Growing up, and through teenage years, I saw maybe two movies a year, tops. My family wasn’t too crazy about most movies, and half the movies we wanted to see, we missed because they were out of the theatre in a week. But in college I got a stint writing reviews for the Rice newspaper, and now my friend Lindsay is aiding, abetting, and deepening my movie habit by insisting we go watch everything.
So here’s part I of my ranking of every 2014 movie I saw. Part II will have my top 10 and my personal choices for the Oscars, disregarding whether or not they actually got nominated.
Three prefatory notes.
1. 2014 was an amazing, amazing year for movies. There are 15+ very good movies on this list, and at least 4 new personal favorites. How crazy is that?
2. Noteworthy movies I did not see: American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Under the Skin, Mr. Turner
3. If something’s on Netflix, I’ll tell you.
The Bad Movies
26. The Imitation Game. Imagine The King’s Speech without the fun lively performance of the speech teacher, or the inspirational uplift, or the awesome soundtrack, and you pretty much have The Imitation Game. It’s a long, slow, boring movie where Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Sherlock but with a different hair cut and more pronounced autism, deals with corny made-up Hollywood villains who want to stop him, corny made-up Hollywood surprise twist traitors, a corny Hollywood Token Female Character, corny Hollywood montage sequences, corny Hollywood CGI battle scenes, and corny Hollywood dialogue. The whole plot is Turing telling his life story to a police officer for literally no reason, thereby betraying state secrets and committing treason. And it’s all buried in the dull, lifeless directing by Morten “Tedium” Tyldum.
To give you an idea how bad The Imitation Game is, consider two facts. One: the real Alan Turing’s cryptography unit employed four women, and the Bletchley Park camp was staffed 75-80% by women. Here, all the ladies are represented by Keira Knightley. 3 of the 27 credited cast members are female, so there are fewer women in this entire movie than there were in Turing’s actual group.
Second fact: there is a line of dialogue that goes, “Sometimes the people no one imagines anything of, do the things no one can imagine.” Corny, right? Clunky and awkward, right? Obvious, shameless attempt to coin a stupid inspirational phrase, right? It gets said in the movie three times. By three people. Including a teenager who dies tragically. And it’s the last line of the movie. Ugh. That stupid cornball nonsense is way more offensive than the fact that they made up almost every part of the plot and Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing is wildly inaccurate.
25. The Theory of Everything. Boy, was it a bad year for Prestigious British Biography Movies About Famous 20th Century Scientists with Tragic Personal Lives. The Theory of Everything is in three parts. Part I, which lasts 25 minutes, is about Stephen Hawking before he was afflicted with ALS, and it’s legitimately good. It’s bubbly, funny, avoids cliches, and balances Hawking’s personal and professional lives well. The soundtrack is good: when Hawking stumbles and passes out, the first major clue to his disorder, there’s a fantastic Philip Glass pastiche playing.
But as soon as the doctor hands down the diagnosis, it’s on to Part II, which lasts a half-hour. This is the part where everybody is super sad about Stephen Hawking having ALS. The movie slows down a lot, with lots of lingering scenes of actor Eddie Redmayne twitching, sliding down stairs, or desperately trying to speak. And Hawking’s wife, played by Felicity Jones, keeps asking him questions about if he believes in God. There are only a handful of scenes about science, which usually fill this template:
Hawking: [sentence summarizing a theory]
Other scientists: He’s done it! Hooray!
Part III begins at exactly the 1-hour mark and lasts for the rest of the movie. This is the part where The Theory of Everything unexpectedly turns to crap. First we get Felicity Jones meeting her future second husband, in a sequence that’s 10 minutes long. (Why? Don’t ask me.) He’s so boring he takes away from her extraordinary performance. By the end, the movie’s gone sappy, as Jones interrupts Husband #2 while he plays new-age music at the piano (which, of course, keeps playing after he pauses to make out, because it’s also the soundtrack). And then the director, who’d done such a great job with the first 20 minutes, reminds us of that by literally rewinding the entire movie. Why? Don’t ask me.
Redmayne gives a pretty great performance, but Jones is better, and her role is harder. Why did I rank this movie higher than The Imitation Game? Because Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are better actors, and given better-written characters, than Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. Because the plot is told straightforwardly. Because Stephen Hawking’s atheism and sexuality are more openly discussed than Alan Turing’s. And because Theory of Everything manages to avoid sappy cliches for most of its length, while Imitation Game relies on them constantly.
The Not Very Good Movies
24. Big Eyes. Christoph Waltz stars in a slapstick comedy where he plays a gleeful, shameless con artist. Amy Adams stars in a dour drama where she gets emotionally abused by a lying, thieving husband. Big Eyes is clever, but it can’t get over the fact that Waltz is giving an attention-hogging comedy performance in a movie that is supposed to be about his primary victim (Adams’ character). Director Tim Burton just finds the con artist more interesting than everyone else, so Adams sits around moping and painting more godawful paintings. At least the movie is honest about her paintings being bad.
