The other day, a friend asked me to name my favorite films of the year, framing it as, “What films did you love this year?” I honestly had to stop and think about which new movies I even saw this year beyond the obvious ones like Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. My initial instinct was to simply fire up BoxOfficeMojo.com and go down the list of the year’s highest-grossing films, in a “Seen it,” “Going to rent it,” “Never going to see it” kind of way. My second instinct was to pull out my box full of ticket stubs, which I’ve been keeping since 2001, to verify which films I saw in theaters this year.
Part of this might simply be a “Damn, my memory really sucks” situation. However, part of it is because with the advent of VOD and Netflix films are increasingly becoming a disposable media, stuck into people’s weekend binge-watching habits and late-night viewing. That makes it tougher for films to really stick with us the way they used to. It also confuses the timeline. Most of us now enjoy previously unheard of access to seemingly every film ever made via Netflix’s vast, constantly fluctuating library. As such, it’s very possible that your favorite film of the year may not even be one which came out this decade. Heck, for some the most cinematic experience they had this year was escaping into the all-encompassing beauty and despair of the Playstation 3 video game The Last of Us.
It’s for those reasons and many more that movie attendance is on the decline. According to a Harris Interactive survey, the average American now only sees 5 movies in theaters a year, with 18-36-year-olds seeing the most and those in the senior circut (68+) seeing the fewest. Only a fifth of the respondents indicated they prefer to see movies in theaters, and around two-thirds agreed that they now see fewer movies in theaters than they were a few years ago. That’s certainly reflected in the number of movie theater tickets being sold in the United States and Canada, with the 1.26 billion sold in 2014 down from the 1.34 billion sold in 2013 which was itself down from the 1.36 billion sold in 2012. Those figures might be deceiving because of course there’d be a drop-off after The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises helped spike sales in 2012, and surely sales will tilt back up next year with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII. However, while I personally see more movies than the average American I, too, am seeing fewer films in theaters than I used to. A lot of it is down to the rising cost of a ticket, some of it is down to the quality of films being released in theaters, and another part of it is due to all the other entertainment options I have. Heck, I am forever catching up on TV shows on Netflix.
All of this inspired me to look back at the new movies I saw this year, not including older movies I simply saw for the first time. It turns out there were 684 movies released in theaters in 2014, and I saw 44 of them, 23 in theaters, 21 at home via DVD rentals or streaming.
The Movies I Saw In Theaters
The Lego Movie – After spending years playing the Lego-themed video games with my now 6-year-old nephew, The Lego Movie was a must-see, and he ended up liking it up until the big twist where the story switches over to live action and reveals everything beforehand had simply been in a little kid’s imagination. Of course, that’s actually around the point that the movie truly grabbed me, and I even kind of related to Will Ferrell as the adult who wants to play with Lego’s strictly according to instructions while the kid in his life wants to use his imagination and have fun with it.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman – This was another film I saw with my nephew. Truthfully, I may never have seen it if not for that. It turned out to be a delightful family film with plenty of fun-with-time-travel plot machinations, and the various kisses with history favorably reminded me of Quantum Leap, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Doctor Who.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – You can read my review elsewhere on the site. Hail hydra!
Oculus – Dodgy American accent aside, Karen Gillan is fantastic in this tale of a brother and a sister battling the influences of an evil mirror. Actually, when I put it that way it kind of sounds insanely stupid, but the actual mechanism of the haunting matters less than the long-term effects it has on the characters. The true star of the film, though, is the editing, which seamlessly manages a very fluid intermingling of time periods up until the point that past and present appear to interact in the last act. FilmSchoolRejects put forth a rather convincing argument that the editing in this film is Oscar-worthy.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 – The most annoying part of Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that it isn’t terrible. I could more easily move past it if it was simply a complete waste of time, but, dangit, there are parts of the film that actually work, Peter’s heart-to-heart with Aunt May when she finds his big wall of crazy, Electro’s confrontation with Spider-Man in Times Square, etc.
Godzilla – I grew up on Godzilla films with my step-dad, but lost all interest with it after the Matthew Broderick film. Pretty much everything involving the monsters in the new movie is spectacle and suspense done to perfection; it’s the human characters which drag everything down, particularly once Bryan Cranston checks out. It’s going to be a bit odd seeing Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elisabeth Olsen play siblings in Avengers: Age of Ultron after seeing them as a married couple in Godzilla.
