By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 12, 2015 at 1:16 PM

Hollywood insiders and magazines would have you believe 2014 was a miserable year for movies. And from a financial perspective, yes, they’re totally correct. 2014 was pretty close to a dumpster fire for pretty much everybody, ranging from the low domestic box office turn out (only two movies grossed over $300 million), plummeting ticket sales (the lowest since 1995) and the incoming meteor called VOD that jumped closer by light-years thanks to the "Interview" debacle.

From a quality standpoint, however, 2014 was kind of terrific. Of course there were your standout indie flicks and documentaries, but even the blockbusters were strong. For every "Transformers: Age of Extinction," there was a "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" or a "Guardians of the Galaxy" or an "Edge of Tomorrow." Yeah, there was "Blended," but there was also "22 Jump Street." There’s a lot of blame to go around for the 2014 box office black hole, some of it perhaps for us the viewers who decided to stay home.

Anyways, on to the lists … which, yes, are delayed. It’s a given I’ll never quite be able to see everything, but the idea of putting one together without seeing at least one or two of the very late arrivals (namely "Selma," "Inherent Vice" and "American Sniper") felt just wrong. 205 movies will have to do. 

Top 10 Films of 2014

10. "Citizenfour"

Few movies manage to capture a behind-the-scenes view of history being made, but that’s exactly what the Edward Snowden documentary "Citizenfour" provides. From the initial emails and reports to the now famous photo to Glenn Greenwald’s interview, director Laura Poitras provides a gripping look behind the curtains of today’s headlines.

Most impressively, however, is that Poitras’ film plays more like a thriller than a documentary. Every phone call, every tripped fire alarm is a tense setpiece, made all the more so by the real world repercussions. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with his methods, "Citizenfour" paints a terrifically eerie picture of the increasingly paranoid world of today. And with every dark, distant shot of an ominous facility, watching and listening in plain sight, it gets harder to think it’s just paranoia.

9. "Obvious Child"

To call making an abortion rom-com a tricky high-wire act is like saying eating razor blades is a poor dining choice. For all of the buzz around its simplistic three-word pitch phrase, however, what makes Gillian Robespierre’s film actually edgy is that it handles its controversial subject matter in such a matter-of-fact fashion. It’s not a chance for moralizing melodrama or some big important dramatic statement; it’s simply something a woman must assess and deal with, a weighty moment but also just a moment.

But while it’s be easy to admire "Obvious Child" for pulling off such a risky proposal, it’s even easier to simply enjoy it as a delightful romantic comedy. Star Jenny Slate is hilarious and charming, deserving of a breakout, and the script manages to be funny – even crassly so – while also touchingly tender. In fact, let’s push aside the abortion aspect; the most impressive part of "Obvious Child" is that it’s a modern romantic comedy that actually fits both words.

8. "Guardians of the Galaxy"

There’s no denying it: It’s a Marvel cinematic universe, and we’re just living in it. The studio has taken over the industry, mapping out the path to success for just every other studio, all the while building levels of trust and goodwill amongst audiences not seen since Pixar’s golden age. The upcoming "Ant-Man" could spew ants from the screen and turn everyone into that Russian henchman from "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," and we’d still probably give Marvel a pass and preorder tickets for "Avengers 2."

If that’s the case, I have just one request for our future cinematic overlords: more stuff like "Guardians of the Galaxy," please. Director James Gunn may play within the Marvel formula, but he colors inside the lines with shades all too rarely seen: heart, soul, sincerity to go with the snarky humor, a wonderful sense of weird freedom, characters as exciting and lovingly developed as the explosions, creativity and a sense of playful, fresh imagination. It’s the kind of movie that makes you happy with what a blockbuster can do.

7. "Inherent Vice"

I won’t say that I got a second-hand high from watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s addictively watchable Cali-stoner noir, but I will say my 15 refills of popcorn were exceptionally delicious. The movie is equally tasty, featuring Anderson’s richly textured and colorful 70 mm direction, a hilariously baked lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix – amongst many, including a mesmerizing breakout from Katherine Waterston – and a script that balances hitting on the reclamation and fading romance of the hippie movement with Josh Brolin enjoying a chocolate-covered frozen banana just a bit too much.

Yes, the story is crazily dense, yet Anderson turns the plotting’s impenetrable concrete into something as enjoyable and absorbing as a warm sauna. You don’t watch "Inherent Vice"; you soak in it. As Phoenix’s Doc Sportello says, "Thinking comes later."

