Here are the best movies of 2014, the ones which I think most deserve commendation. I didn’t see every movie in the world this year, but I think I did a pretty good job getting to as many as I could, and these are the ones that rose to the top 25 of that large sample.
Honorable Mention: Best Animated Film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
With its watercolor artwork and unwavering sense of fantasy, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is unlike any animated film I have ever seen, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is also the second consecutive film I’ve dubbed animated picture of the year from the Japanese traditional animators Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo and the masterful Spirited Away. Last year they gave us The Wind Rises, the last feature from master Hayao Miyazaki. To compare Princess Kaguya to Miyazaki’s work would not be fair to this wondrous movie, but to say that it is a worthy installment into the Ghibli catalog is a great honor, well deserved.
Honorable Mention: Best Documentary, Life Itself
Steve James got the best review of his career in 1994 when Roger Ebert gave his documentary masterpiece Hoop Dreams four-stars and writing that it transcends documentary. “It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and expose, journalism and polemic,” wrote Ebert. “It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” Over a decade later, Ebert hand picked James to direct a movie that would impact Ebert more emotionally even than Hoop Dreams did,the story of his own life. Members of the film — particularly independent film — community seem to have taken their turns paying tribute to the man who made film criticism a popular profession and point of discourse. But Life Itself is also not only a documentary and biography, it is a portrait of an era and the industry and art form that defined it.
25. The Grand Budapest Hotel
A comedian described The Grand Budapest Hotel as the ultimate parody of a Wes Anderson movie, and I have’t heard a better description of it yet. I remember the first time I saw the trailer, and seeing the color pallet and hearing quips and upbeat music for the first time and turning to my friend to say that all this was missing is Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, and then there they were. It lacks the intimacy and control of Anderson’s earlier greats like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, but it is as quick and quirky and fun as he has been, and his characters are as complete as ever. They are headlined by Gustave Age, another impressive demonstration of range by Ralph Fiennes, whose charisma is matched only by his mystery.
24. Mr. Turner
One of my most anticpated of 2014, Mr. Turner did not disappoint after opening at the Cannes Film Festival to a shower of awards, especially for its lead Timothy Spall. Spall descends into the role of historic painter J.M.W. Turner as the audience descends into his mind. The world of the movie, shot by Dick Pope, is seen how he saw it, how he painted it. Which is to say, at once an exquisite reminder of how beautiful the world can look and a daring challenge to find it looking that way again.
With Interstellar, Chris Nolan and Warner Bros. tried to create the ultimate philosophical science fiction experience that would twist the mind into never looking at the world, or at one’s self the same way ever again. Where the movie seems to have failed — and this might be the only place — is that they already did exactly that thing four years ago with Inception. But while the earlier film dared to talk about grand psychological themes by diving into the finite space of one person’s mind, Interstellar tries to comment on the nature of individual people and emotions by taking its audience on an abstract journey through time and space. It’s a 2001 remake attempt that is over explained but equally stunning to look at, and Hans Zimmer’s score let’s you get lost in the gorgeous vastness of space with Matthew McConaughey.
22. Obvious Child
I can’t say enough about the writing and star performance in this super and wacky take on the romantic comedy genre. It’s dirty, it’s different, and it’s delicious. Jenny Slate is going to be a huge star in the blink of an eye; there is no doubt in my mind about that. Her turn as an amateur comedian in need of an abortion was fresh and bouncy, and they way that she felt like a square peg in the round hole of what dances dangerously close to boring rom-com territory makes this picture as enjoyable as a viewing experience as you’re likely to find.
21. The Theory of Everything
A lot of people are going to question me for saying this, but here goes: I thought The Theory of Everything was an absolutely lovely romance-history that transcended biography by never really even becoming biography. I’m famously sick and tired of “Based on the Inspiring True Story” films, and especially regarding biographies find they loose their impact when they romanticize their historical figures and forget that they should also be making a good movie (I’m looking at you Imitation Game, Selma, Unbroken, none of which you will find on this page). The Theory of Everything managed not to feel like a plea to admire Stephen Hawking like those others did, possibly because the still living and working Hawking is someone we all already know so much about. Rather than paint a picture of the man, it let us fill in the frame with our wealth of knowledge of Hawking, his science and ALS sothat it could focus on making a charming movie-going experience anchored by great mimicry by Eddie Redmayne.
