The Best Films of 2014

At the end of every year, the assembling and organizing of a best-of list becomes an exercise in incongruity; it seems like we spent all of our time complaining about blockbusters and avoiding dystopian YA adaptations, and yet, when you look at the sum total of a year of cinema, there are enough great films for not only this list of 25 (27, really), but two supplementary ones. And yes, the environment for intelligent, mature, original movies may be hostile (and the future looks even bleaker), but ingenious filmmakers continue to find a way, whether it’s making the best of low budgets, smuggling subversion into commercial enterprises, or enlisting movie stars to open doors. Some film writers (particularly Oscar bloggers) have taken this year’s shortage of clear-cut “favorites” as the sign of a weak year. I say just the opposite: the wide swath of quality releases, from personal indies to whip-smart genre flicks to thoughtful documentaries, tells the story of an uncommonly rich and rewarding 12 months of movie-making.

Stills from "Only Lovers Left Alive" and "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"

25. Only Lovers Left Alive / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Sure, it’s a cheat, using a tie to smash in more movies, but these two films of quite opposite origin — one the latest from an American indie icon, the other the debut of a Iranian-American novice — are, to these eyes, inextricably bound by their commonalities: their patient tempo, their ultra-cool style, the limitless invention of their marriages of music to image. And of course, both are vampire films, yet miles away from Twilight or even Dracula; they run none of the usual plays, fascinated as they are by the mood of a vampire’s moments, less interested in sucking blood than in hanging out.

24. Gone Girl

David Fincher adapts Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller/cultural phenomenon as only he can: as pitch-black comedy crossed with film noir, from its deep, inky shadows to its slinky, ruthless femme fatale. Much (earned) respect has been given to the thrilling unpredictability of Rosamund Pike’s title performance, and the spot-on casting of Ben Affleck as her husband (his fundamental opacity has never been put to better use), but the film’s deep bench of supporting players — particularly Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, and (I’m as surprised as you are) Tyler Perry — keep things bubbling.

23. Nymphomaniac

A four-hour bonanza of sex, violence, talk, humiliation, intimidation, intellectualization, fear, death, lies, and truth, Lars von Trier’s two-part bacchanal delivered exactly what you’d expect when a provocateur is given this kind of total freedom: a film that is challenging, indulgent, overcooked, bizarre, button-pushing, thought-provoking, and (in its own, often troubling way) utterly exhilarating.

22. CITIZENFOUR

Someday, someone will film the definitive account of the Edward Snowden affair: the ins and outs, the precursors and the implications, the outcome and the meaning. This is not that film. Laura Poitras’ documentary is instead about the calm in the eye of the storm, shot and set primarily in a Hong Kong hotel room, as a whistleblower walks a reporter through the documents that implicate our government in a vast and horrifying conspiracy. At its best, it plays like a documentary All the President’s Men, in the room with Woodstein as they crouch over their typewriter and tap out messages to each other (or, in this case, scrawl notes and immediately destroy them). “We all have a stake in his,” Snowden explains. “This is our country.” You got that right.

21. Foxcatcher

Director Bennett Miller has carved out a very particular specialty for himself, enacting true stories in a manner that goes beyond docudrama, and into a conversation about what it is to be an American. His latest combines the complex relationships of Capote with the sporting interests of Moneyball, but it’s much more than mash-up; he digs in to the darkness and inhumanity at the center of Steve Carell’s John du Pont, and in doing so, discovers something palpably unnerving about wealth, privilege, and madness.

20. Finding Vivian Maier

Some of the finest filmmaking is not just a creative act, but an examination of that act; take, for example, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s fascinating investigation of a stunningly talented street photographer who shot stacks (hell, yards) of remarkable photographs and never even bothered to develop most of them, much less exhibit them. Finding Vivian Maier begins as an admiration of those photographs before pushing past their frames, trying to understand the woman behind the camera — and, in doing so, explores the eternal question of an artist’s relationship to their art.

19. Nightcrawler

As Dan Gilroy’s dark drama unspooled this fall, critics and movie-goers seemed to have trouble pinpointing exactly what it was. It’s a trenchant media satire! It’s a psychological thriller! It’s a character study! Ultimately, it’s all of those things, and none of them; what it’s about is right there in its title. It’s about the things that go creepy-crawling out from under the rocks, after the sun goes down. Sometimes funny and sometimes thrilling, with yet another Jake Gyllenhaal performance that colors daringly outside the lines, Nightcrawler left this viewer feeling much the way Taxi Driver did: like there are some awfully scary creatures out there in the middle of the night.

