So, a four star movie is, obviously, the movies I give my highest rating. A four star movie may not be perfect. It may in some cases even be deeply flawed (*cough* Scarface *cough*), but a four star movie is a film that I feel really must be seen. It's a film that I give my highest recommendation. In short, you really have to see these movies. These are, again, films I saw in the calendar year 2014.
Great – “You gotta see this.” (85) – Highly Recommended
20,000 Days on Earth (2014) – Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard - ****
Bizarre blend of fiction and documentary follows iconic musician-artist Nick Cave on his 20,000th day on earth; strange, compelling film will alienate some, but it’s still a must watch.
22 Jump Street (2014) – Phil Lord, Christopher Miller - ****
Tatum-Hill chemistry is still off the charts and the direction and script are energetic and hilarious.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – David Lowery - ****
Poetic ode to cinema of the seventies, this story of young criminals in love is exquisitely directed and features astounding performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster & Keith Carradine.
Basket Case (1982) – Frank Henenlotter - ****
Bizarre, mind-bending, utterly ridiculous horror film is low-rent, cheesy and gut-bustingly hilarious in all the right “so bad it’s good” ways; funniest film I saw all year.
Batman (1989) – Tim Burton - ****
Classic comic book movie holds up magnificently, even after Nolan’s superlative efforts in the same universe. Entertaining to a degree one rarely encounters.
Before Sunset (2004) – Richard Linklater - ****
Melancholy & superior sequel reunites Hawke and Delpy in Paris and reaches emotional heights that surpass those of the original.
Begin Again (2013) – John Carney - ****
Tale of washed-up producer and wasted singer-songwriter finding redemption together is clichéd, but the conviction of the performances and the incredibly strong music create a joyous & exuberant experience.
Belle (2013) – Amma Asante - ****
True story of seventeenth century aristocratic family raising mixed-race girl is a moving, exquisite exploration of the power of right. Star-making performance from Mbatha-Raw.
Bettie Page Reveals All (2012) – Mark Mori - ****
Fascinating, incredibly entertaining documentary about pin-up girl that brought S&M into the mainstream and her bizarre, tragic and inspiring life.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - ****
Stunning performances from cast (Michael Keaton is career best), spectacular direction & a philosophical, emotional script add up to masterpiece as a washed-up actor seeks redemption.
Blue Ruin (2013) – Jeremy Saulnier - ****
Gripping, taut revenge thriller explores the twisted morality of violence with both beautiful insight and shocking brutality.
Bottle Rocket (1996) – Wes Anderson - ****
Wes Anderson’s debut feature is hilarious, sweet and interestingly free of many of his signature stylistic tics; Luke & Owen Wilson are both superb as a pair of misfit criminals.
Boyhood (2014) – Richard Linklater - ****
Epic twelve year experiment is an engaging, perfectly performed look at life through the eyes of a boy that slowly grows into a young man. Captures the rhythms of life to perfection.
The Breakfast Club (1985) – John Hughes - ****
A brilliant cast and a thoughtful script create a perfect and iconic portrait of youth and authority as five high-school students grow to know each other over a long Saturday’s detention.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) – Felix Van Groeningen - ****
Devastating, emotionally grueling portrait of a marriage fracturing in the aftermath of tragedy, as one partner turns to faith and the other to rationality; features amazing music.
Calvary (2014) – John Michael McDonagh - ****
Thought-provoking, haunting portrait of a good priest facing death amidst the cruel venality of his parish; disturbing, beautiful masterpiece with an astonishingly good ensemble.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Anthony Russo, Joe Russo - ****
The Marvel franchise takes influence from seventies conspiracy thrillers and ups the hand-to-hand combat intensity in this well-characterized, politically relevant action thriller.
Cavedigger (2013) – Jeffrey Karoff - ****
Short documentary about an artist that creates strange, beautiful caves in the desert of the Southwestern US; sure to explode your notion of what art can be.
Cheap Thrills (2013) – E.L. Katz - ****
Wealthy couple baits two friends into an ever escalating game of dares in this disturbing thriller. Great characters elevate the often disgusting movie above the cheap thrills the title promises.
Cold in July (2014) – Jim Mickle - ****
Intricate, twisty thriller has fine performances from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson; don’t even watch the trailer for the full effect of this constantly surprising film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – Matt Reeves - ****
Summer blockbuster that’s also an evocative character study; features amazing special effects and wonderful characters, both ape and human.
