The quest for justice and harmony echoed through the best films of 2014, playing out in various arenas: social, domestic and spiritual.

Communities were torn between bridge builders and bridge burners, those seeking justice for all and those pursuing narrower interests. Families struggled to overcome or cope with brokenness. And, in a remarkable number of films, individuals grappled with questions of religious identity and divine calling.

The Bible returned to the big screen in a big way, from the pious, faith-based Son of God to the revisionist Hollywood Old Testament spectacles, Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings. It was also a startlingly good year for movie priests, from Calvary and Deliver Us From Evil to smaller roles in St. Vincent and (smaller still, but noteworthy) Selma.

Ethan Hawke’s character in Boyhood remarried into a Bible-believing family whose milieu some thought was treated satirically, though I don’t see it that way. And the Polish art film Ida depicted a young novice nun struggling with her sense of vocation in the wake of a stunning revelation about her past.

It was a pretty solid year for popcorn entertainment. In addition to a string of enjoyable blockbusters, from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: Days of Future Past, there were no atrocities akin to last year’s The Lone Ranger, or even Man of Steel. Oh, and Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt starred in one of the most entertaining action movies in years that wasn’t a pre-sold, franchise-ready adaptation of a well-known source (Edge of Tomorrow, aka Live Die Repeat).

2014 was a better cinematic year in most respects than 2013, with one glaring omission: Hollywood largely shortchanged family audiences. In a year without Pixar, the best Hollywood offerings were The Lego Movie and Big Hero 6. Oh, and Muppets Most Wanted. After that it was a sea of lameness (Planes: Fire & Rescue, Penguins of Madagascar) or worse (How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, Maleficient). 

Happily, for families willing to go off the beaten path, GKIDS brought a number of remarkable animated films from overseas, including Song of the Sea, Ernest & Celestine and The Tale of Princess Kaguya (the last of which most critics liked better than I did).

In 2013, most of my A-list films were in my Top 10; the runners-up were mostly B-pluses. This year, the bench is deeper, the line between the Top 10 and the runners-up is fuzzier, and I can easily imagine swapping titles between the two lists.

Which action franchise produced the best blockbuster? How does the Polish nun movie compare to the Irish priest movie? Is Noah as wonderful as I think it is, or as terrible as many think it is?

These are my calls; feel free to make your own.

 

Ten Films That Stood Out

  1. Two Days, One Night. Yet another work of perfection from the Dardenne brothers (The Kid With a Bike), their latest is a somber but deeply humane portrait of a woman suffering from depression as she struggles to keep her job. As always, the Dardennes extend empathy to virtually all characters in their various difficult situations, with a supportive husband and a minor character motivated by his faith joining the ranks of their most admirable characters. A suicide attempt; brief crude language; mature themes. Teens and up.
  2. Selma. Possibly the best civil-rights historical drama I’ve ever seen, Ava Duvernay’s masterful account offers a gratifyingly complex portrait of the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s. David Oyelowo’s brilliant interpretation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. anchors a film that doesn’t neglect the role of faith in the civil-rights movement. Scenes of strong violence; references to marital infidelity; limited profanity, crude language and some racial epithets. Teens and up.
  3. The Overnighters. Inspiring, challenging, sobering and finally devastating, Jesse Moss’ existentially probing documentary about a Lutheran pastor in a booming North Dakota oil town committed to showing Christian hospitality to an influx of out-of-state roughnecks has more layers than a twisty Hollywood thriller. Mature themes including references to sex crimes, homosexuality, drug use, etc. Adults.
  4. Like Father, Like Son. Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (I Wish) explores the challenges faced by two families who discover that their six-year-old sons were switched at birth at the hospital. A meditation on nature and nurture, it’s a study in contrasts in wealth, social milieu, family size and above all parenting styles. Mature themes. Teens and up.
  5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The summer’s most thoughtful blockbuster offers a pessimistic look at a world in crisis, critiquing the insidiousness of “us vs. them” ideology while darkly contemplating how much easier it is to burn bridges than to build them. Brief strong action violence; an obscenity and some crude language. Teens and up.
  6. Ida. Pawel Pawlikowski’s haunting art-house film depicts a young novice in a Franciscan convent in the early 1960s who learns a shattering secret about her family roots. It’s a thoughtful reflection on identity and memory, religion and atheism, guilt and grief in Poland in the wake of Stalin and, further back, the Nazi occupation. A suicide; a brief bedroom scene (nothing explicit); mature themes and brief disturbing images; limited bad language. Older teens and up.
  7. Song of the Sea. Irish indie animation filmmaker Thom Moore’s follow-up to The Secret of Kells is even better, a modern-day fairy tale with roots in Irish mythology, notably the folklore of selkies or seal-people. There’s something Miyazaki-ish to the magic of this tale of a boy who loses his mother the day his baby sister arrives, though the gorgeously graphical, flat animation style couldn’t be more different. Stressful family situations. Kids and up.
  8. Noah. Steeped in rabbinic and other Jewish sources, Darren Aronofsky’s mad, visionary work of Old Testament movie midrash is a blend of epic spectacle, startling character drama and provocative biblical imagination, offering rich fodder for theological reflection on a wide range of themes. Action violence and battle mayhem; disturbing images; a childbirth scene (nothing explicit); brief sensuality; theological ambiguities requiring critical thought. Older teens and up.
  9. Boyhood. The ring of truth echoes through the years of Richard Linklater’s bravura 12-year experiment in serial filmmaking, an impressionistic tale of a growing up millennial in a broken family, with a part-time father, a struggling mother and her various lousy partners. Some profanity and heavy obscene and crude language; divorce and serial polygamy; sexual dialogue and themes including a teenage sexual encounter (nothing explicit) and discussion of contraception; heavy drinking; some marijuana use. Mature viewing.
  10. Chef. An indie crowd-pleaser starring writer-director Jon Favreau as a once-hot chef in a personal and professional funk, this joyous, compassionate film is a celebration of going back to basics, of good food, culture, music and shared family traditions—with the most moving screen father-son relationship I’ve seen in years. Divorce, an implied affair and some sexually themed dialogue; limited profanity, some crude language and heavy obscenity; brief marijuana use. Mature viewing.

