The Movie Sleuth's Top 14 of 2014

The Movie Sleuth team now presents our votes for the best 14 films of 2014. 

14. The Taking of Deborah Logan - by Chris George
In a period when good horror is hard to come by, director Adam Robitel delivered a genre defining piece of work with The Taking of Deborah Logan. The film takes the found footage style and uses it to its full advantage as one of the creepiest entries of 2014. Its strong performances, creative use of camera work, and awesome storytelling are the things that make this one a standout. Robitel creates a modern mythology wrapped around a mysterious Alzheimers patient and turns it on its side with near perfect effort. Usually horror entries don't make these lists, but Robitel's instinctual reformation of a tired format mixed with great scares, blood curdling effects, and actors that actually care makes Deborah Logan a great watch amongst a year of mostly lackluster horror entries. 

13. The Raid 2 - by J.G. Barnes
Starting off right where The Raid: Redemption ends, The Raid 2 does exactly what every sequel should, improving on virtually every possible aspect of its hit predecessor. Redemption was little more than a means for Indonesian martial artists to beat each other into the walls, which was totally fine by me in the first place. The Raid 2, however, ups every ante. The plot is several times thicker. The kicks are several times kicker. And the action is several times more sharp, meaty, and fierce. No one asked for a slow burn power struggle between Asian gang leaders, but we got one in The Raid 2. The plot is anything but tacked-on this go 'round, and contributes some actual weight to some of the very best action you'll see in any film. While the story is slow, it's thick with gang tension—if you can follow its intricacies—and helps set up one masterful combat sequence after another.

12. Blue Ruin - by Andrew Kotwicki
The age old saying with respect to vengeance movies is that revenge is a dish best served cold.  But in newcomer writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature film Blue Ruin, it’s served clumsily and therefore more believably.  Grounded in the Deep South, Blue Ruin follows Dwight Evans (newcomer Macon Blair), a bearded, disheveled vagrant with an old score to settle.   Direct and straightforward with an unblinking cold regard for the bloodletting ensuing, what makes this standout example of the benefits of Kickstarter crowdfunding so powerful is the unfettered realism on display.  Most vendetta pictures often depict cool and clean slayings by a calculating mastermind, but here, our hapless protagonist in over his head can’t help but stumble gracelessly at every turn.  Small time character actor Macon Blair, only having appeared in bit parts up to this point, perfectly embodies the inexperienced everyman thrust into a path of violence he can’t escape from let alone handle.  Where most vengeance pictures depict the transformation of an ordinary person into a ruthless slayer, Blue Ruin demystifies our notion of the avenger by having Dwight remain as unprepared and afraid as he started before the thought of serving just desserts crossed his mind, making his predicament far more relatable and immediate.  With its precise, distant cinematography, sharp editing and deliberately quiet pacing, Blue Ruin joins the likes of Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Todd Field’s In the Bedroom as one of the great, modestly sized slow burns that burrows with its unsensational, down and dirty look at the all-consuming nature of vengeance.    

11. Fury - by Chris George
Good World War II dramas are hard to come by. Well, Fury brought the look and feel of the 1940's back to screens with an action loaded epic about a team of soldiers and their mighty tank. Brad Pitt (in his usual fashion) chews up scenes and spits them out as his supporting cast does a wonderful job setting the tone for a series of battle sequences, war torn backdrops, and an emotional dynamic delivered by the best war movie of the past several years. As Fury wages on, audiences are brought back to a time when wars were fought by brave men on the ground and war was not about drone strikes and chemical warfare. Fury has a realistic feel, a great morality message about teamwork, and features excellent performances from Logan Lerman, a reinvigorated Shia LaBeouf, the always good Michael Pena, and a down and dirty Jon Bernthal. The cast works together brilliantly while the battle ravaged environments take audiences back to a time when men took a stand for something they believed in. 

