Some preliminary notes:
First, this is a semi-loose ranking. I’m not really trying to nitpick about whether one particular movie was actually better than the one ranked just below it. This is more of a mid-macro level thing. Exact positions are as always debatable but broadly this is the deal.
Second, of course, I didn’t see everything last year. But I saw practically everything. The two consolation lists following the main list will give you an idea of everything else notable that I saw, and if you are so inclined, you can extrapolate from that the fact that I haven’t gotten around to seeing 22 Jump Street or Mr. Turner yet.
Lastly, I want to point out that only one-fifth of the movies below were nominated for Best Picture. Most of them haven’t gotten any awards-season attention at all. So, I hope this list does something to show that 2014 was a fairly solid year in film, despite what the various outrages and general soullessness of the awards season may have us thinking.
20. Oculus – Mike Flanagan
Flanagan tells an ostensibly hokey story about a haunted mirror that nonetheless has some striking moments of terror and irony, which elevate the film well above so much of the dull horror out these days. The most impressive aspect of the film is the truly complex structure the script builds, as Flanagan brilliantly blends parallel timelines into one bad acid trip of a haunted house story. My hunch is that this movie will remain underrated, but as the unexpected horror gem of early 2014, I couldn’t resist including it here.
19. Selma – Ava DuVernay
Check out my extended take on Selma here.
18. Blue Ruin – Jeremy Saulnier
Kill Bill opened with the typical adage “revenge is a dish best served cold,” but Jeremy Saulnier’s smart, bloody revenge flick teaches us something far more ambiguous about cause and effect. Like Tarantino, Saulnier resurrects the illicit trill of 70’s trash cinema with polish and control. But quite unlike Tarantino, Saulnier offers a real genre innovation here, namely by using a familiar exploitation structure to interrogate its own premise. In a sense, Blue Ruin engages with revenge-pleasure only to turn it back in on itself. Shockingly violent in all the most affecting ways, this is a revenge film not merely about the act of getting revenge. Rather, we see here the very meaningless of the whole notion of retributive justice.
17. Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller
The wonderfully dark, sad and senseless story of John du Pont is one of those stranger-than-fiction cultural legends that I was somehow blissfully ignorant of before seeing this movie. Steve Carell cultivates a perfect sense of delusion and self-loathing, and Channing Tatum delivers rage and resentment in the best performance of his (underrated) career. The homoerotic through lines are almost too blatant to call subtext, despite what the “real” Mark Schultz has to say. Homoerotic intimacy informs and enhances the complexity of what’s going on here: John, Mark and David with their intersecting mommy issues and daddy issues resulting in a hopelessly male knot of conflictual interdependence. The humanity of it all..!
16. Palo Alto – Gia Coppola
A bit like Dazed and Confused shot through with a sense of contemporary jadedness and overall ill-will toward humanity, Gia Coppola’s feature debut is unusually fluid and confident in its depiction of teenage disappointment and restlessness. Coppola’s film alternates radically between sweet and nasty in precisely the same way each of us remembers high school. This feels like a cute, sad classic of the teen-angst tradition.
If you’re as put off by James Franco as I am, rest assured: this is a great film, despite and not because of him. With due acknowledgement to the short stories from which the film is adapted, this primarily is a victory for Gia Coppola and her more novice cast.
15. Gone Girl – David Fincher
For a non-book-reader like me, the hype surrounding this movie seemed to reach a fever-pitch by the time it hit theaters. Even with the handicap of inescapably high expectations firmly in mind, I remembered leaving like I had watched an expert film adaptation of a popular novel that was a lot of fun, but not that much else in terms of filmmaking.
But in retrospect, the film is far more shrewdly constructed than my eye had initially picked up on, and Rosamund Pike is as deserving as any of her peers to be nominated for an Oscar this year. For some viewers, including this one, the somewhat questionable treatment of gendered subjectivity felt like a hurdle. But again, looking back on the film, it is precisely when Flynn and company appear most tone-deaf to their own stereotype-peddling that the work is at its most thought-provoking.
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson
The unique thing about Anderson’s auteurism is that the more stubbornly he pursues it, the better his films get. Generally, the formal auteur thing is great only until it becomes distracting. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the exception that proves the rule. In this film we saw Wes Anderson at his most symmetrical, twee, and pastel-obsessed; it was also him at his most critically and financially successful.
13. The Babadook – Jennifer Kent
Check out my extended take on The Babadook here.
12. Boyhood – Richard Linklater
At this point, the longtime Oscar-frontrunner enjoys such a chorus of cheerleading and warm endorsement that it’s virtually immune from substantive criticism –but that’s a conversation for another time. An essentially humdrum story told in a breathtakingly extraordinary way, Linklater’s film cannot reasonably be described as anything other than a remarkable achievement. This wasn’t even close to my favorite film of the year, and it’s not my favorite entry in Linklater’s career either. But he and his team will win big on February 22 –and they’ll all deserve it, too.
11. Nymphomaniac (Parts I & II) – Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier’s capacity for visual sadism rivals, perhaps bests, contemporary arch-provocateurs like Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noe. But too often overlooked is his films’ deep sense of compassion. His latest outrage, a four-hour sex epic that is precisely what it sounds like, may have been von Trier settling into the very caricature his least thoughtful detractors have painted for him. But it’s a major entry in one of the most fascinating ongoing filmographies out there.
