The Best Films of 2014

Top 10 of the Year

1. BirdmanAlejandro Iñárritu
2. The Grand Budapest HotelWes Anderson
3. WhiplashDamien Chazelle
4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceRoy Andersson
5. Mr. TurnerMike Leigh
6. Gone GirlDavid Fincher
7. BoyhoodRichard Linklater
8. MommyXavier Dolan
9. InterstellarChristopher Nolan
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAna Lily Amirpour

Best Film

Birdman. Alejandro Iñárritu’s Best Picture win is one of the few times the Academy has gotten it 100% right. Enough can’t be said about its darkly humorous, self-deprecating screenplay, drum solo score, and trio of brilliant performances (Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Ed Norton). As far as long take cinema goes, it earns its place among the finest displays of moving camerawork. It formally ties its daring style to its content, studying the unstable mind of an aged movie star making a comeback on Broadway, and when it does finally land a cut in the final act, it may be one of the most well-placed edits of the year.

Alejandro Iñárritu kicks off the first part of his one-two punch this decade with Birdman, featuring one of the finest long takes in the art form’s history as a vehicle into its intensive, darkly comical character study.

Most Underrated

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. #36 of the year on the 21st century TSPDT list is far too low for Roy Andersson’s bleakly absurdist gallery of cinematic paintings. This concludes his Living trilogy as a deadpan meditation on wealth, poverty, and our obsession with both. The first few tableaux show us a series of deaths in which material possessions seem to take priority, while the main running thread concerns two salesmen of novelty gag items. “We want to help people have fun,” they repeat in ironically expressionless tones, though what a sad state of affairs this world is in that these people are in charge of “fun.” Andersson’s lighting is deliberately flat and colourless, while his eye for composition is incredibly refined, creating frames and boxes around characters trapped in dull, repetitive lives.

Roy Andersson’s influences come more from painters than filmmakers, and yet he makes his gallery of deadpan tableaux into something cinematic with his rigorous formal construction.

Most Overrated

Goodbye to Language. The Jean-Luc Godard of the 21st century does not bear a whole lot of resemblance to the great director of the French New Wave. #2 of the year on the TSDPT list is far too high for this experimental essay, which doesn’t really come close to making the cut in the archives below. It is experimental to the point of being virtually formless, and much of it is just about the ugliest thing Godard has put to screen, minus maybe three shots. This was his effort to innovate 3D film technology, and though I appreciate the ambition, I don’t believe it really amounts to much in the end.

By the time Jean-Luc Godard’s career reached Goodbye to Language, the glory of his artistic innovation in the 1960s was well and truly gone.

Best Directorial Debut

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Ana Lily Amirpour’s Persian vampire film is a strange meld of Lynchian horror, acid western, and feminist grunge, while possessing the stripped back formality of a Jim Jarmusch film. Her expressionist lighting is impressive, and stands out even further in her black-and-white photography, cutting a sharp, sloping silhouette out of the hijab worn by the titular ‘Girl’. Through the streets of Bad City, she pursues and feeds on men, seeing Amirpour subvert several conventions at once while sinking us into the film’s dark, eerie ambience.

Ana Lily Amirpour sheds a dark ambience over her vampire fable, crafted delicately through her minimalist arrangement of compositions like these.

Gem to Spotlight

Two Days, One Night. This raw piece of neorealism from the Dardenne brothers can’t quite find a way into the year’s top 10, though its infusion of particularly high stakes into an otherwise mundane conceit finds excellent form in its storytelling. Marion Cotillard’s factory worker Sandra puts up a fight to keep her job, and over the course of the film she approaches her 16 co-workers, encouraging them to keep her on at the sacrifice of their own bonuses. What results is a fantastic theme-and-variation structure as the same request draws out different responses, each bringing depth to otherwise minor characters who are individually dealing with domestic violence, cultural ostracisation, immigration, financial hardships, second jobs – the list goes on. The Dardennes are committed realists, and Two Days, One Night just keeps piling on one stress after another in its social issues.

Two Days, One Night follows through on a formal pattern set in the opening minutes, leading factory worker Sandra down a path to hopefully winning back her job.

Best Male Performances

Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Michael Keaton in Birdman sit incredibly close together at the top. Fiennes is brilliantly funny as the sophisticated, polite, but occasionally potty-mouthed Monsieur Gustave, delivering one of the best purely comedic performances in decades. He would slot perfectly into an Ernst Lubitsch comedy of the 30s and 40s, maintaining that air of upper-crust civility whether he is pleasuring his hotel guests, swearing, or running from police. It is an unassumingly physical performance as well, playing perfectly to Wes Anderson’s visual gags and effectively becoming his finest character creation.

