I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Editor
Another year, another list. Every year it seems as though every critic says how hard it is to put together your top 10 and narrow down some of the year’s best titles, and this year that is especially true. From a haunting story of wrestlers to a sweeping epic of a boy growing up in Texas, the best films of 2014 have brought screenplays to life with an astonishing scrupulousness that still left room for stunning artistic expression.
Let’s look back at what this year had to offer the cinema world, as well as the stench cloud it put over it.
Top 10 of 2014:
This true story of wrestling and murder may not be the easiest of films to digest, but it’s a harrowing and deeply disturbing character study. It provides many chills, but also gives a rich examination of the promises in the American dream, and how that dream can often lead to a nightmare.
Take the coolness and suave of DRIVE, mix it in with the sharp wit and dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and you get something moderately close to NIGHTCRAWLER. Great character studies punctuated by violent action scenes keep the audience immersed in this gripping film. Some powerful performances (especially Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo), stylish direction and intricate plotting, complete this whirlwind of near-perfection.
This film isn’t even out yet – it hits theaters in NY and LA Dec. 31 in limited release, and expands over the weeks (Jan. 23 in Dallas) – but please, trust me when I tell you that it is damn good. It’s only the third film from writer-director J.C. Chandor (MARGIN CALL, ALL IS LOST), but it shows the maturity and control of a great auteur— comparisons to a young Martin Scorsese are not unwarranted.
Oscar Isaac (you’ll see him next Christmas, flying X-Wings in a galaxy far, far away) and Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) both give unblemished performances as a couple whose lives are twisted in love and business in 1981 New York. The film is a slow simmer, ferociously brought to a boil, before unleashing its fury in a third act that is absolutely riveting.
Imagine if Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s story in KNOCKED UP had been more directed towards reality— you might have an idea about OBVIOUS CHILD. Featuring a breakthrough performance from Jenny Slate (PARKS & REC, MARRIED), the film focuses on a 20-something stand-up comedian who gets pregnant, dumped and fired just in time for the best and worst Valentine’s Day of her life.
Although abortion may be a sensitive topic to many, what Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre manage to pull off with OBVIOUS CHILD is a rare feat with actual edge. It’s a wildly uproarious and enchanting female-centric romantic-comedy that showcases the immense talent on both sides of the camera.
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Benicio Del Toro and Glenn Close
Next to THE LEGO MOVIE, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY may be the most fun the movies had to offer this year, and that may have had something to do with Chris Pratt. Actually, that is why. It only helps that James Gunn has a dialogue-pen that is as sharp as Pratt’s abs. The film is so clever, so vividly detailed and moves with such an infectious energy, it achieves its goal effortlessly.
Inspired by the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson’s story of a hotel concierge in the 1930s rides a line between fantasy and reality, as well as comedy and drama, blending the genres into a pleasing culmination of distinct elements. Backed by an all-star cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law and Bill Murray, Anderson adds another extraordinary flick to his already striking film repertoire.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has given us a handful of new age dramas to add to the cinema vaults (BABEL and AMORES PERROS), and BIRDMAN is no different. To be quite frank, this may very well be his greatest directorial achievement yet. Iñárritu directs his actors with finesse, and delivers one of the most unique movie experiences in recent years.
When it comes to great cinema, there are often little gems in a sea of bigger spectacles that can break through in the most skillful manner. Every year, we seem to have the next young adult adaptation, superhero movie, and Hobbit flick. But every so often, you’ll have that (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, that SHORT TERM 12 or OBVIOUS CHILD. This year, we have received a few of these, but the one on top of it all is Damien Chazelle’s highly intense psychological drama titled WHIPLASH.
We all have those big dreams of being somebody, being remembered for great things, whether it is to be the next Peyton Manning, Jimi Hendrix, or Daniel Day Lewis. In WHIPLASH, our protagonist – Andrew, played by Teller (THE SPECTACULAR NOW) – induces a dream of being the next great drummer, a drummer that will be remembered. Maybe you are still fighting for your dream, or maybe you have given up on greatness altogether. No matter which way you lean, WHIPLASH will cause you to question your career standing and aim for greatness of your own.
THE GUEST very easy could have taken the No. 1 spot any other year, as it is an absorbing and tremendously unique piece of cinema from the genre-bending minds that brought us YOU’RE NEXT (Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett). It’s a self-aware mix of action, suspense and dark humor that has a retro vibe without being old fashioned.
With its memorable electro-synth soundtrack and ever-increasing tension, THE GUEST is the bloodiest, good time that this year had to offer. The entire experience works so well thanks to lead man Dan Stevens (DOWNTON ABBEY), who portrays “David” as a more sincere version of Ryan Gosling’s character in DRIVE.
I knew after exiting the film’s regional premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival back in March that no film stood a chance at beating Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD. He assembled a living and breathing piece of art about growing up that holds our attention from beginning to end. It’s a film that anyone can identify with, whether it is parental divorce, alcoholism, political ideology, first loves, or self identity. It’s a package deal that serves as the ultimate coming-of-age tale, and it deserves everything that it has coming.
11. GONE GIRL
A movie that will make you want to punch the theater screen upon exiting, but damn it’s good.
80% of this it leaves you inspired, makes you want to research science and space, and is gripping, while the other 20% leaves you a bit frustrated how the narrative loses the reins. But Matthew McConaughey will bring a tear to your eye, and Christopher Nolan will stun you with visuals.
13. I, ORIGINS
A movie you probably never heard of but should straight up see without looking into. Ignore the spoiling trailer and witness a tragically beautiful story unfold.
14. THE LEGO MOVIE
Because everything is awesome. Duh.
15. EDGE OF TOMORROW
This film maybe lost you at Tom Cruise, but how engrossing this film is should have you at hello.
A truly original piece of filmmaking. It’s being completely ignored this year for awards recognition, but boy, it sure deserves something. It’s a wild ride.
Nicolas Cage, while known as the shouting, crying actor who picks the most terrible of roles to pay for his hair plugs, can every once and a while pick a movie that shows just how great of a talent he really is. This is that movie. It’s MUD with more edge.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been on fire lately, and this virtually unknown film continues his streak.
19. AMERICAN SNIPER
Just when you thought Clint Eastwood lost his spark, he brings forth one of the best modern war films since director Kathyrn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY).
20. THE ONE I LOVE
This Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss starring film will throw you for a loop, make you question your existence, and will amaze you.
Bottom 10 of 2014:
1. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
While this may be at the No. 1 spot on everyone’s crap-list, it comes with good reason. The first trilogy had its moments of fun because it had more compassion. Here, you want all the idiotic characters to kick the bucket in this polished turd.
2. MOM’S NIGHT OUT
3. THE HEART MACHINE
A terribly shot and creepy as hell movie (and not in a good way).
It had such potential, but it’s all-star cast doesn’t make up for the dull flick that it is.
5. A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
Had its moments as well, but for the most part it’s third grade humor with adult words.
6. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
See No. 2.
It’s painful how unfunny this movie was.
8. THE LONGEST WEEK
I already forgot what this movie was about.
9. LATE PHASES
All bark and no bite.
10. MUPPETS MOST WANTED
No thrill or fun to be had.
Movies I didn’t get to see in time:
- BLUE RUIN
- A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE A NIGHT
- THE IMMIGRANT
- LOVE IS STRANGE
- NIGHT MOVES
- STILL ALICE