The film’s pornographic aesthetic was not so much unprecedented (see, e.g. the Bob Guccione/Gore Vidal Caligula (1979) or the audacity of last year’s Wetlands) as it was refreshingly creative. An arresting depiction of feminine sexuality one part Madame Bovary and another part Olga’s House of Shame, von Trier eludes and demolishes commonplace labels associated with sexuality and erects in their place a painful, sad arabesque of the human unconscious.
10. Locke – Steven Knight
Bringing the idea of filmic minimalism to a new level, Knight’s one-man-show is captivating for all the right reasons. Tom Hardy puts the entire film on his back, juggling conversations with stern words and nailing rear-view mirror soliloquies like nothing I’ve ever seen.
For me, the most commendable part of this movie was the fact that it wasn’t about terrorist threats, ticking-time-bombs, a billion-dollar ransom, or any other thriller cliché you’d expect from a movie that takes place entirely inside a man’s car while he drives and talks on the phone. Rather, it’s a normal story about a normal person who has made a very personal, very serious decision. It’s about how a guy deals with the shit in his life on the most important drive he’ll ever take. Add to that the innovative shots and editing that somehow keep an automobile interior consistently interesting, and you’ve got one very commendable film.
9. A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor
Check out my extended take on A Most Violent Year here.
8. Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
Check out my extended take on Nightcrawler here.
7. Enemy – Denis Villeneuve
If David Lynch’s surrealism is effective because of how incisively it trains on the unconscious, Villeneuve’s film is effective in the way it sets on our pre-conscious. The astutely simple yet deceptively simplistic premise fascinates and challenges viewers, drawing them in slowly and insisting on its own ambiguity. Ultimately, this movie is about questioning the extent to which we can separate the “I” of our subjectivity from the “me” of the outside world. Jake Gyllenhaal continues his knack for starring in highly interesting pictures, and emerging Cronenberg-staple Sarah Gadon is just all-around perfect.
6. Edge of Tomorrow – Doug Liman
To this day, I still have trouble convincing my friends to see this movie, but it’s the best sci-fi I’ve seen in years. In addition to the bare excitement, humor, and awesomeness of Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt together, the high-concept premise is completely brilliant meta-genre stuff. Here, sci-fi clichés emerge precisely because of the story’s fractal structure, as if to say that once the same story is told enough times, events simply have to happen a certain way. Genre fiction often leaves us feeling like we’ve been there before. In these characters’ case, it’s because they really have been there before. It’s gorgeous, when you think about it.
5. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour
When we’re dealing with an indie-vampire-western-noir out of Iran by a female director, cheap terms like “quirky” or “unique” don’t begin to do it justice. Amirpour gives us characters that are complex without having to explain why. They just kind of live on screen, each with their own story of hope and loneliness. Visually the film is gorgeous, with compositions that don’t just live and breathe but evolve before our very eyes. She’s the most exciting new filmmaker I’ve seen in a long time, and I couldn’t be more excited for her next movie.
4. Birdman – Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Birdman is full of moralizing, self-righteousness, botched attempts at depth, and naïvely misdirected intentions. Hanging over it all is superego, symbolized here and elsewhere as a bird, which is nothing but that which we fail at by definition. So if the characters’ boilerplate scorn for the sorry state of American cinema seems glib and pretentious, that’s just the joy of the film: it’s about the constant performativity, the melodrama and narcissistic earnestness of those involved in what, for lack of a better term, we call art. Birdman is about how we deal with the impossibility of ever catching up with an ideal.
3. Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski
Beautifully photographed and heartbreaking in its subtleties, Ida explores fate and identity in the ice-cold heart of 1960’s Poland. As an adopted nun is about to take her vows, she reaches out to what’s left of her family. She learns some startling things about herself, but more shocking is what she learns about the world and its cruelty. Come for the elegant black-and-white cinematography, and stay for the unlikely friendship that emerges between the film’s two leads.
2. Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
As no fan of PTA’s puzzling last effort, I was delighted to see that he was back with a film that feels fun and intelligent without any of The Master’s intolerable pretension. The decidedly mixed reviews are no surprise, as the frenetic pace and labyrinthine mist of plot ensures many viewers would be left cold. But the pacing is so astounding and Phoenix and Brolin’s chemistry so perfect, I was continuously astonished even as I sat hopelessly lost and confused. After all, just how clean and coherent a story do you expect about an outmatched and continuously stoned private detective caught up in the abyss of his ex-girlfriend’s life? The mind-fucking ambiguity of it all seems to me precisely the point.
1. Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer
From top to bottom, this film is perfect. Jonathan Glazer took a satirical French sci-fi novel and turned it into a beautiful psychosexual allegory that depicts the interrelation of death and libido like nothing I’ve seen before. Glazer somehow unites cinéma vérité with rigorous film aesthetics, ScarJo’s aloofness becomes something of grace, and all of it is tied together by Mica Levi’s absolutely flawless score. It doesn’t get better than this.
Notable or Otherwise Underappreciated
At the Devil’s Door; Guardians of the Galaxy; Maleficent; X-Men: Days of Future Past; The Immigrant; Only Lovers Left Alive; The Imitation Game; Theory of Everything; Coherence; Two Days, One Night; Whiplash; Noah
Mediocre or Otherwise Overappreciated