Keaton delivers a comedic performance of a different kind in Birdman, tempered with a heavier dose of cynicism, psychological instability, and morbidity. Like his character Riggan Thompson, this is his big comeback as an actor, trying to escape out from under the shadow of the superhero character he became known for decades ago. He is raw, angry, insecure, and his voiceover rattles around in his head, reminding him of his former success which he may never capture again.

The civilised, potty-mouthed Monsieur Gustave is Wes Anderson’s finest character creation, and Ralph Fiennes’ strongest performance to date. His gentle voice makes for some brilliantly incongruous line deliveries, and his upright posture opens up some wonderful physical gags.

A very small drop below those two performances, Timothy Spall fully inhabits the coarse figure of J.M.W. Turner, whose exquisite watercolours reveal a sensitivity not immediately obvious in his crude, grunting demeanour. J.K. Simmons’ and Miles Teller’s duelling performances as mentor and student in Whiplash holds up Damien Chazelle’s intense study of obsession and ambition, with Simmons especially revealing an incredible complexity to a character who by all means is an abusive villain.

Though he is not as fully dominant as Keaton in Birdman, Edward Norton is similarly playing to his image as an egotistic, difficult actor, making uncomfortable, impulsive decisions and riling up his co-stars. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s lonely antihero draws heavily on Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, though clearly possessing more self-awareness around his absolute moral corruption. He is thin, gaunt, and wide-eyed, like a hungry hyena preying on a victim.

In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey delivers the most emotional performance of any Christopher Nolan film, setting up huge personal stakes as a father seeing the time he could have spent with his children gradually slip away. Speaking of fathers, Ethan Hawke’s stamina is also showcased in Boyhood as Mason Evans Sr., developing his character across 12 years of his life, and Antoine Olivier Pilon delivers a volatile yet sensitive performance as the troubled son of Mommy.

Timothy Spall waddles, spits, and grunts his way to the list of 2014’s best performances, recognising painter J.M.W. Turner as a complex historical figure.

Best Female Performances

Emma Stone rounds out the trio of superb lead performances in Birdman as Michael Keaton’s estranged daughter, dealing with her own issues as a recovering drug addict, though often feeling second to her father’s ego. Next up, Anne Dorval plays the titular widowed figure of Mommy with guilt, fury, and an undeniable love for her unstable son, while Rosamund Pike is straight up chilling in Gone Girl. David Fincher’s mid-story twist would not work without her absolute commitment to the character’s deviousness.

Patricia Arquette stands right next to Ethan Hawke as one of the strongest actors in Boyhood, and Marion Cotillard lands as the fifth and final mention for this category for her work in Two Days, One Night. Her performance is pure, empathetic realism, visibly bearing the pressure to win her job back by the end of the weekend.

Emma Stone completely owns her savage monologue directed at Michael Keaton in Birdman, but she also claims the ambiguous final shot of the film with this wordless expression of wonder.

Best Cinematography: Birdman

1. BirdmanEmmanuel Lubezki
2. The Grand Budapest HotelRobert Yeoman
3. Mr. TurnerDick Pope
4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceIstvan Borbas, Gergely Palos
5. WhiplashSharone Meir
6. MommyAndre Turpin
7. InterstellarHoyte van Hoytema
8. Gone GirlJeff Cronenweth
9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightLyle Vincent
Even beyond its immersive moving camerawork, Emmanuel Lubezki still finds the time for brilliant lighting compositions and close-ups with his wide-angle lens in Birdman.

Best Editing: Whiplash

1. WhiplashTom Cross
2. The Grand Budapest HotelBarney Pilling
3. InterstellarLee Smith
4. Gone GirlKirk Baxter
5. MommyXavier Dolan
6. BoyhoodSandra Adair
7. NightcrawlerJohn Gilroy
8. A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAlex O’Flinn
Tom Cross is the greatest editor to make his debut in the 2010s, pairing with Damien Chazelle to unleash a musical onslaught of rhythmic montages in Whiplash.

Best Screenplay: Birdman

1. BirdmanAlejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bó
2. The Grand Budapest HotelWes Anderson
3. Gone GirlGillian Flynn
4. BoyhoodRichard Linklater
5. InterstellarJonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
6. WhiplashDamien Chazelle
7. NightcrawlerDan Gilroy
8. Two Days, One NightThe Dardenne Brothers
9. Ex MachinaAlex Garland
10. MommyXavier Dolan
11. CalvaryJohn Michael McDonagh
Iñárritu and his team of writers pick apart an ageing movie star’s ego with ferocious wit in Birdman, ringing the self-deprecating voiceover of the superhero he once played through his head.

