In order to build a little suspense for the big reveal (as well as do a little 2014 house-cleaning), I decided to lead off with my runner-ups for Best Films of 2014. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I found 2014 to be a ridiculously rich year for film, especially if one were willing to color outside of the margins. If you didn’t find at least a couple exceptional movies last year…well, pardner…I reckon you just weren’t looking.
Since I had so many choices this year (I ended up watching 171 films that qualify as 2014 releases), there was lots and lots to sort through. Although my Best of Horror list was difficult, the Overall Best list has been particularly vexing. Faithful readers will notice some crossover with my horror list, obviously, although not as much as one might think: there should be a few surprises here, as well. Since I’ve already discussed some of the horror ones earlier, I’ll just list those but expect to read a word or two (or three) on the other runner-ups.
I feel a bit like a broken record but let’s go ahead and let the needle skip one more time: in a much worse year, any or all of the runner-ups would have assumed prime spots on my list. Unlike particularly fallow years in the past, I haven’t included anything on here that was just “okay,” “serviceable” or “meh”: I may not love all of the runner-ups but, at the very least, I respect the hell outta them. With that, I present the runner-ups for Best Films of 2014, in no particular ranking order.
Moebius — No dialogue, intense sexual violence and raw nerve family dynamics: fun for all ages! Or not, as it turns out, since Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk’s “happy’ tale about the destructive force of infidelity on a family is one of the most unpleasant films I saw all year. It’s also brilliantly made and should be required viewing for anyone interested in the dynamics of film: just don’t expect to walk out with anything resembling a smile on your face.
Someone Marry Barry — I have kind of a man-crush on Tyler Labine and I’m absolutely not ashamed to admit it. As with my concurrent crushes on Ron Perlman, Michael Smiley and Donal Logue, I’ll watch anything and everything that Labine is in: I think he has nearly perfect comic timing and a pretty impressive range. That being said, Someone Marry Barry is a pretty great film, with or without Mr. Labine. The ensemble cast is perfectly in-tune, the comedy is crude but allows for genuine warmth and there’s a really nice central message about the importance of loving people for who they are. Did I mention that it’s really, really funny? Cuz it’s that, too.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? — Shion Sono’s gonzo Yakuza-as-filmmakers action-comedy is a barrel of fun from start to finish but not quite the all-out blast that it frequently promises to become. When the film is good, it’s almost legendary (the scene where young Mitsuko surfs on a giant wave of blood is absolutely unforgettable) but it too often becomes repetitive and seems a little aimless. Still, I must admit to loving the indie filmmaker angle and there’s something rather sweet about a film that seems to be equally influenced by Cinema Paradiso and blood-spattered Japanese gore comedies.
The Interview — Forget the hype, the endless press, the threats, the grandstanding, the chest-beatin’ and the Bible-thumpin’: is Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s “little film that could” actually any good? As a matter of fact, it’s quite good and this is coming from someone who is absolutely not an acolyte of the Church of Rog-aco. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the best comedy the collective group has ever made, including Pineapple Express and This is the End. I might stand alone but I’ll proudly state that the epic “Firework” finale is, without a doubt, one of the most badass cinematic moments my tired, old brain had the pleasure of witnessing all year: the film that leads up to it ain’t half bad, either.
LFO: The Movie — This was such a head-trip that I found myself thinking about it for days afterward…always a good sign. The bizarre Swedish film is initially so dense that I found myself completely, hopelessly lost: once it settles down into a more approachable tale about one weirdo’s ability to control people with a particular sound frequency, it sets the controls for the heart of the sun and never looks back. There’s nothing sympathetic or nice about our hapless lead, whatsoever, which makes LFO the kind of moral no-mans-land that might give some folks qualms. If the final five minutes don’t slap you upside the head, however, you probably weren’t paying attention.
The Missing Picture — Although Rithy Panh’s documentary was nominated for an Oscar last year, I only had the opportunity to see it this year and wow…talk about a gut-punch. Centered around the Khmer Rouge and their brutal massacre of innocent people in Cambodia during the ’70s, Panh uses a revolutionary technique where he crafts clay figures and uses these to re-enact both pre-and post-revolution life in a world that would become a living hell for him. Raw, painful and yet staggeringly beautiful and fanciful, at times, The Missing Picture is one of those films that demands to seen by as many people as possible.
