A top 10 list is a such a subjective quandary. It should speak to the consensus of cinematic quality to a degree, but it also needs to reflect the films that moved you personally. A great piece of cinema can entertain and it can inform, but as art you need to feel something from it. It needs to haunt you. It needs to stick with you. Therefore, in theory, the list should be the films that immediately come to mind when you ponder the last 12 months. As a critic, it's a reflection of your taste at the time. There is no justification; it's an opinion. Simple as that.
Keeping that in mind, 2014 was a very good year at the movies, just not a great one. There were some incredibly strong films and performances, but was there truly a masterpiece among them? (And, yes, feel free to question if that's how we should judge cinema). The adoration for Richard Linklater's “Boyhood” is across the board (It's even President Obama's favorite movie of the year). And yet, there are some of us who respect it more as a filmmaking accomplishment than for the actual story on screen. Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman” earned a high ranking on my top 10 list. Is it a “masterpiece?” Not in the same vein as my top films over the past five years or so.
Of course, it should be noted there was one film that hit theaters this year which absolutely qualifies for that moniker, Jonathan Glazer's “Under the Skin.” However, that picture made my list last year. My mantra is if I see it projected at a public event it qualifies in that calendar year. So, yes, there are two Cannes titles in the top 10 that may still be off your radar that haven't even hit the art house circuit yet.
Overall, the past year's films seem to have succeeded with an emphasis on characters and divisive conflict. The scope might have been slightly be smaller, the adventure less grand and the romance subdued. Laughs, on the other hand, were abundant. Considering all the great talent we lost far too early this year, many of those movies provided an unintentional and thankful reprieve from the sadness in the news or social media. But, oh, those characters! M. Gustave from “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Amazing Amy from “Gone Girl,” Bigfoot Bjornsen from “Inherent Vice,” Mason from “Snowpierce,” Louis Bloom from “Nightcrawler,” the wonderful Groot from “Guardians of the Galazy” and even Jazzy Dee from “Top Five.” You just can't forget them. They simply punctuate the year.
This pundit won't be sad to see 2014 pass, but these movies made it a slightly easier pill to swallow.
Numbers 20 through 11 in alphabetical order:
“A Most Wanted Man”
A smart and entertaining thriller with a haunting performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And that last scene! Simply classic.
“Beyond the Lights”
Gina Prince-Bythewood's romance turns every music industry rags-to-riches movie cliche on its head in the best possible way.
The film's impact feels a little projected, but as a film achievement? Bravo.
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
Probably the most fun Marvel movie since the first “Iron Man.” (Yep, that means it's even more entertaining than “The Avengers”).
“How to Train Your Dragon 2”
Not as breathtaking as its predecessor, but pretty damn close.
Contains one of the most cinematic moments you'll see in a movie in years and a powerhouse performance by Anne Dorval that deserves more attention than it's getting.
Not sure I believe the film's rogue shooter scenario, but Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom is as authentic an LA character as anyone in “Inherent Vice.”
This wonderfully restrained drama isn't just about Julianne Moore's performance, it's a harrowing look at the repercussions of a family's nightmare.
“The Theory of Everything”
James Marsh's moving romance featuring a performance for the ages from Eddie Redmayne.
Hands down, the greatest opening night film in the history of the Sundance Film Festival.
As for my top 10 itself? We count them down in the embedded gallery below…
Agree? Disagree? Let it out commenters. You always do.