So while Ben and I were having an intellectual discussion about our writing process (read: sending exasperated emojis to each other over Facebook chat), we figured that we wanted to change up the 2014 Roundup a little bit this year, since writing about good movies is kind of boring. Well, that’s not entirely true, but the bigger issue is that EVERYONE is just going to spend these few days writing about how Birdman and Boyhood are the two best movies of the year and how Eddie Redmayne is almost certainly winning an Oscar for The Theory of Everything and blah blah blah. We felt like doing something a little different, so for our year-end film roundup, we’ll be discussing the films we saw this year that we loved that probably won’t be on any top ten lists.
This was a pretty good year for indie rom-coms, and unfortunately, most of them are going to fall by the wayside. I hope that’s not the case for What If, a charming little movie starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan that takes on the bro-trope of the “friendzone” and creates a very real, often heartbreaking story about what happens when you try to stay friends with someone that you really love. Adam Driver and Rafe Spall round out an extremely talented cast (although it does seem cruel to keep putting the famously diminutive Radcliffe next to total beanpole Driver in half the scenes), the script is chock-full of delightful yet naturalistic banter, and the direction, while whimsical at times, is clean and precise. Plus, as so few movies about forlorn lovers do, this movie actually ends happily, which is nice to see once in a while.
Standout Performance: I don’t want to seem like my crush is showing, but Dan Radcliffe is actually really lovely in this movie, always trying to be a good person even when he’s obviously trying to steal someone’s girlfriend.
Okay, sure. No one is going to forget about Guardians of the Galaxy, exactly. It’s the highest fucking grossing movie of the entire year. But just hear me out, okay? Superhero movies, even when they’re good, always get ignored by the higher echelons of criticism, but I would argue that this is by far one of the best movies I saw all year. Does it have a perfect script? Not really. Is it kind of formulaic? Sure. Is it hokey sometimes? Oh, definitely. But do I have fun watching it? Fuck yeah. Every time I watch this delightful, oddball, weird movie about a bunch of genetic misfits who somehow band together to save the galaxy, I just feel so goddamn happy – thanks to the great main cast, the beautifully shot action scenes, the little cameos that pop up here and there, and, of course, the magnificent soundtrack. (But we’ll come back to that.)
Standout Performance: I love just about everyone in this movie, especially Chris Pratt, but again, I’m going to end up writing about him later – so I’ll have to go with Bradley Cooper, whose totally bizarre Goodfellas accent somehow works wonders for Rocket Raccoon.
When you hear someone is making “an abortion rom-com,” that doesn’t exactly sound promising, but if anyone could do it, it’s Jenny Slate. Slate and Gillian Robespierre, in their infinite wisdom, turned out a script that’s as honest and thoughtful as it is funny and gross. Slate plays a totally broke comedian who ends up pregnant and can barely afford her own abortion, but with the help of her best friend (the wonderful Gaby Hoffman, elevated here from the “sassy best friend” stereotype to a character that you end up wanting to add to your text roster) and the inadvertent father (Jake Lacy, who does an excellent job as… well, just a good guy), she goes through with it, instead of experiencing a contrived third-act turn where she decides she desperately wants a baby and now might be her only chance (hello, Sex and the City). In an age of increasingly scary and stupid restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, this little movie showed us that, while abortions are seriously unfunny, there is life on the other side. (See our review here).
Standout Performance: Jenny Slate. I mean, come on. It’s Jenny Slate. Was that a real question?
Okay, fine, I don’t think Gone Girl will be cast aside by critics, but I’m guessing it will get mostly snubbed at the Oscars, so I’m going to write about it now before I have to write Birdman and Boyhood over and over again for two months. (Just to be clear, I DID like those movies. But I digress.) This movie was just really stunning all around, from the performances to Fincher’s trademark dark-corner cinematography to the exquisitely tight script adapted by author Gillian Flynn, and keeping the movie as close as possible to the book ended up paying off beautifully, especially since it climaxed with one of the scariest sex scenes of all time. Pun intended. (See our review here.)
Standout Performance: Everyone was so good, and since I do feel like Rosamund Pike just has to grab an Oscar nod for herself, I’ll go with Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister, the outsider who has to watch the world’s worst couple drag each other down into the muck.
The year will almost definitely forget about this quirky little movie that ended up going straight to VOD, but hopefully one day it’ll be rewatched as many times as David Wain’s other weird movie-that-could, Wet Hot American Summer. A pitch-perfect (though slightly loud) parody of every single romantic comedy trope in existence, They Came Together stars Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd as a couple who, well, have to end up with each other. It’s part of the plot device. Along the way, they meet a legitimately insane cast of characters (Christopher Meloni, Ellie Kemper, Cobie Smulders, and, um, Michael Shannon are just a few) and fall completely in love, eventually finding a perfectly traditional happily-ever-after.