Dear White People (2014) – Justin Simien - ****
Culture clash in this incredibly smart, often funny, deeply emotional debut from Justin Simien as blacks and whites intermingle and face the increasingly complicated racial politics of day to day life on an Ivy League college campus. The film is a character study of its large and well-written ensemble cast first, only secondarily a statement about race.
Despicable Me 2 (2013) – Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud - ****
Witty sequel finds ex-supervillain, now single father Groo falling in love and trying to stop evil villain’s plot; hilariously funny and touching in equal measure. Every bit the equal of the wonderful original, if not perhaps a little better.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014) – Ned Benson - ****
Relationship seen at various points in this beautifully written and wonderfully performed heartwrencher. Chastain & McAvoy are both wonderful, Chastain career best; the supporting cast is equally great.
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (2012) – Selma Vilhunen - ****
Hysterically funny short (less than ten minutes) from Finland finds a harried family rushing to attend a wedding.
The Drop (2014) – Michael R. Roskam - ****
Wonderful performance from Tom Hardy anchors this melancholy crime drama about a simple-minded, pragmatic man trying to negotiate the world of organized crime.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Bomb (1964) – Stanley Kubrick - ****
Satirical, iconic dark comedy holds up; Peter Sellers & George C. Scott are particularly hilarious, fiddling while the world prepares to burn.
Enemy (2013) – Denis Villeneuve - ****
Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderful in this moody, enigmatic, dread soaked thriller about a man who discovers he has an exact double.
Fed Up (2014) – Stephanie Soechtig - ****
Cute animated short that tells the story of a romantic relationship through the eyes of a pet dog and the food he shares with his human family. Sounds confusing, but it’s adorably simple and creative.
Force Majeure (2014) – Ruben Ostlund - ****
Painful, emotionally bleak exploration of a family’s disintegration on a ski vacation. Brutal and merciless toward its characters and the audience.
Get a Horse! (2013) – Lauren MacMullen - ****
Creative animated sort sees an old school Micky Mouse cartoon expand into the modern era.
Ghostbusters (1984) – Ivan Reitman - ****
Comedy classic remains brilliant and hilarious; an amazing ensemble cast and some genuinely great supernatural elements work to create a perfect storm of entertainment.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) – Ana Lily Amirpour - ****
A vampire stalks the residents of a small slum area in this atmospheric, strange, beautiful, haunting and romantic Iranian film.
The Godfather Part II (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola - ****
Multi-generational epic tells story of the battle between crime and family; still one of the most astonishingly great films of all time.
Godzilla (2014) – Gareth Edwards - ****
Tautly directed, with a great cast, this film is smarter, more atmospheric and more invested in actual character development than you’d think; but it still knows how to stage a giant monster smack-down too.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Wes Anderson - ****
Ralph Fiennes gives a precise comic performance as the concierge at a fancy hotel that finds himself involved in murder, theft and international intrigue; creative, hilarious and eye-popping.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – James Gunn - ****
Tongue firmly in cheek, this space opera still cares about its characters enough to choke you up a few times; one of Marvel’s most creative efforts so far.
Her (2013) – Spike Jonze - ****
Incredibly creative and unbelievably emotional, this love story of a man and his operating system is a thoughtful, heartfelt and strange exploration of humanity and its relationship to technology.
The Hornet’s Nest (2014) – David Salzberg, Christian Turead - ****
Documentary filmmaker accompanies troops on a mission in Afghanistan that quickly turns into an absolute death trap; Lone Survivor, only it’s all real this time.
Hot Fuzz (2007) – Edgar Wright - ****
Action movies get wonderfully sent up in this comedy masterpiece as Simon Pegg finds himself in over his head as a sharp London cop attempting to navigate small town life.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) – Dean DeBlois - ****
Beautifully realized animated film features wonderful animation and solid character work and succeeds better as a grown-up drama than as a kid’s comedy; often dark and genuinely sad, it’s a mature film that’s much better than you’d think it would be.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - ****
A misanthropic folk singer meanders about aimlessly in this rambling, poetic film, another wonderful, off-beat achievement by the Coen brothers.
Interstellar (2014) – Christopher Nolan - ****
Nolan returns to form with this epic space adventure; the movie is huge and the effects monumental, but everything serves the very real human emotions at the heart of the story.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) – Frank Pavich - ****
Blissfully entertaining documentary about iconoclastic director’s attempts to adapt Frank Herbert’s visionary novel.
Joe (2013) – David Gordon Green - ****
Nicolas Cage’s best performance in a decade or more as an ex-con trying to find peace while Tye Sheridan’s young drifter attempts to handle life with his abusive father; gripping, wonderfully performed and directed.