23. Muppets Most Wanted. I saw this on an airplane, and honestly I don’t remember anything about it. There was Tina Fey doing a Russian accent, and I think Ricky Gervais played a bad guy named “Bad Guy”. And the Muppets were there. But that’s it. What else happened? What were some cool jokes? I have no idea.
The Good Movies with Major Flaws
22. Chef. A charming, forgettable, fun movie where a chef (Jon Favreau) opens a food truck and becomes a sensation. Ignore the wildly implausible plot and focus on how fun it is to watch on a late night with a drink or two. Enjoy the copious cameos: Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Oliver Platt aren’t enough? How about Dustin Hoffman and Robert Downey Jr.? Enjoy the pornographic scenes of cooking and glorious food. Enjoy the way it ends happily for everybody. It’s on Netflix!
21. Guardians of the Galaxy. Guardians of the Galaxy is fairly fun. The first sequence seems way too “deep” for a comic book movie, but then Chris Pratt dances across an alien landscape to a mixtape on a cassette. A cassette. The soundtrack, by the way, is terrific.
Listen: I hate superhero movies. Here is how they all work:
1. Everybody has weapons that can do anything.
2. When one of the weapons fails, they pull out another that does some other cool, ridiculous thing.
3. If the situation gets desperate, their suit/spaceship/weapon has a surprise new special feature that saves the day.
4. The bad guy is vaguely power-hungry and always loses.
Guardians’ bad guy is its weakness, because as funny as the heroes are (a talking raccoon inventor! a tree!), the bad guys are blatant rip-offs of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. They conspire to blow up a planet, fake Vader growls in a low voice, fake Palpatine wears a hood, and the two even communicate with each other via projected images.
20. Gone Girl. Now, look. This is a really good movie. It’s really very good. Do you see what an awesome year 2014 was for movies? Because Gone Girl is incredibly accomplished and tense and scary and weird and creepy. The ending is creepy in the extreme. A certain scene involving Neil Patrick Harris is so crazy you’ll never forget it.
But to me it was just a thriller. Some critics out there are talking about how profound it is, but that didn’t really reach me. And other people seemed to like the performances more than I did; Rosamund Pike is alarming and unhinged, but her English accent doesn’t stay hidden. Also, if anybody asks, I’ll tell you how they could solve the crime after the movie ends.
19. Nightcrawler. Similar situation: really very good thriller movie, super creepy, terrifying. Two things made me choose Nightcrawler over Gone Girl: Jake Gyllenhaal’s lead performance, which completely changed how I think of him as an actor, and the spectacular cinematography by Robert Elswit. Gyllenhaal is the scariest and most disgusting villain of the year; after the movie I felt like I needed to take a shower. (It’s very, very hard to believe that Rene Russo’s character would put up with him.)
The climactic chase scene is better, more powerful, and scarier than you’re expecting. Riz Ahmed should become famous on the strength of his turn as Gyllenhaal’s sidekick and unwanted conscience. And oh gosh, the camera work. The nighttime shots of Los Angeles’s dark backside make bail bonds joints and used car lots look like spectacular, lurid paintings.
18. The Interview. Hey, I know you’ve heard this movie sucks. Everyone went around saying, “It’s stupid, it’s dumb.” Yeah, it’s dumb. Know what you should do? Have two or three drinks, open another one, and then start watching. It’s fun! It’s funny! You’ll have a good time! James Franco makes a brilliant talk-show-host moron, but the North Koreans steal the movie. I’m convinced Rogen and Franco made this movie as an excuse to turn Randall Park (the genius playing Kim Jong-un) into a comedy superstar. It’s on Netflix!
Pretty Good, but Maybe Not Favorite, Movies
17. Ida. A slow, powerful black-and-white movie in Polish. There, I just convinced half of you not to watch it! But if you do, you’ll be rewarded with a simple, tragic story about a young girl in a convent who discovers her parents were victims of the Holocaust. She sets out to learn more about them and find their graves. Agata Kulesza gives a heroic performance as the girl’s conflicted aunt.
A word about the black-and-white: some movies are in black-and-white because the filmmakers just felt like it for some reason. (Example: the fairly bad 2013 movie Nebraska.) Some movies are black-and-white because they need to be. Ida needs to be. And every visual is beautiful in a way that it just would not be if you were seeing it in color. That’s quite an achievement. The whole movie is, really. And we’re only at #16. It’s on Netflix!
16. The Lego Movie. Speaking of achievements, how about taking a giant product placement for a children’s toy and turning it into a clever, funny, cliche-busting, surprisingly affecting movie? Phil Lord and Chris Miller specialize in turning bad ideas into good movies, and this is more proof. Evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) controls people by making them “follow the instructions” and enjoy mindless entertainment, like a sitcom called “Where Are My Pants?” which seems like it should already be running on CBS. And, as in The Naked Gun, only a complete idiot (Chris Pratt) can stop him.
