The Top 20 Films of 2014

Here are the top 20 films from 2014! I’ve decided to stick to films that received an Australian theatrical or home entertainment release in the 2014 calendar year or films that screened at an Australian festival but haven’t yet been picked up for 2015 release. This means that 2015 films that I have seen (like, say, Birdman) aren’t eligible, but it’s mostly to avoid snubbing films like Inherent Vice or Selma that I expect to like but haven’t had the chance to watch yet. It does mean that a couple films on this list are double-ups from 2013’s top 20 films, but so be it (sidenote: I’ve seen a lot more films this year than last year – I’ve been to the cinema over 150 times and I’ve seen just shy of 200 new films – but I really feel like 2013 was a stronger year for film. Still some fantastic films, though, and a stellar top 20).

20 - LucyLucy is a deliriously unhinged future cult-classic, a joyously overstuffed treatise on the Meaning Of Life scrawled in Comic Sans and rendered in a vivid mélange of gunfights, car chases and stock footage. Its frankly ridiculous concept – Local Woman Uses More Than 10% Of Her Brain – could have easily produced an enjoyably daft piece of sci-fi action (think: Limitless meets Salt), but instead writer/director Luc Besson sets out to encompass the entirety of reality in a piece of existential, transcendental absurdity.” (Read full review.)

19 - The BabadookThe Babadook inhabits the familiar space of modern horror: an ancient two-story house with creaking floorboards and monochromatic, pallid walls. The colour scheme is mostly desaturated and ashen, with clever use of bold colours – navy is Sam’s colour, faded pink Amelia’s, and arterial red the province of the Babadook.” (Read full review.)

18 - Two Days, One Night“Cotillard delivers a performance that could’ve easily slid into showy awards-bait – she does her fair share of weeping and wailing – but is instead defined by authenticity. Just her physicality alone – the minutest hunch in her shoulders, as though the weight of the world is dragging her down – surpasses anything else I’ve seen in the cinema in 2014.” (Read full review.)

17 - Boyhood“What, precisely, is the point of Boyhood? I’m not sure it particularly matters. This is a captivatingly entertainingly film, one that breezes through its almost-three hour runtime. The prominent role played by the consistently flawed father figures – variously absent, drunken or abusive – in Mason’s life suggests there is a purpose to the film. At one point, Mason’s father advices him to “Let ‘em know you’re a man who knows what he wants.” Boyhood is about the impossibility of that statement, of trying to “be a man” when there’s no man to look up, and of trying to become who you are without ever truly knowing what you want.” (Read full review.)

16 - The Grand Budapest Hotel“Anderson depicts the different time periods of The Grand Budapest Hotel with a combination of romanticism and realism. He has a great deal of fondness for the sumptuous excess of decades past, but is clear-eyed about the problematic layers of privilege beneath it. This film represents perhaps the best marriage of form and function of Anderson’s work; his whimsical tone is perfectly suited to the ‘30s story, given it is being retold from the perspective of a young boy, while the tight framing of this era lends a sense of chaos and claustrophobia to Anderson’s trademark symmetrical mise-en-scène.” (Read full review.)

15 - Me, Myself and Mum“This is a riotously funny film, and therein lies much of its appeal. Gallienne plays himself from infancy to adulthood and his own mother, and it’s like a farcical take on Arrested Development’s Buster and Lucille Bluth, except exaggerated to the point where Buster wants to be his mother. This is not a stray comment – the majority of the film centres on Guillaume’s confusion around his own gender identity and sexuality.” (Read full review.)

14 - 52 Tuesdays“The lack of predictability, the freshness of 52 Tuesdays forgives its many flaws. The story is surprising, not through any shocking twists or third act revelations, but simply through its unostentatious unconventionality. You can see how the film changes form, as actors grow in confidence and their characters accordingly play a larger part in the narrative.” (Read full review.)

13 - Her“It’s easy to read Her as an allegory, analogous to so many aspects of modern life; the way we interact with people using technology. It’s equally easy to find ways to relate it to the universal challenges of relationships – the film explicitly addresses the challenges of trusting a new partner, of sharing a life with someone and then having to rebuild a live without them. But this isn’t some thesis on relationships or futurism – it’s a love story. What makes the film so special is that it’s more interested in the specifics than the universal.” (Read full review.)

12 - OculusThe best horror movie of the year blurs the line between memories and reality, coherency and insanity. Oculus is terrifying, but it avoids monsters or jump scares for a deep evocation of the uncertainty of personal perception.

11 - Wadjda“Despite its connection with cinema’s respectable pedigree, al-Mansour’s film is a transgressive, transformative document, a quietly furious feminist film.” (Read full review.)

10 - EnemyEnemy is a slow-motion anxiety attack, a dizzying elicitation of disassociation that channels that horrifying moment when things don’t make sense. When you looked at a loved one and see a stranger, or when your inner monologue starts to tear down every piece of scaffolding that makes you who are. When your mask slips, and your identity collapses into impenetrable oblivion. That moment that a depressive haze consumes you and pollutes your every thought. When something skitters into the deepest recesses of your mind and you’re flooded with ichor negativity that leaves you disconnected from reality, whatever that is.” (Read full review.)

