I've already called this one my pick for the year's best movie. The reception otherwise seems to be lukewarm (the lack of Golden Globe nominations just one recent reminder), but that's the fickle public for you, after three huge blockbusters (The Dark Knight and Inception especially, and The Dark Knight Rises to a lesser extent, and perhaps now clearly the beginning of the cooling process). This is Christopher Nolan's opus, in a career that seems already full of them. What makes this so special is that it's the first time that the director has grounded his story less in flashy concept than the human drama that roots it. All around it's Nolan pushing all of his instincts to the next level. he was already among the elite. Now he's making a bid for something greater.
2.) Winter's Tale
Based on the Mark Helprin novel, this is the second of three high concept movies that converged to make 2014 truly exceptional in that degree, movies that didn't merely suggest but demand their ideas take center stage. Out of the three, it's no surprise that Winter's Tale ultimately proved the hardest to swallow. This was Akiva Goldsman's directorial debut. He's previously been known for his screenwriting, where no doubt opinions might rightly be split on his efforts (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin on one side, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man on the other, say). I think his true apprenticeship for this movie came from his time working on Fringe, a TV series that sought to challenge audiences with the same mix of intimate character work and the baffling events that surrounded them. Obviously, the fact that it stars Colin Farrell made me interested to begin with, but Winter's Tale itself continues to fascinate me.
Darren Aronofsky's sixth movie may be his best. This is a bold statement, in that his previous movies have a great deal of critical approval behind them (starting with Pi and continued through Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan). Only The Fountain has stymied the critics to the extent Noah has, and that one fell through so many cracks I bet most people still haven't even heard of it. Noah was always going to have an unavoidable profile, given that it's a biblical epic. Sixty years ago this would have been an acceptable part of the mainstream. Only this year have critics begun to speak of the controversial Passion of the Christ positively, and that one was released a decade ago to famously spectacular box office success. The thing about Noah is that it's not "acceptable" by either mainstream or religious standards. Aronofsky made an Aronofsky movie. Anyone who saw Requiem will recognize its DNA in Noah. Like Winter's Tale, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are featured. Crowe does some of his best work in a career filled with exceptional acting, portraying a man tortured by what he believed has been asked of him. I've experienced many different versions of this story, and I've been fortunate to experience several good ones. This is definitely one of them.
The only actor to appear in the whole movie is Tom Hardy. Released early in the year, it received a little bit of attention given that fact, but it's been forgotten largely overlooked, and that's unfortunate. After everyone discovered Hardy in Christopher Nolan's Inception, it became harder to overlook the actor's incredible ability to reinvent himself in each new role, which is to say, acknowledge his considerable talent. He's not the first person to be the only actor in a major motion picture (a recent example would be Robert Redford in All is Lost, a kind of more subdued Castaway), but this is literally a whole movie of watching Hardy drive. He takes a series of phone calls, and as they continue, the drama escalates, because the pressure of the situation builds. This is a life that has already come undone, but over the course of the movie, it becomes obvious how. It's quite remarkable.
5.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2
In a year filled with excellent superhero movies, it's the one that the fewest truly seemed to enjoy that is arguably the best. Maybe I was biased, given how much I enjoyed director Marc Webb's earlier (500) Days of Summer, but this is the best Spider-Man movie yet, one that truly appreciates the complexities of Peter Parker's life and explores it in ways many comic books have tried over the years, but never to this emotional degree. The villains are the one concession Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes to what most other superhero movies have done. The rest of it is what it proves can still be done, if only filmmakers make the effort.
6.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
I liked the first one, but the second one is better. Oh, it's better. Critics have gotten audiences to agree with them that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have been collaborating on a glorified novelty act, one that is relentlessly misogynistic, but if that were the case, I wouldn't expect Eva Green and Jessica Alba to have been the best parts of A Dame to Kill For. Green has been a bombshell of a different kind for nearly a decade at this point, blazing new ground in the mainstream since Casino Royale, and only recently has she begun to find roles worthy of her. I suspect the best is yet to come. Alba wouldn't get anywhere close to this kind of material from anyone but Rodriguez, which makes me anticipate the next time they work together. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, and of course Mickey Rourke, and it's not just the way this one's presented that makes it so riveting, but what the characters in it are doing, which has less to do with shock value this time, with more emphasis on storytelling.
7.) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Peter Jackson's likely last visit to Tolkien's Middle-earth is less compelling than its immediate predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug, but by the time it finds echoes from the first of the six-volume saga, The Fellowship of the Ring, it's clear the director made an effort to encompass the whole experience in more ways than one as he says goodbye. Until Smaug, Fellowship was my favorite of the series, with its strong character work, anchored by the death of Boromir. When Jackson first introduced Thorin Oakenshield, I thought he was a big to be a surrogate Aragorn. But as it turns out, he was Boromir all along. I haven't read the book since I was in elementary school, so had forgotten that Thorin's arc exists in it. The changes Jackson did make in his three films, including the creation of Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel, are all welcome decisions as far as I'm concerned.