There’s not much to the movie, it suffers from So Many Famous Actors That None of Them Really Gets Enough Airtime Syndrome, and there’s a weird religious vibe to a scene where Morgan Freeman warns Pratt about “the Man Upstairs” who lives in the sky. But then you meet the Man Upstairs, and it’s a beautiful twist which makes the movie more than merely charming.
15. Snowpiercer. Last year, there was a science fiction movie called Elysium where global warming has created a massively unequal society of the wealthy, sheltered from climate change’s effects, and everybody else, who live in ghettos and bear the brunt of the change. Matt Damon, a hero from the lowly slums, fights, shoots, and punches his way to the top. Snowpiercer is also a movie where all those things happen, but with Chris Evans instead of Matt Damon, and everything takes place on a train, not a spaceship.
Snowpiercer is the better movie, by far, but it has similar strengths and weaknesses. The atmosphere is good, the world created is compelling, and the action is frequently spellbinding (the scene with the torches: my goodness). There’s a delightful weird interlude where the violence stops so that we can see the slimy propaganda of the train’s classroom. Tilda Swinton is one of two amazing villains, in an electric performance through fake teeth and thick glasses. Just don’t think too hard about how the train works (where are they getting steak? where are the teenagers?), or about the ending, which thinks it’s hopeful, even though humanity is decisively doomed. I actually like how bleak and hopeless the end is–extinction is just more realistic in this movie than survival. But the filmmakers might have been going for hopeful, and if that’s the case, they missed. It’s on Netflix!
14. The Homesman. Wow. I’m amazed this is only at #14. The Homesman is the third-most underrated movie of 2014. How on earth did a feminist western get swept under the rug? Hilary Swank is the title character, a responsible single landowner in the west who gets saddled with an unpleasant task. Tommy Lee Jones is the old buffoon she recruits to help. The ending is a major downer, but it’s a smart, emotional story with great writing, great direction (by Jones), a Meryl Streep cameo, and the single biggest plot twist of 2014. Do not look at summaries of this movie. When the twist hits, it really feels like you’re in a car that just drove off a cliff. Lindsay and I stared at each other in shock.
13. Still Alice. Julianne Moore gets early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 50, and it is so aggressive in its spread that she’s more or less lost to the world within a year. The girl in front of us at the theatre walked out saying, “I didn’t think it was going to be sad.” Huh?!? It’s an Alzheimer’s movie. What did you expect?!?!
Moore’s performance is the heart and soul of the movie, and, once you adjust to the fact that her Alzheimer’s is progressing very rapidly, it’s a very true, honest portrayal. It’s heartbreaking. And personal, for me, because I saw all these stages in my grandmother. The movie was like seeing all that again, but more eloquent, better-scripted, and with way more expensive product placement. (My grandma didn’t use iPhones or eat at Pinkberry. In fact, the family in this movie is insanely rich. Not every Alzheimer’s patient withers away at their beach house.) There’s a scene where Moore gives a speech which will make you cry. If only Moore’s kid hadn’t been played by Kristen Stewart.
By the way, co-director Richard Glatzer has been living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease / Stephen Hawking’s disease) for several years. He can’t speak.
12. The Immigrant. The second-most underrated movie of 2014. When I saw it, about 12 months ago, I didn’t expect to see more than one or two better movies all year. The Immigrant is heavy and depressing, to be sure: Marion Cotillard is a hopeless girl off the boat at Ellis Island, a century ago, who gets taken in by the sleazy, violent pimp Joaquin Phoenix. For the rest of the movie, she tries to escape prostitution. It’s grim. The two old ladies in my theatre hated it.
But there’s great stuff here: three heroic performances (including Jeremy Renner as a charming love interest), spectacular cinematography, and the ending. Oh, that ending. Phoenix and Cotillard go at it in a volcanic fight, some of the best acting of the year, and then the final shot… I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that the final shot is the most perfect visual in any movie, all year, literally framing the two main characters’ futures. It took my breath away (in real life, not in metaphor). The movie’s on Netflix!
11. Birdman. This is all about actors. Michael Keaton plays an actor trying to stage a play, but that’s not what I mean. I mean it’s all about the amazing performances by Keaton, Edward Norton as an egomaniacal asshole costar, Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter, and Naomi Watts as another costar. As distracting as the pretentious, overly symbolic script can get, and as much as I got put off by the look-at-this-isn’t-it-super-profound ending, this movie is worth it for the great performances. And the rehearsal scenes between Keaton and Norton, where so many sparks fly it’s like the place is burning down. And the kinetic all-percussion soundtrack. Keaton’s character’s interior monologue is a cuttingly accurate portrayal of artistic self-doubt (trust me). But if I’d been directing, I’d have lost the last 30 seconds, and the random shots of jellyfish.
Part II coming soon! Featuring my top ten, including four great comedies, Channing Tatum, a trip to space, a trip to Belgium, and a trip on drugs.