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Top 16 best films of 2014

2014 proved to be a good year at the movies, especially given the calibre of its Oscar contenders (and winners) in the form of 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club. It also dropped in an exceptional blockbuster, which stood out because of its originality and genre subversion, and a sequel that was rare in bettering its predecessor.

However, while the ensuing films we have picked out remain our favourites from 2014, they are in no particular order. And it’s also worth noting we didn’t manage to make it to everything, with this year’s awards contenders such as The Imitation Game and Gone Girl still on our need-to-see list.

So, which films did make our list of the top 16 best of the year?

Fruitvale Station

16) Fruitvale Station

What’s the story? The true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man who was shot in the back by US police in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009.

Why so good?: [Fruitvale Station] is an emotionally shattering movie by writer-director Ryan Coogler that rates among the best movies of the year. Opening with real footage of the incident in question, as recorded on the phones of eye-witnesses, the film then proceeds to spend the last 24 hours in the life of Grant, a flawed young man who is seen desperately trying to put his life on track, come of age and atone for past sins… Everything about Coogler’s film works, from the emotional authenticity to the honest depiction of life’s injustices (the final stats provide a real sucker punch). You really won’t forget Fruitvale Station – and nor should you.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

15) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

What’s the story? Steve Rogers – aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) – struggles to embrace his role in the modern world as a new terrorist threat emerges in the form of a mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). In pursuing this new foe, however, Rogers comes to question the role of SHIELD in policing the world and regularly clashes with his boss Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and his superior Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), while beginning to suspect that the threat could also be coming from within his own organisation.

Why so good?: If the first Captain America entry is generally considered to be one of the weaker entries in the Marvel body of work, then its sequel The Winter Soldier could well be one of the best. Co-directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, this unfolds in the present day, adopts a thriller-style approach that combines elements of the ’70s with more modern Bourne-style grit, and has plenty to say about real-world concerns… It’s spectacular, it’s exciting, it’s not afraid to throw the odd curveball en route to that generic finale and it has the brains to match its wit and brawn.

Full review l Chris Evans interview l Anthony and Joe Russo interview l Samuel L Jackson interview l Scarlett Johansson interview

Lone Survivor

14) Lone Survivor

What’s the story? Inspired by the true story of an ill-fated mission by a four-strong team of Navy SEALs to kill or capture a notorious high-ranking Taliban member in northern Afghanistan.

Why so good?: Peter Berg, much maligned for his blockbuster failure Battleship, rebuilds his reputation with Lone Survivor, one of the most brutally compelling war movies of recent times. The film honours the bravery and loyalty of the men involved without ever coming close to feeling celebratory or jingoistic… Lone Survivor is an utterly gripping, brutally intense, quietly moving and even thought-provoking experience that offers the most gut-wrenching insight into modern combat since Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

13) The Grand Budapest Hotel

What’s the story? Hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) attempts to train new lobby boy and protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) in the ways of old. An unashamed romancer of the hotel’s elderly guests, Gustave suddenly finds his liaisons turning dangerous when one of his favourites, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and he is accused of her murder hot-tempered son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) – who is furious to discover that she has left her hotel to him.

Why so good?: Wes Anderson may just have delivered his most accessible movie with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a rich, colourful, sometimes eccentric but mostly crowd-pleasing experience that’s well worth turning into a priority booking. Boasting a star-studded cast and a playful sense of fun, Anderson’s eighth feature also has plenty to say for those willing to listen. It’s both a love letter to the writings of early 20th Century Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zwieg and a bittersweet lament for the passing of an era as high standards (or the civilised world) are slowly eroded and replaced by new culture and the onset of war.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

12) The Wolf of Wall Street

What’s the story? Inspired by the true story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the film chronicles his rise from young idealist to ruthless cash magnet, taking in his arrival on Wall Street, his quick departure following the 1987 crash and his subsequent re-emergence as a power in his own right driven by his ability to sell, manipulate and even commit fraud in the name of profit. Far from putting his billions to good use at the end of it all, however, Belfort consumed it in a decadent lifestyle that incorporated everything from hookers and fast cars to boats and cocaine (or whatever cocktail of drugs delivered the biggest high)..

Why so good?: The partnership between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio has yielded some great films (Shutter Island, The Aviator) but it’s arguable whether it has so far delivered anything to rival Goodfellas or Casino, just two of the director’s classics with Robert De Niro. Enter The Wolf of Wall Street, a ferocious and very funny expose of Wall Street avarice and excess that finds the director back to career-best form (not that he’s ever too far away!)… It’s an unmissable piece of filmmaking and another Scorsese classic.

