2014 has been an interesting year at the movies. The overall box-office was down, but the number of films being released continues to go up. Summer blockbusters continue to underperform in the States – though they remain successful worldwide. But one of the biggest stories in the year of movies is the rise of VOD.
No longer the internet iteration of direct-to-video trash, some of the best films of year either debuted or were available on VOD within weeks of their theatrical release. This has made it somewhat complicated for reviewers who can’t review every single feature film released. Seriously, I saw over 250 films this year, and there are more than 350 film eligible for best picture. That’s why the yearly wrap-up is great time to reflect, and give some sincere recommendations. While there are plenty of major film releases, both prestige and blockbuster alike, there were some
remarkable features which might have flown under your radar. So if you’re looking for a movie to watch on a plane, train or automobile (not if you’re driving) this holiday season – or you just need something to distract you from a crazy dysfunctional family – you have some terrific movies from this year to catch up on!
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Gugu Mbatha-Raw is having a break-out year with her two starring roles in
Belle and Beyond the Lights. In this piece of overlooked English history, the film tells the story Dido Elizabeth Belle, a member of the royal family born of mixed race. The story is no Cinderella experience, but focuses on the important role a woman of color played in bringing a major case to court to end the slave trade. The lush costumes and cinematography are superior, as is a cast which, along with Mbatha-Raw, includes Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, and Matthew Goode.
Considering the glut of superhero movies this year, both good and bad, you might have missed one. The micro-budgeted superhero period noir
Sparks stars Chase Williamson ( John Dies at the End) and Ashley Bell ( The Last Exorcism) as crime fighters torn apart by a super villain. Our hero Sparks goes down the dark path of crime, prostitutes, and suicide. Directed by the comic book creator, the movie mixes '30s studio filmmaking with comic book aesthetics. Plus, it features Clancy Brown as a depression-era cop with a machine gun.
Despite being one of the best parts of the movie, Michael Fassbender's bobble-head-wearing musician is not the lead in this dramedy about a band. Domhnall Gleeson (also in this year's
Calvary and Unbroken) is the ideal lead as a pop musician who joins the band led by Fassbender's Frank, who considers him a protégé. As they begin to have some success, Gleeson's character questions if success is worth his sanity and when eccentric genius becomes mental illness. At times the film plays like a kinder, gentler narrative version of the documentary Dig!, and features some really great music performed by the cast.
It is relatively rare for horror movies today to get high praise from critics, but it is even less common for a horror film to become one of the best-reviewed films of the year. The Australian export from director Jennifer Kent addresses the unspoken idea that a mother can have resentment towards their children, and terror that a mother would be compelled to hurt her own child. Essie Davis is brilliant as the mother, as is newcomer Noah Wiseman, with Kent creating a world of haunted houses and monsters which will give audiences nightmares.
Brendan Gleeson is considered a national treasure in Ireland, and this is the perfect example of why. A good hearted, respected priest is told in the first minutes of the film that he will be killed by an unknown man in confession because of abuse they suffered as a child. Gleeson is slowly tortured by the unknown individual, while Gleeson tries to put his affairs in order, which includes a daughter from an earlier marriage, and his responsibilities to his small, troubled flock. Despite the pitch-black premise, Gleeson plays his character as a complex man with a good heart, and writer-director John Michael McDonagh infuses a surprising amount of humor.
The One I Love
Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass play a couple sent on couples' retreat to do a bit of relationship mending. Instead of finding another couple or complete togetherness, they find themselves in the presence of their identicals. Basically, the movie feels like a feature length rom-com version of a
Twilight Zone episode, which goes from hilarious to a profound look at how men and women approach relationships. Duplass is proving his worth as a leading man, and Elizabeth Moss continues to prove she is one of the best actresses of her generation.
The Skeleton Twins
SNL alumni Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader leave their comedic styling behind as two depressed twins, and they're great at playing emotional despair. After a suicide attempt, Hader moves in with Wiig after ten years apart. Wiig and Hader are both remarkable in their abilities to play the drama with such ease, and the movie continues Luke Wilson's post- Enlightened comeback as Wiig's husband, so eager to please that Hader describes him as a golden retriever.
