Every year, you can find excellent films, even in years when you just want to give a hard pass on everything playing in your theaters. With enough digging, there are always gems. 2014, so far, has not been one of those bad years. In fact, many of the blockbusters that have come out this year have been either above average or even excellent. I will mention them later in this review, but for now I would like to highlight some of the small/smaller gems that came out this year, many of which are now available from a variety of sources (DVD/Blu-ray, video on demand, streaming). Other than their relatively small releases, nothing connects these films except maybe their incredibly focused visions and their commitments to making truly cinematic experiences. (The list is not a ranking; it is simply in alphabetical order by title.)
Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Only Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature-length film, Blue Ruin is perhaps the tautest, most enthralling revenge film that’s come out in recent memory. The anonymity of his cast and the tautness of his direction makes this film stand out from other so-called thrillers and also manages to be reminiscent of Robert Bresson and Hitchcock at the same time.
Dir. Richard Linklater
I’ll admit that I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I thought I would be at Linklater’s bildungsroman in real time. I still enjoyed the film for its genuineness and authenticity; even when it doesn’t resolve plot threads or when certain elements seemed forced, Boyhood still manages to be highly engaging despite its (for the most part) low-key subject matter.
Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson is so connected to his visual and verbal style that he could never direct a picture completely free of it, and that’s perfectly fine in the case of Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s version of a political and murder thriller. I personally think that Wes Anderson has gotten better since Fantastic Mr. Fox, where his arch style and mannered dialogue fit surprisingly well.
Dir. Steven Knight
Locke proves that Tom Hardy is truly an incredible actor; he is our next De Niro, Pacino, Brando, whatever. It is only because of him that we can get thrills from watching a guy talk on the phone while driving for over an hour.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
You could probably see this film as a portrait of the ultimate hipsters, but Jarmusch, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton all manage to make this meditative, moody film an interesting one to watch. Even if this film is predominantly about its attitude, it still manages to be an excellent piece of filmmaking with its smoky, dark cinematography and contemplative camera movements.
Under the Skin
Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Under the Skin is science fiction, a study on celebrity, a dissertation on the male gaze and a bold visual and cinematic experiment all in one film, crowned with an excellent performance from Scarlett Johansson. This easily makes my top ten films of the decade so far.
And also in alphabetical order, are some of the bigger hits of the year so far.
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Captain America: Winter Soldier made an inherently ridiculous and cheesy character relevant to modern society. That alone gets this movie on this list.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an epic Shakespearean tragedy. No really, it is. It’s Julius Caesar with apes, which are a perfect combination of excellent CGI and motion-capture performances.
Edge of Tomorrow, The
An extremely entertaining movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously but also isn’t too tongue in cheek. Tom Cruise still proves that he is an excellent actor and that he has the charisma to ground any picture he’s in.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
A beautifully shot film with great characters and a moving story, How to Train Your Dragon 2 proves that it great artistry and skill to make animated movies and that they demand to be evaluated alongside “regular” movies.
Lego Movie, The
A corporate movie that can also be seen as anti-corporate, the Lego Movie is also extremely meta, touching, hilarious and engrossing.