Also, I have yet to see some critically acclaimed films that may be added to this best-of list in the near future. Films like Selma, Mr. Turner, The Imitation Game, A Most Violent Year, Life Itself, and Calvary could all be strong additions as soon as I get the opportunity to see them. There are other great films that I wasn’t sure were considered 2013 or 2014 films–Like Father, Like Son and Ernest and Celestine have appeared on a few critics’ 2014 lists, despite being released last year, and I loved them both. Let’s face it: end-of-year list-making is a complex task.
As a pastor, a father, a husband, a writer, an immigrant, a musician, and a man wrestling with his own sense of vocation and identity, these are the films that moved me, captivated me, terrified me, challenged me, and inspired me. These are my top 10 favorite films from 2014:
10. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent). Any parent of a young child can relate–sleepless nights and parental struggles can feel downright horrific. Terrifying and touching, The Babadook is a chilling depiction of single parenthood and dealing with personal grief. The performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as the mother and son are affecting, and filmmaker Jennifer Kent focuses on the story and unsettling suspense through image and sound instead of gore or jump scares. The horror genre is done best when it personifies and examines our real-life struggles and fears, forcing us to confront that which we would rather avoid. Those fears may not leave us alone, but with time we can manage the anxious terrors hidden in the dark basement of our soul.
9. Noah (Darren Aronofsky). Noah is the filmic mashup between a Narnia-esque fantasy, a Shakespearean family drama, and a gritty biblical morality tale, all rolled into an epic cinematic experience. This is not your Sunday-school Noah, with happy flannel-graph animals gathered on a boat beneath a rainbow. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky depicts Noah (Russell Crowe) as a tortured soul, a man striving to remain faithful to the Creator and care for his family while embracing the difficult task of being a key figure in the destruction of humanity. While Noah has some flaws, it’s certainly a *fantastic* film, in both senses of that word: “extraordinarily good” and “imaginative.” For those who are hesitant about Noah–particularly those who claim it isn’t “biblical” enough–I would invite them to watch again with open minds and hearts, seeking the truth and beauty in the flood of this tale. Noah reminds us that we are broken and beautiful, bearing both the weight of our sin and the image of God in our souls. (my review)
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). Quirky and outlandish, The Grand Budapest Hotel tells its complex narrative with a dry wit and a twinkle in its ornate eye. Every scene is beautifully constructed with precise detail and a reverence for design. The story is layered with fascinating characters that could only exist in a Wes Anderson world of weirdness and wonder. I want to buy this film and just watch it frame by frame, noting the intricacies of each moment, its structure and colors. Love him or hate him, Anderson has a unique style that he infuses in each of his films, and The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like the most Andersonian of the lot.
7. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). A familial drama centered around one hotel owner’s relationships with his wife, his sister, his community, and himself, Winter Sleep is both intimate and epic in scope. The story addresses the themes of separation, loss, justice, and spirituality, all set in the misty hills of Anatolia in Turkey. And what a location! Like something out of another world, the hotel is embedded in the hills, a Middle Earth-like home in the rock, filmed in lush auburn tones. It’s a subtle film, full of complexity and intriguing characters that never feel stilted; they feel wholly human, beautiful and flawed, navigating a winter season together-yet-apart in the crags of the steppe. (my VIFF review)
6. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle). A horror film of sorts, Whiplash is the frenetic drama centered on the conflict between two men who sacrifice their humanity for their creative musical endeavors. J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of a ruthless music instructor is at once a drill sergeant, a father, and a monster. Miles Teller gives his own excellent performance as the young jazz drummer willing to do whatever it takes to be the greatest. The film steadily picks up the tempo into a riveting and cathartic climax. As a drummer, this was my favorite drumming movie of the year (better than Birdman), and a heart-racing thrill ride of creative mastery. Drumming = blood, sweat, and tears.
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater). Boyhood is like a series of scenes that flash before one’s eyes in the moments immediately prior to death, one’s whole life in an immediate glance. Episodic and often with little context, each moment plays out with both ordinariness and profundity. Watching Boyhood is like opening up a stranger’s family photo albums and glancing through all the pictures, trying to make sense of the person’s life in the images. This can be a beautiful and a boring exercise, and Boyhood is frequently both. Richard Linklater’s 12-year experiment in storytelling is a remarkable success, and while I can’t jump on the “this is a flawless film and the best one of 2014!” bandwagon, Boyhood is certainly an entertaining meditation on time, memory, and the adolescent experience. (my review)
4. The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller). Everything is awesome about this film. The imagination and world-building in The LEGO Movie are par none; the humor is the most laugh-inducing I’ve had in a year; and the surprises in storyline, character cameos, and direction the film takes are all delightful. While the story seems like a typical “good Rebels versus evil Empire” tale, the final act takes the film to a new level of creativity and depth. The LEGO Movie wonderfully explores the spiritual nature of creativity and our relationship with the Creator. It encourages a posture of moderation and discernment, where the abundant life is experienced by neither “following the rules” or “just doing what feels right.” The LEGO Movie instead offers a Third Way, a path between polarization and politics, a road that is far more difficult to navigate but offers copious rewards when embraced with wisdom and discernment. (my review)
3. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski). The first thing you’ll notice about Ida is the beauty. Shot in gorgeous black and white and structured in 4:3, every moment is like out of a painting. The story follows an innocent young nun, Anna, on the verge of taking her vows. She goes on a quest with her secular aunt, Wanda, to discover the secrets of her past and the dark history of both her origins and the Polish nation. A coming-of-age journey with a young woman wrestling with identity, spirituality, and her own ontology. Every person has a name, every person has a story, and every person undergoes a crisis of faith in their own way.
2. The Immigrant (James Gray). The first Marion Cotillard film on this list, The Immigrant is a strikingly honest film. Though characters are duplicitous and behave with mixed motives and questionable morals, they are nonetheless themselves, wholly authentic and raw, in a story that feels like it could only be birthed out of reality. Perhaps the best word for the film’s essence is confession. The entire narrative rings true, from opening to close, and the final scene is entirely satisfying with a beautiful closing shot that could be framed in an art gallery. It is an immigrant story, people far away from their country of origin trying to establish a new home and the painful struggles therein. (my review)
1. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). Like a modern-day parable,Two Days, One Night is a simple story embodying profound moral and spiritual themes. The film focuses entirely on Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her struggle over a single weekend to keep her job. It’s a portrayal of remarkable empathy and pain, and Cotillard has never been better (even in The Immigrant). If you have ever fought for something or someone; if you’ve ever wondered about your own value and worth; if you have ever experienced rejection or criticism or depression; if you have ever been in an uphill battle, struggling alone against the powers and authorities; if you have ever wanted someone to stand up for you to be your advocate and friend, then Sandra’s plight will be an experience of empathy and catharsis for you. (my VIFF review)
Favorite Documentary of 2014:
The Overnighters (Jesse Moss). This documentary about an oil boom in small-town North Dakota and the Lutheran pastor who tries to rally his community around the incoming workers should be required viewing for every pastor. I haven’t seen many films address the weightiness or strain of pastoral work like this one. Masterful storytelling, and offers a unique 21st century picture of the American dream. Following in the ways of Christ is a complex endeavor, both in personal and systemic ways.
Note: Many of these films on this list contain content (language, violence, nudity, sex) that requires viewers to approach with wisdom, caution, and discernment. Know your own boundaries, and make the wise choice when approaching any film.
What were your favorite films of 2014? Share them in the comments! Check out my Favorite Films of 2014 list on Letterboxd.