6. "Point and Shoot"

One of the standout films of the Milwaukee Film Festival, director Marshall Curry’s "Point and Shoot" tells the story of Matthew Vandyke, a young movie-watching man looking for adventure, a test in manhood. And boy, did he find it, landing in the middle of the Libyan civil war … and then sticking around, before and after an extended term as a prisoner of war. All the while, Vandyke recorded his experience via video camera, providing an incredible first-person, behind-the-curtain account of brutal recent history.

Left on its own, Vandyke’s story is already incredible, but Curry’s movie digs deeper, going into themes of masculinity, the effect of entertainment and movies, and the way today’s technology turns us into the directors of our own lives – for better or worse. It’s a fascinating array of ideas, served up on an equally fascinating silver platter.

5. "Snowpiercer"

If there was any justice in the world, Boon Jong Ho’s "Snowpiercer" should’ve been released into thousands of theaters in the midst of summer and made a box office splash. Thanks to Harvey Weinstein – according to some rumors, because of being miffed about Ho’s refusal to make cuts – the beautifully bananas action thriller was put on VOD and picked up only by a few hundred theaters. Oh well, the film will merely have to be content with being one of the most incredibly unique, visually enrapturing, entertaining, intense, politically intriguing and unpredictable movies of the year. Oh well indeed.

4. "Gone Girl"

I’m not sure "Gone Girl" likes me, seeing as I’m a human being and seemingly the only thing that survives the movie’s seething disdain unscathed is the cat. I know that I quite like "Gone Girl," a deliciously vicious, darkly comic pulp thriller.

David Fincher is in precise control here, setting his usual dark, ominous mood – once again with the aid of Trent Reznor and his eerily tingling, glitching score – and smartly letting Flynn’s crazed story and stinging dialogue do much of the work. Toss in some brilliant casting (NPH as a creeper alternate universe Barney? Genius), and "Gone Girl" turns into the some of the most compelling, swift two and a half hours of the year. Its fangs are as sharp as they are seductive.

3. "Selma"

A great man – and, perhaps even more so, a great movement – gets the cinematic treatment they deserve in Ava DuVernay’s politically savvy and incredibly powerful "Selma." DuVernay’s film comes through on the big emotions you’d expect from the subject material (I’ll be honest; I sobbed). That’s easy part, however. The hard part is making it feel earned, and "Selma" completely does.

The script is incredibly complex and savvy, portraying the fight and the legendary man leading it in all of their complicated glory, and DuVernay brings the struggle to beautiful, artful and invigorating life. Also making "Selma" a triumph is the man at its core: David Oyelewo, who captures MLK as both the towering figure and the tired man. It’s a truly magnetic performance, in a movie that profoundly shows that making history is hard fought and hard earned. It only looks easy when it’s in the books. Yes, "Selma" is timely. It’d be terrific regardless.

2. "Under the Skin"

One hates to resort to cliché, but it’s true: "Under the Skin" does, in fact, get under your skin. A hypnotic master class in creating mood and summoning a fog of constant unease, writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s arthouse horror film tells the story of an otherworldly … something, taking human form and hunting the young men of Scotland until humanity cracks through – for better and worse.

Few other movies – most of Kubrick’s resume comes to mind – have managed to so artfully capture and convey a feeling of dreadful alienation. Everything – from the haunting score to the almost indiscernible Scottish victims to the mesmerizing visuals – puts the audience on edge, feeling out of place as well as out of body. Meanwhile, at the film’s core is a never-better Scarlett Johansson, depicting her character’s slow evolution to humanity with brilliant, chilly nuance.

Whether watching it simply as an incredibly eerie horror movie or as a statement on women and body image, "Under the Skin" is an utterly hypnotizing sensory experience, evoking sensations felt deep down under the … well, you know.

1. "Whiplash"

If 2014 had a common cinematic theme, it was the horrors of ambition. "Nightcrawler," "Birdman," "Foxcatcher" and more all put the human drive for greatness and success on trial. No movie, however, did it in more spectacular fashion than "Whiplash," the closest we’ve come to capturing an actual burning fuse on screen. Under the watch of young writer-director Damien Chazelle, the jazz drummer versus teacher battle absolutely blazes on screen, grabbing the audience’s attention and never letting go for a second.

