The best movies of 2014

Danielle Riendeau

You may have noticed, but Polygon started writing about movies this year.

And what a year to expand our coverage: 2014 probably had more good or even great films than it had good or great games, at least where genre fiction is concerned.

Because we have no formal rating system for films, the following list is by alphabetical order only, so don't go getting any ideas about directly comparing, say, The Babadook with Boyhood. These are simply the best movies we've seen all year, and we're dying to tell you about them.

The Babadook

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The Babadook is something of an anomaly in the horror movie genre, which is so commonly obsessed with the utter destruction of its protagonist. Babadook puts its central characters, a beleaguered single mother and a disturbed little boy, through the wringer, no question. But the payoff for that journey is an oddly comforting, possibly even uplifting message about grief and the spaces we make for it in our lives. The expert blend of jump scares, unsettling imagery and the terrifying titular bogeyman make The Babadook worth watching. But it’s the heart underneath the horror that makes it worth returning to over and over again.

Boyhood

boyhood

We are every one of us the stars of our own stories. One of the incredible qualities of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, in which a 6-year-old boy becomes an 18-year-old man before our eyes, is the way it derives suspense and drama from both ordinary events and life milestones: camping, divorce, photography class, graduation. We see it all happen to one person, one actor. And we are reminded that that's what a life is: a series of moments, each of which matters more to us than anyone else could know, all of which continuously shape us into who we are.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Here's a thought I had as I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the theater: This movie has no business being this good. Part silent film, part action flick, it was my biggest theatrical surprise of 2014 for a myriad of reasons. The story of humanity's fall evokes sympathy with both sides without being maudlin. It's filled with amazing effects, but it succeeds because of so many small, intimate moments. A man looking at his family in an iPad. A mother and father taking their first look at their newborn. Humans and apes reading together. As in a game, graphics can't make a bad movie good, but they can make a good one that much better, and Weta's work is outstanding. So is the direction, particularly the single most beautiful and staggering shot involving a tank ever conceived. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. There aren't many of those anymore, and this one's success makes it stand even taller. Upright, even.

Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat

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Edge of Tomorrow is smart, action-oriented sci-fi with strong characters and a cool central twist. In it, Tom Cruise plays a smarmy Air Force major who is forced out of a comfy PR gig to join the front lines of a brutal alien invasion. Without spoiling anything, things don't go well for the major, and both time travel and Emily Blunt's Sergeant Rita Piotrowski — the most decorated and badass soldier in the service — are needed to save the world. It's a rare time travel narrative that has the conviction to go through with its less-than-pleasant implications, and a genuinely exciting action movie that uses violence for effect, not window dressing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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What's great about The Grand Budapest Hotel is that it's a Wes Anderson film through and through, with a quirky tone, colorful visual style framed in dioramas and over-the-top characters. But there's also a pathos to The Grand Budapest Hotel, about the eponymous resort's 1930s heyday, as fascism crept in and ruined the party. It's a period romp, focused on new lobby boy Zero's adventures with the flamboyant head of concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). It also features a grab bag of celebrity cameos, wacky music, and performances worthy of the "Grand" title.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay key art Katniss

The Hunger Games films have always been better and stronger than most young adult material in the movie theater. Part of that is due to Jennifer Lawrence's performance as the tough-as-nails but utterly human Katniss Everdeen, the young hero of the piece. And part of it is because the Hunger Games movies are really about war and violent revolt, with smart things to say about the horrors and complexity of those things, underneath a teen-centered action movie wrapper. Mockingjay Part 1 finally removed all but the last vestiges of that wrapper, and morphed the franchise into an explicit meditation on the brutal, sticky politics of war. It's dark, it's smart and it represents a maturation for an already-bright property.

Interstellar

Interstellar key art

This entry is explicitly for one half of Interstellar. I'm not being cheeky. Interstellar is a good film with massive problems, such that about one half of the experience is a transcendent meditation on space exploration, human endeavor and the power of love, while the other is a well-intentioned mess with a lot of maudlin lines and serious overuse of Dylan Thomas' poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night." Interstellar is approximately three films squished uncomfortably into a single three-hour epic, but there are too many good ideas contained within for it to slip this list.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive couple

Only Lovers Left Alive is a mood piece. It's light on plot, but heavy on character, atmosphere and fantastic music, so much so that I simply wanted to spend more time in this world, with its arty vampire protagonists and dreamy visions of Detroit and Tangier. In the film, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are a hundreds-years-strong vampire couple, very much in love with one another and with their personal flavor of artistic achievement — Adam is a musician, Eve is a literary fiend. It's spooky, but more "post-horror" than any kind of scarefest, maybe a little pretentious and really fun to watch.

Snowpiercer

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Snowpiercer was essentially a great BioShock narrative in film form, complete with a gorgeously rendered dystopia, moralizing central antagonist and totally boring protagonist. Set on a train where the remnants of the human race cling to life, organized as they are by strict class rules, it's a deliberately weird look at class struggle in a hermetically sealed environment. Snowpiercer works thematically, and it's bolstered by its collection of unforgettable images and scenes: the underclass rising up against brutal guards in a darkened car, a creepy classroom of singing children, a neon-hued rave in an upper-class party car.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a visually stunning, heartfelt, shockingly feminist fairy tale that had half of my theater audience crying buckets when I saw it this fall. The story concerns a supernatural spirit who comes down to earth in the form of a baby girl, and grows into a young woman with a love of nature that is subsequently caged by "proper" society. It says more — about being a woman, about the rural/city divide and about the nature of family love — with every deliberate brushstroke than many films say in their entire running time.

Under the Skin

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Under the Skin is sci-fi/horror by way of mood and tone, the story of an alien that comes to Earth in the form of a gorgeous woman who seduces young men and harvests them. It's a dark exploration of what it means to be human, groping at the edges of empathy and what an alien intelligence might actually make of us. It's also a fascinating look at dating, sex and predatory behavior, with the gender politics deliberately switched. Under the Skin makes no apologies for being weird and possibly opaque, and it's a stronger film for never trying to explain itself. Its genuinely alien protagonist never would.

Honorable mentions

The Polygon staff also collectively liked and wanted to honor Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie, Nightcrawler, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Big Hero 6, Birdman, Skeleton Twins and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

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