X-Men: Days of Future Past – Coming into this movie, no one knew if Bryan Singer really had it in him anymore after his recent failure with Jack the Giant Slayer, and it was not exactly re-assuring that they were stuffing it full of almost as many mutants as Brett Ratner did in The Last Stand. It turns out the marriage of the original cast and First Class cast worked about as well as could have reasonably been expected albeit while introducing just as many new continuity issues as it solves.
Jersey Boys – Works better than any musical directed by Clint Eastwood should.
Guardians of the Galaxy – I was wrong, everyone else was right – this was exactly the change of pace comic book movies needed, even if Marvel’s signature McGuffins and last-act aerial battles are becoming a bit tiresome. Who doesn’t love dancin’ Baby Groot?
Lucy – When your premise is that a female drug mule becoming a superhuman after drugs insider of her unleash into her blood stream you’re asking for a pretty willing suspension of disbelief, which I granted Lucy for most of its running time until things finally went a little too crazy for me at the very end. Someone in front of me in the theater laughed at the end, and I couldn’t tell if it was a “You’ve got to be kidding me!” derisive laugh or an admiring “Didn’t see that coming” reaction.
The Maze Runner – Walking in, all I knew was that this being written off as a sci-fi Lord of the Flies, and while that is vaguely accurate the actual film never feels blatantly derivative. Similar to Lucy, I greatly enjoyed most of it, particularly Dylan O’Brien as the lead character, until the ending, but unlike Lucy that ending will likely be totally undone in the sequel.
Gone Girl – Less than 15 minutes after walking out of director David Fincher’s masterful adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I was on the phone with my best friend attempting to make sense of what I’d just seen. She’d seen the film 2 days earlier, and, unlike me, she’d actually read the book. We were still talking about the movie over an hour later, and even after ending our conversation I found myself struggling to fall asleep, my mind racing. I had expected Gone Girl to simply be a vaguely clever, black comedy satire of the Scott Peterson-Laci Peterson media circus from 2002. It was all of that and so much more, with an ending I can’t get out of my head. Oh, and I don’t particular care whether or not you can see Ben Affleck’s penis at some point in the film.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – At one point, I was a little kid, and I used to watch well-meaning, non-offensive movies like this all the time. Now that I have a nephew to take to movies I’m glad that Alexander and the Terrible… was around as an option.
St. Vincent – It pretty much is just About a Boy with a more surrogate grandfather/grandson thing going on instead of surrogate father/son, but it manages to make the most of its derived plot due to restrained performances from Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy.
Big Hero 6 – As a superhero film, I found this to be a bit lacking, all very first X-Men in the way it seems to have little time for its supporting characters; as a film about a young boy dealing with loss I found this surprisingly touching. Plus, come on, who doesn’t love Baymax?
Interstellar – Next to Gone Girl, no other movie has made me think and stuck with me more in 2014 than Interstellar, which falls short of Christopher Nolan’s previous work but does so in an admirable way, even with its “love solves everything” resolution.
Dumb and Dumber To – BBC Film critic Mark Kermode has a “5 laugh rule” for comedies whereby if it makes him laugh at least 5 times it has at least fulfilled its basic function. Dumb and Dumber To worked on that level for me. I don’t know how well it worked beyond that, but it did at least make me laugh 5 times, most notably when Harry and Lloyd re-discover the Shaggin’ Wagon only to immediately wreck it while jumping a steep hill.
John Wick – Kill a dog, I’m out. That’s what I said about John Wick, but then my best friend kind of wouldn’t stop talking about how much she loved it, writing in her review, “It wants to be a well-crafted shoot-‘em-up with the subtlety of a car crash and nothing else. There’s no philosophy, no deeper thematic significance. It’s simply punch, shoot, destroy, repeat. Yet the film is so absurdly entertaining and so refreshingly unpretentious, I watched it with my face eternally beaming.” Well, my face wasn’t “eternally beaming,” but once we got past the doggy death scene I was smirking most of the way through, appreciating the straight-forward thrills the film was laying down.
Mockingjay Part 1 – As an observation of the way we build our leaders through media and propaganda, Mockingjay has a lot going for it. As a complete story that stands on it own, not so much.
Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies – A movie-length version of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from Two Towers sounds like the most amazing thing in the world if you actually care about the characters involved. Battle of Five Armies is a version of that where you don’t really care about any of the characters or at least not as much as you should, despite game efforts from all the actors.
Into the Woods – I want to see this again tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. It’s my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical, and the film adaptation didn’t let me down, even if the whole Little Red Riding Hood/Big Bad Wolf part of the story has lost all of its power in translation.