John Wick (2014) – Chad Staheski - ****
Balletic, visually stunning action film features perfect casting, astonishing action sequences, a genuinely effecting story, actual wit and compelling and detailed world building; as good an action movie as Hollywood’s given us in years.
Just Before Losing Everything (2013) – Xavier Legrand - ****
Almost unbearably tense half-hour French short follows a woman’s preparations to leave her abusive husband; nail-biting and Hitchcockian.
The Last Waltz (1978) – Martin Scorsese - ****
Astounding concert movies captures absolute icons (Clapton, Dylan, Morrison & more) at the height of their powers; consistently riveting and energetic.
The Lego Movie (2014) – Phil Lord, Christopher Miller - ****
Pure, joyous wonder suffuses this brilliant, effervescent animated film; Lord & Miller transcend commercialism in a film that seemed destined to be a long commercial; what a pleasant surprise.
Life Itself (2014) – Steve James - ****
Warm, affectionate, sometimes harrowing documentary explores the life of Roger Ebert from the highs of his fame to the lows of his battle with cancer; deeply effecting.
The Lunchbox (2013) – Ritesh Batra - ****
Coincidence causes a correspondence to begin between a middle aged office drone and a troubled, depressed housewife in the bustle of modern India; both humorous and dramatic by turns.
Maidentrip (2013) – Jillian Schlesinger - ****
Documentary about the fascinating, compelling Laura Dekker, a fourteen year old girl that sets out to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat completely alone; an engaging character study and a fantastic adventure story.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014) – Rob Minkoff - ****
Underrated animated film functions incredibly well as a hilarious comedy, a high-energy adventure and, believe it or not, a sweet, effective relationship drama; special marks to Ty Burrell’s voice work.
Neighbors (2014) – Nicholas Stoller - ****
Raucous, raunchy comedy pits Rogen & Byrne against Efron and Franco (D, not J) but beneath the hilarious hijinks, the film has real insights into its characters.
Nightcrawler (2014) – Dan Gilroy - ****
Gyllenhaal is pheomenal as a sociopathic, amoral freelance journalist in this gripping neo-noir.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Henry Selick - ****
Eye-popping, well characterized animated film about Jack Skellington and his desire to be Santa Claus holds up; it’s still light years ahead of most films of its type.
Night Moves (2013) – Kelly Reichardt - ****
Reichardt’s spare, poetic meditation about three eco-terrorists is a methodical, beautiful & haunting film, featuring a great leading trio; Eisenberg, in particular, is breathtakingly good.
Noah (2014) – Darren Aronofsky - ****
Aronofsky’s vision of the Biblical story is fittingly offbeat, but the film succeeds because of its more traditional parts: a thoughtful exploration of faith and a powerful performance by Crowe.
Oldboy (2003) – Park Chan-wook - ****
Gonzo, consistently shocking & bracing Korean film follows a man out for revenge after being mysteriously imprisoned for fifteen years; Min-Sik is unforgettable in the lead and Chan-wook’s direction is some of the best you’ll ever see.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – Milos Forman - ****
Classic film remains somewhat dated in its morality and perspectives, but the wonderful cast makes the film so visceral that it can’t help but remain an intense experience.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – Jim Jarmusch - ****
Strange, hypnotic film features Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton as world-weary vampires drifting through a deserted Detroit.
On the Waterfront (1954) – Elia Kazan - ****
Classic tale of union corruption and murder remains gripping; perhaps the pinnacle of Brando’s long & storied career.
Paperman (2012) – John Kahrs - ****
Witty, heartfelt animated short about the art of love and paper planes; funny, retro and utterly pleasurable.
The Past (2013) – Asgar Farhadi - ****
Quiet, ultimately devastating, meticulously acted, methodical film from Iranian auteur explores the ripple effects of a couple’s divorce in France. Best final shot of the year (yes, better than Boyhood AND The Drop).
Pride (2014) – Matthew Warchus - ****
Uplifting and charming without being saccharine, this true tale of an unlikely alliance between gays and coal miners in 1980s England is a pure pleasure with a wonderful ensemble cast.
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (2013) – Edgar Barens - ****
Devastating, emotionally grueling short documentary about the experience of dying of old age behind bars; socially conscious, but totally human.
Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock - ****
Astoundingly great horror film is both a cinematic milestone and a dark, beautifully effective thriller. Great performances and one of the best scores of all time.
