If you've read Kicking the Seat for any length of time, you know that my tastes often don't align with majority critical consensus. My contarianism is a consequence of coincidence, and not a master plan to gain popularity through outrageous opinions. That's particularly true in my list of 2014's top films (presented here in semi-particular order).
As a critic with a family and a day-job, there are tons of movies I didn't get to see,* and some that I saw but didn't get a chance to review. This explains why A) some of the films have hyperlinks to lengthier write-ups, while others do not, and B) why a picture you might have loved is absent from the list (it's also possible that we simply don't agree--which is fine, too, and I welcome your feedback in the Comments section).
Below are the movies that moved me--through laughter, through tears, and/or through the delightfully unexpected expansion of consciousness that only this amazing art form can deliver.
14. Noah Yes, it's Russell Crowe as Noah, palling around with tree-monster angels. It's also Darren Aronofsky taking an agnostic look at the Biblical story of Earth's destruction and rebirth. Whether it tests your faith or your patience, this epic fantasy is a visual marvel with a lot on its mind.
13. The Raid 2: Berandal If nothing else, The Raid 2 gave me a solid argument against those who accuse critics of not being able to see films objectively through their own biases. I hated The Raid, and couldn't imagine sitting through a longer version of the same thing without digging my brains out through my eyes. Fortunately, Gareth Evans built upon his original's paper-thin premise to deliver the most viscerally satisfying and imaginative action film I saw this year.**
12. Wish I Was Here I would love to visit the parallel dimension in which Zach Braff's follow-up to Garden State hadn't been funded by Kickstarter donations. Not because I have a problem with Kickstarter, but because that became the lens through which nearly everyone viewed the movie. Accusations that the film is saccharine, calculated, and soft make for great copy--but there's simply no evidence that Braff's goofy yet moving story of a struggling actor dealing with one family crisis after another was anything but sincere.
11. The Theory of Everything By now, you're probably sick of hearing about Eddie Redmayne's incredible transformation into Stephen Hawking. The hype is more than warranted, but The Theory of Everything isn't a one-trick pony. James Marsh's biopic isn't really about who you think it is, and Felicity Jones sneaks in one of 2014's great understated performances.
10. They Came Together I've taken more heat this year for my recommendation of David Wain's rom-com spoof than for just about any picture I can recall (and that includes the fucking Ninja Turtles remake). No matter. Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter's loving yet viciously acute dissection of chick flicks brought the house down at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, and I literally hurt from laughing so hard.
9. Begin Again It's a damned shame that John Carney's follow-up to Once got lost in the shuffle this year. Mark Ruffalo shines as the alcoholic music producer who loses his faith, marriage, and career in one fell swoop. Keira Knightley helps him get his groove back. No, it doesn't end like you think it will. And I challenge you to shake "Lost Stars" from your head afterwards.
8. Calvary Brendan Gleeson is a widowed priest with an estranged daughter and seven days to live. Sold. That writer/director John Michael McDonagh uses a small Irish village as a microcosm for a fallen planet (indeed, the playground for an absentee God) is icing on the cake for one of the year's darkest, smartest, and most heartfelt films of the year.
7. Whiplash Damien Chazelle's mad jazz pic brings us the year's greatest clash of personalities in J.K. Simmons' perfectionist-asshole music teacher and Miles Teller's ambitious, not-quite-driven-enough student. Despite some minor story problems, Whiplash effectively conveys the lunatic power of creative obsession and doesn't let the audience go without getting its blood on the cymbals.
6. Under the Skin Scarlett Johansson's turn as an alien studying what makes us tick is one of the headiest, creepiest, and most seductive things I saw all year. Jonathan Glazer's surreal, sexy, and unflinching look at what makes us tick will unnerve you and change the way you look at Black Widow forever. A note to parents: nothing can prepare you for the beach scene. Nothing.
5. Only Lovers Left Alive It's an existentialism double-whammy on the Top 14 list. Only Lovers Left Alive looks at mortal love through the eyes of bored, ageless vampires living on the outskirts of Detroit. Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to turn a mopey undead duo into the catalyst for a life-affirming sensory overload of music, production design, and mesmerizing performances by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.
4. Chef Jon Favreau's movie about a gourmet chef reinventing his career with a food truck works as an honest look at the imperfect balance between creative drive and, well, everything else. The fact that it's also a metaphor for the writer/director's soul-crushing-yet-ultimately-redemptive journey through Hollywood makes it more delicious and layered than one the main character's signature Cubanos. Watch it a second time to get past the seemingly rushed, Disney ending (note, I said "seemingly").
3. Life Itself Steve James' exquisitely honest, all-access documentary follows late film critic Roger Ebert and his powerhouse wife, Chaz, through the final stages of cancer. There is sadness here, but Life Itself isn't a sad movie. It's the capper to a rich life of art appreciation, political activism, and personal demon-slaying that may change not only the way you look at movies but also life itself.
2. Boyhood To create Boyhood, writer/director Richard Linklater followed the same actors for twelve years as they navigated a fictional story about a kid growing up in Texas. Ambition in filmmaking is nice, but history tends to favor outcomes instead of notions. Fortunately, Boyhood delivers on every conceivable level. We watch a family fall apart and re-assemble in various, unexpected configurations; we see a boy become a man; we wonder at an insightful auteur whose ability to wrangle, shape, and distill makes conventional filmmaking look downright primitive.
1. Birdman It's easy to dismiss Birdman as this year's awards-season "gimmick movie": Alejandro Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki want us to believe that their story of Broadway dysfunction and midlife crisis was all shot in a continuous, two-hour take. They succeed spectacularly, in service of a story that cuts to the heart of every artist's journey--with detours into the nature of criticism and man's quest of relevance in a cosmos that has no idea what Twitter is. Michael Keaton leads a top-notch cast of performers who give it their all in a film bursting with ideas, insight, and visual and aural splendor. Even after seeing the film three times in two months, I still can't forgive Iñárritu for that final shot. But I suppose so thoroughly committed to examining life is allowed a smidgen of imperfection.
*Perhaps if I hadn't watched Birdman so many times, I could have made room for more worthy contenders. Sloppy, sloppy.
**In fairness, I still haven't seen John Wick, but I hear great things.