The votes are in, the heated debate has finally subsided and the hanging chads have all been recycled, which means Empire's 50 Best Films Of 2014 has arrived. Movie critiquing is a subjective business so each and every member of the Empireverse was asked to submit a list of their favourite films release in the UK in 2014, and our mathematicians bunged all the results into a science oven and, presto, from the charred embers emerged over four dozen terrific slices of motion-picture magic, including 12 features from debut filmmakers.
50. Human Capital
Director: Paolo Virzi
Cast: Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Luigi Lo Cascio
Best for... curing your status anxiety
With Best Foreign Film potential at next year’s Oscars, this modern parable of wealth, privilege and decay uprooted Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel from Connecticut and shifted it to the chilly climes of Alpine Italy. The concerns of the seriously moneyed being much the same the world over, the change of setting just adds another layer of Berlusconi-era greed and venality to the aftermath of a fatal hit-and-run. With two families – one wealthy, one aspiring – entwined and swirling down the same moral plughole, it’s basically Dallas with slightly smaller hair.
49. Of Horses And Men
Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Cast: Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Charlotte Bøving, Helgi Björnsson Best for... War Horse’s LoveFilm list
Quirky, funny and really very, very awkward, the opening sequence of this Icelandic equine love letter involves a fastidious rider trapped in the saddle as his mare takes a moment to get “romantic” with a neighbour’s stallion. From there it spins out into a study of a horse-loving (and occasionally abusing) community in a remote paart of Iceland that has as much to say about its two-legged characters as the four-legged variety. And speaking of variety, here was that oh-so-familiar but still starkly beautiful Icelandic landscape given top billing without a single Thark, Engineer or space-crazy astronaut to distract us.
48. American Hustle
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Best for... double-dealing, ‘70s style
David O. Russell gathers a best-of cast from his recent films, slaps them into wigs, pastels and sequins and unleashes a based-on-truth story that lives up to the old saying about it being stranger than fiction. Bale, Adams and Cooper and the rest spin a tale of crooked con-types and smarmy feds being caught up in one scheme after another. Lawrence, meanwhile, has her “science oven” and the brassy attitude to steal scenes. The ensemble, along with Russell’s nimble direction lets this one beguile you with their various styles meshing perfectly en route to well-deserved Oscar nominations all round.
47. Winter Sleep
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Haluk Bilginer, Demet Akbag, Melisa Sözen, Tamer Levent
Best for... Palme d’Or-winning meditations
Clocking in at 196 minutes, Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest is probably not a film to double-bill with Interstellar – at least, not if you have plans for the rest of the week – but it rewards audiences’ patience with an immaculately crafted character piece. Winter Sleep follows the romantic entanglements of a hotelier (Haluk Bilginer) high in the mountains of southern Europe. If that makes it sound like Grand Budapest Hotel 2, this is a serious-minded, talky piece of work with a pompous, self-involved protagonist dubbed “selfish, spiteful and cynical” by his own wife. Watch and marvel as Ceylan’s film deflates all that bombast like air from a tyre.
46. Maps To The Stars
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska
Best for... a limo ride to the dark side of Hollywood
If you only saw one film in which Julianne Moore spends an entire scene on the loo this year – and there really was only one, because they didn’t go to the loo in The Hunger Games – Maps To The Stars had to be it. Moore’s full-bore, modesty-be-damned performance as a fast-fading star was our generation’s Norma Desmond, the best thing in David Cronenberg’s sharpest film since Eastern Promises. On the surface, it shaped up as a Hollywood satire in the same vein as The Player or Sunset Boulevard, but the Canadian auteur was much more interested in unravelling psyches than Tinseltown powerplay. Entourage, this definitely ain’t.
45. The Two Faces Of January
Director: Hossein Amini
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst
Best for... Patricia Highsmith aficionados
Hossein Amini has penned a few literary adaptations in his time, including a pair of wildly-contrasting gems (Drive and The Wings Of The Dove), and his first stab at directing his own material can stand proudly in the same company. The estate of Patricia Highsmith doesn’t entrust the author’s works to just anybody, but the man they call ‘Hoss’ justified the faith with a lushly classical translation of her 1964 thriller onto the big screen where it teleported audiences back to the gilded era of Plein Soleil and Le Mépris. Viggo Mortensen’s American-with-a-secret Chester MacFarland is Don Draper, only a little sweatier and less cocksure, while his co-stars, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac, bring fateful chemistry to this knotty three-hander. The eyeball-wowing Greek backdrops made you wish there was an EasyJet flight direct to early ‘60s Athens.
