Top Films of 2014

By Megan McRainey | Dec. 22, 2014

Each year, the film experts — and movie lovers — in Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies assemble a list of the year’s best films. Selections are primarily based on films available to Atlanta moviegoers as of Dec. 17. Many of these works are in theaters or available for streaming online or on video (Blu-Ray, DVD).

"2014 was a decent year at the movies. It wasn’t fantastic but there were some really wonderful films, including those on our list," says Michele Schreiber, an associate professor of film studies at Emory.

The expert faculty members and movie raters include Tanine Allison, Matthew H. Bernstein, William A. Brown, Joe Conway, Ryan Cook, Karla Oeler, Daniel Reynolds, Michele Schreiber and Eddy Von Mueller.

Birdman

Directed by "Biutiful" helmer Alejandro González Iñárritu to appear as if it is mostly one epically long take, this hyper-self-aware drama stars Michael Keaton (who broke big playing Tim Burton’s Batman – nudge, nudge, wink, wink) as a fading ex-action hero looking to make a comeback and at long last prove his acting chops on Broadway. With so much of its satire floating right on the slick surface of such naked style, "Birdman" should come off as cloying and too clever by half, an overlong, overthought, finally unfunny Saturday Night Live sketch dragged onto the big screen. 

But the film is redeemed and made, at moments, almost sublime by raw, rivetingly authentic performances, particularly by Keaton; Edward Norton, whose insufferable "serious" actor every bit as egomaniacal as any Hollywood glamor-boy; and by Emma Stone, who gives a turn as the has-been’s daughter that reminds us powerfully that this "It" girl of the hour really does have "it."

— Eddy Von Mueller

Boyhood

American cinema was preoccupied with time in 2014. Films like "Interstellar" and "Edge of Tomorrow" toy with the relationships between time and space, perception and experience. In contrast to those films, "Boyhood" is linear, chronological and earthbound. Yet it is also a gently experimental, groundbreaking film that does things with time that no film has ever done before. Over a 12-year period, director Richard Linklater met annually with his cast and crew to tell the fictional story of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18. We watch the years pass for the characters and actors alike, and we see the world around them change with the times.

The film works so well, it’s easy to forget how risky the production really was. Linklater is among our most accomplished directors, and he approaches this material with an easy confidence that doesn’t push artificial drama. Linklater has uncovered a new capacity of the cinema, 120 years after its invention.

— Daniel Reynolds

Foxcatcher

Early in "Foxcatcher," we witness an extended, wordless but eloquent wrestling scene between Olympic champion brothers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively).  Its authenticity, careful pacing and the raw emotions underlying it (fraternal love combined with Mark’s emotional frustration over a career going nowhere) are emblematic of this stylistically resonant film from Bennett Miller, which, like his Capote and Moneyball, is based on a true story.

Ruffalo and Tatum have never been better, but the true revelation is Steve Carrell, almost unrecognizable physically and emotionally as John E. du Pont, the eccentric multimillionaire who sponsors the brothers and a U.S. Olympic wrestling team at his sprawling estate in Pennsylvania. This is an utterly absorbing, restrained film about wealth, poverty, power, ambition and family.   

— Matthew H. Bernstein

Gone Girl

Based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling page-turner of a novel (she also did the screen adaptation) and helmed by one of Hollywood’s hottest directors, David Fincher ("Fight Club," "The Social Network"), "Gone Girl" delivers the smartest thrill ride of any American film this year. Not since "Fatal Attraction" has a film so succinctly tapped into, and offered a scathing critique of, the dynamics of heterosexual relationships and the cultural expectations surrounding gender.

Fincher and frequent collaborators, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and composers Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, transform the book’s "he said/she said" narrative into an aural and visual interrogation of the blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality, duplicity and authenticity, and our public and private selves. Ben Affleck, Tyler Perry and Kim Dickens all give excellent performances but the film’s brilliant balancing act between drama and comedy rests on Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Amy, the icy, enigmatic female protagonist who you manage to admire and hate at the same time.  

— Michele Schreiber

Ida

Shot in the traditional (square) Academy ratio, with stunningly lit black-and-white cinematography, "Ida" is a film way off the beaten track of conventional cinema—but a richly rewarding one. When Ida, an idealistic, inexperienced and orphaned novitiate first meets her cynical, alcoholic aunt, a Communist judge in bleak, early 1960s Poland, she learns surprising things about her past and her place in the world. The film’s minimalist style arises naturally from Ida’s unassuming personality—this is a film of spare, de-centered shots and alternating classical and jazz music, in which the smallest gesture—letting down one’s hair, or even smiling—becomes profoundly eloquent.

