Angie's Top 10 Films Of 2014

In box office terms, 2014 wasn't a huge year for film. But in creative terms, it's hard to fault this year's crop. It contained at least one once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece, not to mention one of the greatest horror movies in years, several big-budget franchise-builders that soared way past expectations, and some completely out-of-nowhere gems.

As the year winds to a close, I've taken a moment to look back at some highlights. As usual, this shouldn't be considered an objective list of the year's best film, but an entirely subjective list of favorites. Run down my top 10 films of 2014 with me after the jump.

The Runners-Up

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The sole reason Only Lovers Left Alive didn't make my top 10 this year was that it made my top 10 last year, after I caught it at the New York Film Festival. Jim Jarmusch's vampire hangout movie is still one of the best things I've seen in the past few years — funny and moving, wholly original and unimpeachably cool.

Frank

Frank was a creative endeavor about the pitfalls of creative endeavors. It shot down the usual Hollywood myths about fame, artistry, and mental illness, and had great fun doing it. Michael Fassbender was nearly unrecognizable as the titular Frank, and not just because his handsome mug was hidden under a giant papier-mâché head.

Captain America The Winter Soldier

Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier illustrated the best and worst aspects of the Marvel formula. The two films were wildly different, but both offered that special mix of heart, humor, intelligence, and personality that we've come to expect from the studio. It's just too bad that boring villains, an unwillingness to kill off characters, and a CG-heavy action sequence over a major metropolitan area are also part of the familiar Marvel formula.

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Jake Gyllenhaal gave perhaps the most indelible performance of the year in Nightcrawler. For that alone, this film stood out. But it also featured excellent supporting performances by Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed, impressive action sequences, and an overall sense of queasiness that stuck with me for days.

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls was Laika at its best, not that we've seen the young animation studio any other way. Its hand-crafted details felt special in a pop culture landscape littered with slick CG surfaces. It's also smarter than your average kids' entertainment, offering nuanced lessons about villainy and courage among all the cutesy cheese puns.

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10. Selma

Selma took the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches out of the realm of history-book mythology and made it vital and human-sized again. That's not to say she minimized its importance. To the contrary, Ava DuVernay's decision to trade dutiful respectfulness for on-the-ground immediacy only served to underline how great an achievement those marches really were, how dear a price was paid for them, and how relevant their triumphs and lessons still are today.

Her Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) is a great man but a man nonetheless. His actions, and the actions of the people around him, aren't treated as foregone conclusions but as difficult decisions reached after much doubt, argument, and prayer. Selma got an extra boost of relevancy thanks to the real-life protests sweeping the nation over racialized police brutality, but it was DuVernay who made it feel every bit as urgent as those protests.

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9. Birdman

Birdman isn't subtle about its themes or its cinematic accomplishments. It's a show-off-y movie — but then, a film this dazzling deserves to show off. The single-shot illusion makes Birdman seem simultaneously intimate and expansive, as does the tour-de-force performance by Michael Keaton. Meanwhile, the percussive soundtrack keeps Birdman flapping to a restless beat.

Though Birdman centers around Riggan Thomson (Keaton), there's room in it for other points-of-view. At times, I saw glimpses of a parallel film that could have been built around Riggan's frustrated producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), or his troubled daughter Sam (Emma Stone). I think I would have liked them almost as much.

Snowpiercer

8. Snowpiercer

Films that sell themselves as "dark" and "gritty" are a dime a dozen. Snowpiercer actually earns those adjectives. The premise is patently absurd, but the world Bong Joon-ho has built within that premise feels horrifyingly real. Or to put it another way, the protein bars and perpetual motion engine are science-fiction. The shitty ways people treat each other and then justify or simply ignore their own cruelty is not.

Bong's attention to detail shows in every frame. Everything about Snowpiercer seems specific and lived-in, from the costumes to the sets to the characters themselves. The same goes for the action. Instead of generic combat we got inventive, stylishly choreographed sequences that nevertheless felt real enough to leave me wincing at every crack and thud.

We Are the Best

7. We Are the Best!

We Are the Best! was adolescence portrayed not from the perspective of a nostalgic adult looking back, but from the perspective of the kids fumbling their way through each uncertain moment. At the center is a punk rock band with the most punk rock origin story ever: It was conceived as a "fuck you" to a more powerful group. Actual knowledge of music and instruments came second for the founders.

Lukas Moodysson's portrayal of young female friendship isn't sentimental — it lays out all the messiness that comes along with the territory, especially once boys get involved. Still, it's uplifting in its own way. He captures the sheer joy of being young, free, and in (platonic) love. Klara, Bobo, and Hedvig may be the only ones who think they're the greatest band in the world, but in their own weird way, within their own weird world, they're absolutely right.