The Punk Singer (2013) – Sini Anderson - ****
Documentary about forgotten punk singer Kathleen Hanna is a portrait of a charismatic, intense personality from the iconoclastic days of her youth to her current married life and a gripping feminist statement.
The Raid 2 (2014) – Gareth Evans - ****
Best action flick I’ve seen in years follows an undercover cop into gangland, but who cares? Dig those amazing, well-choreographed, brutal, eye-popping fight sequences. Pulse-pounding and incredibly entertaining.
The Railway Man (2013) – Jonathan Teplitzky - ****
Amazing performances from all concerned, especially Firth, crank up the intensity on this brutal, unflinching tale of a WWII veteran’s battles with PTSD after his time in a Japanese prison camp.
RiffTrax Live: Sharknado (2014) – Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy - ****
Unbelievably funny RiffTrax event as the usual crew crack wise over the unbelievably awful Sharknado.
Saw (2004) – James Wan - ****
Ten years after its revolutionary release, this mean little movie remains a masterful thriller as the mysterious Jigsaw plays his signature games; less gore, more tension than the rest of the series.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – (2013) – Ben Stiller - ****
Surprisingly heartfelt and very well directed and acted film hits the usual notes about finding happiness in your life by escaping the comfort zone, but it’s so sincere and so genuinely moving, that it’s impossible to hate it.
Sharknado (2013) – Anthony C. Ferrante - ****
RiffTrax Live film holds up as an absolutely essential film on its own; the definition of so bad it’s great. It’s deadly serious, but you’ll pee yourself laughing.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Frank Darabont - ****
Wonderful prison drama with perfect performances, including possibly Freeman’s very best, and a wonderful score; far from subtle, but the emotions it evokes are both real & powerful.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Jonathan Demme - ****
Horror thriller about FBI agents and the serial killers that love them; pitch perfect performances add to an atmospheric, seriously creepy masterpiece.
The Skeleton Twins (2014) – Craig Johnson - ****
Wiig & Hader are wonderful (as is Luke Wilson) as a pair of troubled siblings forced to confront the raw emotions of the past when one of them attempts suicide. Very funny, very dark and excellent.
The Square (2013) – Jehane Noujaim - ****
Compelling documentary examines the Tahrir Square protests of Egypt with a troubling degree of moral complexity; also examines the normal people caught up in historic events with compassion and insight.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) – Park Chan-wook - ****
Final film in Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy is as brutal as anything he’s done, a gripping, deeply disturbing, even horrifying, yet strangely beautiful tale of a woman’s revenge after being framed for a horrible crime.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – Tobe Hooper - ****
Incredibly intense viewing experience; film is just as visceral, shocking and grotesque as it’s ever been. Horror landmark about insane family and violent murders is a must-see.
Tim’s Vermeer (2013) – Teller - ****
Eccentric inventor creates a device he believes will allow him to create an exact duplicate of a Vermeer painting in this whimsical, thought-provoking, often funny documentary. An absolute delight.
The Voorman Problem (2013) – Mark Gill - ****
British short is both humorous & creepy as a psychiatrist finds himself getting in over his head with a new patient. Wonderful performances from the two leads.
Le Week-End (2013) – Roger Michell - ****
Lindsey Duncan & Jim Broadbent are incredible in this low-key drama about an aging couple attempting to rekindle their marriage over a weekend in Paris; heartfelt, minimal and effecting.
Whiplash (2014) – Damien Chazelle - ****
Miles Teller & J.K. Simmons are electrifying as an obsessive jazz drummer and his sadistic music teacher; suspenseful, disturbing and completely riveting from start to finish.
Wild (2014) – Jean-Marc Vallee - ****
Artistic, evocative direction and a career best turn from Witherspoon as a troubled woman hiking the Pacific Coast Trail elevate this film to a beautiful masterpiece.
The Wind Rises (2013) – Hayao Miyazaki - ****
A luminous animated marvel; this biography of the inventor of the Zero plane is aesthetically flawless and deeply emotional.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – Martin Scorsese - ****
Another American masterpiece from Scorsese; a wonderful cast supports a manic DiCaprio as a sociopathic wall-street stock trader. Disturbing, grim trip down the rabbit hole to the amoral heart of capitalism.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012) – Rich Moore - ****
Lovely, warm-hearted and hilariously funny animated story of a video game villain seeking redemption; witty, clever script and a pitch perfect voice cast.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Bryan Singer - ****
Time-travel to save the world has rarely been this fun. Exuberant, perfectly acted, emotionally evocative flick is a blast of smart, clever, character based action.