44. Two Days, One Night
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione
Best for... credit crunched dramatics
Car chases, smashing robots, extinction-level events... just a few of the things you’ll never, ever see in a Dardenne brothers movie. But for anyone suffering CG fatigue, here was a reminder that a year with a film by the Belgians is automatically a better year. There was, if not an extinction-level event, definitely a pretty disastrous one driving the narrative here, as Marion Cotillard’s severely put-upon, pill-popping worker, Sandra, is subject to the humiliation of having to beg her colleagues to forego their bonuses so she can keep her job. The famous Belgians likened the set-up to a Western, as Sandra staggers from showdown to showdown, each playing out with subtle variations. At no point does Cotillard smash a barstool over someone’s head.
43. 20 Feet From Stardom
Director: Morgan Neville
Cast: Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry
Best for... dancing in the aisles
Behind every great man is a great woman – at least, so the tired old cliché goes. In this Oscar-winning doc, though, it was true in the literal sense. Shifting from about 20 feet behind an array of iconic musicians and into their own spotlight were the gifted backing singers who have amped up, enhanced and generally helped make them great, including Merry Clayton (The Rolling Stones), Judith Hill (Michael Jackson) and Darlene Love (The Ronettes). The supercharged Love – Mrs. Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon – stole the show, but each singer’s story was gripping enough to warrant a film in its own right. The varying reasons they didn’t quite translate their rare vocal talents into solo success (and not all craved it) offer a tantalising trip into the very nature of stardom.
42. Next Goal Wins
Directors: Mike Brett and Steve Jamison
Cast: The American Samoa football team, Thomas Rongen
Best for... the Wigan chairman’s Secret Santa present
The tagline for this fabulous sports doc might have been “One dream. Eleven Samoans. No goals.”, such were the initial struggles endured by the American Samoan national side in their attempts to qualify for the World Cup. Then their new Dutch coach turned up, shaped the rabble into a team, inspired them with some of his life experience, and, presto, we had a new Cool Runnings on our hands. A 31-0 defeat to Australia made painful viewing, but it was followed by a cheering recovery to lure us out from behind the sofa. Affectionate but never patronising, and a celebration of diversity rather than diving, this unlikely footballing tale by two British filmmakers was the perfect antidote to Premier League fatigue.
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman
Best for... making you peckish
As much as he protests it wasn’t his intention, Jon Favreau’s stripped down, strip steak sandwich of a film feels like an indie auteur who has been toiling in blockbuster land getting back to his roots. But in a great way: this story of a chef looking to take control of his life and career is bursting with genuine warmth and wit. Favreau relishes the chance to take the lead again, but cannily surrounds himself with a supporting cast able to take the comedy workload, particularly John Leguizamo. The result is a cinematic hug that should nevertheless not be seen on an empty stomach.
40. Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O’Reilly, Ariana Neal
Best for... capturing the mood of Ferguson-era America
After learning his craft in short films, Ryan Coogler made an assured debut with this tragic story inspired by real life. Michael B. Jordan and his director – soon to reunite for Rocky spin-off Creed – don’t shy away from the rougher edges of Oscar Grant, who died at the titular station in an encounter with law enforcement officers. Largely keeping to the facts of the matter, Fruitvale Station is imbued with a sense of omnipresent doom, while Jordan makes for a charismatic central figure. Certain images and ideas will stick with you, which partly explains why the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award at the 2013 Sundance Festival.
39. Cold In July
Director: Jim Mickle
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Best for... confusing weather
Based on the crime novel of the same name by Joe R. Lansdale, Jim Mickle’s fourth feature film follows his genre horrors Mulberry Street, Stake Land and We Are What We Are. It wasn’t as, well, horrific as his previous three, but it is damn tense: a Southern noir featuring plenty of twists, stand-offs and seedy silences. The star of the show is Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall, but so many scenes are stolen by Don Johnson that you’re bound to be talking about the Miami Vice veteran after the credits have rolled. It also features a great role for the under-appreciated Sam Shepard, who still shows that he has – ahem – the right stuff.
