year in culture 2014

Bests, Worsts, and Other Superlatives From 2014 in Entertainment

We’ve looked at 2014 from many angles already — our critics each picked the best movies, television, music, art, books, theater, and much, much more. But now we are going to taking a closer look at our favorite things. What was the best comeback? What was the best dance scene? What was the worst fight scene? Whom should characters tell about their surprise pregnancies? And what had the most cooks?

Guardians of the Galaxy was supposed to be Marvel’s bridge too far, the moment where the studio’s blockbuster boldness finally failed. And yet! This oddball comedy starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, a tree, a wrestler, and a raccoon managed to defy the odds and become one of the year’s biggest hits, and James Gunn’s franchise-starter actually felt like one of the freshest things to come along in ages, even though it’s mass-produced by Marvel. We’ll be inundated by comic-book movies in the years to come; let’s hope that even half dare to be as unique and inventive as this one. —Kyle Buchanan
This sci-fi vehicle was better than nearly everything we got this summer — boasting more laughs, wittier action, and a kickass heroine played by Emily Blunt, to boot — and yet audiences stayed away in droves, confused by the didn’t-do-it-justice marketing campaign and turned off in general by its lead, Tom Cruise. Too bad: Even his naysayers would have to enjoy a movie where Cruise is blown to smithereens this many times. —KB
Scandal crams so much story and so many twists into each hour that it should have run out of steam by now — but it hasn’t let up. Seasons three and four are a bloodbath, with torture, violence, weaponized meningitis, grief, murder, you name it. Luckily, there’s romance and humor and sex, too, which combine for a still scarily addictive prime-time soap. —Margaret Lyons
It’s the most popular show on TV, but the (admittedly terrific) zombie action sequences are just there to distract us from the fact that the show does not move forward in any meaningful way. Find a place to hunker down; inevitably engage in bloody combat with people who were already there; mourn death of secondary character for five minutes and then head back out to the road. C’mon, Walking Dead. Surprise us. —ML 
After the runaway success of 1989, Taylor Swift was fond of telling media outlets that many insiders had predicted the album would sell barely half of what Red did. Far be it from us to accuse Taylor of stretching the truth to make herself seem like an underdog, but — what?!? Taylor Swift couldn’t even walk out the front door in 2014 without someone building a slideshow about it; of course the arrival of 13 songs of T.Swift #content would send the internet into a tailspin. Just ask all those Starbucks lovers. —Nate Jones
From 2009 to 2012, you could set your clocks by Rihanna’s professional schedule: a debut single sometime in the fall, an album in November, a performance at the Grammys, a shaggy last single in late summer, then a few months later the process would start all over again. Keeping all those wheels spinning could drive a person insane, and after the #RihannaPlane fiasco, no one begrudged Rih-Rih for slowing her pace in 2013. Surely she would be back again in 2014. But as the months ticked on, Rihanna’s vacant place atop pop’s throne was filled first by Beyoncé and then by Taylor Swift, and rumors that she was about to drop a surprise album before the year was up all came to nothing. Is she hard at work, secretly crafting the hit that will return her to the top? Or, after seven albums in seven years, is she simply taking a well-deserved vacation? Either way, we’ll see you when you get back, Rih. —NJ
A show that was ahead of its time ten years ago makes a surprise return and still feels like the most original show on TV. The meta-ness of the series could bog a lesser show down, but The Comeback is actually not a show about a show: It’s a show about wants. There’s the raw, desperate want to be accepted, the glossy want to be revered, the simple want to be treated with dignity, plus the dueling wants of revenge and gratefulness. Come back to us again, The Comeback. —ML 
Like Beyoncé a year earlier, the fact that D’Angelo was working on new music wasn’t exactly a surprise, but that didn’t make it any less thrilling when Black Messiah suddenly arrived on iTunes and Spotify last week. If Beyoncé was a delectable entrée served just as the stomachs started rumbling, Black Messiah was an oasis that suddenly appeared in the middle of the desert: the first new D’Angelo music fans had heard for 14 years. Inspired, he said, by waves of protests around the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, D’Angelo created a slow-burning sensation that resists the contemporary impulse towards meme-ification. No #surfborts here, just 56 minutes of pitch-perfect R&B. —NJ
Now that Vulture’s months-long Best Actor campaign for Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler actually seems to be paying off, we’d be remiss not to try our luck by pushing Ralph Fiennes next. The well-respected British thespian has always made a lucrative career out of playing homicidal baddies, but that’s what made his against-type comic role as a granny-squiring dandy in The Grand Budapest Hotel so delightfully revelatory. Cast this man in all the comedies henceforth! —KB