20. Begin Again
Begin Again slowly climbed up my ranking all year. I liked it more and more the more I thought about it. An independent film that doubles as a not-so-subtle love letter to independent film, Begin Again is a wholly modern movie that meditates on contemporary celebrity, the modern family, and the relationship between art and life. The movie asks Can a song save your life, and it answers with a resounding Yes. For the chemistry between its stars and its incredibly relatable emotional core, this is a movie that I look forward to seeing again and again over my years more than maybe anything else that came out in 2014.
19. The One I Love
Super smart and creepy and weird and awesome. The One I Love seems to totally abstract and incomprehensible when its secret trajectory remains hidden, and I have no intention of spoiling it here. I promise, when you see it, the title makes very literal sense, and the film’s courageous storytelling and editing take flight. The ambiguity of the moral is not moral ambiguity in the tradition sense of debating whether the simple act was right or wrong. You know what is morally right and wrong, you just never really know exactly what everyone is doing. It’s Twilight Zone -esque fun, so trust me, it’s worth your time.
Your Academy Award winner for Best Picture. A showbiz critique like no other — not just because its criticism is unique, but because it is a movie like no other — I’m not kidding when I say Birdman oozes greatness. Because of its one-of-a-kind editing technique (it is composed mostly of seamlessly bound long tracking shots) makes it really hard to ever look away from the big screen, so it becomes an electric viewing experience, knowing that something special is happening but always waiting for the climax that never comes because the pace keeps building and building. It derails in its final act, it abandons it’s cut-less gimmick for no discernible reason and the over-the-top acting looks better on some stars than others, but Birdman is a must see if only for study of the character Riggan Thompson, played by his own spiritual parallel Michael Keaton.
17. Edge of Tomorrow
Birdman is a meditation on striving to resurrect careers marked by early blockbuster success that hinders post-franchise success. Edge of Tomorrow is a golden counter-example, a blockbuster action sci-fi starring Tom Cruise that is more human and honest than most movies bound by the real world. Aside from its predictably flawless special effects and editing, Edge of Tomorrow is a genre bender that also carries the weight of the war film and a strange bildungsroman. To describe its plot simply, it is Independence Day meets Groundhog Day with more intimacy and psychology than those two fine movies combined. It’s more than that. Protagonist Cage’s body returns to the same beginning every day, but the journey his mind takes, and Cruise’s ability to show that, are great cinema.
16. Under the Skin
Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001 and Rod Serling’s landmark television series The Twilight Zone are each about to get referenced for the second time on this short list. Under the Skin is a sublime science fiction triller that replicates the slow burn of it’s Kubrician spiritual ancestor, also mimicing its aesthetic. The visuals and score of Under the Skin are its formal triumphs, but the story is mysterious and alluring to boot. It defies explanation; even though the explanation is so cut-and-dry that doesn’t seem to matter and the mystery lives on even after the emotional final scene.
For some reason I can’t explain, I get the feeling from Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, is a movie that a lot of people will be talking about for a long time. It’s themes, which are not gently beaten around but are directly hammered repeatedly, seem timely but are objectively much more universal than at first glance. What is specific to this time is that Jake Gyllenhaal’s protagonist Lou Bloom is an early millenial, part of the Participation-Trophy generation, and Nightcrawler might be the best on-screen depiction to date of the stuntedness of my peers and myself in this regard. Except rather than realize he doesn’t want to grow up and flying off to Neverland, Lou becomes the villian of his own fairy tale.
14. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
This Iranian film by first-timer Ana Lily Amirpour is a spectacular atmospheric drama with stunning cinematography and costuming to makes its very strange subject matter than slow-marching plot easy to sit through. On top of its formal and thematic accomplishments, it is also a truly believable interpretation of what it would be like to have vampires in the real world (read on for another). The smartest thing about it is all of the vampire tropes and how Amirpour brings them in to A Girl Walks Home while not drawing attention to them and keeping them within the bounds of reality: her costume is all black and white but looks fairly ordinary, she glides around as if floating but on a stolen skateboard.
13. Into the Woods
When every movie this winter seemed to want to tie in to current world events, and to will away some societal evil, Into the Woods existed to be fun. By taking the form of an opera and being put in a world that completely abandons a look of reality it became the ultimate escapist film, one that allowed me as a viewer to forget for two hours my busy schedule and and of the harm in the world, and that is exactly what the world needed. It’s a live action movie that looks and feels like a fairy tale, where the hardships of reality still exist but there’s no better way to move on than to sing it out.
