2014 has been a fantastic year for cinema, ranging from the routine spectacles of summer blockbusters, to the independently produced character pieces. Throw in new masterpieces from greats such as David Fincher, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson, and you have a year rich with cinema that is bound to butt heads come award season.
This list seeks to honor the films this year that stretched beyond entertainment, touched a part of the human spirit, and showcased the talents of all cast and crew involved. As we say goodbye to 2014, let’s look back at the masterpieces that will come to define this year for the generations to come.
20. Two Days, One Night – Luc Dardenne/Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Marion Cotillard gives a powerhouse performance in this Belgian drama about the goodness of people. She stars as Sandra Bya, a woman returning to work after a heavy bout of depression kept her away.
Sandra receives a phone call, letting her know that her job will be terminated as part of a downsizing initiative. The decision was made by Sandra’s co-worker who were forced to choose between her job and their year-end bonuses. It’s Friday afternoon, and Sandra must organize a revote before the end of the weekend in hopes of saving her job.
In spite of the stakes, the Dardenne’s direct the tone of the film with their usual casual tension, featuring hand-held camera movements and next to no music cues. Although the circumstances and style feel routine and mundane, the deliberate telling of her story draws us into the debate of what we would do in both Sandra’s shoes as well as her co-workers.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t devolve into sentimental mush, as each co-worker is unique in their motive of either denying or appealing Sandra’s request, ranging from the complex to those who simply shrug her off.
19. Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller
Foxcatcher is a slow burn of a biographical drama, occasionally moving at a slugs pace. However, its success lies in the terse atmosphere conjured up by director Bennett Miller. Even on a superficial level, Miller makes it apparent that this journey will lead all the characters of Foxcatcher to ruin. Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell surprise in their darkest roles yet, with Carrell achieving an unsettling presence as he masks John du Pont’s mental illness.
It tells the true story of Olympic-winning wrestler Mark Schultz who seeks to escape the shadow of his older brother, David Schultz, by joining John du Pont’s wrestling team, Team Foxcatcher. John urges Mark to convince his brother to join the team. When he fails to do so, their relationships become increasingly strained.
The film is too unbearably bleak to fall in love with, but that is also what causes the film to be as transfixing as it is, similar to watching awful things happen on the evening news. Without ever falling into clichés of mental illness, Miller and Carrell’s take on du Pont dares to show instead of tell, and at other times, it doesn’t show you anything at all, which is perhaps one of the scariest things you can say about mental illness.
18. The Rover – David Michod
The Rover portrays Australia Mad Max-style, taking place ten years after global economic collapse. The outback becomes a lawless wasteland where the powerful reign supreme. Although it takes place in a broken down society, the plot of the film is relatively simple: a man named Eric has his car stolen by a group of thugs, and he will do anything to get it back. He is joined by one of the thugs’ brothers, who was left behind in the wake of the attack.
Like most good westerns, the film features sparse dialogue, with director David Michod filling most of the silence with empty wind and droning bass tones. As brutal as it is nihilistic, The Rover manages to explore a certain buddy quality between its two leads, which is mainly fueled by exceptional performances from Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.
17. Frank – Lenny Abrahamson
Frank is a film that explores the depth of the artist, diving down and exploring all of the bizarre, idiosyncratic crevices. It examines the inherent talents of some, and the brutal heartbreak that comes for those without such gifts. It’s, at times, an offbeat comedy, a satire, and a sobering take on the creative process.
It tells the story of a young aspiring musician, Jon, who joins an avant-garde band to help them record their first album. The band is led by Frank, a musical genius who hides his face beneath a gigantic mold of a cartoonish head. Jon, having felt tapped for talent and inspiration, pales in comparison to the talented and mysterious Frank. Assuming Frank’s talents and oddities come from a tortured past, Jon seeks to find what it is that exactly makes an artist talented.
Led with strong performances by Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Michael Fassbender, Frank manages to be a cornucopia of things, an amalgam of the characters that fill its frames, altogether weird and funny, and yet there’s a sad, thought-provoking reality beneath its surface for both the quirky artists and the boring, starved Jon’s of the world.
16. The Theory of Everything – James Marsh
Inspired by the memoir of Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Hawking, the British biographical film The Theory of Everything is an Oscar contender that brings the life and struggles of the famous physicist to life. Both the book and film cover Stephen and Jane’s blossoming relationship followed by Stephen’s battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Do not go into The Theory of Everything expecting to come out a learned astrophysicist. As a work of fiction, it is more of a love story than a direct adaptation or biopic. Knowing that Hawking, and other physicists, would see the film, director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten brought a physics adviser on set to make sure that the science and math presented in the film were accurate. This results in many of Hawking’s concepts being put in layman’s terms, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a film.
The film is visually striking, which is supplemented by Marsh’s masterful direction. It appeals to man’s quest for knowledge and our insatiable thirst to understand our place within the universe. McCarten’s script portrays a couple whose relationship feels neither cheesy nor formulaic. The characters feel authentic in their battle to make their relationship work, despite many of the obstacles they face. All elements coalesce to make The Theory of Everything a poignant, touching effort.
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones both deserve high praise for their performances as Stephen and Jane, respectively, and Redmayne, in particular, deserves an Oscar nomination. Aside from hitting all the necessary emotive beats, Redmayne effectively makes the audience forget that he, himself does not suffer from Lou Gehrigs disease, and that is a feat all on its own.
15. A Most Violent Year – J. C. Chandor
Director J.C. Chandor, best known for his previous films Margin Call (2011) and All is Lost (2013), eases into A Most Violent Year with a familiar quiet tension. Oscar Isaac stars as an immigrant in New York attempting desperately to legitimize his business, while trying to avoid becoming swept up in the rampant violence that plagues the city and threatens his family.
Like Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year’s strength lies in the atmosphere that Chandor builds. It works on multiple layers as both a character driven drama and as a crime thriller. Isaac’s portrayal of businessman Abel Morales renders the character empathetic in every way as we watch him struggle to both provide for his family and not compromise his integrity. Fortunately, this character piece is split up by equally engaging chase sequences, helping to push its plodding pace.