Obvious Child

6. Obvious Child

Obvious Child was quietly revolutionary in the way it portrayed abortion as a reasonable and normal decision for a single 20something adult — in other words, the way an actual single 20something adult might think of abortion. It's a long way from something like Knocked Up, for example, in which two single 20something adults couldn't even bring themselves to utter the word.

That sense of honesty and maturity extends to all other aspects of the movie as well. Jenny Slate is winning as Donna Stern, a young comedian who's on her way to becoming an adult who's got her shit together but isn't there quite yet. Jake Lacy is nearly as likable as her more strait-laced love interest. Their chemistry is natural, the obstacles standing in their way aren't overly contrived, and when the inevitable romcom ending arrives it feels entirely earned.

Gone Girl

5. Gone Girl

Gone Girl was a perfect marriage of talent and material. David Fincher's sardonic sensibility proved just the thing to bring Gillian Flynn's dark, twisted tale to life. It made great use of Ben Affleck's tabloid image as a handsome but assholish lug, and even better use of Rosamund Pike's status as a near-unknown. I wasn't shocked by he turns it took, since I'd read the book, but watching them unfold in a crowded theater was one of the most entertaining experiences I had at the movies this year.

On top of all that, it offered one of the smartest, most subversive takes I've seen on contemporary gender roles and marriage I've seen all year. (Spoilers follow from here on out.) Amy is a uniquely demented soul, yes, but she's also the product of a society that demands Cool Girls. That she turns out to be the ultimate Crazy Bitch — the thing all Cool Girls would rather die than become, and the thing all Cool Girls get reduced to anyway once their Cool Girl status wears off — is satisfying in a sick sort of way.

Lego Movie

4. The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie should have felt like a cynical cash grab. Instead, it felt like a handmade love letter to those beloved plastic bricks. Phil Lord and Chris Miller got as close as is cinematically possible to recreating the experience of playing with Legos. We watched as characters built structures according to the manual and then gleefully tore them back down, as they mixed and mingled with other play sets to create bizarre new inventions, as unrelated minifigs joined forces for wild adventures.

And underneath it all, there was a clever spin on the usual Chosen One narrative. Unlike most Chosen Ones, Emmet really is as unassuming and ordinary as he first appears. What makes him special is simply that he's him. It's a message that sums up the appeal of Legos pretty nicely: they're really what you make of them, no more and no less.

The Babadook

3. The Babadook

The Babadook may be the only horror movie I've ever seen that made me want to cry as much as it made me want to scream. Like all the greatest horror movies, The Babadook digs beyond surface-level scares to tap into real fears — in this case, grief, despair, and parental ambivalence. It's a rare scary movie that'd work almost as well as a drama, but it works so well as a scary movie I wouldn't want it any other way.

Essie Davis is phenomenal as a grieving mother falling apart at the edges, and Noah Wiseman is alternately horrifying and heartbreaking as her troubled son. Its ending is perfect, too, though I won't give it away here. If there's any justice in this world, Jennifer Kent's feature debut will be regarded as a modern horror classic.

under the skin

2. Under the Skin

Under the Skin was one of the most purely cinematic experiences I had at the theater this year. It's nearly wordless, and the words that are spoken mostly don't matter all that much. It's all about the hypnotic imagery, the unsettling score, the ever-so-slightly off grin on Scarlett Johansson's perfect face. It's an experience, and a thoroughly strange one.

Jonathan Glazer made our familiar world unfamiliar by showing it to us through an alien's eyes. Ordinary men become unsuspecting prey, chocolate cake becomes a mysterious challenge, and a kindhearted gesture becomes a life-changing event. The portrait he painted wasn't entirely flattering, but it was always fascinating.

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

1. Boyhood

What is there to say about Boyhood that a million other critics, not to mention the president of the United States himself, hasn't already said? Richard Linklater's masterpiece took 12 years to make, and from where I'm standing it was worth every minute. He previously used real time to great effect in his Before trilogy, but Boyhood outdoes even those.

The film doesn't seem like much at first. We watch Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he drifts from moment to moment. Some of them are big ones, but most of them are utterly mundane. Here he is giggling over a Victoria's Secret catalogue, or taking in a baseball game with his dad. I kept waiting for these little scenes to add up to something, until I realized that these little scenes were that something.

Life, in Boyhood, isn't major turning points and neat dramatic arcs. It is those, of course, but it's also everyday routines, insignificant moments that blossom into lifelong memories, gentle nudges that set us on an entirely new course. It moves forward whether we like it or not, and occasionally we look back and are shocked by how much time has passed. More than any other film I've seen, Boyhood captured the way life feels.