10. Nymphomaniac - by Michelle Kisner
Nymphomaniac is the third film in Lars von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” and was preceded by Melancholia and Antichrist. As is common with his films, Nymphomaniac is an unflinching and shocking view of female sexuality and mental illness. The film revolves around Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a middle-aged sex addict who is badly beaten up and left in an alley. She is found by elderly intellectual Seligman (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd), and he takes her back to his apartment to nurse her wounds. After she wakes up, she tells him the story of how she came to be in that dire situation but oddly enough, she starts from the very beginning of her life. This film gained notoriety because it has tons of hardcore sex scenes and unfettered sexual promiscuity from a woman. It’s rare to see a woman’s sex life portrayed with such frankness and without judgment, as it still carries quite a stigma in western culture. Von Trier also filmed it in an avant garde style with a bit of European art house aesthetic for good measure. Clocking in at over five hours (and split into two parts), it’s a long journey but the incredible acting and beautiful cinematography keep it from dragging. Lars von Trier tends to be a polarizing director with people either loving him or proclaiming him to be a pretentious hack. Nymphomaniac is one of his best movies and well worth checking out for film connoisseurs.

9. Interstellar - by Andrew Kotwicki
Christopher Nolan’s love letter to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the emotional cues from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is among the few modern Hollywood epics that pushes the technological envelope forward in a way that feels both familiar and fresh.  Plot elements are secondary to celebrating the notion of cinema as experience, with grand 70mm vistas (shown in select IMAX screenings on film) drawing viewers deeper within alien landscapes and further down the intergalactic rabbit hole than 3D projection dependent Gravity could ever hope to.  While most visual effects driven films are almost entirely reliant on computer generated images, Interstellar is a throwback to practical effects including models, rear projections, and the famous slit-scan technique pioneered by Douglas Trumbull for the stargate sequence concluding 2001: A Space Odyssey, adding to the film’s visual timelessness.  In conjunction with all of the resources of classical science fiction melodrama is a bombastic, reaching score by Hans Zimmer, echoing the mournful organs of Solaris while tipping the hat to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra opening 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anchoring in the ship’s undeniably shaky landing in Interstellar are the intense performances by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain as a father and daughter whose connection is violently torn apart by a seemingly suicidal mission neither is sure will succeed. Films this grand in scale and magnificent in presentation don’t come around very often.

8. Nightcrawler - by Chris Jordan
An intense psychological thriller, a seriously impressive character piece, and a brutal critique of the questionable ethics of TV news: the excellent Nightcrawler manages to be all of these. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a sociopathic and opportunistic thief who discovers the lucrative business of selling grisly accident and violent crime footage to local television stations, and reinvents himself as a vulture-like crime-scene videographer. As a commentary on the sensationalism and dubious ethics of TV (especially local) news, with its reality-TV-like appetite for crime and suffering, it certainly packs a punch: it's a very dark and cynical movie, but probably far more accurate than we would like to know. First-time director (but long-time writer) Dan Gilroy handles the material excellently, delivering a punch in the gut which manages to stay just on the right side of over-the-top. He also has an incredible sense for visuals, and his cold and spooky neon-lit vision of nocturnal LA is a sight to behold. If this excellent debut is any sign, he is a very talented filmmaker who we should definitely watch.

7. Edge of Tomorrow - J.G. Barnes

It's unfortunate that when something as exciting as Edge of Tomorrow comes out of nowhere, it pretty much remains there. I hardly ever hear it mentioned outside of my close circle, and when I do, it's people pouting about Tom Cruise that never cared to watch it. If you're a sci-fi fan, you need to see Edge of Tomorrow. It's rare that sci-fi this smart, this slick, and this energetic comes along and offers hope of resurgence in the mature sci-fi film world. We owe it to ourselves and the film makers to shine a brighter light on gems like this one. Edge of Tomorrow whips the viewer back and forth, with a visceral, intriguing story that follows Cruise as a military officer stuck in a time loop that resets at every deadly failure to end an alien war on Earth. Every time he is spit back into the meaty action, he carries with him the memories prior, evolving his strategy with each opportunity. The action is kinetic, the performances solid, and the creature effects are absolutely killer. Watch this on a large screen and crank up the volume. Your body and mind will thank you.