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11) ’71

What’s the story? Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a young soldier newly deployed to Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of The Troubles. After becoming involved in a mini-uprising, however, Gary is separated from his unit and forced to rely on his wits in order to survive the hostile IRA streets he now finds himself trapped in. Yet as Gary soon discovers, it’s not just the IRA he needs to worry about as vested interests and differing sympathies make for a much more complex situation where knowing who to trust is paramount.

Why so good?: Having shone in gritty prison drama Starred Up, Jack O’Connell now delivers another powerhouse performance in ‘71, a survival thriller with the brains to match it’s braun… O’Connell is outstanding in the central role, combining a fierce survival instinct with fear, paranoia, naivety and anger… ‘71 grips and provokes in equal measure, delivering an intense, intelligent experience that is both unsentimental in attitude and highly relevant. It shouldn’t be missed.

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10) Calvary

What’s the story? Kindly Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is told that he has one week to get his affairs in order before he is killed in retribution for the sexual abuse an altar boy was forced to endure many years earlier.

Why so good?: Deeply involving, cleverly plotted and as moving as it is thought-provoking, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a powerhouse piece of filmmaking… The more religious inclined will also find the film works on two more levels: both as a provocative commentary on the issues that have bedevilled the Catholic Church and the dangers of painting everyon with the same brush, as well as an allegory for Christ’s own story… Come the memorable and perfectly realised conclusion, you’ll look back on Calvary as one of the films of this or any year.

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The Raid 2

9) The Raid 2

What’s the story? Only a short time after the first raid, Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover with the mob kings of Jakarta in order to bring down the syndicate responsible for his brother’s death and uncover the corruption within his own police force.

Why so good?: Having astonished with his breathtaking action thriller The Raid, Gareth Evans ups the ante for this powerhouse sequel, combining yet more dizzying action with the kind of plotting that Godfather era Francis Ford Coppola would be proud of. The Raid 2 may clock in at two and a half hours but it’s a breathtaking achievement – and one that continues to run rings around most action films of the moment. It’s set pieces are nothing short of amazing.

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Begin Again

8) Begin Again

What’s the story? Washed up A&R man Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is clinging to life by a thread – estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and having lost the support of his former business partner (Mos Def), Dan is drifting aimlessly through each day until he stumbles into an NY bar and becomes smitten by a song written and reluctantly performed by newly heartbroken singer Greta (Keira Knightley). Persuading her to let him take her under his wing, the two embark on a journey to record an album on the streets of New York that will change both of their lives along the way.

Why so good?: As much a love letter to New York and the power of feel-good movies as it is an astute look at human frailty and big business versus independent spirit, John Carney’s Begin Again is a triumph on all levels. A bigger, more ambitious film than his global charmer Once, the film is a warm tale of second chances that should strike a chord on some level with all but the hardest hearts.

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Starred Up

7) Starred Up

What’s the story? Violent teen prisoner Eric (Jack O’Connell) is sent to adult prison a year early for being deemed too dangerous for his young offenders’ institute. But the prison in question also happens to be home to his estranged dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a lifer, who is tasked with sorting out his wayward attitude or risk losing him forever – either to fellow inmates or the prison’s corrupt hierarchy. Assisting in his own way, meanwhile, is Oliver (Rupert Friend), a prison counselor whose group therapy sessions offer Eric the chance to vent his frustrations and find some common ground with his fellow inmates. The question lingers, however, as to whether Eric can keep his temper in check.

Why so good?: Superlatives abound for David Mackenzie’s brutally intense prison drama Starred Up. Undoubtedly one of the best films in its genre, as well as a surefire contender for one of the films of 2014, this grips like a vice throughout and is guaranteed to leave you feeling more than a little drained… Based on a script by former prison therapist Jonathan Asser, the film is a raw, gritty and intelligent thriller that refuses to pull any punches dramatically while posing some relevant questions about the way in which we observe and treat our prisoners.

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The Drop

6) The Drop

What’s the story? The film unfolds around a New York bar used as a drop site for the city’s dirty money. When the bar is robbed, its two co-owners, Marv (James Gandolfini) and Bob (Tom Hardy), are tasked with recovering the funds. But needless to say, nothing is quite what it seems.

Why so good?: Michael R Roskam’s crime drama The Drop is as deceptive as many of the characters who occupy it – but in a good, often brilliant way. Based on a short story named Animal Rescue by the revered Dennis Lehane (which he has adapted into his own script), the film takes a familiar concept within the crime genre and populates it with some rich characters and some emotive themes concerning power, loss, regret and the need to find second chances. It provides the film with a platform upon which to showcase some masterful performances. Gandolfini, in his final role, is great, but Hardy, sporting an impressive New York accent, is his equal and utterly mesmerising whenever on-screen. The Drop is one of the finest crime dramas you’re likely to see in a long time, graced by some truly exceptional performances.