The editing is sharp. The performances – from Simmons’ furious Dr. Frankenstein to Teller’s all-too-willing monster to even his drummer rival’s ideally casted, perfectly punchable face – are perfectly tuned. The script takes nary a false step, developing fascinating characters and relationships. All the while, it finding new ways to keep the audience sweating and tense in their chairs. When a misplaced music folder is one of the most terrifying moments of the year, you’ve made quite the film.

It all climaxes with some of the young decade’s finest filmmaking: a 20-minute work of hypnosis – editing, performances, music and visuals all blending together into a completely spellbinding finale. No chair-throwing necessary: "Whiplash" plays at exactly my tempo.

Bottom 5 Films 0f 2014

5. "Son of God"

"Son of God" was a scam. Oh, there are plenty of other worthy reasons why "Son of God" is here. The production values and editing glaringly reflect its TV origins. The thick anti-Semitic vibe is rather unsettling, the storytelling is artlessly blunt and most importantly, it’s just a monumentally dull film, the ultimate saga of inspiration with no inspiration apparent on screen. Even Jesus seems bored to be there.

What really chafes, however, is that "Son of God" is literally a TV movie – History Channel’s "The Bible" – trimmed down heavily and with a smattering of deleted scenes. That’s right; they essentially took a TV movie you could see for free, gave you less of it plus a few scenes apparently not worthy of the prolonged televised version and now charged audiences $10 for the right to see it. It’s a shorter cut for more money, and when the posters said "From the producers of ‘The Bible,’" they meant it way more literally than they let on. Not since the selling of indulgences has the financial exploitation of religion been so blatant.

Yes, this is God’s word – the New Testament even gets a based on credit – but if He knew it’d be this drably told and cheaply handled, I think He’d rather be credited as Alan Smithee.

4. "Third Person"

The best part of "Third Person" came about five minutes in, when I realized I didn’t have to care about anything that was happening in it. The movie’s big twist – one that renders most of the characters useless – becomes mighty apparent barely a few minutes in, so I got to relax, knowing I didn’t particularly have to care about these overheated dramatic constructs.

And thank god, because I’d hate to have wasted much effort or emotional stress on Paul Haggis’ latest "everything’s connected" character smash-up, filled to the brim with silly melodrama that’s the worst combination of being both too obvious and too pretentiously obtuse. Plus, as a bonus, it features the kind of sexism – both of the angry and leering variety – usually saved for Michael Bay films. So that’s something?

3. "The Legend of Hercules"

"The Legend of Hercules" was probably all but certain we’d forgotten its 90-minute parade of borrowed ideas and overall ineptitude since it came out all the way back last January. But no, I did not forget. And time has predictably not sweetened it.

I did not forget Kellen Lutz’s mannequin-esque performance or the parade of below B-movie special effects or the fact that it was a galling display of stolen visuals and storytelling ideas that were chasing after a bandwagon that was already a town away. Really, this was pretty much a cheap direct-to-DVD hack job that somehow stumbled into theaters. You almost feel bad for it.

2. "Blended"

I thought I was well past the time of being disappointed by an Adam Sandler movie, but lo and behold, here we are with "Blended." I hoped that reteaming Sandler with Drew Barrymore – his partner in "The Wedding Singer" and "50 First Dates" – would maybe bring out a touch more effort, maybe a bit more heart. Nope. Nope nope nope. Nope to infinity. Instead, it was yet another vacation in search of a movie, a lazy heap of mean-spirited jokes, sexism, racism and lifeless gags.

1. "God’s Not Dead"

Like urban audiences, women and pretty much anyone else who’s not an 18-to-30 year old male, Christians have long been underserved by Hollywood. So it makes sense that stuff like "God’s Not Dead" and "Son of God" have earned respectable box office returns. However, if that’s the case, Christian film is currently in its painful Tyler Perry phase: dreck being eaten up by an audience too desperately hungry to particularly mind.

"God’s Not Dead," though, would have to get a million times better to qualify as dreck. It’s a jaw-droppingly miserable and offensive two-hour production. It’s offensive to me as a fan of film, considering it’s amateurishly written, acted, directed and edited. And it’s offensive as a Christian, since it seems to think the audience is too stupid to cope with genuine questions about faith and too hateful to accept that other people may think differently. After all, this is a movie where cast members from "Duck Dynasty" talk down to a woman with cancer and the evil atheist getting killed in an accident is a moment of triumph.

For those who use their faith as a way of making themselves feel better than others, "God’s Not Dead" is one big, self-congratulatory pat on the back from a hand plagued with leprosy. God may not be dead, but I think He died a little inside seeing this ugly garbage peddled in His name. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.