6. Boyhood - by Brian Rohe
Richard Linklater methodically spent 12 years filming the coming of age story of Mason Evans, a young boy who quite literally grows up before our eyes. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason with such a natural ease that it is hard to tell that we are watching a work of fiction as Mason matures from a starry eyed 6 year old into a 18 year old young adult. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play Ethan’s parents and Richard Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays his sister. Gathering his primary cast once a year to film for 12 years captured the real life aging of the characters in a way no special effect ever could and showed a commitment to this project that is unheard of in film making. The result is one of the most unique, beautiful films you will ever see.

5. Birdman - by Blake O. Kleiner
We don’t really know where Michael Keaton was for the last decade, but we couldn’t be more happy that he’s back, and never in better form than in this Oscar-worthy performance. Director Alejandro Gonzales-Innaritu makes a complete departure from his usual overwrought take on the morose side of human nature, and uses a darkly comic approach to create his most compelling work to date. The “single-take” style lends an immediacy and palpable tension to the proceedings as Keaton’s character unravels. He is in complete command of the film from start to finish, surrounded by a supporting cast of actors either playing against type or—like Keaton—riffing on their own persona as part of the grandiose in-joke. Birdman doesn’t just fly, it soars.

4. Gone Girl - by Blake O. Kleiner
It should be no surprise that the biggest mindf**k of the year was delivered to us by none other than David Fincher, the gifted filmmaker who brought us the equally dark and labyrinthine masterpieces Fight Club and Se7en. This near flawless adaptation of the bestselling novel seems like an almost gift-wrapped genre exercise in the ordinary for its first hour before Fincher and his screenwriter, Gillian Flynn, pull the rug out from under us again and again. Ben Affleck has never been better, and Rosamund Pike seems like a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination. But it’s the craftsmanship of Fincher and his cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, that are the real stars of the show.

3. Enemy - by J.G. Barnes
In Denis Villeneuve's follow up to the intense dramatic thriller, Prisoners, he takes on Jake Gyllenhaal in a surreal psychological thriller that throws convention out the window in favor of a brain flipping formula, taunting you to dig for its secrets over and over. This cerebral puzzle is a chewy, juicy mind game and at a brisk 90 minutes has irresistible replay value. All year I've never seen a film so infectious and addictive. Enemy is the reason why they label films intoxicating. Gyllenhaal's perplexing performance as not one, but two physically identical, but mentally divergent individuals is balanced masterfully by both himself and Villeneuve's tight-rope direction. This is a must-see for film buffs and those looking for more than just another movie. Enemy is immensely clever.

2. The Theory of Everything - by Brian Rohe
The extraordinary story of Stephen Hawking picks up with a seemingly healthy Hawking at Oxford where he meets his first wife and soon thereafter is diagnosed with ALS. Eddie Redmayne delivers an Oscar worthy performance as Hawking, watching Redmayne slowly deteriorate as the disease progresses is physically amazing. Stephen Hawking himself has been quoted in interviews that he felt like he was watching himself while viewing the film. Felicity Jones plays Hawking’s first wife, Jane with a strength and earnest portrayal that should get her award consideration. The film shows Hawking’s life journey complete with all the warts and flaws instead of turning into a greatest hits reel of the Hawking’s accomplishments. The result is both inspiring, powerful and at times sad and surprising. 

1. Whiplash - by Chris George
Whiplash is one of the most engaging and gripping dramas of the year. J.K. Simmons offers the hardest, meanest, and brutally honest performance of his career while Miles Teller takes center stage as a jazz drumming student that wants nothing more than to be one of the greats. Music fans and film fans alike will marvel at the tension in this bull headed character study about two men that share a mutual love of music although they don't see eye to eye. Whiplash ranks atop this list for numerous reasons, but the tension laced finale is one of the best scenes of the year and brings a few distinct moments to the screen that are nothing short of breathtaking. Not since the original Rocky have audiences been put through such a rigorous test of patience, will, and physical might. Miles Teller finally becomes a leading man while his arch enemy J.K. Simmons lays down solid groundwork for a possible Oscar nomination. Whiplash never got much of a mainstream release and hasn't been given much notoriety, but it's easy for me to call this the movie of the year.