— Matthew H. Bernstein

Interstellar

"Interstellar" rivals "2001: A Space Odyssey" for its magnificent space vistas and imaginative alien worlds. But it’s not just a space movie; like Christopher Nolan’s previous films "Memento" and "Inception," it is about how we subjectively experience time. Beyond its mind-boggling visualizations of black holes, the 4th dimension, and worm holes, "Interstellar" is the first science-fiction film to dramatize the implications of space-time relativity—in other words, how space travel distorts temporality so that time flows more slowly for the traveler than his loved ones on Earth. Interstellar explores the emotional consequences of relativity, particularly in the relationship between a father (Matthew McConaughey) and daughter (Jessica Chastain).

If you can, see this film in 70 mm IMAX. Shot partially with IMAX cameras, "Interstellar" expands to fill the entire IMAX screen, enveloping viewers in awe-inspiring landscapes and powerful dramatic sequences.

— Tanine Allison

Nightcrawler

"Nightcrawler" is both a taut thriller and a critique of the venality and sensationalism of local news media, but is most compelling as a recessionary odyssey of an individual navigating, by car, the post-American Dream city. It therefore joins a tradition running from "Taxi Driver" to "Drive"... and "Crash." Its anti-hero, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is evidently hollowed out and "lost" (his striking eyes are windows to a vacant interior), but he is guided by neoliberal individualism. From his perspective, the Los Angeles cityscape is at once an environment of unlimited (and therefore alienating and overwhelming) possibility and a severe meritocracy demanding that one find one's path and get ahead by any means. 

The film is precise and well crafted, with a captivating performance by Gyllenhaal. "Nightcrawler" is part morality play for the striving 99 percent, an example of how not to live, mixed with the uncomfortable suggestion that this may be the only way to live successfully in the new city.

— Ryan Cook

Snowpiercer

In "Snowpiercer," an attempt to halt global warming by injecting CW-7 into the atmosphere instead creates an all-encompassing ice age. What survives are a train, the "snowpiercer," its passengers and cargo, which together constitute a claustrophobic, self-sustaining, ecosystem whose overpopulation is ruthlessly curtailed by those in power.  Director and writer Bong Joon-ho ("The Host") and cowriter Kelly Masterson ("Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead") layer political allegory onto an environmental-apocalypse scenario. Wealthy, first-class passengers luxuriate at the front while the poor are packed in the back in windowless cattle cars—until they revolt.

The revolution, led by Curtis ("Captain America" Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt) makes for a potently visualized, episodic (rail) road movie as the revolutionaries advance from back to front, from one train car to the next, each with its own surprises of plot and (thanks to cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil) lighting and set design. Tilda Swinton’s Mason gives a memorable face to the oppression, dentures and all.

— Karla Oeler

Under the Skin

When you are the most desired woman on the planet, it may be good to be an alien every now and then. Scarlett Johansson picks up men on the street in Glasgow, takes them inside a building, takes her clothes off, and lures them into an unexplained black void. The lust struck men are being fattened up for alien menus. Under Johansson’s appealing skin lies an alien predator. But, true to the story conventions of "The Twilight Zone," Scarlett, after having a sexual encounter with one of the young men of Glasgow, is somehow cured of her predator ways.

"Under the Skin" is a good Scarlett Johansson vehicle, playing on her sexual allure while giving her a chance to act as an alien carnivore who comes to like the skin of a human being. She’s comfortable in the skin of another in this memorable and edgy small budget film.

— William A. Brown

Whiplash

The title of this taut, frenetic little film couldn't be more appropriate as the lead characters — a talented but emotionally needy young musician (Miles Teller) and his overly demanding and abusive music instructor (played with maniacal glee by J.K. Simmons) — engage in a psychological tug-of-war that will leave you feeling at the end of two hours like you just stepped off the Tilt-O-Whirl at the local carnival: a little dizzy from the spinning, a little bruised from the sudden and unexpected shocks, but more wonderfully exhilarated than you've felt in a very long time.

— Joe Conway

Honorable mentions:

  •  Edge of Tomorrow
  • Mr. Turner
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • The Tribe