38. The Babadook
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall
Best for... anyone ever terrified by a children’s book
You can’t get rid of The Babadook… but why would you want to? Jennifer Kent’s Australian horror centred on a perfectly realised, terrifying children’s book (you can now place your order here) and seemed to introduce a potent new monster to terrify generations. And yet the film’s cleverest trick was in subverting all your expectations: setting up tropes like an Amblin-appropriate resourceful kid, before summarily dispensing with them and presenting something rather more ambiguous. With the focus on a psychologically strained mother and son, The Babadook turns out not really to be about The Babadook at all. And the solution to the problem he presents is genius.
37. Obvious Child
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, David Cross
Best for... bringing Paul Simon back into our lives
The debut feature from the immensely talented director Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child is both a rom-com, but also not a rom-com, dealing with the notably unromantic and uncomedic subject of abortion. At its heart is Jenny Slate’s bookstore clerk-cum-comedienne Donna, a twentysomething dealing with an accidental pregnancy, a difficult career and a kinda-sorta boyfriend who is known to fart in her face (though it’s nowhere near as crude as that sounds). Honest and heartfelt, raw and real, it’s indie as all heck, but wonderful with it. Expect all sorts of great things from both Robespierre and Slate, and be sure to read our interview with them both here.
36. How To Train Your Dragon 2
Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera
Best for... burps that burn
The animated movie of 2014 that really kicked you right in the feels, How To Train Your Dragon 2 balanced the swooping, soaring excitement of seeing loveable characters blast fire at bad guys on the backs of winged wyrms with an emotional side that saw fans of the franchise blubbing into their Hiccup-emblazoned Big Gulps. Frustratingly, the final part of the trilogy has been pushed back until June 9, 2017, which means you won’t find out how [SPOILER] will cope with [SPOILER] for another three years, but on the upside, there’s so much love, fun and detail in this excellent sequel that watching the Blu-ray so many times it wears out will just about do in the meantime.
35. Tim's Vermeer
Cast: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Teller, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore
Best for... making you feel chronically unambitious
Tim’s Vermeer is an astonishing documentary that uses its slow-build nature to deliver a real punch not to the heart, but to the brain. Following an inventor who is fascinated by the techniques of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer might not sound enthralling, but Tim Jenison’s sheer tenacity – learning Dutch before travelling to Vermeer’s home, for example – and inspired level of innovation as he throws himself into his task will make anyone with a shred of intellectual curiosity drop their jaw and doff their cap. And though it comes from magicians Penn and Teller, there’s not an ounce of showiness to be found.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
Best for... papier-maché bonces
A musical-comedy inspired by the life of papier maché head-wearing Mancunian comedian Frank Sidebottom, aka Chris Sievey; and by ‘loosely’ inspired, we mean in the same way that the toast we made this morning was loosely inspired by that crab dish Marcus Wareing served up on Masterchef that one time. It would have been so easy for Abrahamson to make this a broad comedy poking fun at the madcap antics of The Soronprfbs, a musical group so avant-garde that they actively fear recording anything they do, and their lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender). But the joy here is in how he teases out genuine emotion from the weirdness, helped by excellent performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and a none-more-committed Fassbender, rocking the outsized head like he was born with it glued on.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov
Best for... seeing Putin’s Russian through the bottom of a vodka bottle
How this damning comment on modern Russia ended up as the country’s Oscar representative is anyone’s guess. We can only assume the politburo was out to lunch when the screener disc came round because there’s absolutely nothing in this story of a simple man crushed beneath the heel of a corrupt state that would make Vladimir Putin even slightly happy. Unless he really likes classically framed films with world-class cinematography or acerbic dramas set in a perfect storm of state corruption and heavy drinking. Maybe it’s that?
