You read that right: top 15. I’m departing from my established pattern of doing an annual top 10. Part of me sees this as a failure of will, a refusal to make the hard choices. Maybe so. However, the prevailing thought in my mind is that although I am attempting to name my absolute favorite films of the year, the goal is less about canonization of well-respected movies than it is about the hope that the list might encourage someone to take a chance on a film they otherwise might not.

It was a good year for movies by my account. Godzilla returned to US multiplexes. Keanu Reeves got back into the action game with John Wick. We saw new films from auteurs such as David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen. We saw exciting work from new and up-and-coming directors like Jennifer Kent, Damien Chazelle, Justin Simien, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Saulnier, and Ana Lily Amirpour. We got two movies from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, both of which were anarchic fun. Reese Witherspoon was also in two movies and wasn’t awful in either of them. Even some of the usual superhero/blockbuster mish-mash was of an unusually high caliber (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy). Oh, and I think there was a movie by some guy named Christopher Nolan…

So in a year this crowded I feel a top 15 is the way to go. Let’s get at it, then, and may the hottest flicks rise to the top. Here are my picks for the best movies of 2014:


15. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)

I bet you didn’t think you were going to see a Persian-language, Iranian-set, California-shot black-and-white feminist vampire fable this year, did you? But you should; Amirpour’s movie positively drips with style, from its high-contrast photography and evocative compositions to its killer soundtrack. Sheila Vand as the mysterious loiterer, lover, and avenger has wonderfully expressive eyes and a face that can seem alternately young and old, meek and threatening. It’s a perfect match of actor to role. The film may be too self-consciously cool at times and engages in some traditional vampire shoe-gazing (vampires are surely among the most melancholic of the classic monsters) but it’s unlike anything else you’ll see. Look out for some great cat acting as well!

14. Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

Polish director Powel Pawlikowski has made one of the most beautiful films of the year in Ida. His somber road movie is shot in black and white with a nearly square 1.37:1 aspect ratio and he uses his frame to stunning effect. Cathedral ceilings loom high over humbled heads while cuts between two halves of a shot visualize emotional distances between characters. Is there another working director with such impeccable command of composition? His camera drinks in the faces of his actresses, drawing favorable comparisons to Fellini. The simple story of a soon-to-be nun discovering her past and deciding her future is a relatable one built on profound choices. Ida’s aunt shows her the lure of a more liberated world as well as a soul that has been beaten down by it. The narrative isn’t exactly groundbreaking; but with such gorgeous formalism on display, does it even matter?

13. The Rover (dir. David Michôd)

This bleak Australian film from the director of Animal Kingdom remains mostly tight-lipped as it judiciously fills out its post-apocalyptic outback. Guy Pearce plays a man on the edge who will smile at nothing to get his car back, and Robert Pattinson gives a stand-out, tic-filled supporting performance as the dim-witted brother of one of the thieves. The dusty landscape is punctuated by stark violence and pitch black humor, including a memorably bizarre musical cue. The film’s ending undercuts its seriousness a bit but not enough to spoil the mood. It’s a bold, sure-handed existential thriller.

12. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)

Usually I feel that the star of any Wes Anderson film is Wes Anderson, and his sometimes overwhelmingly chic and controlled aesthetic. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the most luminous presence is unquestionably Ralph Fiennes. His Gustave H is a wonderfully funny, sincere and idiosyncratic creation who not only keeps the hotel running but the film as well. And there’s a lot of running in Hotel, which often plays as an action movie of sorts, or the closet thing to one that Anderson has done. The star-studded supporting cast includes such names as Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, and Saoirse Ronan. Oddly sterile in comparison to warm-blooded Anderson outings like Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is nevertheless a buoyant, clever and whimsical dark comedy.

11. Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

The quiet and beautifully shot Blue Ruin is a different kind of revenge film. It’s not Uma Thurman unsheathing a samurai sword and cutting the limbs off an army of assailants in Kill Bill. It’s more like Llewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men if Moss were incompetent and Anton Chigurh was just a regular guy. Macon Blair’s drifter-cum-avenger is an every-man woefully unprepared for the messy task of exacting justice, and really hard to take seriously once he shaves off his beard. He fumbles through his ill-conceived acts by sheer will and a bit of luck. Thankfully, director Jeremy Saulnier is more than competent at telling his unorthodox story through rich visuals. It’s a refreshing and intelligent take on a familiar genre.

10. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)

If 2013 was the year of the McConaissance, by all rights 2014 should have entered the Gyllenhaal of Fame, lauded the Gyllen-overhaal, or made us all Gyllenhaalics, or something. I don’t know, I’m still working on it. The point is Jake Gyllenhaal, whose name now looks like complete nonsense to me, turned in two of the year’s finest performancesfirst in Enemy and then in the neon-soaked media satire Nightcrawler. His Louis Bloom is an expertly realized sociopath, a rubbery snake who manipulates and extorts his way into a business selling footage of crimes and accidents to a local news station. He’s a big, entertaining and frightening character who mostly carries the film by being so fascinating; but that’s not to discount Dan Gilroy’s script, the bleary LA setting or Rene Russo’s supporting turn. Nightcrawler is as savory as it is cynical.

9. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

If you don’t think a movie about jazz can have your heart beating like a kick drum and your stomach knotted up like a treble clef, you clearly missed out on the wicked musical thriller Whiplash. J. K. Simmons is terrifying as the exacting conductor Fletcher whose hardline tactics aim to mold top talent into immortal greatness at any cost. Simmons’ memorable performance is a career highlight for the character actor, and Miles Teller is just as good in his less showy turn as a drummer who will sweat and bleed to be the best. The film is like a dark, twisted iteration of the underdog sports movie with some surprisingly nimble camera work. It all boils down to a clash between two wills in what might be the year’s most intense finale.

8. The Raid 2 (dir. Gareth Edwards)

I’m going to put this as gently as I can: The Raid 2 is one of the greatest action movies ever made. Or if it isn’t, it at least contains some of the best action yet put on film. Yes, this hulking symphony of violence has its problems. It’s far too long. The crime syndicate plot wherein a young upstart attempts to overtake his father’s business is a little by-the-numbers and not interesting or unique enough to justify the time spent on it. It can be cheesy. It can be confusing. But ultimately none of that matters very much because you go to an action movie for the action and holy shit does The Raid deliver! The fight sequences in this movie are astounding. They’re incredibly fast, creative, well-choreographed and bone-shatteringly violent, outdoing even the virtuoso athleticism in the first Raid film. You’ll come out of the movie both pumped up and exhausted by its scale and intensity. A new bar has been set. For action fans this is a can’t-miss.

7. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)

Ridiculous name, great movie. The Babadook is that rare horror film that is actually scary, not because of things popping into the frame accompanied by musical stings but because we care about the characters. Essie Davis as Amelia gives what might be the best female performance in a horror movie since Nicole Kidman in The Others. Her powerful presence anchors the film and Jennifer Kent’s smart direction immerses us in her strung-out mental state. The Babadook takes its story of isolation and grief seriously – it never winks – but it does adamantly dodge convention in ways that should make horror fans rejoice: for instance, Kent doggedly avoids jump scares and resists over-exposing her creature to diminishing returns. Stressful, terrifying, satisfying.


6. 22 Jump Street (dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

Propulsively energetic, warm, and silly, the sequel to raunchy buddy comedy 21 Jump Street is more of the same, in the best possible way. The movie is constantly lampshading its own redundancy as a sequel and making meta jokes (Rooster’s “Red Herring” tattoo might be my favorite). Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have proven themselves as a comedic duo and this film showcases their winning chemistry as well as directors Lord & Miller’s penchant for shaping irreverent chaos into something smarter and funnier than it should have any chance at being (which applies equally well to The LEGO Movie). With its high laugh-per-minute count, 22 Jump Street was the most pure fun I had in theaters all year.

5. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Fans, it seems, are divided on Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie, but count me among its supporters. For me, Inherent Vice is PTA’s most likeable movie since Boogie Nights. It’s The Big Sleep on drugs, by way of the Coen bros and Robert Altman. The labyrinthine plot of this quirky neo-noir is secondary to its textures, both nostalgic and mournful; and it’s bursting with wonderful actors digging into their colorful roles. Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Hong Chau, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Michael K. Williams, Joanna Newsom… the cast stretches on like the endless road that leads hippie private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) on a wild investigation to save his former squeeze and a genial informer who wants to get out of the game. It’s so engrossing moment by moment that in the end you may not care that, Burn After Reading style, it’s hard to say what it all meant.

4. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Speaking of rooting out meaning, it’s a full time job in Jonathan Glazer’s masterful Under the Skin, a sci-fi cypher that defies ranking or easy categorization. It is very much an “other,” which is appropriate given that the film is about an alien viewing humanity from the outside. Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast as the alluring “woman” who is both hunter and prey. The film is pervasively cryptic and foreboding, at times utterly engrossing, transgressive, and refreshingly candid. Glazer weaves his tale in almost purely visual, impressionistic terms. The entire spoken script must be only a few pages long. It’s not often clear what’s happening narratively, but the symbols nevertheless cohere on an almost subconscious level. What is clear is that Under the Skin conjures some of the most potent images in any movie this year.

3. Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is the little blockbuster that wasn’t. Like a Korean Matrix movie, it has it all: a popular, hunky lead; a high-concept sci-fi story; guns and violence and cool special effects. Yet at its peak it played in 350 theaters stateside and grossed $4.5 million domestic. Compare that to Chris Evan’s other movie this year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which played in almost 4,000 theaters and made $250 million. Never you mind: this is the action sci-fi movie you want. Structurally messy but visually bold and stunningly ambitious, Snowpiercer tells the post-apocalyptic story of a perpetual motion train that circles the globe in a man-made nuclear winter. All remaining life resides inside the train and a caste system has emerged with the poor in the back and the wealthy up front. Each section of the train is different as the rebels revolt and surge forward, attempting to overthrow the system that keeps them oppressed. The film is exciting and thoughtful and leaves you feeling the weight of its ideas; but it’s also as pulpy and strange as the unhinged performances from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Alison Pill. The scene with Pill’s character teaching elementary school children about the train is worth the price of admission all by itself. “What happens if the engine stops? We all freeze and die!”

2. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

David Fincher works his stylish magic on this twisty domestic horror show based on the screenplay by Gillian Flynn working from her own popular novel. Rosamund Pike and Ben Affeck get juicy roles as Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who are happily married until one day Amy disappears. The fallout leaves Nick as the primary suspect and what follows is a mobius strip of shifting sympathies and the manipulation of those sympathies through deception and the careful curation of image. Pike is rightfully Oscar nominated for her role here and Affleck is well-cast in one of several high profile roles this year that play on an actor’s established persona. A crackling supporting cast includes Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry and Kim Dickens. This is a slick, savvy adult thriller that keeps you guessing to the end.

1. Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Birdman’s title begs for avian comparisons, but maybe the animal it most resembles is the rhinoceros. The film pulses and pounds along with its percussive score, as likely to explode as to take flight. It’s a blistering, angry treatise lashing out at safe comic book movies, greedy executives, close-minded critics, complacent audiences, and a host of film and stage targets with equal verve. Shot to look like a single unbroken take, this backstage drama/comedy/fantasy is endlessly captivating largely because of its tremendous performances. Michael Keaton as a former screen superhero fighting for relevance is as inspired casting as you could hope for and his work here is riveting – so too Edward Norton in a scene-stealing supporting role. Add in Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakis (the latter playing somewhat against type) and you have a veritable actor’s showcase. Relentless fly-on-the-wall direction takes us from claustrophobic hallway monologues to the Broadway stage, finally spilling out into the streets where Iñárritu audaciously spends his climactic location shoot on a man power-walking through Time’s Square in his underpants.

The Next Ten
Here are my runners-up. List is in alphabetical order:

Dear White People
Enemy
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Interstellar
Magic in the Moonlight
Muppets Most Wanted
Life Itself
They Came Together
Top Five
X-Men: Days of Future Past 

Ten Movies I Missed – A few potential top-listers that I didn’t get a chance to see: American Sniper; A Most Violent Year; Calvary; Force Majeure; Goodbye to Language; Listen Up Phillip; Mr. Turner; Only Lovers Left Alive; Princess Kaguya; Two Days, One Night 


20 Top Performances

Best Actor
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal – Enemy
Tom Hardy – The Drop

Best Actress
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Essie Davis – The Babadook
Tessa Thompson – Dear White People
Marion Cotillard – The Imimigrant
Rosario Dawson – Top Five

Best Supporting Actor
Edward Norton – Birdman
J. K. Simmons – Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
Robert Pattinson – The Rover
Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Uma Thurman – Nymphomaniac Vol. I
Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice
Alison Pill – Snowpiercer
Carrie Coon – Gone Girl


Now for some bonus stats…

Best Director: Jonathan Glazer for Under the Skin

Best Soundtrack: John Wick

Best Song: “I’ll Get You What You Want,” Muppets Most Wanted

Funniest Movie: 22 Jump Street

Saddest Movie: Life Itself

Best Title: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Worst Title: The Babadook

Longest Title: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Shortest Title: Joe, Ida

Best Performance by a Bad Actor: Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent

Worst Performance by a Good Actor: Naomi Watts in St. Vincent

Biggest Surprise: The Good Lie. The trailer made this look like insufferable sentimental trash, but it was a legitimately good movie that was compassionate and kept its African stars at the forefront.

Biggest Disappointment: Godzilla. I wrote a lot about this elsewhere. While I love that it got made, I can’t help but wish I loved it, full stop.

Worst Movie: A Million Ways to Die in the West. Seth MacFarlane should shut up.

Most Overrated: Boyhood. Sorry to say it because I know calling anything overrated smacks of whining, but it could hardly be anything other than this best picture front runner that I found cliche and unsympathetic despite its technical achievement.

Most Underrated: Lucy. A little bit Fifth Element, a little bit Tree of Life, this bonkers Luc Besson action flick was just nuts enough to work.

Best Sequel: 22 Jump Street

Worst Sequel: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Best Woody Allen Movie: Top Five

Fiction Movies Based on Real Life: Foxcatcher, Wild, The Good Lie, Selma, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything

Movies in Which Will Arnett is the MVP: The LEGO Movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Actors Apparently Cast Because of Their Real Life Personas: Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman; Ben Affleck in Gone Girl; Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin; Keanu Reeves in John Wick

Most Violence Done to Neil Patrick Harris: A Million Ways to Die in the West. Sorry, Gone Girl.

Most Violence Done to Dylan Thomas: Interstellar, Dying of the Light

Most Ed Harris: Ed Harris in Snowpiercer

So… that was my year in film. How was yours?

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