Considering how much press this film received, the lackluster response this movie got and how quickly it disappeared is a little baffling. Especially because it is a pretty well-made TV-to-film adaptation. Kristen Bell is once again perfect as Mars, as are all the actors who return to the TV roles, especially former recurring actress Krysten Ritter. It's more than satisfying in the way they wrapped up Veronica and Logan's storyline after the bummer of an ending that relationship got in the series. And Rob Thomas, saddled with the limitations created by the television series, does a remarkably good job at making the film visually cinematic and narrative stand out, while calling back to what the fans know and love.
It really bummed me out that Michelle Monaghan's performance in
Fort Bliss has been completely left out of awards consideration. She is a very good actress who happens to be exceptional as a mother who returns from serving in the army as a medic who has almost no relationship with her young son. Claudia Myers' film is one of the few films this year which looks at the price a family pays during modern war.
Beside Still Waters
We had two
Big Chill-esque films this year, the underwhelming About Alex (which gets a bit too meta with the Big Chill references), and this directorial debut by Chris Lowell. Agreeing to help pack up the house of his parents, Daniel (Ryan Eggold) uses a weekend with friends for heavy drinking and attempt to win back the ex-girlfriend (Britt Lower) who showed up with her new boyfriend (Reid Scott). Lowell proves to be a strong director, and his use of passive aggressive rage from characters (especially SNL's Beck Bennett) you've known since childhood (and might not like that much) is a wise way telling a story which otherwise could have felt a bit too familiar.
It was the abortion rom-com that won audiences over this year. The smart, progressive movie stars hilarious Jenny Slate as Donna, a messed up part-time bookshop worker and stand-up, who drowns her sorrows over a break-up with alcohol and sex with a likable young man (Jake Lacey). The one-night stand results in a pregnancy, and Donna decides to have an abortion. The abortion storyline is certainly progressive, but the really winning aspect of the film is the romance between Lacey and Slate and scenes with her too real parents, Polly Draper and Richard Kind.
Gillian Jacobs and Leighton Meester play co-dependent best friends whose friendship hits a fork in the road when Jacobs falls in love with Adam Brody. While Jacobs moves in and gets engaged, Meester's character is left alone to cope with a job she hates, losing her artistic ambition, and go nowhere relationships. And while Meester's character is gay, the film is universal regardless of sexual orientation. The film addresses the way friendships change when romance intrudes, and features one of the best lines by Meester on why it hurts so much to feel replaceable.
The Good Lie
I really think audiences were turned off by this film's marketing campaign, which made it seem as if Reese Witherspoon was the lead in the film. She is not, and while her role is important (as is Corey Stoll's), the movie really is about the Sudanese refugees (Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jai) who struggle to build a new life in America. While all three boys play large parts, and Kuoth Wiel in a smaller role as their sister Abital, Oceng is really remarkable as the film's guilt-ridden lead Mamere.
A Coffee in Berlin
This German film is about Niko (Tom Schilling), who leaves law school but doesn't tell his paying father, and spends the day in search of caffeine. The movie is certainly light, but it is also a really well written, dialogue-driven comedy-drama about aimless, seeking youth with endless possibilities, and danger of being nothing more than a passive part of the world.
Alan Patridge: Alpha Dog
Steve Coogan brings his long running host character Alan Patridge to the big screen in a parody about talk radio. Obnoxious, fame-hungry Alan Patridge talks the bosses into firing fellow host Pat Farrell during downsizing. Pat, in turn, reacts to his cancelation by taking the radio station hostage. Patridge is sent back into the radio station when the police negotiator needs his help, and makes Pat believe he is working with him. Coogan is fabulous as the ridiculous Patridge, with criminally-underrated Colm Meaney as Pat, the perfect scene partner. If nothing else, watch this movie for Coogan's lip syncing opening sequence and his impersonation of "action hero" running at the end.
One of the biggest crowd pleasers of the year, focusing on a small part of the LGBT community which came to the assistance of small town miners in Wales. Crowd-pleasing doesn’t have to equal simplistic views, and in fact this movie takes a far more nuanced view of how two seemingly-different communities can come together and change opinions. Boasting a pretty great cast of veterans and unknowns and telling a forgotten but important part of history (which is more important now than ever) the movie is a smart, multi-generational underdog story.
We Are The Best
Three girls identify with punks, but don’t yet have a strong idea of political and social unrest. Instead, they write songs about hating gym, cause problems at fast food restaurants, and reject junior high cliques. But they also want the freedom to misbehave at the time when boys are allowed to get into the same kind of mischief attributed to “boys will be boys.”
