Of the top ten grossing films in this year’s box office, only one wasn’t a part of, or the start of, a series: Maleficent, a reimagined Sleeping Beauty told from the villain’s perspective. This October, just a few months after Maleficent‘s release, the CEO of Warner Brothers announced that over a dozen films based on DC Comics, Harry Potter and LEGO franchises were coming before the close of 2020. A few weeks later, the President of Marvel Studios also added another nine films based on the Marvel universe to the “Coming Soon” marquees leading up to 2020. This trend, decades old but recently more drastic, is outlined in more detail by Mark Harris of Grantland here; give it a read.
The point is, beautiful, well-financed films represent the lion’s share of financial cinematic success, but for the most part, none are wholly new. The following list forgoes the sequels, prequels, spin-offs and franchises to highlight the best of original screenplays, well-written adaptations, awe-inspiring performances and cinematic beauty of 2014. They’re listed in order of their US release date. Pop some corn, sit back and catch up on some potential Oscar winners before 2014 rolls over.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Best Vampire Movie: Jim Jarmusch gives a fresh take to vampires as he explores the centuries-old relationship of a couple in a way that casts vampires as the victims of immortality and boredom, and highlights their necessity for discretion (if they get arrested at night, or just hung up in traffic, they’ll be dead at sunup). Jarmusch’s attention to detail — the age of the character’s clothes, their struggles in everyday things — opens up their world, and lets us live comfortably in a movie where, admittedly, not all that much happens. If anything, the soundtrack is worth the viewing.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Style: A film about an eccentric concierge and his lobby boy in a vast hotel, once filled with as many different characters as rooms, is the perfect backdrop for Anderson to flex his artistic style. To Anderson fans, Grand Budapest is a refined combination of his best from prior films, while newbies will get his most accessible, and cameo-laden, offering. Whenever the dialogue gets tiring, the characters are whisked off on another adventure.
Under the Skin
Most Absorbing: We wrote on this film when it was first released, and months later it was still on our minds and at the top of our list. If it’s anything, the movie, which follows a semi-mute Johansson through throngs of unsuspecting, and sometimes truly unknowing, Scots, is polarizing. It’s ambitious and slow and set to a disturbing soundtrack. Love it or hate it, it’s completely distinct from Miller’s 2000 crime film Sexy Beast, but genius in its own way.
Best Foreign Language: Pawlikowski’s black-and-white film captures the aesthetic of 1962 and the biting cold of winter in Poland. Anna, played by Agata Trzebuchowska, is about to take her final vows in the convent where she was left as an orphan when she learns of a dark family secret. As it’s the single biggest event in her otherwise predictable life, and she is forced to investigate her past.
Best Coming of Age Film: Its sheer scope makes it a worthy experience. From 2002 until he wrapped production in 2014, Linklater reconvened his entire cast annually in Austin, TX for shooting. The film follows Mason as he ages from 5 to 18, both as a character and in real life, distilled down to 165 minutes. Despite becoming oily and then angsty, with no clean wrap at the end, the movie illuminates growing up in a way that no other film has.
Best Obsessive: Chazelle, whose directorial focus is squarely on music, expands on his short by the same name in a tension-filled exploration of the relationship between a first-year drummer at the best music conservatory in the country and his instructor. The become-the-best plot sets the movie up for a series of cliches, each one of which Chazelle side steps masterfully, producing an intimate film about what it takes to be one of the greats.
Best Thrill Ride: From the quick dialogue to Iñárritu’s camerawork, which he edits to appear as mostly one continuous take, Birdman is both as thrilling and exhausting as the subject it covers. At times the viewer can feel on the outside of an inside joke, but industry specific meta jokes (like Keaton, who is trying to make a comeback after he peaked with Batman, playing Riggan, who is trying to make a comeback after he peaked with Birdman) make for one of the most unique movie-watching experiences of the year, and a commentary on both the creators and their creations in entertainment.
Other Notable Films of 2014
Click any film for more information.
Best Documentary: In early 2013, Edward Snowden contacted Laura Poitras regarding what he believed to be provable privacy violations by the NSA. In May of the same year, Poitras flew to Hong Kong where she met Snowden along with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. She filmed the following interviews, which eventually led to a leak of classified documents often compared to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. These interviews make the basis for this documentary, outlining the threat to personal information in the digital age.
Best Ski Resort Saga: In the French Alps, a man takes time off from work in order to spend vacation with his family, but after the fear from an oncoming avalanche makes him instinctually flee his family, his marriage and manhood come into question. Force Majeure won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is the Swedish entry to the Oscar’s Foreign Film category.
Best Acting: Miller, who also directed Capote and Moneyball, orchestrates a deeply unsettling tone and pace for the story of multimillionaire John E. du Pont as he coaches olympic wrestler Mark Schultz. The story of desperation and mental illness creeps forward slowly until it consumes the audience in the film’s final moments, all riding on one of the best acting performance of the year by Steve Carrell.
Best Horror: Where the Babadook comes from, and what it is, is never truly revealed, though viewers can make their own judgements from a film that is so well crafted that it blurs the line between genres, despite being a horror movie, and a low budget one at that. Terrifying, yes — but don’t go expecting the gore, exorcists and overacting of other films in the genre.
Best Land Dispute: Leviathan follows the story of a man trying to hold onto his waterfront property on the coast of the Barents Sea as a thug mayor attempts to take it from him. The film explores bureaucracy, religion and corruption in post-Soviet Russia and managed to win Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, along with being nominated for the Palme d’Or award.
Best MLK Film: David Oyelowo, who rounded out 2014 with appearances in Interstellar and A Most Violent Year, plays Martin Luther King Jr. in this historical drama based on the three 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches that played a major role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The film is set for release on Christmas Day.
A Most Violent Year
Best New Year Release: Chandor, whose first feature film Margin Call quietly received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, takes a look back at New York in the winter of 1981, one of the city’s most violent years. The livelihoods of immigrants Abel and Anna Morales, played by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, are slowly threatened over the course of the film in a lead up to one of the best third acts in recent memory. The film is set for wide release on December 31.