32. The Raid 2
Director: Gareth Evans
Cast: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Alex Abbad, Tio Pakusodewo
Best for... when you watch The Godfather Part II but reckon it isn’t violent enough
Lower on our list than its barnstorming predecessor, but that’s no slight on Gareth Evans’ hugely ambitious sequel. Opening out the story of Iko Uwais’ one-man army, Rama, as he goes undercover in the Jakarta underworld, Evans expertly marshals a far more complex story and a much larger cast of characters. But if you do get lost in the labyrinth every now and again, don’t worry – the next world-class fight sequence will be along in a minute, further confirming our theory that the Welsh ex-pat is the finest action director working today. From a mud-spattered prison riot to a blistering car chase, Evans never lets up, peaking in an astonishing seven-minute long showdown that leaves you as drained as the combatants.
Director: Paul King
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw (voice)
Best for... furry immigrants to sock it to UKIP
Our childhood has been beaten, slapped around the head, trussed up and generally mistrusted through years of Yogi Bears, Garfields and Postman Pat movies, so there was a degree of trepidation as Paddington drew near. We needn’t have worried. Paul King’s playful, heartfelt and utterly delightful imagining of Michael Bond’s furry immigrant turned out to be one of the family films of recent times. The perfect antidote to any UKIP-like meanness at large, here was an early Christmas present to make up for a Pixar-less year.
30. Starred Up
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Best for... putting you off that big crime caper you were planning
‘Starred up’ is the term used to describe the transfer of a particularly volatile criminal from a young offender institution to adult prison. It’s the prodigiously talented Jack O’Connell who plays the teenage tyrant Eric Love who is blessed with such a branding, and he’s the actor you’re going to be staring at in awe throughout the film’s runtime. Clever and brutally realistic, this is a violent ode to what it’s really like on the inside, so if you’re of a nervous imposition, look away now – though even if you do possess nerves of steel, chances are you’ll be watching through your fingers on more than a few occasions. As the man himself warns, “I'm starred up and very fucking violent.”
29. Only Lovers Left Alive
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin
Best for... when you go deep into the funnel of love
Jim Jarmusch’s late-phase experiments in genre continued this year: having previously played with the Western (Dead Man) and hit men (Ghost Dog, The Limits Of Control), he finally turned his attention to horror. Not that Only Lovers Left Alive is inherently horrifying, but it does concern vampires, seductively inhabited by Tilda Swinton (who better?) and Tom Hiddleston, with memorable turns from John Hurt and Mia Wasikowska. Mirroring the decaying Detroit with the crumbling Tangiers, it’s a masterpiece of darkly stoned atmosphere and bone dry humour, set against a mesmerising and eclectic drone soundtrack. Jarmusch’s own band, SQüRL, are significant contributors.
28. 22 Jump Street
Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Jillian Bell
Best for... inspired chase sequences
How do you write a sequel to the utter preposterousness that was 21 Jump Street? By making something even more preposterous, on an even bigger scale. Where the original centred on two undercover cops hunting for drug dealers in a high school, the follow-up has two undercover cops hunting for drug dealers in college, and if that sounds ridiculously formulaic, it’s meant to be. Amping up the meta factor, it’s more homoerotic, more self-aware and much more bonkers, with perhaps the best Benny Hill reference of 2014 and the most delightfully off-the-chain Ice Cube blow-ups this side of xXx: State Of The Union. And with a credits sequence that pokes fun at the mere idea of a sequel to this sequel, 23 Jump Street will have to jump through a very fiery hoop to work, but as the directors themselves told Empire on the podcast, it might just happen, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
27. Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Griffin Dunne
Best for... cementing the McConaissance
Sure, it offered us the spectacle of Matthew McConaughey doing the awards circuit, picking up trophies and giving rambling speeches. But much more importantly, it showed us a side of the actor many thought had been lost to rom-com land. With its leading man ably supported by Jared Leto (who also won several gongs), Garner and the rest, this took a true-life story full of joy, cunning and sorrow in equal measure, boiled it down to the essentials and made something eminently watchable. McConaughey got to be showy and dedicated to his craft, but it’s the little moments that mattered just as much as the big ones.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins
Best for... doing the monster smash
Gojira was back, back, back and ready to trample a city near us in Gareth Edwards’ bleakly arresting vision of monster-flavoured catastrophe. Surprisingly, its title star showed up relatively late in the piece as two MUTOs of Edwards’ own devising went on a nuke-fuelled rampage like teenagers on a Red Bull kick, but when he did show up, that roar alone made it worth the wait. One virtuoso HALO jump sequence to Ligeti’s eerily apocalyptic Requiem took the breath away, until ‘Zilla’s atomic exhalation put it back again – with interest. Now for the Godzooky reboot...
Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Charlie Murphy, Sean Harris, David Wilmot
Best for... squaddies on the run
First-time feature maker Yann Demange and man-of-the-moment Jack O’Connell teamed up for a pulsing thriller that carried audiences into the maelstrom of Belfast’s Troubles in 1971. As a squaddie trapped behind IRA lines, O’Connell’s odd man out faces a struggle for survival over a single night that, bathed in hellish reds and oranges, resembles something out of Dante’s sketchbook. The opening riot scene – filmed in Blackburn – explodes into violence and leads into a footchase through the terraces and alleyways of the Falls Road that left us needing to catch our breath.
Director: Matthew Warchus
Cast: Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Andrew Scott, Bill Nighy, Joseph Gilgun, Freddie Fox, Monica Dolan, Paddy Considine
Best for... nostalgic uplift
It’s the sort of comedy-drama Britain tends to do well – we could go so far as to say we do it best – the heartwarming hindsight of industrial struggle. But Pride wants to be more than just the usual run of the mill (or the mine) peek into the past. Thanks to a charm-laden script and performances that should help to boost the careers of several of the leads, Pride manages to show two very different sides (gay activists and Welsh miners) finding common ground. Director Matthew Warchus finds a way to balance the laughs and the tears without ever feeling mawkish.
23. The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong
Best for... making us wish we were better at crosswords
What do you do to the man who kinda-sorta invented the computer and almost single-handedly won World War II? Why, you imprison him for being gay, naturally. Part biopic, part cerebral thriller, Morten Tyldum’s follow up to 2011’s Headhunters is the improbable and ultimately tragic tale of master logician Alan Turing. Less dramatised than Enigma and less historically upsetting than U-571, Tyldum’s take on the deconstruction of Germany’s Enigma code is a portrait of tortured genius set against the stage of a world at war. The coda is clumsy and the intertwining timelines slightly imbalanced but Graham Moore’s script is otherwise excellent, topped only by Benedict Cumberbatch’s captivating performance as Turing himself.
22. Blue Ruin
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves
Best for... the shiviest hobo
The Equalizer with a shopping trolley, Macon Blair’s homeless drifter Dwight Evans, seemed an unlikely avenging angel in Jeremy Saulnier’s thoroughly ace rural thriller. But when the man who killed his parents emerges from prison, vengeance is exactly what he has in mind – which is where his troubles really begin. A film that explored the consequences of violence where others often dwell on (and sometimes glamorise) the act itself, it shone a bright light on the whole messy, horrifying business. The ‘ruin’ of the title gave a good sense of the stakes behind every one of Evans’s fateful, though not always brilliantly thought-out decisions. A rural noir to double bill with our number 39.
Director: Steven Knight
Cast: Tom Hardy, Tom Holland, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, Ruth Wilson
Best for... making concrete pours sexy
Locke is 84 minutes of Tom Hardy driving a car. This sounds dull, but it’s true: Locke is 84 minutes of a man talking to people on the phone in a BMW X5. Making matters sound substantially less thrilling is the undeniable fact that the plot hinges on the biggest concrete pour in Europe, and that our title character is the man who is meant to be overseeing it – but instead he’s on the motorway heading distinctly away from it. In case you were wondering, this is the dictionary definition of “experimental cinema”, and perhaps unbelievably, it works. This isn’t just because Tom Hardy’s Welsh voice is like manna from heaven, but it certainly helps – as does writer/director Steven Knight’s inspired script. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re in any way intrigued, buckle-up immediately.
20. 12 Years A Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson
Best for... slowly breaking your heart
Despite its Hans Zimmer score and an Italian poster that famously tried to sell it as a Brad Pitt action film, 12 Years A Slave, a mournful slavery memoir beautiful mounted by Steve ‘Hunger’ McQueen, was entirely free of foot chases, explosions and other pyrotechnics. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her depiction of long-suffering slave girl Patsy, helping her to a Star Wars berth along the way, but Chiwetel Ejiofor was our solemn and occasionally disbelieving conduit through a world in which cruelty was actually enshrined in law. The Zimmer score, full of haunting strings, wasn’t bad either.
