A-List: Top Ten Movies of 2014
By J. Don Birnam
January 22, 2015
Over 330 movies were eligible for an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 2014, and more than 1,000 were reviewed by major newspapers in that same time span. What are some of the best movies in 2014? I will share my list of favorites with the obvious caveats. To say that anyone can pick the “best” among such a vast, diverse body of work is by definition oxymoronic - not just because most people who make these lists, myself included, have only seen a fraction of the films - but simply because, as we have learned following the Oscars, the definition of “best” is entirely arbitrary and subjective.
I have seen approximately one quarter (83 to be precise) of the Oscar eligible movies. Of the 1,000 or so reviewed by the New York Times, by contrast, I saw approximately 91 - the difference being that some movies released in film festivals were not eligible for Academy Awards in 2014 (David Cronenbergs’s Maps to the Stars, would have otherwise made my list).
Two general observations emerged as I put together the list (which, for the first time allows 10 instead of five movies). First is that the narrative surrounding 2014 in film, that it is a “weak” year, is not necessarily correct. Few movies this year have engendered the strong, adulating passions that movies in the past have caused. But the selection of good movies is varied and I would recommend a solid half of the 83 to any film fan. The good movies are out there. You just have to look. Indeed, I struggled mightily to narrow this down to ten.
The second observation is that the themes of 2014 movies are much more varied than the Academy Award nominations would lead you to think. The Best Picture nominees include a somewhat unidimensional and predictable field. Men lead all eight nominees. You have your troubled geniuses saving the world (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game), or just good old fashioned American heroes (Selma, American Sniper - although the former features the only non-white lead in the group), or the struggling but lovable and quirky artists (Birdman, Whiplash), or simply the good, cool guys you want to hang out with (Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel). These respectable movies do not capture the entirety of the world in 2014 like some other movies did brilliantly. Here are some of them.
Many movies in 2014 included smart social commentary - many of them about the media and our perverse relationship with it. Nightcrawler takes it to a disturbing level (the presence of the movie Network is felt persistently). Featuring career-reviving performances by Renne Russo and a devastated Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is chilly, disturbing, dark, and gripping. It’s a horror story not simply because of the horrific acts that the lead character commits, but because of the horrifically high probability that acts like these - which our media and smut obsessed society condones and encourages - occur in the real world.