How many times do we have to tell you to go see Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights before you’ll listen? It seemed like all the good reviews in the world couldn’t get America to show up and buy tickets for the romantic drama. Did it look too much like a “chick flick” from the sappy posters? Maybe they didn’t have enough of a promo budget? Just go and see it already. —Lindsey Weber
It’s hard to say something “deserved to do better” when it comes to music this year because tastes have become so fractured and nothing does hugely well except Taylor Swift. So, with that disclaimer: Jessie Ware’s Tough Love. Though her album did fine, it wasn’t the hit it deserved to be. With these songs and that voice, Ware should have been the next Sam Smith or Adele, the next British soul-pop singer to cross over to American audiences with approval by both critics and people who buy music at Starbucks. —Jesse David Fox
What if there were a show that combined the goofiness of Scrubs, the emotional depth and warmth of Parks and Recreation, the ensemble sensibility of The Office, and precise dialogue of 30 Rock? There was! And Fox canceled it. —ML 
The sexual energy on Transparent is intense: Ali’s so hot for Dale, she hallucinates a whole sex cabin where she imagines he lives; Sarah’s attraction to Tammy leads to all kinds of rash decisions; and Josh and Rabbi Raquel’s flirtation scene was the only time I’ve ever thought, I hope those people bang right there in the mikvah tub in the basement of that shul. More important than the sexual chemistry, though, is the family chemistry of the show. It’s not that hard to assemble good-looking performers and create an appearance of attraction; much harder is the appearance and sensation of family, of how you really lay on a couch with your mom or the kinds of looks you really give your brother. Transparent’s family chemistry is both essential to the series and completely perfect. —ML 
They aren’t stupid, Drake and Nicki know you want them to get together. But they’re gonna drag it out — like the first two seasons of The Office — in their own version of a will-they-won’t-they. The story we hear is that he’s got a hopeless crush on her (could that be any more Drake-like?) and she’s not into it: “I think what works with Drake is if you act like you don’t like him … Be horrible to him,” she once joked on the radio. And that’s why the last scene of the “Anaconda” video works so perfectly. She’s thrilled to torture him and, in turn, his suffering is sublime. —LW  
There was one upside to About Last Night’s unevenness: By focusing on two couples instead of one, the film eschewed the traditional comedy-duo dynamic we expect from rom-coms, in which one partner is the straight man (usually the woman, because Hollywood) and one is the funny one (usually the man, because Hollywood). Here there was one couple of straight men (Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant, being very earnest) and one couple of complete nutcases (Kevin Hart and Regina Hall). Hart and Hall are electric and hilarious together. They just scream so much and have such weird sex, but it all works because you can tell they found the same things funny in the moment and that Hall and Hart have a genuine affection for each other. —JDF
This was just too close to call. While Whiplash didn’t just feature drumming but was actually about drumming, there were times were people yelled and got yelled at that that were mostly drum-free. On the other hand, Birdman only had brief moments of showing drumming, but aurally, the drumming never went away. —JDF
NBC’s decision to cancel Community seemed almost anticlimactic when it was announced last May: Ratings had been so low and the network’s interest in Dan Harmon’s particular brand of comic lunacy so minimal that even the most optimistic Greendale groupies seemed resigned to the notion that there’d be no sixth season on the Peacock. The hope was that Sony, the studio behind the show, would find a new home for Community somewhere, anywhere else. Talk of a cable or Netflix deal quickly turned out to be noise; conversations with Hulu were more serious but could never overcome financial issues. All hope seemed lost until June, when, seemingly on a lark, execs at Yahoo called up Sony with a plan to revive the show as part of a bid to bolster its ad-supported streaming video service. A deal came together quickly, and while Yvette Nicole Brown won’t be back, the rest of the core cast will, with episodes set to return early next year. As important as all this was for Community fans, it also crystallized how non-linear TV is quickly becoming a savior for shows that broadcast and cable networks can’t make work. —Joe Adalian
Somehow a show that peaked in its third episode got four seasons. The mind reels. Netflix decided to bring back the half-baked Killing for one final whatever-the-opposite-of-hurrah is, and the season was a mess. The case itself, in which an entire family is murdered except for their military-school son, proved uninteresting, and even Joan Allen couldn’t sell us on the final “reveal.” Holder and Linden were as mopey and incompetent as ever, and the flash-forward closing scene felt like a cheap way to claim everything had worked out in the end. Good riddance. —ML 
“My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed.” Snowpiercer’s show-stopping, slow-motion ax-gang battle sequence is our favorite fight of the year. Dirty, ugly, graceful, balletic — we would have picked something from The Raid 2, except that the entire movie is basically a fight scene. (Watch Snowpiercer’s scene here.) —Gilbert Cruz