19. Under The Skin
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jeremy McWilliams
Best for... extra-terrestrial gloop
Never one to exactly bash them out, Jonathan Glazer’s struggles to bring Michel Faber’s seemingly unfilmable novel to the screen resulted in a protracted development process but ultimately landed him the perfect lead actress. Swings and Glasgow roundabouts, then, because it was Scarlett Johansson who ultimately skipped out of Hollywood to drive around Ibrox in a van for a few weeks – and you wouldn’t catch too many movie stars in a Ford Transit. She made a luminous, quizzical alien trying to wrap her extra-terrestrial noggin around the nature of the human soul, Tommy Cooper and Glasgow’s confusing ring roads. Eerie and occasionally uncomfortable, this was a kinda-sci-fi-kinda-road-movie where each languorous moment burnt another indelible image or jarring soundscape onto the subconscious.
18. The Guest
Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick
Best for... reminding the world to look through the peephole first
Despite a glorious turn from Dan “damn, he’s a bit dishy” Stevens as an enjoyably unhinged stranger/terminator at the door – as well as a killer soundtrack, impressive supporting cast and some slick action set-pieces from You’re Next man Adam Wingard – only six people and a dog actually saw The Guest in cinemas, with its U.S. run earning just $285,845 (the dog bought a lot of tickets). You’d think the sight of Downton Abbey’s sexiest solicitor with a big gun would be enough for American audiences, but it was not to be, leaving the psychological thriller / horror comedy poised to become a cult classic.
17. The Lego Movie
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Cast: (voices) Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett
Best for... massively infectious earworms
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and 21 (and 22) Jump Street veterans Chris Miller and Phil Lord have never been shy of a little anarchy, but The Lego Movie really brought three-bags-of-Haribo hyperactivity to animation with a big, bright blockbuster full of jokes you never thought you’d see in a feature film tie-in based on Danish construction toys. Rightly acclaimed by critics – the voice acting, visual style and use of the word “SPACESHIP!” drawing particular praise – it’s further proof that Lord and Miller are the masters of turning seemingly disastrous ideas into much-loved comedies. Will Arnett’s take on Lego Batman was the break-out character, earning a spin-off in 2017, a year before the film’s full sequel hits cinemas, something he’s no doubt thrilled about.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh
Best for... turbulent priests
In lesser hands, this could have turned into a sub-Father Ted-style knockabout comedy with a dark undertone. But coming from The Guard’s John Michael McDonagh and featuring one of the strongest performances of the year from Brendan Gleeson, it’s so much more. Treading a fine line between the laughs and the feeling of creeping terror, Calvary uses well-worn ideas about small island life and then gives them a fresh coat of paint. Gleeson is the world weary yet driven priest who keeps one eye on his flock even as his life is threatened and you root for him every moment he’s on screen.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Bill Irwin, David Gyasi
Best for... expanding your (event) horizons
Christopher Nolan does large-scale, big-brain science fiction. Sold. All right, so some have been disappointed with the results and the nitpickers have been out in force, but the cerebral director’s detractors don’t seem to have felt the pulsing, human heart that guides this one equally as strongly as the imagination behind it. Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain in particular ground it in character, but there’s also plenty of fodder for those who want their movies to be visually audacious and designed so you’re taken on a journey with the main cast. Plus: best robots of the year, hands – well, metal appendages – down.
14. Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit
Best for... filling marriage counselors’ schedules
David Fincher is not a man who makes decisions lightly, and he clearly saw something in Gillian Flynn’s novel that made him want to adapt it, hiring the writer herself to do the job while tweaking one or two details. The results were clear for everyone to see: Fincher’s dark, twisted and funny sensibility married to a concept that might make anyone think twice about taking the plunge into wedded bliss… or even getting to know another human being. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are the rocks upon which the story breaks, while the ensemble keeps you watching even as you cringe.
13. X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters
Best for... untangling the X-films’ tortuous timelines
Such is the antipathy for Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand that audiences and critics were willing to overlook Days Of Future Past’s many questions and simply cheer the timeline tidying and retconning. Why has Kitty Pryde suddenly got powers we’ve never seen before? Is Bolivar Trask’s entire plan based around abilities that Mystique has never actually displayed? Why is Professor X alive again? Why don’t they just bring Quicksilver with them everywhere? Does a mutant healing factor mean invincibility from drowning? Nobody, clearly, much cares. It’s a ride, people, and we’re all on tenterhooks for Apocalypse.
12. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Director: Joe and Anthony Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Robert Redford
Best for... fans of superior sequels
2011’s The First Avenger introduced Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers and Avengers Assemble honed him. But with The Winter Soldier, which plays with both his past, present and possible future, Marvel delivered a film that launches the stalwart soldier to the next level. Evans is once again sheer charm as Cap, and Mackie makes the strongest impression of the film as Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, by turns a fine foil for Steve, a winged badass and a connection for the audience. Plus how many conspiracy-led comic-book movies can boast Robert Redford as a conflicted S.H.I.E.L.D. boss? Just one.
11. Mr. Turner
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage
Best for... the Fighting Temeraire
Right up with Naked and Secrets & Lies as his very best, Mike Leigh’s late-Turner biopic benefited from three men at the top of their games. Leigh, of course, was one, shaping a period piece to join Topsy-Turvy as a wonderfully detailed, beautifully rendered portrait of Britain in the 19th century. Then there was his old mucker, Timothy Spall, almost guaranteeing himself a BAFTA for his huffy and snorty but still incredibly subtle Turner. Lastly, there was Turner himself, whose art played such a prominent role and whose latter years were often as stormy as the seascapes he painted. A film about art, Mr. Turner turned out to be fine art in its own right.
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Best for... hopeful romantics
Channelling what seems to be a very personal pain, Spike Jonze ties his eye for style and design into a film that is quirky without ever letting that get in the way of the love story. Phoenix is crushed and humbled as Theodore Twombly, a man brought low by life that finds solace in, of all things, a sophisticated operating system. But this is no simple tale of an A.I. who finds a soul mate and then latches on – Jonze has a much more redemptive tale to tell here, one that leads Theodore back on a path to connecting with humanity.
9. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Gary Oldman, Kirk Acevedo
Best for... ape appreciation
If Rise was the appetiser, Dawn was the full, satisfying meal, taking full advantage of the technology to bring Andy Serkis’ Caesar and co. to life, but never pushing that to the forefront. This is a very human (and simian) story of fatherhood, conflict and trust that just happens to have people interacting with intelligent apes. Reeves directs with a confidence learned from handling effects while keeping the emotion intact and the film feels like an evolutionary leap forward in terms of blockbusters that offer more than just spectacle. You’ll be left dying to know what happens next, so no pressure, Matt…
8. What We Do In The Shadows
Directors: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Cast: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Rhys Darby, Stu Rutherford Best for... Flight Of The Conchords enthusiasts
The premise: four vampires live together in a flat share in suburban New Zealand. The result: arguably the funniest comedy of the year. Dry and delicious like a fine glass of blood, this vamped-up mock-doc channels Spinal Tap as it skewers the likes of Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, leaving those lucky enough to see it on the big screen running out into the night, screaming “You’ve got to see What We Do In The Shadows!” Frustratingly, there weren’t many cinemas showing it on release, so you’ll just have to order the DVD / Blu-ray / digital download and force your friends to agree it’s an “instant cult classic” so you can quote certain lines at them at will. Our favourite? “Werewolves, not swearwolves!” If you’re looking for context, you’ll just have to watch the film.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum
Best for... the Zubrowkan tourist board
Wes Anderson naysayers would have come out in hives at this none-more-Andersonian confection, but for almost everyone else, the dapper auteur’s eighth feature was one of his best. Like a Fawlty Towers for the terminally elegant, his faded hotel, nestled in the heart of a candybox Zubrowka, offered an advent calendar’s worth of charm behind every door. Ralph Fiennes’ haughty yet heartfelt M. Gustave was our guide through this heightened world of horny widows, blackshirted fascists, daring jailbreaks and super-speed slalom chases. And in Gustave – played with silent era-calibre comic chops by Fiennes – it had a hero for the ages.