Best Original Music Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel

1. The Grand Budapest HotelAlexandre Desplat
2. BirdmanAntonio Sánchez, Victor Hernandez Stumpfhauser
3. InterstellarHans Zimmer
4. Mr. TurnerGary Yershon
5. Gone GirlTrent Reznor, Atticus Ross
6. NightcrawlerJames Newtown Howard
7. Ex MachinaBen Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Alexandre Desplat was born to score Wes Anderson films, lightly touching his lush orchestrations with an air of whimsy and a vaguely Eastern European sound.

Year Breakdown

When you study the dominant cinematic choices in the 2010s, you have to note the trend of long takes and moving cameras. Alejandro Iñárritu may be the single greatest director working with these techniques, and Birdman is the first film you point to as the best example. Emmanuel Lubezki is absolutely essential here too as cinematographer. Although Nuevo Cine Mexicano has often been defined by the ‘Three Amigos’ of Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro, Lubezki’s input is invaluable, and is distinguished by this strong aesthetic. Birdman won Best Picture at the Oscars – but this is the second year in a row he won Best Cinematography, and the year after this, he would make it three.

Another 2010s trend which peaked in 2014 was the idiosyncratic use of changing aspect ratios. The most famous example of this is in The Grand Budapest Hotel where Wes Anderson defines each time period with this device, though Xavier Dolan turns it into an absolutely transcendent moment in Mommy as his main character physically pushes the edges of the screen out, expanding his world.

A small spurt of realism appears this year as well, most notably in Richard Linklater’s immense project Boyhood which spent a massive 12 years shooting, and finally comes to fruition here. The more modest yet still impressive achievement comes from the Dardenne Brothers, whose neorealist-inspired piece Two Days, One Night just barely misses out on the year’s top 10.

Xavier Dolan physically expands the aspect ratio of Mommy with a single push – hugely inspired filmmaking.

2014 also marks the year Roy Andersson would finish off his Living trilogy with a film that has my vote for the best title of all time, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. He works intermittently, but his deadpan galleries of absurd tableaux are always worth the wait. Andersson is easily one of the finest filmmakers to come out of Sweden, with the top slot obviously reserved for Ingmar Bergman.

In terms of new emerging auteurs, it is impossible to look past the breakthrough of Damien Chazelle with Whiplash. He was only 29 years old when he directed this, and already evidence of his genius is coming across with one of the decade’s best edited films and a thrilling study of obsessive ambition.

James Gunn won the 2014 box office with Guardians of the Galaxy, easily one of the better Marvel instalments out there and clearly the product of a director with his own creative ideas. It isn’t very often you can look at one of these big comic book movies and recognise the unique stamp of a filmmaker. David Fincher and Christopher Nolan also prove they can keep pulling in big numbers with thought-provoking thrillers and science-fiction films, and although it has been a while since Clint Eastwood has made a film on the level of Million Dollar Baby, the box office figures clearly indicate that audiences loved American Sniper.

Whiplash is the announcement of a major new talent – Damien Chazelle’s energetic style of whip pans, rhythmic montages, and ambient lighting is evident from the start.

Film Archives

A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAna Lily AmirpourHR
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceRoy AnderssonMS
American SniperClint EastwoodR
Big Hero 6Don Hall, Chris WilliamsR
BirdmanAlejandro IñárrituMP
BoyhoodRichard LinklaterMS
CalvaryJohn Michael McDonaghR
Ex MachinaAlex GarlandHR
FoxcatcherBennett MillerR
Gone GirlDavid FincherMS
Guardians of the GalaxyJames GunnR
How to Train Your Dragon 2Chris Sanders, Dean DeBloisR
Inherent VicePaul Thomas AndersonR
InterstellarChristopher NolanHR/MS
It FollowsDavid Robert MitchellR
John WickChad StahelskiR
Kingsman: The Secret ServiceMatthew VaughnR
MommyXavier DolanMS
Mr. TurnerMike LeighMS
NightcrawlerDan GilroyHR/MS
PaddingtonPaul KingR
SelmaAva DuVernayR
Still AliceRichard Glatzer, Wash WestmorelandR
The BabadookJennifer KentR
The Grand Budapest HotelWes AndersonMP
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesPeter JacksonR
The Imitation GameMorten TyldumR
The Theory of EverythingJames MarshR
Two Days, One NightThe Dardenne BrothersHR
What We Do in the ShadowsTaika WaititiR
WhiplashDamien ChazelleMS
How does a director like Christopher Nolan follow up his hugely successful blockbuster Inception and the final instalment of his Dark Knight trilogy? With more IMAX set pieces and another magnificently mind-bending narrative in Interstellar, perhaps his most emotionally-driven film yet.

4 thoughts on “The Best Films of 2014”

    1. Too right, thanks for pointing that out! I triple check all these year breakdown pages before they go up but every so often there are oversights like that. Fixed up that and Anne Dorval’s mention now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s