The 3 Brothers' Essential Films of 2014
Every film site from the A.V. Club to Indiewire has released their best films of the year in the past few weeks. While our Top 10 lists won’t arrive until the first week of January, we thought it’d be useful to compile a list of the essential films of 2014, inspired by Scott Tobias’s exhaustive “The Big Checklist“ over at The Dissolve. Before the list starts, a few clarifiers:
We think of essential films as those movies every cinephile ought to try to see. They don’t have be great, but they have to be good and interesting and worthy of conversation.
We’ve also divided the list up into four categories to make it easier to sort: The Prestige Pic, The Multiplex, The Arthouse and The Hot Doc. The Prestige Pic includes cinema heavyweights, movies looking to find glory on the festival circuit and during awards season. The Multiplex includes all the mainstream movies you’d find at the local Cineplex. The Arthouse includes foreign and independent cinema, the kind of stuff mainstream theatres usually fail to screen. And, finally, The Hot Doc includes documentary cinema.
Without further clarifiers, these are the Three Brothers’ Essential Films of 2014, sorted by category, and listed in alphabetical order.
THE PRESTIGE PIC
dir. Richard Linklater
What It’s About: A coming of age tale about a boy growing up in Texas, filmed over the course of 12 years.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but the brothers found it to be a fascinating cinematic event, even if they weren’t as rapturous about it as Linklater’s Before trilogy.
dir. David Fincher
What It’s About: When Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears on her birthday, the town and media quickly turn their attention to her philandering husband (Ben Affleck), who they believe murdered her.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but the brothers found it up to the high standard David Fincher has set for himself, and a twisted, engrossing thriller with plenty of interesting commentary on the way modern relationships and marriage operate.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
dir. Wes Anderson
What It’s About: The adventures of Monsieur Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel, and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori)
What the Brothers Said: “The intrusions of vulgarity, violence, and serious danger into the seemingly comic, diorama-like world of Anderson’s film suggest that aesthetics are no guard against disorder and genuine evil…and a source of much of [the film’s] richness and complexity” (Anton)
dir. James Gray
What It’s About: In the 1920s, a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) is forced into prostitution by a scheming pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) in order to save her sister from the quarantine on Ellis Island.
What the Brothers Said: “Rarely does a film manage to impress this strongly on both an emotional level and a technical one. The Immigrant is part of a long tradition of melodramatic American filmmaking, married to the best tendencies of contemporary realism and art house composition.” (Anders)
dir. Christopher Nolan
What It’s About: NASA pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a dangerous mission through a wormhole in order to save his children by finding a habitable planet for humans to colonize.
What the Brothers Said: “Interstellar’s accomplishment is...impressive in how it draws not on emotions of fear and displays of violence to generate awe, but on the pure drive of human ingenuity and the display of the grand scale of the cosmos to generate its...sublime effect.” (Anders)
dir. Dan Gilroy
What It’s About: Unhinged drifter Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds his perfect vocation when he starts moonlighting as a freelance crime scene videographer in Los Angeles.
What the Brothers Said: “It’s...a great black comedy, pulling in equal parts from Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese to create a portrait of toxic opportunism that is bursting with perverse energy.” (Aren)
The Theory of Everything
dir. James Marsh
What It’s About: This biopic tells the story of the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his romance with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) in the face of Stephen’s manifesting and debilitating illness.
What the Brothers Said: “While this fine biopic about an original mind, an unpredictable life, and a remarkable love [...] doesn’t achieve everything, it does get a lot right.” (Anton)
dir. Damien Chazelle
What It’s About: At a prestigious music academy, a talented freshmen drummer (Miles Teller) joins the studio band and finds himself facing off against a sadistic conductor (J. K. Simmons) who uses mind games and brutality to push his musicians past the limits.