6. Edge Of Tomorrow
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson
Best for... both lovers and loathers of Tom Cruise
While a $370 million worldwide box office is nothing to be sniffed at, Edge Of Tomorrow was 2014’s big blockbuster that couldn’t. Even Emily Blunt wielding a colossal sword and Tom Cruise dying again and again (and again), it failed to connect with audiences, with some citing a muddled marketing campaign – is it called ‘Live Die Repeat’ now? – and a confusing concept as its Achilles heels. Fortunately, those willing to actually watch the sci-fi spectacular were rewarded with a joyfully rewatchable romp that balanced humour, action and repeated dialogue with aplomb. Watch it for Bill Paxton as a moustachioed master sergeant alone.
5. Guardians Of The Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace
Best for... getting hooked on a feeling
“It’s a huge gamble!” they shouted. “It’ll never work as a film! It has a tree and a talking raccoon as main characters! The director hasn’t been tested at this level!” “They” all soon shut up when Guardians blasted out of the gate to become one of the most successful films of the year – and deservedly so. It’s shrewd, it’s funny, the soundtrack is killer, it focuses on character instead of archetype and it made a star out of Chris Pratt. A franchise was born and Marvel’s latest dice roll came up a winner.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake
Best for... folkies and feline fanciers
One of the Coens’ less broad, more low-key efforts (some, including us, dubbed it Barton Folk), Inside Llewyn Davis is a perfectly realised homage to the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s. Llewyn himself is in many ways a typical Coen loser: an overreaching own-worst-enemy, as annoying as he is likeable. But despite the chilly photography there’s warmth here, in no small part courtesy of T. Bone Burnett’s carefully crafted soundtrack. Attempts to parlay the music into an O Brother-like mega-hit album were perhaps doomed from the off, because much of what’s included isn’t supposed to be very good (see the hilariously awful Please, Mr Kennedy for details). That, of course, is the joke.
3. The Wolf Of Wall Street
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner
Best for... fearing and loathing the Stock Exchange
Proving that age has yet to wither him, Martin Scorsese followed the gentle (U-rated!) Hugo with this excoriating orgy of drug-fuelled capitalist overindulgence. The director’s latter-day go-to collaborator, Leonardo DiCaprio, is so charismatic as lead asshole Jordan Belfort that many felt the film was too ambiguous in its message. But come on, really? Did anybody come out of this movie not shaking their head at the financial state we’re in? Stand-out moments are too numerous to mention, but props must go to Matthew McConaughey as the chest-beating, Onan-invoking Zen Wall Street veteran; and to Jonah Hill for the Quaalude scene when he tries to articulate his Steve Madden revelation. It’s undoubtedly Leo’s show though, and if there was a more simultaneously funny/appalling scene this year than his epic, ‘lude-afflicted quest to enter and drive his Lambo, we’re struggling to recall it.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Best for... fans of local news
The year’s greatest monster came not from a horror film but from a biting indictment of ambulance-chasing American media. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom may not be a murderer but he’s clearly a psychopath, and the film’s blackest joke is how seamlessly he fits into the broadcasting machine once he plants himself in a local LA TV station. Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut has facets in common with Network, The King Of Comedy and One Hour Photo, but manages to be its own horrifying, mesmerising beast, not skimping on the hand-held viscera, but leaving some of its most disturbing moments as quietly alluded to off-screen events. What did happen between Lou and Nina at her apartment? It’s probably a relief that we weren’t shown. Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton all provide effective and affecting support. But at the end of Nightcrawler, it’s Mr. Bloom you’ll remember.
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke
Best for... making us feel old
One member of Team Empire has seen Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age epic five times. Not bad for a 165-minute movie with no explosions, no giant robots, no rampaging dinosaurs and just one Star Wars reference. This is a genre-transcending once-in-a-lifetime film about a child and his fragmented family, and how they both grow up over the course of an 11-year period, shot piecemeal under a shroud of relative obscurity by a team of loyal Linklater lovers – a minor miracle, in other words. The young star of the show, Ellar Coltrane, was a casting miracle, playing impeccably off veterans like Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke in an unassuming and entirely authentic fashion, while Linklater’s trademark muso-friendly soundtrack complemented the ongoing tales of love, loss and artistic endeavour. At first glance, the whole enterprise could come across as a gigantic gimmick, but in reality it’s a heartstring-pulling masterpiece that reaffirms what cinema can do, and expertly explores what it is to be alive in 21st century middle America.