God Help The Girl
Another film which is both whimsical and deep, "Belle and Sebastian" frontman Stuart Murdoch adopted his album into a narrative cinematic musical. And using '60s girl group-inspired sounds, he tells the story of Eve (Emily Browning) a clinically depressed girl who finds her best friends and band in the form of life-guard musician James (Olly Alexander) and free-spirit Cassie (Hannah Murray). Despite being a bit precious in its '60s pop/folk cinematic influences, the film’s take on how mental illness effects the artist is insightful, and makes the final act an emotional gut-punch.
Michel Gondry's whimsical cinema is occasionally mistaken for something lightweight or insignificant. Truth is, it would be hard to find a director more in touch with emotions than the sensitive Gondry. In a dual romantic drama, a passionate affair turns sour at the same time that a cool, composed man resistant to romance falls in love and marries a woman who becomes fatally ill. Gondry doesn't hold back with his visuals, but they all inform audiences about the characters and their emotional state of mind, and actress Audrey Tautou seems created to be a Gondry muse.
The Pretty One
A romantic fable, Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson might be the cutest couple of the year in this movie about a wallflower coping with the death of her twin sister. Taking her sister's identity, home, and job (yes, it is a whimsical comedy) she meets the hipster neighbor her sister used to consider a loser, and falls head over heels. A fresh, beautiful look at the bigger question of female identity, Kazan is brilliant in the dual roles and Johnson is at his relaxed best as the first man to truly see her as something special.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
A hit in Taiwan, this whimsical drama about two couples is a surprisingly heartfelt story. On the eve of his sister's wedding, a man (Richie Jen) questions his marriage to an office worker (Mavis Fan), after having his closed feelings towards men he explored as a young man reignited by a friendly flight attendant. Utilizing comedy, fantasy, and even musical sequences, writer-director Arvin Chen avoid mocking his character’s sexual uncertainty, and shows his to have a capacity for forgiveness and acceptance which we rarely see in movies about extramarital affairs.
Listen Up Philip
If Jason Schwartzman's Max from
Rushmore grew up, he might become someone like pompous Philip, a novelist incapable of suffering fools gladly. Unfortunately, he looks at just about everyone he knows as fools, including his once-devoted girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss). Philip's behavior only gets worst when he befriends an older, anti-social writer (Jonathan Pryce). The movie was criticized (unfairly) for being misogynistic because of the way Philip treats women, despite being one of the more feminist takes on romance, particularly with Elizabeth Moss who goes through seven stages of grief during the break-up and proves to be a stronger, more confident woman for it.
The Happy Christmas
It's interesting that this indie Christmas movie was released in the spring of this year, despite being one of the more emotional modern takes on the classic dysfunctional family movie. Anna Kendrick plays the partying younger sister of writer-director Joe Swanberg's character, who sees his sister clash and bond with his wife Melanie Lynskey. Swanberg's follow-up to last year's Drinking Buddies is a similar spin on classic movie troupes, this time the family reunion, and features a useful secret weapon... Swanberg's hilariously charismatic baby son Jude.
Arguably the game changer in the VOD distribution model this year, Bong Joon Ho's fantasy/sci-fi social satire features some of the best action and production design of the year, and brilliant international cast. The Weinstein Company was publicly criticized for asking director Bong to edit the movie, before dropping it down to sister company Radius-TWC. Turned out to be a good choice, and the film is still one of the best reviewed films of the year, and landing on a number of best of critics’ lists and awards.
A cinematic take on the proverb "the sins of the father will be visited upon the children," this brutal prison drama from the UK is also the best father-son drama of the year. Jack O'Connell plays Eric Love, a juvenile placed in adult lock-up, where he comes face to face with the father (Ben Mendelsohn, my personal choice for best supporting actor) he hasn't seen since childhood. After a particularly violent encounter with a fellow inmate on his first day, Eric meets a good-hearted therapist (Rupert Friend) who believes he can be rehabilitated. I have no problem saying the 20-minute climax of this film is one of the most riveting sequences I've ever seen in a film. Warning that this isn't only a violent film, but it can also be hard to understand with so much British prison slang (the film's PR team gave critics a slang cheat sheet for review).
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Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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