Standout Performance: Both Rudd and Poehler turn in totally bizarre yet earnest performances as the two leads, but I’ll have to go with Amy Poehler, who does such a beautiful job sending up every single “woman in a rom-com” stereotype ever.
Dear White People
Dear White People was the talk of the town at Sundance this time last year, but upon it’s release in the fall, not much was heard about it, even though it’s one of the best films of the year (It’s my personal best, right behind Birdman). This film gets so much right it’s sort of hard to believe. Not only is it a highly intellectual and humorous satire of race politics/race relations/race-EVERYTHING in the US, it’s also a well-shot, sweetly acted, fantastically put-together film, especially by a debut filmmaker like Justin Simien. Dear White People has the power of being a lot of thing. It’s a tender comedy about race relations in America. It’s a takedown of black representation in the media. But alongside all that, it’s a wonderful example of how a finely crafted comedic film. It’s one of a kind, and of 2014’s best.
Standout Performance: Tessa Thompson as the “voice” of Dear White People blew me away with one of the most “real” performances of 2014. She’s a knockout.
The LEGO Movie
This should be on everyone’s Top 10 list if it isn’t already. It’s rare for a blockbuster these days to hit you such emotional wallops like The LEGO Movie does. Because yes, we have beautiful animation, amazing voice-over work, hilarious jokes, and even more HILARIOUS jokes. But once we get to the last half hour or so of the film, and we realized what’s *really* going on, the movie becomes so much more than what we’ve seen before. It’s a truly emotional story about the power of creativity, and the potential in everyone to do great things, a welcome message in an array of recent films where some main character is “The Chosen One.” The LEGO Movie elicited a stronger emotional response than most “Oscar” movies this time of year. It’s a treat. A hilarious, heartwarming treat.
Standout Performance: Charlie Day. Spaceship. End of story.
Behind beauty, there is ugliness. And vice versa. Such is Mr. Turner, the latest film from master filmmaker Mike Leigh, inspired by painter J.M.W. Turner and his gorgeous landscape paintings. Leigh puts Turner on full display, warts and all. Turner is pretty much a giant wart, a pig of a man who has a variety of mistresses, many illegitimate children, and horrific sexual desires. Yet under all this is still the heart and soul of an artist, a man who sees the beauty in nature, in the whole world around him. Forgoing any sort of discernible narrative and dramatic structure, Mr. Turner exists as something of an episodic landscape across the life of an isolated and emotionally stunted artist. This film certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying the sheer beauty and ambition on the screen.
Standout Performance: Timothy Spall as the eponymous artist is living this role on screen. In another year, he’d be a frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar. But this is certainly one of the highlights of his career.
Chris Rock writes, directs, and stars in the all-too-charming Top Five, an exploration of fame, love, race, family, and jokes about butt stuff. I certainly won’t call Top Five the best comedy of the year, or one of the most well-made films of 2014. But what Top Five pulls off better than a lot of comedies this year is the expression of pure honesty in performance and writing. You can tell in many scenes throughout the film, Chris Rock is really passionate about what he’s talking about and where his mind is. Not a whole lot comes off as phony here. Cliche-ridden, sure. But never fake. Rock is speaking his mind in Top Five, and in a comedy these days, that’s all too refreshing.
Standout Performance: One of the better female comedic performances this year, Rosario Dawson is all too appealing and warmhearted as the reporter following around Rock’s character all day. This is one of her most charming performances to date.
Whiplash is the most emotional film you’ll watch from 2014, in that you will feel EVERY emotion watching this. The highs are high, the lows are low, and fear and danger are always there in plain sight. This story of a drummer (Miles Teller) and his break-them-to-rebuild-them teacher (Soon-to-be-Oscar-Winner J.K. Simmons) is more alive than a lot of movies I’ve seen in recent memory. There is rarely a point where things drag on screen. It’s always moving, always pulsing to that big band jazz tune. And those last 10 minutes. They must be seen to be believed. I haven’t felt more tense in a cinema in……ever.
Standout Performance: J.K. Simmons is deservedly getting all of the buzz for his career-defining turn here, but let’s talk about Miles Teller and his sensational lead performance here. It’s not easy to take control of a character who you actively root for and despise at the same time. He’s a true goddamn human being. Miles nails it.