages to eschew all the obvious clichés despite being a film about depression. And that’s a credit to the script and the multi-dimensional characters it offers, brought to layered life by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.
16. Snowpiercer. I’m actually not always big on sci-fi — the fact that it’s well represented on this list is a credit to how many thoroughly original and well executed genre films there were in 2014. Snowpiercer got attention for Tilda Swinton’s hilarious turn as Mason — and she’s great! — but the entire ensemble does exceptional work. And the overarching concept, however unbelievable, is perfectly realized and perpetually surprising in the best ways.
17. Still Alice. I’ve seen people criticize Still Alice and say that the only good thing about the movie is Julianne Moore’s performance. I find this assessment rather baffling. I found the film to be devastating without being emotionally manipulative, which is hard to pull off. It’s an honest and measured portrayal of Alzheimer’s, not unlike the equally heartbreaking Away From Her. It’s also a great showcase for the criminally underrated Kristen Stewart.
18. Two Days, One Night. One of the only good surprises in terms of Oscar nominations this year was Marion Cotillard earning one for Two Days, One Night. She’s truly fantastic in the role, but it’s one of those subtle performances that too often go overlooked in favor of showier fare. The entire film catches you off-guard because of its deceptive complexity. It’s a very simple story told in a straightforward fashion — and suddenly you find yourself sobbing.
19. Whiplash. There’s more to Whiplash than the two performances at its center, but they’re unequivocally the very best thing about it, and that’s not a bad thing. J. K. Simmons has wavered between playing affable and intimidating characters, but in Whiplash he is a terrifying force of nature. He is so scary, it’s impressive — and so impressive, it’s scary. Let’s not overlook Miles Teller either: He brings his own brand of intensity to his role.
20. Wild. I went into Wild thinking that I would hate it, and by the end, I had broken down into heaving sobs. The thing about Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl is that you want to judge her for her ignorance and her privilege, but she challenges you at every turn. It’s her subversion of audience expectations that make Wild such a thrill to watch. She refuses to apologize for her past mistakes, and that’s such a liberating moment. I felt her catharsis, and it moved me.
Blue Ruin. A stressful, minimalist thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat and shocked me into laughter.
Ida. Beautiful on every level, even when the plot delves into the specifics of gruesome past atrocities and their aftermath.
The Immigrant. Another flawless performance from Marion Cotillard elevates a somewhat old-fashioned melodrama.
Into the Woods. One of the most faithful adaptations of a musical ever made, it works best as a gift to lifelong Sondheim fans.
Jamie Marks Is Dead. Strange and tonally confused but ultimately a memorable portrait of a teenage outcast.
Maleficent. As misunderstood as the character at its center, Maleficent deserves more credit for its unabashed feminism.
Under the Skin. Another uniquely feminist subversion of its genre, with some of 2014’s most stunning visuals.