9 - Under the Skin“Director Jonathan Glazer treats the title as a mission statement, delving under the skin as though driving a catheter into a deep vein of something dark and forgotten. Something before the strictures of civilisation, beyond the realm of rational thought. The first act of the film manifests the spurts and pulses of this primal plasma with unnerving urgency, before restricting the flow to a gradual trickle. Early scenes are reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s music video for “Flashing Lights,” an apprehensive presentation of male anxiety of female sexuality, but there’s an almost imperceptible shift soon after, the film’s male gaze transforming to the perspective of our unnamed protagonist (Scarlett Johansson).” (Read full review.)

8 - National Gallery“We hear a tour guide describe Poussin’s “The Triumph of Pan” as elitist, and much as a gallery curator finds a narrative within the way she selects and displays artworks, Wiseman uses his footage to argue, subtly but effectively, that the Gallery is fundamentally elitist. The only time the “common people” are given a voice is during life drawing sequences – when they are both subject and artist – and in a memorably brief protest by Greenpeace. National Gallery is an educational, gorgeous film, yes, but it’s also a demonstration of how “traditional” narrative isn’t necessary to tell a story.”

7 - Tokyo TribeTokyo Tribe is a grindhouse take on West Side Story and a rap remix of The Warriors. Spring Breakers feels like a strong influence – right down to the jarring sound-effects that accompany its cuts – to the point where it could have sprung forth from the vivid imagination of Alien (James Franco). The film’s ramshackle outdoor future-dystopian sets recall Escape from New York; a later interior scene homages the ‘milk bar’ from A Clockwork Orange, except with actual people as the furniture.” (Read full review.)

6 - Journey to the West“It’s hard to accurately convey the aura of Journey to the West. The movie’s meditative, Buddhist richness is latent in its structure: fifty-six minutes comprising fourteen shots as Kang-sheng Lee – dressed in a monk’s Kashaya robe – and French actor Denis Lavant travel with immaculate, impressive slowness through the streets of Marseilles. It’s especially difficult to convey the playfulness of the film, and the way it can provoke laughter through simple surprises – Lavant briefly cracking an inadvertent, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile – or wonder and confusion with mise-en-scène that calls to question ‘How did Ming-liang do that?’ and ‘Where are Lee and Lavant in this shot?’”

5 - Inside Llewyn Davis“Directors Joel & Ethan Coen don’t portray the film as a dreary period piece. It might look like an old photograph, but there’s a matter-of-factness to the film that avoids the staleness endemic in films trying to “capture” a certain era. This means the film feels incredibly real, like you’re looking through a portal into the New York City of the sixties.” (Read full review.)

4 - CalvaryCalvary is a marvellous film. A miraculous film. It is a comedy; though a profoundly black one, earning laughs through a very Irish brand of deadpan cynicism (combined with, to quote the screenplay, “nine parts gallows humour.”). It’s a character study of Lavelle, a good man buffered by iniquity that tests his resolve, anchored by a performance that warrants Oscar attention it will not receive. He’s no saint, but a man – a man with too much fondness for booze, and a flinty, confrontational personality.” (Read full review.)

3 - Whiplash“Despite the opening shot’s suggestion that we’ll adopt Fletcher’s perspective, Whiplash’s chief success is how effectively it puts us into Andrew’s mental space, where obsession curdles into borderline sociopathy. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, who based the film loosely on his own experiences with a tyrannical drumming teacher, demonstrates a masterful command of the formal aspects of filmmaking.” (Read full review.)

2 - 12 Years a Slave“It’s only when Solomon begins as a slave proper that McQueen begins to assert himself stylistically, demonstrating the craftsmanship and talent that has quickly established him as one of the strongest directors working today. His framing is creative without calling attention to itself, and he regularly uses long, fluid shots to create an absorbing sense of space. Static shots are used to draw attention to symbolism without underlining them: the strings of a violin stretched taut, representing the tense societal bonds that confine the slaves; the paddles of a river boat churning violently, relentlessly through choppy water like the unstoppable, merciless progress of this era’s twisted version of capitalism; or the embers of a burnt letter fading into darkness along with Solomon’s hope of rescue.” (Read full review.)

1 - The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Wolf of Wall Street is an excessive ode to excess, a glorious cavalcade of decadent debauchery, drugs, drink and devastation. Martin Scorsese’s latest is an unapologetic full throttle drag race through peak hour Wall Street, leaving behind twisted metal, broken people and broken dreams. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating and entirely enthralling masterpiece.”(Read full review.)

11 thoughts on “The Top 20 Films of 2014

    • Haha, I saw Lucy twice in cinemas and it remains one of the most interesting and fun films I’ve seen this year. Stupid in many ways, but clever and amazing in plenty of others!

  1. Nice list Dave, there are a few here that I’d like to see that I haven’t been able to watch yet. Have enjoyed reading this year – all the best for 2015.

    • Thanks Stu, you too! I see we have a bit of overlap between our two lists, so hopefully you like the ones you’re yet to see 🙂

  2. I love lists like this because they often highlight our personal tastes and cultural differences, I haven’t seen or even heard of a few of these so I’ll have to search those out. I adored Whiplash, Under the Skin, Enemy, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Babadook in 2014. And then some movies made my list last year. Lucy and Oculus are cool picks too. I enjoyed them quite a bit and while they wouldn’t make my top, I like that you included them because they’re unexpected. I’ll be posting my list on the 1st of the year so please feel free to weigh in in on my picks when I do. 🙂

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