What the Brothers Said: “What Whiplash offers up is a battle of wills, a psychological game between two men in pursuit of something that they believe to be perfection. It’s a bracing, at times disturbing, film that chases illusion alongside its characters to its unexpected, satisfying ending.” (Anders)
Begin Again (a.k.a. Can a Song Save Your Life?)
dir. John Carney
What It’s About: An aspiring songwriter (Keira Knightley) and a down-on-his-luck record producer (Mark Ruffalo) record an album in New York City while negotiating their various personal issues.
What the Brothers Said: “This film put a smile on my face, and I can’t deny it; I would watch it again in a minute and that’s pretty high praise.” (Anders)
Big Hero 6
dir. Don Hall and Chris Williams
What It’s About: Teen prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) uses his scientific knowhow to turn himself, his friends, and his medical robot into a high-tech superhero team in order to catch the man who killed his brother.
What the Brothers Said: “Like its robot mascot, Baymax, [Big Hero 6] is big and lovable. It’s a genuine celebration of how science and creativity can combine to make something exciting.” (Aren)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
dir. Anthony and Joe Russo
What It’s About: Captain America (Chris Evans) faces off against the mysterious assassin, the Winter Soldier, and finds himself embroiled in a political conspiracy that threatens to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D.
What the Brothers Said: “What’s really impressive about The Winter Soldier is how it manages to bring this glimmer of serious reflection to the superhero series, without getting bogged down in the need to be overly ‘gritty’ or ‘dark.’” (Anders)
dir. Jon Favreau
What It’s About: When top chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) gets fired from an upscale Los Angeles restaurant, he opens a food truck and embarks on a road trip with his son to rediscover his love of cooking and family.
What the Brothers Said: “It’s as close to a cinematic version of comfort food as you can get.” (Aren)
Dumb and Dumber To
dir. Peter and Bobby Farrelly
What It’s About: Twenty years after Dumb and Dumber, Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) embark on a road trip to find Harry’s estranged daughter.
What the Brothers Said: “Do I wish Dumb and Dumber To had a better story that wasn’t so close to the original? Sure, but I don’t really care. Dumb and Dumber To is not a film I seek out for clever plotting or inventive structure. All that matters are the jokes, and any film that can make me laugh as hard as that banana joke did is a winner to me.” (Aren)
Edge of Tomorrow
dir. Doug Liman
What It’s About: When Major William Cage dies in a battle against the alien Mimics, he wakes up the previous day and finds himself in a time loop, fighting and dying over and over again.
What the Brothers Said: “This movie builds itself from scratch right in front of your eyes, and it’s remarkably successful at doing so.” (Anton)
The F Word
dir. Michael Dowse
What It’s About: Med-school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) falls for Chantry (Zoe Kazan), even though she lives with her boyfriend, and secretly pines for her as he becomes her closest friend.
What the Brothers Said: “It’s a delightful film, funny, charming, but most of all, romantic. That’s a rare thing for a modern romantic comedy, and what makes this film such a success.” (Aren)
dir. Gareth Edwards
What It’s About: The King of Monsters returns as two dangerous M.U.T.O.s escape from a secret Japanese facility and wreak havoc across the Pacific Ocean en route to San Francisco.
What the Brothers Said: “Let’s be glad that Godzilla strikes a nice balance between gritty disaster flick and summer monster melee.” (Aren)
dir. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
What It’s About: When Russian gangsters steal his car and kill his beagle puppy, hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) comes out of retirement to get revenge.
What the Brothers Said: “It has the best action scenes in an American film in years, possibly since a certain sci-fi film also starring Keanu Reeves. If other American action films can emulate John Wick, there may yet be hope for the American action scene.” (Aren)
dir. Darren Aronofsky
What It’s About: A radical retelling of the ancient Bible story about a godly man (Russell Crowe) who must build an Ark to survive the coming flood that’ll rid the world of evil men.