Ten Runners-up (in alphabetical order)

  • The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s unsettling horror-movie exploration of a widow’s unhealthy grief and its effects on her relationship with her young son. Adults.
  • Big Hero 6, Disney/Marvel’s animated sci-fi action-comedy about two nerdy brothers, their robotics work and their nerd-school peers. Might be a bit much for sensitive youngsters.
  • Calvary, John Michael McDonough’s deeply troubling parable starring Brendan Gleeson as one of the best screen priests ever in one of the most impossible pastoral situations ever. Adults.
  • Ernest & Celestine, a charming Belgian animated adaptation of writer-artist Gabrielle Vincent’s children’s books about an unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear. Kids and up.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, the summer’s most sheerly entertaining escapist romp — remember those? — with a ragtag band of scruffy antiheroes masking a refreshingly sincere moral baseline. Teens and up.
  • The Jewish Cardinal, a thoughtful biopic about the life of Jean-Marie Lustiger (played by Laurent Lucas), a Jewish convert to Catholicism at age 13 who became archbishop of Paris under Pope John Paul II. Teens and up.
  • The Lego Movie, the year’s freshest, most unique Hollywood animated film, from Cloudy with Meatballs filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Kids and up.
  • Locke, Steven Knight’s riveting one-act, one-man morality play starring Tom Hardy as a man in a car on a mobile phone struggling to manage various personal and professional crises. Mature viewing.
  • Virunga, an engrossing documentary that builds to thriller-like conflict around a UNESCO World Heritage national park in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a British company hopes to find oil. War violence; some obscene and crude language. Teens and up.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer’s triumphant melding of the old and new X-Men casts in a time-bending tale of moral choices between anger and hope. Teens and up.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)

  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2, an unnecessary sequel that finally gets the web-slinger’s personality right. Teens and up.
  • Belle, fine fact-based historical fiction about a mixed-race heroine in 18th-century England. Teens and up.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a superior sequel offering a comic-book critique of the surveillance state. Teens and up.
  • Deliver Us From Evil, Scott Derrickson's latest exorcism-themed horror film, with Édgar Ramírez as the year's second-best screen priest. Adults.
  • Edge of Tomorrow, the year's best non-franchise Hollywood action blockbuster, a time-bending sci-fi thriller starring Tom Cruise. Teens and up.
  • Force Majeure, a Swedish drama about a family facing domestic crisis on a skiing vacation. Adults.
  • Get On Up, a better-than-average biopic starring Chadwick Boseman and directed by Tate Taylor. Adults.
  • Life Itself, documentarian Steve James’ fond tribute to Roger Ebert. Adults.
  • Muppets Most Wanted, worth catching even though “everybody knows / The sequel’s never quite as good.” Kids and up.
  • Siddharth, a devastating portrait of hardship and heartbreak in a Delhi household, where a young boy goes off to work in another city and disappears. Adults.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.