12. The Babadook
The scariest movie I have ever seen. Period. What makes movies scary is not an accident, and it definitely isn’t a vague concept or special effects. It is editing and sound design and The Babadook makes use of masterful technical filmmaking to make what might just be the most important horror film since The Blair Witch Project, and the best traditional horror film of the new century by a wide margin. Not only is it scary, but it is moving and character driven. It is to the contemporary indie revival as The Exorcist was in the New Hollywood era: a horror fable about a mother desperately fighting to protect her child from a supernatural force that on the screen seems all too real. Knock knock knock.
11. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her
Another film that is the first of its kind, this experimental indie is by its very nature the most truly complete a cinematic story can be. Composed of two very good if bluntly ordinary films played back to back — Him and Her — this piece is a unique portrait of grief in modern city life. Him recounts the story of a man who must cope with his wife leaving him suddenly after she attempts suicide. Her is about that wife’s emotional struggle after losing their child. It is about perspective and that every story has, and needs two sides. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain give what might just be their respective career bests. Chastain is especially powerful, as her acting stigma of a childish air with unexpected maturity helps her portray the complicated situation of a grown woman but one broken by emotional trauma.
10. A Most Violent Year
There has never been a film that so clearly and to such a great effect channeled The Godfather before JC Chandor’s period crime thriller A Most Violent Year. Set in the Winter of 1981, the most crime-ridden period in the recorded history of New York City, A Most Violent Year is occupied by a man who bridges the gap between hero and anti-hero, a venue that has been surprisingly under-represented. He tries fervently to stay straight and avoid falling into the cycle of organized crime and corruption, but its specter haunts him at every corner and seems to be able to smell his desperation. This film also contains two of the year’s finest performances. Oscar Isaac is in the lead as an oil man full of ambition but unwilling to do what it takes. Jessica Chastain is his wife, the daughter of the major crime lord who might have a little taste for foul play in her blood.
9. Gone Girl
David Fincher is slamming the door as the premier director of dark neo-noir. His career already contains the electric and violent expressionistic film Se7en and true crime masterpiece Zodiac. Now he adds the very good best-seller adaptation starring Batman and a Bond Girl. Affleck is impeccably cast as the husband that you truly want to believe is totally harmless, but also seems like there could be a brutish underside to. Pike is equally well cast as the “amazing” woman we kind of don’t blame him for getting sick of. Of course, her uninteresting incompatibility with suburban life did not merit the death penalty, and this quickly evolves into a film that literalizes the question of whether his being a disinterested and selfish husband should land him on death row. These too-good-to-be-true newly weds take less than five years to descend from they marriage they want to the one they deserve.
When I walked out of the theater after Whiplash I thought two things. First, I was ready to run through a brick wall. Its sound design and impeccable and fast and electric editing charged me up with adrenaline. It was a far more exciting and enticing finale than any movie about a snobby kid who plays drums had any right to have, and for that this movie will have serious staying power and be a favorite of young people in need to a face to relate to their antagonistic adult figures for generations. It is super charged in that way; it becomes Andrew versus Fletcher, good versus evil, us versus them. Second, I thought that whatever it was, I wanted to work as hard as I could to be great at something. No, to be one of the greats. Whiplash‘s style provided the first. It’s story provided the second. Both are powerful and they work perfectly in tandem.
7. Palo Alto
Palo Alto is a representation of adolescent life that has been missing from motion pictures largely for about three decades. But it handles this material far more gently and carefully than the flood of teen dramas in the 1980s did, thanks largely to Gia Coppola’s exquisite direction. Not overly moralistic or expository, Palo Alto is a snapshot. It seems to be an arc-less chapter in the book of life, which I think is how most teens actually feel about their lives. They know they are supposed to be going somewhere, but don’t understand why the wave isn’t carrying them. It is limbo in every way. One character finds he doesn’t fit in among the senior citizens he volunteers with or with the children at the library. Another thinks she is too mature for silly boys her age, but is seen to be way too fragile to carry on a relationship with an older man. Palo Alto is about the transitional period when everything is changing, but nothing seems to be.
6. Only Lovers Left Alive
The best film of Jim Jarmusch’s increasingly iconic career in experimental and independent filmmaking is the second realistic vampire movie on this list. I will never understand that coincidence. Anyway, while A Girl Walks Home is an unbelievable and unbelievably weird atmospheric experience, Only Lovers crafts very compelling characters and a centuries-old backstory that adds are really enticing element of faux-context to the ultra-modern narrative. Shot and set in the middle of the night in hollowed out Detroit, Jarmusch doesn’t only create vampires that could fit into the world as we know it, but a world that seems to be made just for vampires. But even though I’ve mentioned vampires three times already, the greatness of Only Lovers is that it really doesn’t matter whether they are vampires or not. This is perhaps the most believable on-screen love I have ever seen. I didn’t say romance, which implies the process of falling in love. I said love, the product of time and closeness brought to life by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleson as two ageless characters whom it seems literally hurt when they’re apart.
