On New Year’s Eve last year, I resolved to try and see every wide release that came out in 2014. (“Wide release,” these days, means a minimum of 600 screens.) It’s resulted in me seeing many more movies by this point in time than I usually do. Last year, I didn’t see my 50th movie until the first week of October. This year, with another month to go until October, I’ve already seen 84 movies from 2014.
The beginning of September is a great time to reflect on the state of the year’s movies, as a disproportionate amount of the best films of any given year are released in the last four months of the year (so as to be fresh in the minds of Oscar voters).
For the first time ever, I feel confident in having seen enough movies by this point in the year to do a Best of 2014 (So Far) list. Some of these films will remain when my final list is posted in another five months, some of them may not, but each is an excellent movie deserving of a look the next time you’re deciding on something to watch.
SABOTAGE (#14) — A raw, gritty cop movie brimming with intense action and extreme plot twists. Helmed by David Ayer, writer/director of the underrated End of Watch, Sabotage is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best movie since 1994’s True Lies.
THEY CAME TOGETHER (#13) — Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler lead an all-star cast of comedic actors in this quirky parody of romantic comedies, filled with sharply clever moments and sublimely goofy gags, from the minds behind Wet Hot American Summer.
THE F WORD (#12) — The F Word covers familiar rom-com ground, so there are invariably bits that feel familiar. Ultimately, though, this irresistible meet-cute between Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan deserves mention alongside 500 Days of Summer and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist in conversations.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (#11) – The fifth Jack Ryan movie serves as a reboot for the CIA agent and is an incredibly tense, sleek thriller. Chris Pine comfortably steps into Baldwin’s, Ford’s, and Affleck’s old shoes. When the movie’s not throwing brisk action scenes at you, it’s ratcheting up its tension with a master’s skill.
10. THE LEGO MOVIE
What could have been a simple cash-in ended up being the first great movie of 2014. So many family movies nowadays either pander to children with insulting antics or are too busy being kinetic to attempt to be clever or funny, but The LEGO Movie has such an effortless power behind it, it’s a sheer joy to behold. The comedy is really funny, the animation is simple yet intricate, and the action careens from one random moment of genius to the next. It’s the type of movie that a kid could come up with, but in treating its whimsy with thoughtfulness, it also makes you feel like a kid again.
What The Avengers was for the Marvel Studios collective, this was to the X-Men franchise. Weaving together both the modern day mutant superheroes and the younger versions of those same characters (introduced in X-Men: First Class), it’s a movie for everyone that offers pretty much everything you could want. To boot, it’s also one of the best modern time-travel movies and the only X-Men sequel that requires no foreknowledge or backstory to appreciate its insular plot.
The trailers for Lucy promised a crazy, action-packed ride, but most audiences didn’t anticipate just how action-packed or just how crazy a ride Lucy would be. Scarlett Johansson plays a student who is kidnapped and forced to be a drug mule for an experimental, mind-expanding bag of drugs sewn into her stomach. When the bag begins leaking, Lucy begins accessing more and more of that 90% of the brain that a person doesn’t normally have access to. As the jaw-dropping craziness really ramps up in the final half-hour, the movie goes in directions you can’t expect, but you have to give Lucy full credit for following through on its premise to its logical and mind-bending conclusion.
Neighbors could have just been another National Lampoon’s Van Wilder or Old School, but sidesteps the tropes of frat movies by making itself not about a frat war at all but about young men subconsciously afraid of not being able to meet the expectations of adulthood. The performances from Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, and Dave Franco, as (respectively) new parents and frat brothers are hysterical, and the script isn’t afraid to go in unexpected directions – none of which would matter if Neighbors weren’t also one of the most outright hilarious comedies of the last year or two.
6. BAD WORDS
After decades of playing the straight man and the nice guy, Jason Bateman finally got to play an a–hole, and he made fantastic use of the opportunity. Bad Words is one of the most misanthropic comedies of the last decade, recalling the best parts of Bad Santa and About a Boy. Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a grown man competing in a national spelling bee against young children and being followed/sponsored by a reporter who’s desperate to find out why he’s intent on humiliating himself and competing children. The comedy is razor-sharp, the colour palette is wonderfully distinct, and the movie is stuffed with moments so shocking that you can’t help but laugh, even if you feel guilty about it.
5. LIFE ITSELF
As a Pulitzer-winning journalist, TV star, and world-renowned film critic alone, Roger Ebert lived a remarkable life. When you add in his inspiring battle with cancer over the last decade, it makes for a profound biopic. Directed by Steve James (the man behind Hoop Dreams), Life Itself looks back on Ebert’s whole life, from his tumultuous childhood to his rivalry with Gene Siskel. With complete access into Ebert’s life during the last six months of his life, James paints a portrait of a man who loved the transportive power of movies so much, he turned criticism into a legitimate art form and inspired the way everyone talks about movies.
One of the most talked-about movies of the summer, Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over the span of 12 years. Between the ages of 6 and 18, Ellar Coltrane shot scenes for the movie, aging a dozen years over the course of the film. As Mason, Coltrane fashions a wholly three-dimensional character at the center of this one-of-a-kind look at the long journey of growing up. Its concept alone left it open to becoming merely a well-made gimmick movie, but thanks to the unfathomable dedication of Linklater and actors Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater, Boyhood arrived a cinematic wonder.
3. CAPTAIN AMERICA:
THE WINTER SOLDIER
What a journey Captain America has made. His first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, remains the worst of the ten Marvel Studios movies. Conversely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier trumped The Avengers to set a new high-water mark for the entire Marvel franchise. It barely takes a single wrong step, from its thrilling opening sequence to its surprising ending, and moves at a really brisk pace. Each scene seems hard to top but is often soon dwarfed by the crazy turns of the plot and immense action sequences that follow. It sets the stage for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, leaves many tantalising teases about the third Captain America movie, and wonderfully continues the story established in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, while still working perfectly for anyone who goes into it blind to any previous Marvel movies.
2. UNDER THE SKIN
Scarlett Johansson is having a hell of a hot streak. In the last 12 months, she’s starred in Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy, and this atmospheric masterpiece. The minimal story is that of a nameless alien (clothed in the skin of a woman played by Johansson) who drives around Scotland, kidnapping young men and killing them. The plot sounds dumb, but it’s the telling that makes this story art. Under the Skin feels like what would have resulted from Stanley Kubrick being handed the script for Species. It’s the most intriguing, confusing, polarizing, aggravating, and hypnotizing film since 2012’s The Master; while it may not be for everyone, those who can appreciate its deliberate pace and sparse dialogue are in for an unforgettable journey.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is at once a typical Wes Anderson movie and also something much more. Taking place within a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave H., the concierge and unofficial manager of a majestic hotel lodged high in the mountains of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, in 1932. When he’s framed for a murder, he goes on the run with his faithful lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). Antics follow. The script is remarkably funny – perhaps more overtly so than anything Anderson has done to date – and the cast is the largest the director has assembled, almost serving as a reunion of sorts for his alumni. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful blend of visual art and loose comedy that seems like a natural evolution for Anderson while also proving to be a bridge between his hip audiences of fans and those who’ve never found his films to be accessible enough for mainstream tastes. As far as the remaining films of 2014 should be concerned, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the one to beat.