18. The Double

Poor Terry Gilliam’s flawed (but interesting!) Zero Theorem wasn’t even the best Terry Gilliam movie of the year — that honor goes to Richard Ayoade’s darkly comic thriller, which mates Gilliam’s Brazil aesthetic with Dostoevesky’s source novel, to the benefit of both. Jesse Eisenberg turns in his most interesting performance since The Social Network as a corporate drone and his selfish, boorish, supremely confidant doppelganger; Ayoade never lets the darkness of the design overwhelm his screenplay’s fleet-footed wit. He hasn’t quite found his own voice yet (his last film, the excellent Submarine, had an awful lot of Wes Anderson about it), but his search is proving mighty entertaining.

17. A Life in Dirty Movies

Wiktor Ericsson’s slyly warm and deliciously witty documentary was the year’s best movie-about-movies — and also quite possibly its best love story to boot. Profiling Joseph Sarno, the auteur behind a series of ‘60s and ‘70s sexploitation films that used their commercial elements as cover for honest-to-God storytelling (he was “the Ingmar Bergman of porn,” per period legend Annie Sprinkle), it’s the fabulously entertaining and surprisingly sweet story of a real artist who couldn’t quite keep up with the times, and his partner (Sarno’s enchanting, no-bullshit wife Peggy) who never gave up on him.

16. Love Is Strange

Another story of thick-and-thin long-term love: Ira Sachs’ lovely and quietly melancholy tale of two men (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who are finally allowed to legally marry, only to have the act, and its fallout, put their entire comfortable lives in disarray. The leads wear their relationship as snugly as an old, reliable sweater, and that spirit pervades the film — every conversation seems overheard rather than staged, every emotion and response less scripted than second nature.

15. Before I Disappear

Shawn Christensen’s comedy/drama works a not-unfamiliar arc: desperate burnout is brought back from the brink by reconnecting with family and facing himself. So why is this film so thrillingly unpredictable and breathlessly alive? Christensen’s style is disarmingly improvisational — you never quite know where he’s going next tonally, but the steadiness of his hand (as filmmaker and actor) is so assured that it barely matters.

14. Force Majeure

The popular subtextual reading of Gone Girl was as a merciless takedown of the institution of marriage, but the year’s most cutting onscreen relationship required nothing as dramatic as kidnapping or murder — it merely pivoted on an avalanche that never happened, and a dereliction of familial duty that most certainly did. With a real talent for creating painful social situations and rapidly increasing conflict, writer/director Ruben Östlund vividly captures the ruthlessness and one-upsmanship of a couple at their worst, and the force with which they can grab at old scabs and pull.

13. Venus in Fur

Well, of course a movie about an uninterested director auditioning a flighty actress doesn’t sound exciting, if that’s all you’ve got to go by. But Roman Polanski’s adaptation of David Ives’ play is loaded with text, and subtext, and subtext of subtext, its sparring partners taking on (directly and indirectly) everything from theater to sex to power to the controversial filmmaker himself. It’s an electrifying mind game, a complex mediation on gender roles, and a crackling good time, all at once.

12. The Babadook

With much of high-profile modern horror bogged down in reboots, sequels, and found-footage nonsense, Jennifer Kent’s terrifying Aussie import doesn’t muck about: she puts a harried single mother and a problem-addled son in an unforgiving house with (possibly?) a monster, and gets down to business. Kent delivers scares a-plenty, and does so efficiently, but that’s not why The Babadook is such a knockout; it’s because the stakes are human and the woes are familiar, which renders the terror hauntingly real (and thus, even scarier).

11. Two Days, One Night

A troubled, depressed woman (Marion Cotillard, magnificent), returning to her job, discovers it has been eliminated in favor of a bonus for her co-workers — so over the course of the weekend before a re-vote, she appeals to each of them, one by one. It sounds dull or depressing; it is anything but. Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne tell her story on both personal and metaphorical terms; this is a woman who must appeal to a “me first” mindset, and beg it for mercy, at great cost to her own sanity and peace of mind.

10. Snowpiercer

One of the year’s best movies was a graphic novel adaptation starring Captain America, so I guess the moral of the story is that anything can be great, if it’s done the right way. In this case, “the right way” is to play dystopian sci-fi/action as literal class warfare, with the grace and wit of director Bong Joon-ho’s set pieces matched bracingly by the righteous indignation and quicksilver intelligence of his storytelling.

9. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s foxy, tart, freewheeling adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s hazed-out private eye novel is an off-the-wheels carousel of oddball characters, slangy dialogue, who-knows motives, and giggly loose ends. The buzzkill critics who claim it’s incoherent are missing the point by a mile; it’s not about the destination, but about the journey, man.

8. Tales of the Grim Sleeper

As with the best of his (and many other) documentaries, Nick Broomfield’s LA exposé is about far more than its ostensible subject. Broomfield went to South Central to investigate the “Grim Sleeper,” a serial killer who preyed on black women (mostly prostitutes) for several decades. But it slowly unpeels to tell a story of a deeply incompetent police department that didn’t connect the simplest dots because some crimes are, well, more equal than others. It’s a chilling story, an infuriating crime, and a haunting film.

7. Dear White People

The year’s smartest and savviest comedy is a crisp snapshot of academia, a sharp potshot at entitlement, and a surprisingly sensitive character study. Juggling four characters attempting to situate themselves within the black experience on campus, writer/director Justin Simien somehow manages to make astute points and create pointed dialogue without degenerating into self-important polemic.

6. Mistaken for Strangers

There’s nothing in the logline for Tom Berninger’s documentary that even hints at its depth and richness — backstage on tour with The National? Who cares? But it’s not about that band, or the road, or any of the well-trod ground of the music documentary; it’s about a strained relationship between a literal rock star and his aimless brother, who finds the act of documenting his sibling’s success unexpectedly painful, yet ultimately enlightening. As with the best first-person storytelling, it seems microscopically personal, yet its themes (of rivalry, of disappointment, of self-acceptance) are as universal as they come.

5. Cold in July

Sometimes your perception of greatness is tied up in expectation and reputation; you may well view any of the films ahead of this one on this list hampered by awareness of their rapturous critical reception, and expect more than you get. And then there are film you see presuming nothing, and they knock you to the floor. Such is the case with Jim Mickle’s fabulous ‘80s neo-noir thriller, which snuck up on me last spring and hasn’t left my mind since. It may not have the noble intentions and serious themes of the year’s capital-G Great Movies, but for 109 minutes, it hopscotches gingerly from thriller to buddy movie to horror to drama, and never loses its confident footing.

4. Boyhood

There’s not much left to say about the year’s most praised (and most discussed) picture — the vastness of its production is beautifully counterbalanced by the modesty of its storytelling, and director Richard Linklater’s continuing preoccupation with the passage of time and the evolution of the spirit is a true gift to cinema. And I keep going back to that wonderful last speech by Patricia Arquette, which is one of those remarkable scenes that not only captures the spirit of a film, but of what great art, at its very best, can do.

3. Birdman

Every frame of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s picture pulses with the electricity of moviemaking: of capturing a great performance, of pulling an audience into a scene, of telling a story that refuses to pause and catch its breath. It’s a celebration of that act, and of actors — particularly Michael Keaton, whose twitchy energy and fierce intelligence has finally, after all these years, found its ideal showcase.

2. The Immigrant

You’ll have to go a long way to find the term “melodrama” deployed with anything less than derision, yet it’s the only appropriate one for James Gray’s magnificent period piece, which tells its story with the roaring emotion of grand opera. Marion Cotillard is astonishing as a desperate woman whose limits and faith are tested and shattered by men whose motives are more complicated than they appear, resulting in a denouement that’s as moving and powerful as any in recent memory.

1. Selma

Should Ava DuVernay’s chronicle of Martin Luther King’s voting rights crusade receive the awards and attention it so fully deserves, watch out for the naysayers who will insist its reception is less about the film at hand than the modern movement of injustice and protest it so adroitly mirrors. To which there is a two-part response: a) poppycock, as this is bracing, sublime, bravura filmmaking, and b) yes, we respond to both what’s outside the frame and within it, and that’s as it should be. Great art is never purely about itself, and Selma is not just about the past; it engages with the present, reflects it, comments on it, and wrestles with it, as too few contemporary films do.

HONORABLE MENTION: In addition to the aforementioned runners-up lists here and here, a nod of acknowledgement to (in no particular order) The Grand Budapest Hotel, Laggies, American Sniper, A Most Violent Year, Mr. Turner, Top Five, Calvary, John Wick, Maps to the Stars, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, Interstellar, Whiplash, Evolution of a Criminal, The Drop, The Green Prince, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Begin Again, They Came Together, The Internet’s Own Boy, Edge of Tomorrow, The Sacrament, About Alex, Point and Shoot, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Retrieval, The Raid 2, Frank, The Great Invisible, Grand Piano, Bethlehem, Cheap Thrills, Happy Christmas, The Overnighters, and Life Itself.