25. A Most Wanted Man
Another year, another throny, intricate, never-lose-focus-or-you'll-be-left-behind adaptation of a John le Carré novel. In his final role as a leading man, Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Günther Bachmann, a weary German espionage agent who leads a team tasked with developing intelligence on the local Islamic community in Hamburg, Germany. When a mysterious refuge from Chechnya illegally enters city limits, it's up to Bachmann's squad to figure out who's in more danger, their new unexpected guest, or the city itself. Director Anton Corbijn icy, slow-burn style perfectly befits the material, his film perfectly content to carefully doll out the minutia of the tale where other directors tend to rush, and sacrifice audience comprehension. The film's political game of cat-and-mouse is patient and fascinating, and it's a bittersweet joy to spend two more hours in Hoffman's company.
It's been 6 whole years since Tom Hardy nearly burned a whole in the damn screen with his performance in Bronson, and he still hasn't truly claimed his rightful place as moviedom's 'next big thing.' Locke is further proof of the actor's seemingly limitless powers, a solo outing about a man driving all night to be at a near-stranger's side as she gives birth to his illegitimate son. The movie never leaves the luxury vehicle, meaning you're riding shoot gun with Hardy for the entire half hour as he makes one frenzied phone call after another. It's a modest picture, sure to bore some people out of their minds, and captivate others with its impossibly thorough character deconstruction. We even get Hardy in a new lane, stripped of the physicality that often serves as his strongest tool, emoting here with grace, subtlety, and the single greatest accent in the history of film (or maybe just my favorite).
23. Into the Woods
So I like musicals... what's the big deal? Disney's star-studded, operatic fairytale blowout was released on Christmas day, made an awfully quiet $125 million, and then vanished off the pop culture radar like a thin mist despite being the best big budget musical in years. All the usual suspects are here, from Little Red Riding Hood, to Jack (of bean stalk fame) and Cinderella, each singing their hearts out in a giant mash-up that finds a way to weave the many disparate, pre-existing stories into a single narrative. Though pre-release chatter was dominated by the alleged 'Disney-fication' of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's darkly satirical stage incarnation of Woods, much delicious salaciousness remains intact, and watching the film completely turn a corner in its latter half was one of 2014's more surprising film developments. The music is great, and the cast is greater; if you like sing-a-longs, this is a must.
22. Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow was a flop out of the gate, and it's not exactly hard to see why; hadn't Tom Cruise saved the world enough times already? The world's most famous scientologist stars as Cage, a weaselly military officer who unwittingly finds himself on the front-lines of a futuristic war against extraterrestrials, and who, through the power of plot mechanics, is able to die and be reborn an infinite number of times. A little Groundhogs Day here, a little Starship Troopers there, and just a dash of Saving Private Ryan, Edge of Tomorrow is nothing if not an amalgamation of its many influences, but what it lacks in true originality, it more than makes up for in excitement, humor, and flat-out fun. Cruise is great by virtue of finally being self-depricating, but badass warrior woman Emily Blunt steals the show as a 22nd century update on Joan of Arc, all tricked out in robo-gear. The action sequences manage to capture the chaos of war in a way films seldom do, and the alien design is both unique and inspired. This is popcorn entertainment on a very, very high level.
Another slow-burning thriller of sorts, Foxcatcher tells the story of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a medal-winning wrestler from the 1984 Olympics who's scrounging for cash a mere three years later. Enter John du Pont (Steve Carell), an erratic millionaire who decides to spend his play money to sponsor the US wrestling team, forging an off-kilter relationship with Schultz in the process. Director Bennett Miller holds the film's temperature firmly at a level below freezing, occasionally reaching near-Kubrickian levels of slow-motion surrealism. Tatum gamely channels a primal, feral Robert De Niro, but this is Carrel's movie, his deeply creepy performance casting a shadow over all proceedings.
20. The Drop
You've seen plenty of movies like The Drop, with its low-level crooks, tough guy dialogue, and New York grit, but that doesn't stop the film from standing out from the pack. Tom Hardy stars as Bob, a seemingly half-witted bar tender who finds himself in the middle of an escalating swirl of violence when a few higher-ups are robbed in his tavern. As was the case with A Most Wanted Man, much of The Drop's charm comes from having one last go-around with one of our late acting greats, this time in the form of a delightfully shady James Gandolfini. Dennis Lehane's script, adapted from his own short story, is quite the potboiler, keeping the audience on its toes for the entire runtime, always one step ahead of the viewer.
19. Blue Ruin
Something tells me that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has gotten tired of seeing the same revenge thriller over and over again. While the endless barrage of Liam Neeson action flicks and similar wounded-man-with-nothing-to-lose films have inundated our multiplexes of late, Blue Ruin holds a funhouse mirror up to the whole genre, warping your expectations and taking you to unseen places. Dirty, hairy, and subsisting mostly on food found in trash cans, homeless drifter Dwight (Macon Blair) gets a jolt when he discovers that the man who killed his parents has received early release from prison. He sets out to even the score, oblivious and untrained in the realm of violence, making his plan up as he goes. Blue Ruin can be brutal, funny, tragic, and badass, sometimes all within a few moments of each other, and sports a terrific leading turn from Blair, who makes a perfect anti-action hero.