Big Eyes – There’s an amazing story to be told about a woman who spent 16 years fighting her ex-husband in the literal courts as well as the court of public opinion to obtain her due credit for all the paintings he had claimed as his own. Big Eyes doesn’t so much care about any of that, or at least not the length of the woman’s fight, but the story it is interested in telling is an enjoyable one in a “Can you believe this really happened?” kind of way. Amy Adams consistently makes the most out of silent pauses throughout the film.
The Movies I Rented
22 Jump Street – It’s a sequel about sequels without coming off as too meta about it just in the same way Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s other 2014 film, Lego Movie, is largely a deconstruction of Hollywood blockbusters without drawing too much attention to that. Those who say the best part is the montage of fake movie posters for future sequels over the closing credits are wrong; for me, the best part was how they basically made a Lena Dunham clone the villain, and it came off so naturally.
Bad Words – Jason Bateman was born to be an asshole to innocent little kids who just want to win a dang spelling bee.
Begin Again – Yes, it shares more than a little in common with Once, though you’d expect as much since it comes from the same writer and director, but Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo make for nice Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard substitutes. The original song (“Lost Stars”) sung over the climactic scene is the one of the best uses of music in any film I saw this year, and James Corden delights and steals scenes as Knightley’s best friend.
Chef – If you want to watch Jon Favreau use a storyline about a chef and his son as a way to work through his real world issues with those critics who didn’t like Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, and are okay with a basic story structure of “montage of them cooking food set to latin music, serve food and have father-son bonding moment, another montage of them cooking food set to latin music, rinse and repeat” then Chef is the movie for you.
Earth To Echo – More Echo please. It’s E.T. for the found footage generation the same way Chronicle was a found footage comic book movie, but the amateur nature of the young actors sometimes gets in the way as does the fact that they largely hide the film’s best asset: the adorable alien the kids named Echo.
Edge of Tomorrow – It’s the perfect movie for people who don’t like Tom Cruise because where else do you get to see him die like 200 times in a single film? However, it is remarkably gripping with a powerhouse performance from Emily Blunt, and around the time you get past the whole “This is just like Groundhog Day” thing the movie really takes off.
The Fault in Our Stars – I am not a teenage girl. Therefore, I should have nothing to do with this Twilight-reborn-as-a-sad-cancer-kids movie. However, it is funny when you wouldn’t expect it to be, sad but not in an exploitive way, and filled with characters who feel like actual real human beings. I still smile when I think of Ansel Elgort’s Gus answering the phone with a chipper, “Hello, Hazel Grace” every time Shailene Woodley’s character calls him.
Grand Budapest Hotel – I loved Ralph Feinnes hilarious performance more than I loved the film, though I’ve always been resistant to Wes Anderson’s charms. This one did more to bring me over to Anderson’s side than any film he’s made since The Royal Tenenbaums. Incidentally, the same friend who insisted I see John Wick did the same with Edge of Tomorrow, Fault in Our Stars, and Grand Budapest Hotel. So, thank you.
Let’s Be Cops – Yes, the premise of Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. pretending to be cops comes off kind of like a B-story from an average New Girl episode, and there is a long stretch of story involving Keegan-Michael Key as a drug informant which fails to land. Plus, the whole notion of the film seems insensitive in a post-Ferguson world which has now progressed to the point that random cops are being slaughtered on New York City streets. However, divorced of that context Let’s Be Cops is simply a pretty funny movie which stretches out its SNL-sized premise more effectively over a full-length story than you’d expect. It doesn’t hurt, though, that I am a New Girl fan, and Jake Johnson is pretty much just playing a version of his Nick Miller character from the show.
A Merry Friggin’ Christmas – One of Robin Williams’ final films, this Christmas movie starring Joel McHale as a son suffering through a road trip with his estranged father (Williams) is probably most charitably described as “watchable.”
Million Dollar Arm – You pretty much know exactly where this movie is heading the entire time, which is not altogether bad but during certain stretches it takes a wee bit too long getting there. Also, can they please stop hiring Alan Arkin to play yet another version of his irascible old man character from Little Miss Sunshine?
Million Ways to Die in the West – This is where I might just invalidate any other opinion I might have expressed about a film, but I loved this movie. I know that it only has a 33% on RottenTomatoes, and that to some degree it is the pure definition of an ego stroke for Seth MacFarlane to produce, co-write, direct, and star in a film in which Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried compete over who gets to be with him. However, I laughed a lot, nearly every time Neil Patrick Harris was on screen. Yes, it is too long (they should have cut the whole sequence with the Native Americans), and MacFarlane isn’t much of an actor, but I just didn’t care because I was too busy laughing. I am a Family Guy/American Dad fan, though, and at various times in my youth I was obsessed with westerns like Young Guns, Maverick, and even Back to the Future 3. So, I was probably the perfect audience for Million Ways to Die in the West.