What the Brothers Said: “[W]hat is so appealing about this film is the way it takes a classic story and gives it a very specific authorial treatment. Noah is perhaps the best example of Aronofsky as auteur, in how he bends this tale to his interests and visual style [...] Noah is both Aronofsky’s most bizarre and most conventional film, often at the same time.” (Anders)
A Walk Among the Tombstones
dir. Scott Frank
What It’s About: Unlicensed private investigator Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) investigates the murder of a drug trafficker’s (Dan Stevens) wife, uncovering two serial killers who prey on gangsters’ wives.
What the Brothers Said: “A Walk Among the Tombstones is the work of a talented filmmaker, showcasing interesting camera technique, haunting sound design and playing with hard boiled conventions to create something genuinely provocative. I believe the film will prove to be a minor classic of the genre.” (Aren)
dir. John Michael McDonagh
What It’s About: A good priest (Brendan Gleeson) wrestles with the disbelief and scorn of his parish when an unknown parishioner threatens to kill him in one week’s time.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but Aren thought it was a moving look at living out the Gospel in the modern world where faith is dying an ignoble death.
Clouds of Sils Maria
dir. Olivier Assayas
What It’s About: An aging actress (Juliette Binoche) takes a role in the revival of the play that first made her a star, reflecting on her own career and bonding with loyal twenty-something assistant (Kristen Stewart).
What the Brothers Said: “The great performances and impeccable camera work makes Clouds of Sils Maria incredibly enjoyable to watch and leaves you with plenty to think about as well.” (Anders)
dir. James Ward Byrkit
What It’s About: A comet paces through the atmosphere during a dinner party in middle-class Los Angeles, causing the guests at the party to experience a quantum paradox.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but Aren thought it was a satisfying mind-bender, combining quantum theories with improvised dramatics to impressive effect.
The Dance of Reality
dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky
What It’s About: A fictionalized, fanciful version of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s childhood and his relationship with his abusive father (Brontis Jodorowsky).
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but the brothers thought it was a fascinating look at memory and a welcome return to filmmaking for Alejandro Jodorowsky.
dir. Denis Villeneuve
What It’s About: A mild university lecturer (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds his life spiralling out of control when he discovers an actor who is his exact double.
What the Brothers Said: “Enemy is a call back to the best Canadian mind-benders of the past.” (Aren)
dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
What It’s About: In 1960s Poland, a novitiate (Agata Trzebuchowska) at a convent sets out with her estranged communist aunt (Agata Kulesza) to discover the truth of her heritage.
What the Brothers Said: “It’s an immensely rewarding film. It reflects on the past traumas of Poland as a nation, and contemplates how an individual who is sheltered from the world would approach the truth of their existence.” (Aren)
dir. David Gordon Green
What It’s About: A gruff ex-con (Nicolas Cage) befriends a drifter boy (Tye Sheridan) and finds himself in opposition to the boy’s abusive father (Gary Poulter).
What the Brothers Said: “If David Gordon Green were to keep making films of this caliber, and Nic Cage to keep giving performances this good, I’d be mighty happy, and most filmgoers should be as well.” (Aren)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
dir. Stephen Chow
What It’s About: A retelling of the ancient Chinese tale, Journey to the West, about a Buddhist monk (Zhang Wen) battling demons in the western countryside and dealing with the trickster Monkey King.
What the Brothers Said: “Few filmmakers can disassemble and play with a mode of storytelling with such glee and clarity of purpose.” (Aren)
Like Father, Like Son
dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
What It’s About: Upper-class Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) finds out his son was accidentally switched at birth and wrestles with accepting his biological son, who has been raised by a working class family.
What the Brothers Said: “Filled with gentle humour, but tackling such an emotion-laden issue as parent/child relations, Like Father, Like Son manages to pull at the heartstrings without ever seeming overbearing.” (Anders)
Maps to the Stars
dir. David Cronenberg
What It’s About: The lives of a naive tourist (Mia Wasikowska), a drug-addicted child star (Evan Bird) and a bitter, aging actress (Julianne Moore) intertwine in this satire of the Hollywood lifestyle.