The idyllic, endless, radient pastures of Ireland are hiding something. Calvary opens in a confession booth, with an unseen voice informing Father James (Brendan Gleeson) of his plans to murder the priest in a week's time. The prophecy hangs over the rest of the proceedings like an ominous raincloud as the man of god goes about his business in the film's small, costal town whose tight-knit population decreasingly wants or needs his religion. While Calvary is quite small in scale, its ambition is massive, charting the death of catholicism at the hands of science, doubt, and the church's own misdeeds. Gleeson is dignity itself as James, a deeply good man who must endure mockery and spite as he marches on in a thankless war against atheism, promoting forgiveness at every turn.
17. Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice is both Paul Thomas Anderson's worst movie in nearly two decades, and one of the best of 2014: if you can't tell already, I kinda like this guy. Playing out like a sort of inverted The Big Lebowski, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a pot head detective in 1970's Los Angeles who's thrown into a web of mystery when his long lost lover Shasta (Katherine Waterston) suddenly reappears, only to again disappear just as quickly. Completely 'getting' Inherent Vice on the first viewing is literally impossible, the cavalcade of information provided by Anderson's screenplay proving positively endless, but this one's more about the journey than the destination. The film sports a sort of dreamy wistfulness, slowly revealing more of Doc's past as his THC-addled mind struggles to keep up just as much as the audience. It's far from top-shelf PTA, but also undoubtably one of the most handsome, involving, and best acted movies of the year.
16. Top Five
What if I told you that Chris Rock made a Woody Allen movie? Would that be of interest to you? Taking a page out of Adam Sandler's Funny People book, Rock stars as
15. The LEGO Movie
It's funny to think that only one year ago the prospect of a feature-length, theatrically-released Lego movie was utterly groan-worthy. No one's groaning now. The eye-poppingly animated film tells the story of Emmet, a construction worker without two brain cells to rub against one another who unwittingly acquires the title 'the special,' and must learn how to become the savior of all lego-kind on the fly. The writing and directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, previously responsible for the zany, caffeinated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films, one-ups themselves in terms of madcap energy, laugh-out-loud jokes, and visual mania. They keep the pedal all the way on the floor from first frame to last, and while their creation can be a tad exhausting, those with the energy to keep up will find themselves exhilarated by the pace, awed by the visuals, and sore from the laughter.
An detailed account of a family who brazenly takes on 'the man' with everything it's got, Leviathan is an epic worthy of its name despite existing on a relatively modest scale. When a corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov) decrees that a particular house must be destroyed in favor of public transportation (or, more likely, another mansion), Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) enlists the help of his lawyer brother Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to fight back against the unthinkable might of the government. This Russian import has as good a chance as any film to take home Best Foreign Film at sunday's Oscar's, and it's not hard to see why. The battling forces here feel almost elemental, writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev providing us with a handful of second act twists that turn the movie on its side, and then all the way over. A grand, emotionally wrought depiction of fighting for what's rightfully yours against the most impossible of odds.
13. Gone Girl
When David Fincher released The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the tail end of 2011, I liberally pined for the director to go back to something 'real,' rather than adapting what might rightfully be described as an airport novel. Then Gone Girl came out, and I shut the hell up. Adapted from Gillian Flynn's best selling novel (that could also be readily described by the link above), Gone Girl opens with the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), an event that puts Ben Affleck's Nick Dunne under intense media scrutiny, and sets in motion a plot with more twists than a coastal highway. The acting praise has largely gone to Pike and a surprisingly tremendous Tyler Perry, and deservedly so, but it's Alleck who defines the movie for me, here exploring his devise media persona through the guise of another character. This is a salacious affair, more juicy than meaty, and while I'd still like to see Fincher take on more lofty material, his direction is still as crisp and kinetic as possible, elevating the source material at every turn.
12. The Rover
You're familiar with our Americanized incarnations of fairytales, right? You know, those simple, barebones stories in which a character overcomes exactly one (often mystical) challenge on their way eternal happiness? The Rover is pretty much the opposite of that, a stripped-down, desolate yarn drained of any real semblance of hope, waving its nihilistic flag at every turn. Guy Pierce takes on the title role, a near-wordless man aiming to survive in a post-acolyptic Australian outback who takes bloody umbrage with a gang of thieves that steal his car in the film's opening moments. The simplicity and ubiquitous nature of the tale somehow make it feel larger in scale, as do the performances of both Pierce and an expectation-defying Robert Pattinson. Every bleak passage of The Rover goes straight to the main vein; I haven't been able to fully put it out of my mind since I saw it half a year ago, and yes, that's a BIG compliment.
11. The Double
2014's second foray into doppelganger territory, Jesse Eisenberg stars as both Simon, a put-upon office drone with little semblance of true autonomy, and James, the endlessly cocky ladies man who shows up at work one day, tilting Simon's world off its axes in the process. Writer/director Richard Ayoade is one to wear his influences on his sleeve, and while the French New Wave-iness of his previous feature, Submarine, felt a bit disingenuous, this film's liberal citing of everything from Franz Kafka to Terry Gilliam's Brazil is inspired at every turn. This is a dark comedy that becomes less funny and more bleak as the film progresses, exploring the dimly-lit allies of loneliness, isolation, and latent violence. Special credit goes to cinematographer Erik Wilson and editors Chris Dickens and Nick Fenton, all responsible for cramming so much zip and pop into an otherwise drab film, but this is Ayoade's show. This guy is one to watch.