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The Dallas Buyers Club

5) Dallas Buyers Club

What’s the story? Fun-loving, womanising electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed with AIDs and given days to live. Determined to fight back, Woodroof begins importing non-approved pharmaceutical drugs from Mexico that keep his symptoms at bay and then founds a subscriber-based buyers’ club that enables him to dish out those drugs to fellow sufferers, thereby extending other people’s lives while staying within the law. In becoming such an unlikely hero at the height of the ’80s AIDs epidemic, Woodroof also cast aside his own homophobic tendencies while becoming a thorn in the side of the authorities.

Why so good?: Matthew McConaughey continues his career renaissance in astonishing fashion in Dallas Buyers Club, a film based upon a similarly remarkable true story. Both he and [co-star Jared] Leto remain the compelling reason for seeing the film but Dallas Buyers Club has so much more to offer. It’s an empowering, eye-opening and deeply emotional experience that demands to be seen

Read our review l Nicole Holofcener interview l Photo gallery l Matthew McConaughey interview l Jared Leto interview

22 Jump Street

4) 22 Jump Street

What’s the story? Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill reprise their roles as undercover detectives Jenko and Schmidt who are asked to uncover another drugs ring (this time at a college as opposed to a high school), prompting another round of clever genre subversion and deconstruction that encompasses everything from Michael Bay-inspired action movies to buddy cop bro-mance and coming-of-age turmoil.

Why so good?: If 21 Jump Street mined a lot of its many laughs from openly acknowledging the absurdity of reviving the Johnny Depp career-making TV series from the ’80s, then 22 Jump Street – the hilarious sequel – thrives on its ability to lambast the shortcomings of sequels. The result is a rare follow-up that manages to better its predecessor (no mean feat in itself) while emerging as one of the finest examples of a sequel in recent memory. It is a laughter riot that’s as knowingly dumb as it is intelligent and inspired..

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3) Nightcrawler

What’s the story? Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an opportunist loner trying to make a living who stumbles upon the idea of selling TV networks on-scene footage of car crashes or crime scenes. But given the competitive nature of the industry, as personified by Bill Paxton’s rival cameraman, Lou resorts to increasingly desperate measures to be there first and get the best shot.

Why so good?: The spirit of ’70s era Martin Scorsese and Paul Schraeder runs throughout Nightcrawler, a hugely impressive character-driven thriller that also boasts a smart contemporary edge. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the film is as twisted as it is brilliant, taking viewers on an increasingly nightmarish journey that is as eerily exhilarating as it is capable of posing moral and ethical questions, particularly of the media but also of society, and how far is too far. Gyllenhaal is also a magnetic presence, creating in Lou Bloom a character with personality and behavioural disorders that rival Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.

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12 Years A Slave

2) 12 Years A Slave

What’s the story? Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an accomplished violinist and doting family man living free in New York, is conned into joining a travelling show and sold as a slave. At first, he is acquired by the relatively kindly Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who uses Solomon’s intelligence and even rewards it. But when circumstances compel Ford to sell him onto plantation boss Epps (Michael Fassbender), he becomes the property of an increasingly unhinged and brutal ‘nigger breaker’ who will test his will to survive..

Why so good?: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a film to be amazed by. Astonishingly powerful, deeply moving and frequently harrowing, this is tour-de-force filmmaking of the highest calibre. Inspired by Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, this is landmark cinema that dares to confront the issue of slavery in unflinching fashion. Yet its success is such that it emerges as an empowering experience that will resonate with everyone who sees it..

Read our review l Photo gallery l Chiwetel Ejiofor interview l Steve McQueen interview

Guardians of the Galaxy

1) Guardians of the Galaxy

What’s the story? A bunch of no-hopers, led by Earth-born space adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) – and including kick-ass green alien assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), bad attitude Raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), his talking tree side-kick Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the revenge driven warrior Drax (former wrestler Dave Bautista) – as they form an unlikely alliance to protect the galaxy from a power-craving alien, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), and his super-powered orb.

Why so good?: Just when you thought the superhero genre was beginning to run out of steam along comes James Gunn and blasts some fresh air into proceedings with Guardians of the Galaxy. Inspired by the comics of Arnold Drake and Gene Colan (which first appeared in 1969) and considered a risk by many due to its largely unknown bunch of anti-heroes (which include a talking tree and a bad-ass raccoon among their number), the film that results is a genuine romp: a gleefully subversive, endlessly inventive, consistently feel-good ride that expertly balances action, adventure and excitement with memorable characters that are worth investing time in.

Read our review l Chris Pratt interview l James Gunn interview l Matt Ferguson poster gallery