Neighbors – Maybe I’m becoming more prudish, but a dildo fight between Seth Rogen and Zac Efron was a comedy line I couldn’t cross, which sounds almost hypocritical given all the praise I just threw the way of the similarly R-rated Million Ways to Die in the West. That being said, bravo to them for letting Rose Byrne not only speak in her natural accent but not be reduced to some long-suffering sitcom wife. Plus, Rogen attempting to pose like Efron outside of a store near the end was a delightful bit of “watch the slightly overweight guy make a fool of himself” comedy.
Non-Stop – It’s a Liam Neeson movie set on an airplane, and it proceeds pretty much exactly as you’d expect based on that description, albeit with more tension and less action than the Taken films. However, it’s still a pretty darn enjoyable B-movie with a fun supporting performance from Julianne Moore.
RoboCop – I can’t remember anything about it other than the fact that Michael Keaton was the bad guy. Good for him.
Sex Tape – It deserves that 18% it has on RottenTomatoes.
The Skeleton Twins – It’s sad Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader being sad because they’re sad, but occasionally they break out into improvised comedy bits and truly random sing-a-longs to cheesy 80s songs. So, it feels like a standard indie drama before it feels like the actors channeling their SNL background before it goes back to feeling like a standard indie drama. Kudos to Luke Wilson for showing up as Wiig’s clueless, but lovable husband.
This Is Where I Leave You – The whacky family drama has been done better elsewhere just as it has been more embarrassing elsewhere. Tina Fey’s attempt at more adult drama isn’t as convincing as it could have been, and an out-of-nowhere revelation about the mom in the final act kind of hangs in the air before you move on because, well, what the heck else do you do after something like that.
Veronica Mars – It was nice seeing everyone from the show again. What about the film, though? Well, it was nice seeing everyone from the show again. That sounds pithy, but my point is that while the film is fine enough the real joy to be had simply comes from seeing Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars again.
What If – To some, the romantic comedy is dead, long since having transitioned to the realm of the sitcom. What If tries to revive it with a very When Harry Met Sally conceit involving Daniell Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan making their way through “the friend zone,” and it admirably goes out of its way to make Kazan into a character with a life outside of her romance. In other word, she’s not a manic pixie dream girl, especially not after Kazan just played a literal one in Ruby Sparks. Ultimately, though, it comes down to how much chemistry you thing Radcliffe and Kazan have together. I thought they had plenty and then some.
I clearly missed some big ones, like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and How to Train Your Dragon 2, and there are some indies which simply never came to a theater near me. I still clearly need to see Boyhood and some of the other awards shoe-ins. However, with the on-going story of film being as much about the way we actually consume films as it is about the specific movies being made and released I thought it interesting to look at my consumption habits and realize I have mostly come to regard movie theaters as the place to see the big budget action blockbusters and animated films with a musical or indie darling sprinkled lightly in-between. In fact, I haven’t bothered to re-watch Godzilla on home video because that is a movie which demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible with a sold-out crowd. Interstellar felt the same way, and in terms of proper summer blockbuster Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy were all that you could ask for. However, I appreciated that films like Begin Again and The Fault in Our Stars were out there to pull me away from comic book fantasy, and in the case of the latter took me to a place where on-screen deaths actually matter. I had to pinch myself not to cry during Fault in Our Stars, and I had to do the same thing during James Corden and Emily Blunt’s final song in Into the Woods. I had to remember to stay in my seat and not jump for joy the first time Godzilla let loose with his signature roar in Godzilla just as I had to remember to hold back my applause after Quicksilver beat up all those cops while rescuing Magneto in Days of Future Past.
But I started all of this off by recounting how I had recently been asked what movies I loved this year. I’ve taken a long dang time getting around to answering that, but here it finally is, the 2014 films I absolutely loved and still love:
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- 22 Jump Street
- Begin Again
- The Fault in Our Stars
- Million Ways to Die in the West
- Gone Girl
- Into the Woods
What about you? What movies did you love in 2014? And are you seeing fewer films in theaters, around the same, or possibly even more than you used to? Or are you just super-annoyed at something I said in one of my mini-reviews, or merely amused that I dared name the universally reviled Million Ways to Die in the West as a movie I loved this year? Let me have it the comments.