5. The Drop
This is Dennis Lehane’s screenwriting debut, and he also wrote the source material, a short story entitled Animal Rescue. It shares a lot with other film adaptations of Lehane’s prose, such as Mystic River, a highly celebrated urban crime thriller that twists and turns with its enigmatic characters, of which its city is one. All of that description also applies to The Drop, though the characters and crime feature very little overlap and the tale is relocated from Southie to Brooklyn. It features one of the best written characters of the year, protagonist Bob played by Tom Hardy. It also features his associate Cousin Marv, played by James Gandolfini in his farewell performance. It was the perfect note for Gandolfini to exit to — wishing that he’d never exited at all — as a city man worn-down by life and mourning his loss of power and respect. After a monologue he gives about once having been feared and respected, I swear I could almost hear Paulie Walnuts say, “See ya later, T.”
Wild is an emotional experience that at once serves the superficial needs of the audience by playing with the oldest tricks in the book, and weaves ultra-subtle brilliant storytelling and comments on the nature of the human experience. It is as much about memory, identity and the ways in which the mind creates narratives and handles solitude and grief as it is about one woman’s overlong walk through the woods. Wild has been criminally under-appreciated because people are afraid to dig into to, to really pay attention to and appreciate the details (horrible CGI fox aside). The way Cheryl, played by the incomparable Reese Witherspoon, effectively teaches herself to walk in the first minutes of the narrative set the stage for a film about growing psychologically, about songs bouncing around in your head, and about learning to live with yourself before you can live with others.
3. Inherent Vice
I have probably typed this sentence about twenty times in the past few months but I feel I can never say it enough. Paul Thomas Anderson is probably the most talented filmmaker alive. His body of work is second to none, a string of movies so great that they would all be defining moments in the careers of most other filmmakers, without one false note. Inherent Vice is another one, and I’m beginning to think after seeing this wild and funny, twisted and contemplative, stylized and cunning tribute to its medium and its city that PTA can literally do no wrong. The novel upon which Inherent Vice is drawn was said to be unfilmable. If anyone can look that challenge in the eye and obliterate it, it is evidently Paul Thomas Anderson. Every frame is expertly created, and the candy-colored aesthetic is second only to the magnetic and cavernous mystery.
Ida is almost a nostalgic piece that longs for traditional European art cinema and is every bit as great as the mid-century classics. It is the unmistakably Bergman-esque tale of a young ethnic jew looking to become a nun, but first experiencing life and exploring her identity outside the convent. Gorgeously shot, graciously acted and gently paced, Ida is an incredible achievement for Polish director Pawel Palwikowski. It’s moments of silent reflection are among the best the big screen has seen in decades, and its character arcs are as surprising as they are understandable, the balance every storyteller suffers to reach.
I’ve seen Boyhood twice, spent hours talking about it and even more hours reading about it and I’m still not sure I have the words for what this movie did to me, so I won’t try. It is a masterpiece, a once-in-a-generation special film that can never be replicated and will be discussed as long as cinema exists in popular discourse. It’s a portrait of a life. Life isn’t about vampires and not everyone has cool jobs and great apartments and makes music. Life, according to the works of Richard Linklater, doesn’t need to be dressed up to make a good movie. It is crazy and touching as it is. No need to highlight any specific peaks and valleys. No need to embellish. See it for yourself, you won’t be sorry. It is a movie that challenges everything we thought we knew about the nature of story, history, growing up. It doesn’t feel at all like a movie. It feels like one of those dreams that is so realistic you don’t realize you’re dreaming until you wake up and it’s still the middle of the night. With it’s own unique pace — necessary for its content — Boyhood can be enjoyed from any beginning and to any end. Just jump in and roll along with Mason. Then, when it ends go live your own life with a new appreciation of the way time passes and that you should always try to enjoy the now.
Now, I invite you to comment or tweet at me and tell me why I’m wrong. I did not get around to every film this year that I had hoped to, especially Goodbye to Language, Top Five and The Congress, which I was really looking forward to. Oh well. On to 2015. Last year at this time I said that my most anticipated 2014 film was Boyhood, and as you can see I was not let down. So I’ll write here that 2015’s is quite different: Inside Out. I’m cautiously optimistic that it triumphantly will mark the return to Pixar’s inventive greatness.