What the Brothers Said: “That Hollywood is destructive isn’t a new point for a film to make, but few films have explored that idea with as much gusto and complexity as Maps to the Stars.” (Aren)
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & II
dir. Lars Von Trier
What It’s About: A woman named Jo (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts the story of her life through the lense of her sexual compulsions.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but the brothers agreed that Lars Von Trier continues to be one of world cinemas most fascinating provocateurs, bringing an artful and empathic touch to the most scandalous of topics, even if he stumbles in the finish.
dir. Bong Joon-ho
What It’s About: The last inhabitants of Earth, surviving aboard a train during a futuristic ice-age, plot a revolution to take the train from their wealthy, despotic rulers.
What the Brothers Said: “Snowpiercer is full of allegorical commentary ripe for political aficionados to unpack, but it’s also virtuoso filmmaking. Most excitingly, it’s genuinely original, not just in its content, but in its structure and its filmmaking.” (Aren)
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya
dir. Isao Takahata
What It’s About: An adaptation of a traditional Japanese fairy tale about an elderly farmer couple who discover a girl inside a bamboo shoot and decide to raise her as a princess.
What the Brothers Said: “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya has the kind of emotional depth and technical mastery that we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli.” (Aren)
The Trip to Italy
dir. Michael Winterbottom
What It’s About: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon embark on a road trip in Italy, enjoying fancy meals and celebrity impressions at six gourmet restaurants.
What the Brothers Said: “Even more than its predecessor, The Trip to Italy achieves some moments of profundity amidst the delightful banter, food, and scenery.” (Anton)
Two Days, One Night
dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
What It’s About: A factory worker (Marion Cotillard) struggling with depression has a weekend to convince her coworkers to give up their bonuses in order to keep her job.
What the Brothers Said: “It’s smart and precise in its exploration of its characters, and it’s got an emotional impact that’ll sneak up on you. Essentially, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from a Dardennes film.” (Aren)
Under the Skin
dir. Jonathan Glazer
What It’s About: An alien seductress (Scarlett Johansson) wanders the Scottish highways, luring men into her lair for nefarious purposes.
What the Brothers Said: “Under the Skin is quite simply one of the most daring and provocative films to feature a major Hollywood star (Scarlett Johansson) in some time.” (Anders)
dir. Godfrey Reggio
What It’s About: This non-narrative work showcases gorgeous 4K infrared photography and is the latest collaboration between Reggio and composer Philip Glass.
What the Brothers Said: “I found Reggio’s film to be fascinating purely for the images it puts on the screen.” (Anders)
THE HOT DOC
dir. Frank Pavich
What It’s About: A chronicle of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempts to film an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune in the early 1970s.
What the Brothers Said: “It is a fascinating and riotously entertaining look into one of cinema’s big what-ifs.” (Aren)
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
dir. Mami Sunada
What It’s About: A look behind the scenes at Studio Ghibli, the world’s most acclaimed animation studio, and the master director, Hayao Miyazaki, detailing the completion of his final film, The Wind Rises.
What the Brothers Said: “For diehard fans of Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, this is essential viewing.” (Anton)
dir. Steve James
What It’s About: A documentary exploring the life and death of film critic Roger Ebert, based off his memoir.
What the Brothers Said: “Worth seeking out as a fine tribute to the man who was undeniably the most important film critic in the world.” (Anders)
Mistaken for Strangers
dir. Tom Berninger
What It’s About: Tom Berninger, the younger brother of The National frontman, Matt Berninger, accompanies his brother on tour ostensibly to make a concert movie, but ends up making a confessional look at sibling rivalries and unfulfilled artistic ambitions.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but Aren thought it was a hilarious, often insightful look at an aspiring artist living in the shadow of his brother.
dir. Mark Levinson
What It’s About: A detailed look at theoretical physicists and the scientists at CERN as they search for the elusive Higgs boson particle.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but Aren thought the film captured the excitement of scientific progress and made the complicated quantum theories remarkably easy to follow.
Those were the films we found worth seeking out. Let us know what your essential films of 2014 were in the comments.