The big, climatic sword fight between Peter Pan (Allison Williams, finally looking like the Oberlin grad Girls says she is) and Captain Hook (Christopher Walken, looking like, ummm, nothing of this world) was less a sword fight and more a slow walk around a boat while facing each other. They might as well have just sat in chairs and screamed, “What a wild sword fight we’re having!” at each other for four minutes. —JDF
Spoilers for Gone Girl follow. A murder mystery in which we don’t actually see much murder … except for that moment.That one moment. A Grand Guignol masterpiece, bloody and climactic (pun intended) and beautiful in its own awful way. Amy and Desi. A fountain of blood. A flip of hair. Octopus and Scrabble were just not in the cards for this couple. —GC
There was a lot of TV sex this year, on shows as disparate as Broad City and Game of Thrones. Outlander had a whole sex episode. How to Get Away With Murder is making ATM a prime-time staple. But it was The Americans that really conquered some new territory this season with TV’s pioneering 69 scene. And for something that could have been purely salacious, it was pretty important to the story and to illuminating to the state of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. And permanently scarring to their daughter Paige, who walked in on them. —ML 
Before seeing The Fault in Our Stars, a co-worker told me Shailene Woodley doesn’t die, and I was annoyed, assuming the whole movie was spoiled. God, was I wrong. At no point did I see it coming that Augustus’s scan would light up like a Christmas tree. I knew the movie was all about crying, and I thought it was all young-love happy tears. Nope. There were also lsuper-sad, dead-youth tears. —JDF
Watching St. Vincent, I thought, This isn’t the greatest movie, but it’s pleasant and humble enough. Just do you, St. Vincent. Then the titular Vincent, played by Bill Murray, had a stroke. Why did he have a stroke? It definitely didn’t have anything to do with the story — once he got better, the relationship between Vincent and the other characters was essentially restored to where it was before the stroke. The only explanation that makes sense to me is it made St. Vincent seem like a film of import and not just a fine-enough movie. To be more specific, it made St. Vincent seem like a film that could earn Murray some awards. —JDF
Before she was caught dirty-dancing with Harry Styles, Kristen Wiig proved her schlock-pop mettle in the centerpiece lip-sync sequence from The Skeleton Twins, where Bill Hader enticed her reluctant (but secretly not that reluctant) character to join him in a mimed rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Grab a partner and act this one out at your next karaoke night! —KB
Here’s a tip: If you get knocked up and you need someone to tell, find Gaby Hoffmann. She was on the receiving end of both Jenny Slate’s news in Obvious Child and Reese Witherspoon’s news in Wild, with both women asking for her sage advice. Final decisions aside, Hoffmann has so well perfected the nonjudgmental concerned eyebrow-crumple that she should basically come packaged with pregnancy tests. —LW  
As Gone Girl’s nosy neighbor Noelle Hawthorne, Casey Wilson is pretty much the worst person you’d want to let in on your pregnancy. She’s the stereotypical casserole-carrying, midwestern busybody-housewife, and she’s definitely going to tell everyone. (Unless that is SPOILER ALERT exactly your plan …) —LW 
If there’s one thing Bryan Singer knows, it’s how to make superpowers look gorgeous. Super-speedster Quicksilver’s much-lauded slo-mo battle/prank-fest in the sixth X-flick was a spiritual successor to past Singer masterstrokes: for example, the famous White House break-in from X2, the too-often-forgotten plane rescue from his Superman Returns, and even the portal-fighting from earlier in Days of Future Past. Evan Peters straps his headphones on, cranks up some AM gold (this being the ‘70s and all), and after the world stops, he proceeds to turn away guards’ guns and twist them into goofy poses. He wants a laugh just as much as he wants justice, if not more so. The opening-night audience with whom I saw the movie was breathless. For a brief moment, in an entertainment world dominated by blurry mush, we had a vision of what action choreography can — and should — be in the CGI age. Alas, time can’t stop forever. The movie went back into high gear. But we’ll never forget the time Bryan Singer made time stop. —Abraham Riesman
Oh, Evan. Dear, sweet Evan. What has Ryan Murphy done to you? When we first met our flaxen-haired hunk in American Horror Story, he was an emo mass-murderer (with a heart of gold!) whom we couldn’t help but root for. Then he was a kind (even hunkier?) hippie who loved to dance with Jessica Lange. Finally he was asked to play a near-mute Franken-frat-boy with a thing for magical blondes. Sensing a pattern? The roles for Peters on AHS have taken a bit of a decline in their weight since the show’s debut. So imagine our disappointment when this year’s character’s most notable trait is the blush he can bring to a housewife’s cheek. Deemed “Edward Dildohands” by our trusty recapper, we think it’s safe to say that Peters performed one of the year’s weirdest sex acts of 2014. We’ll never be able to look at our mother’s Tupperware the same. —Tara Abell Photo: Copyright 2014, FX Networks. All rights reserved.
There were about 66 Cooks in “Too Many Cooks,” give or take a Cook. Can you name anything else that had as many cooks? No, Jon Favreau’s Chef only had like seven cooks. Nice try. —JDF
Bests and Worsts From the Year in Entertainment