[Note: In 2014, as in 2012 and 2013, this article will be published over a span of several days, with the reveal of two or three new titles every day during the December 25-30 period. It's done that way to generate some suspense and keep the website active during a period when there's nothing new to review. If you want to skip the "countdown" element, just check in on New Year's Eve and the whole thing will be there.]
We start every year the same way: a countdown ushering out the old, a kiss, a song, and best wishes for the next twelve months. Rinse and repeat about 90 times over a lifetime then go into a box under the ground. Some years fulfill the promise that exists at 12:01 on January 1; many do not. It takes 365 days to make a determination. In the world of film, there are various metrics that can be applied to decide whether a year is successful or not. Studios get out their calculators and examine the box office gross. Casual movie-goers may look at the level of excitement or anticipation generated by the year's biggest releases. Critics often compile Top 10 lists and use the strength of the titles on that roster to suggest something about the year as a whole.
If one was to judge 2014 solely on the basis of box office, it would be an unmitigated disaster. When the last ticket is bought at 11:59 on New Year's Eve, the total box office will send Hollywood executives in search of stiff drinks. 2014 was when what I call the "one-and-done" phenomenon exploded, spraying shrapnel across a weak summer blockbuster landscape. Not a single 2014 release managed a domestic gross north of $335M. Only two made more than $260M. Last year, four films exceeded $335M (three of those >$400M) and seven extended beyond $260M. The 2012 numbers were similar to 2013. In fact, you have to go back to 2001 to find a year that looks like 2014. If one adjusts for inflation, it's necessary to go all the way back to 1987-88 when the entire motion picture landscape was different (fewer theaters, smaller multiplexes, teen boy domination). Box office doesn't tell the whole story but it's reflective of how the public felt about 2014 in theaters: bad, lackluster, meh.
For the second straight year, no sequels made it into my Top 10 proper (although there are two in the honorable mentions list). There a pair of carry-overs from 2013, although neither was released with any vigor in U.S. theaters until this year. In terms of potential Top 10 films deferred to 2015, I can think of two off the top of my head: Selma and Still Alice. Both will be reviewed in January and will be in contention for the top spot of 2015 alongside the likes of Taken 3 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.
One curiosity: 2014 was less back-loaded than most years. By that, I mean that all the really good films weren't crammed into an eight-week release window at the end of the year. By design or coincidence, they were spread more evenly across the 12 months (if you include the general release dates of the two carry-overs). On the one hand, this means there were great things to see in almost every season. On the other hand, it meant that things were a little less festive during November and December. In fact, only two December films made it onto the list and one could make a compelling case that neither is *truly* a December release.
Honorable mentions - five films that didn't quite make the cut but which I still highly recommend (alphabetical):
#10: Fury: Fury is the perfect blending of WW2 verisimilitude, Hollywood heroics, and Saving Private Ryan grit. It is, put simply, a great war movie that gives viewers everything they need from the genre: edge-of-the-seat battles, a larger-than-life protagonist (Brad Pitt in a role that will sadly be overlooked when Oscar nominations are handed out), and an ending that doesn't cheat the characters or the viewer. You don't have to like war films to become absorbed by this one but if, like me, you appreciate them, this is a member of 2014's "don't miss" class.
#9: The Wind Rises: Even with no Pixar films released in 2014, it was a solid year for animated fare due in large part to a couple of February releases. One was, of course, The LEGO Movie. The other was Hayao Miyazaki's directorial swansong, The Wind Rises. "Officially" a 2013 film (and therefore eligible for the 2014 Oscars), this didn't reach more than a small handful of theaters until Disney ushered it into the February wilderness. It is, without question, the best animated film to be released in at least the last 12 months (and perhaps much longer). Falling into the "animation for older viewers" category, there's nothing cute or cuddly about The Wind Rises. It's just a tremendous story told by a visionary director who, for better or worse, apparently hung up his pencil and paper after finishing this film.
#8: Gone Girl: I'm a sucker for twisty movies where I'm never quite sure what's around the corner and, having not read Gillian Flynn's source novel, I was in unprepared territory when it came to Flynn and director David Fincher's adaptation. Headlined by a diabolical performance from Rosamund Pike (showing tremendous range, essentially playing two different characters), this is great neo-noir entertainment with a nihilistic ending that gives everyone pretty much what they deserve. Not nearly as serious as most of the Oscar contenders, this one gets by on pure, pulpy enjoyability.
#7: American Sniper: American Sniper is a lot of things - Clint Eastwood's best movie in a decade, Bradley Cooper's best performance ever, a loose adaptation of a true story - but one thing it isn't is political. The film doesn't have an ax to grind regarding the "rightness" or "wrongness" of the Iraq conflict. Instead, it keeps things personal and this results in white-knuckle tension and powerful moral dilemmas. I'm not a fan of the "platform" release strategy that results in movies like this opening in "select" theaters in late December but at least American Sniper's January wide arrival will give movie-goers a reason to visit multiplexes once the holidays are over.