I Am Divine — As a lifelong fan of both John Waters and Divine, this humble little doc was like manna from heaven. Full of great stories, interviews, insights and more than a few tearjerking moments, I Am Divine is a loving tribute to one of the most unique, beloved performers of our time.
The Final Member — A documentary about the world’s only penis museum could have gone several different ways (I swear that’s not a joke) but The Final Member ends up being endlessly surprising. Ostensibly about the quest to find and procure the first human donation to the collection, Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s fascinating film is actually about the human need for fame and how people will do any number of bizarre things to ensure that their name lives on long after they do. Probably not for everyone but quite fun for those with a bit of an open mind.
Whitewash — One of the most surprising films I saw all year and one that almost made it onto the official list. The premise is simple: Thomas Haden Church plays a snowplow operator who ends up stranded in the woods after a night of drunken debauchery that may or may not have involved running someone over with said snowplow. In reality, the film is nothing more than an opportunity for Church to stretch some massive acting muscles and becomes, essentially, a one-man show. You might think there’s nothing riveting about spending 90 minutes with some guy as he talks to himself in the woods but you would be dead wrong. As far as I’m concerned, this was the film that Locke was trying (and failed) to be.
Ida — Another film that almost made it onto the Best of list, Ida is a black-and-white throwback to the days when indie films all looked to Cassavetes and Jarmusch for inspiration and the visual image was as important, if not more so, than the spoken word. Ida is a beautiful, lyrical and unrelentingly sad film about a young Polish nun-initiate’s discovery of her true heritage amid the terrible legacy of the Nazis. This is another film for actual fans of the medium, filled with gorgeous cinematography, a moody, measured pace and some rock-solid acting from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza as the young nun and world-weary, booze-guzzling aunt Wanda. Purposefully old-fashioned and all the better for it.
Edge of Tomorrow — I’ve got nothing against Tom Cruise, the actor, on principle: the problem is that he so rarely makes films that I consider “must-sees.” From the outset, Edge of Tomorrow seems like it’ll be just another noisy, cluttered, sci-fi action film, something to give the punters a reason to drop major cash at an IMAX on Christmas Day. Along the way, however, something strange happens: Swingers’ director Doug Liman’s sleek, shiny film somehow becomes smarter, funnier and meaner than it should be. By the midpoint, it no longer feels like a by-the-numbers tentpole flick and begins to resemble something truly strange and, to be honest, kind of wonderful. Edge of Tomorrow was one of the few films that I regretted not seeing in a theater: that probably goes a long way towards describing my reaction to it.
The Art of the Steal — Another sleeper that should have been just another “direct to streaming” B-movie but ended up being so much more. Kurt Russell is fantastic as the aging stunt-driver-turned-criminal, Matt Dillon is quite marvelous as his ultra-sleazy step-brother and Jay Baruchel is a hoot as Russell’s always-faithful best buddy/whipping boy. The film is endless inventive, constantly funny and features a truly genius heist at its center. When I first started the film, it was just supposed to be a time-killer: minutes in, I was hopelessly hooked and never looked back. Easily one of the most fun movies I saw in 2014.
Blue Ruin — This almost ended up on my horror list but I decided to go purer with the definition this time around. At its heart, Blue Ruin is a sorrowful, uncompromising look at the terrible wages of revenge and how a man can be turned into a shell when all of the love in him has been scorched by hate. For my money, this was a much more effective, powerful film than the similar Cold in July, with a stunning lead performance from Macon Blair.
Ragnarok — This fun, Norwegian fantasy reminded me of prime, ’80s-era Spielberg and was a real blast: an archaeologist goes searching for a lost Viking ship and ends up finding something a whole lot scalier. In some ways, this is a companion piece to Troll Hunter and should be a must-see for anyone who bemoans the good ol’ days of family oriented fantasy adventure flicks, ala The Goonies.
Force Majeure — Yet another film that narrowly missed the official rankings. This flinty, sly little Swedish films deals with the fall-out from one husband/father’s unbelievably selfish act and the way it slowly tears his family in two. Full of lots of intricate details (the production design, in particular, is superb) and strong performances, Force Majeure takes aim at masculinity, fidelity, the institute of marriage and ski vacations, in general. Difficult to “love,” Force Majeure is incredibly easy to respect.
Child of God — I saw James Franco’s adaptation of As I Lay Dying and thought it was decent enough, if severely flawed in several key areas. That being said, it’s always refreshing to see a modern star who would rather adapt the classics than continue dipping from the same remake/sequel well. This time around, Franco turns to the world of Cormac McCarthy and the results are quite a bit more impressive. There’s nothing particularly pleasant about this story of one reclusive loner’s devolution into necrophilia and murder but there’s also precious little wrong with it: in particular, Scott Haze is a revelation as the animalistic Lester Ballard, turning in the kind of performance that should get him short-listed for every acting trophy in the book. When Scott is giving it his all, snot streaming from his face in thick ropes, saliva spewing everywhere, his entire body shaking and convulsing as if he’s about to explode…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t feel entirely like acting and leave it at that.
Haunter — At first, Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter seems like another in a long line of those “are they or are they not ghosts” films and it is, to a point, but it’s also about a hundred other things, all of which we gradually see as the film continues to unravel its myriad surprises. Just when the plot seems to be heading in a fairly standard, linear direction, Natali throws in a crazy corkscrew pitch and shakes the whole thing up. If the definition of a “sleeper” is a modest little film that surprises us by being unexpectedly great, well, look no further, my friends.
Dom Hemingway — There’s a lot to love about Dom Hemingway but none of it would be possible without Jude Law’s flat-out amazing central performance. Dom is a real shithead, a loud-mouth, crass, egotistical womanizer with anger issues and a constant need to blow his comfortable world to smithereens. Thanks to Law, he’s also ridiculously magnetic and impossible to tear your eyes away from. By the conclusion, you still might not agree with some of what he’s done (or any of it, for that matter) but I’ll be damned if you don’t kinda like the guy, anyway.
Big Bad Wolves — The most surprising thing about this Israeli film about a father enacting “justice” on a suspected child-killer, with the unwitting help of a dour police detective, is how flat-out funny it is. Yes, it’s about a child killer and yes, the violence punts straight into the end zone but it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, which is a tactic as effective as it is surprising. Despite this rampant sense of humor, Big Bad Wolves is just as often haunting and horrifying. Compare this to Denis Villeneuve’s nearly identical (minus the humor) Prisoners and it’s easy to see which film comes out on top.
Snowpiercer — I really liked, but didn’t love, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopic train-ride flick. Coming off as a spiritual descendent of Terry Gilliam’s ultra-grimey near-future flicks, Snowpiercer is full of fantastic setpieces and features a pair of intensely spirited performances in the person of Tilda Swinton (can we just deify her already and get it over with?) and Ed Harris (despite his relative lack of screentime). I never fully bought Chris Evans as the rebel leader, however, and too many of the film’s beats echoed similar dystopic films. Despite that, however, Joon-ho’s film is a massively entertaining thrill ride and exactly the type of action film we need more of these days. Extra points for the inherently ironic discussion of global warming and pollution that flows through every aspect of the film like a hidden, underground river.
Stoker — For his English-language debut, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook gifted us with the bizarre, surreal and eminently sensual “family drama” Stoker: should we have expected anything different from the genius behind Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance? The entire cast is marvelous but the main trio of Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode are nearly flawless. While the film never gripped me as much as Chan-wook’s Korean movies, it’s still an incredibly mature, evocative and interesting little examination of madness and obsession.
ABCs of Death 2 — For this and the others below, please refer to the Best Horror Films of 2014.
Here Comes the Devil
And there we have it: all of the 2014 films that I considered runner-ups to the best films of the year. Coming up…the main event. Stay tuned.