The Best Films of 2014

Hey, it's another best-of list! There are many such lists on the internet, but this one is mine and therefore the most accurate.

(Kidding, obviously. Something something taste is subjective.)

I saw a lot of movies over the course of the past year, and there are plenty of fine films that didn't make the list. Additionally, there are quite a few films I missed over the past year, because I am a mere mortal bound by the laws of space and time. All of that said, here are my picks for the twenty best films of 2014. 

20. Force Majeure: Ruben Ostland's sly, expertly-directed film offers a tense relationship drama in the form of a nerve-jangling thriller. Gone Girl does the same thing, but this one achieves similar tension (and dark humor, for that matter) without murdering anyone. Smart visual storytelling, effectively surprising classical music selections, persuasive performances and lacerating dialogue join forces to deliver a riveting experience. The final reel or so struggles with murky symbolism, but this is one of the year's strongest foreign exports.

19. Listen Up Philip: At a glance, this looks like the ultimate “upper-class white male New York academia” movie, a category which already has too many entries. Indeed, that's the audience most likely to actually a watch a film like this, but the movie savagely bites the hands that feed it. It's a merciless deconstruction of a very particular sort of individual, effectively puncturing the self-sustained image of influential men who mistake cruelty for honesty. Jason Schwartzman (as the self-absorbed title character), Elisabeth Moss (as his long-suffering girlfriend) and Jonathan Pryce (as Schwartzman's Philip Roth-esque mentor) turn in terrific performances, and Alex Ross Perry's lo-fi direction favorably resembles the work of John Cassavettes. Plus, like so many other films featured on this list, it has a knockout punch of an ending.

18. Selma: All of the 2014 historical dramas nominated for Best Picture have been overpraised to some degree, but Ava Duvernay's passionate examination of the Civil Rights Movement is the best of the bunch. Like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, it's an imperfect yet important film which provides an invaluable examination of a crucial moment in American History. David Oyelowo's portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. is persuasive enough to be termed “definitive,” while Duvernay's staging of the protest sequences demonstrate that she has a gift for maintaining intimacy and specificity in the midst of large-scale spectacle. It's a thought-provoking, relevant, soulful analysis of a cultural revolution.

17. X-Men: Days of Future Past: Is it possible for a single film to redeem an entire franchise? Perhaps not, but Bryan Singer's return to the X-Men series comes awfully close. Drawing assorted bits and pieces from the entire franchise's fractured history (even the cringe-inducing X-Men: The Last Stand), Days of Future Past builds on everything the X-Men movies have done right while avoiding almost all of the usual pitfalls. Singer pulls off multiple impressive feats at once: he successfully fuses his own somber, meditative voice with the energetic stylishness of Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, he delivers a thoroughly satisfying adaptation of a beloved story, he fixes problems caused by previous installments and lays a strong foundation for the future. On top of all of that – and even more importantly – he delivers a surprisingly moving conclusion that made me realize how much affection I still had for these characters. At long last, this series has lived up to its potential.

16. The Homesman: Tommy Lee Jones' latest effort behind the camera quickly establishes itself as an amiably bittersweet western, but takes a sharp left turn once it enters the third act. Boasting Hilary Swank's best work in years and an atypically spry, lively performance from Jones himself, the film feels like the weathered antithesis to much of the blandly uplifting period drama fare currently populating the awards season landscape (a landscape that this film hasn't really been a part of). It's a challenging, occasionally wrenching film which once again demonstrates the actor/director's willingness to confront hard, relevant truths with clear-eyed honesty.

15. Gone Girl: David Fincher's latest is every bit as stylish and polished as his adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but this time around he's working with considerably stronger source material. It plays like a feature-length Twilight Zone episode – no, make that five feature-length Twilight Zone episodes playing simultaneously. Genuinely provocative in a way that mainstream thrillers rarely are, the film digs into uncomfortable, loaded territory and starts smashing things with frightening, hypnotic relish. I get why the film launched hundreds of think pieces - at the very least, it's a movie that picks at some open wounds - but it's hard to find thrillers as confident, nuanced and riveting as this one.

14. Snowpiercer: In so many ways, Snowpiercer feels like the antidote to the humdrum familiarity of modern summer blockbusters. Breathlessly inventive, refreshingly raw and candidly political, Snowpiercer stands alongside director Joon-ho Bong's The Host as a strong argument for the notion that big, action-packed tentpole movies can still contain big ideas, memorable idiosyncrasies and genuine substance. The movie isn't afraid to make bold, distinctive choices (Exhibit A: Tilda Swinton's gloriously loony performance), and it rarely misses.

13. Noah: It's no coincidence that the best Bible movies tend to be the ones people argue about the most, and Darren Aronofsky's latest certainly inspired plenty of arguments. Respecting the source material while simultaneously confronting the tale's challenging subtext, Aronofsky has made the all-too-rare Bible blockbuster which recognizes that pious reverence is the antithesis of compelling filmmaking. Despite some third-act missteps and a disappointingly hammy villain, Noah is the year's finest (and not coincidentally, most ambitious) big-budget spectacle. Plus, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more memorable, gloriously cinematic moment than this film's creation sequence.

12. A Most Wanted Man: Anton Corbijn's adaptation of John le Carre's tense, chilly novel may not offer the visual mastery and clockwork precision of his previous film (the vastly underrated The American), but it does offer an absorbing, moving, refreshingly complex tale of present-day global politics. The film's story is a strong (and angry) one, but the movie will justifiably be remembered as the film containing Philip Seymour Hoffman's last truly great performance. It's a painful thing to watch at times (particularly considering the way elements of the character unintentionally align with Hoffman's own personal struggles), but that was part of what made him great: he was one of cinema's most wondrously human actors. His agonized bellow from the film's climax still haunts me. We lost one of the greats, and we lost him while he was at the top of his game.

11. The Immigrant: James Gray's latest film does what a great historical film should do – providing us with an immersive trip into the past, and using the lessons of the past to inform the present. Handsomely crafted, expertly acted and thoughtfully written, the film offers further evidence that Gray is quickly transforming into a major American filmmaker (previously, he gave us the emotionally overwhelming Two Lovers). The film contains many treasures, including one of the year's most devastatingly perfect lines: “I hate him, and I hate myself. But he's the only one who can help me.” It's delivered by one character referring to another, but it's also a line which perfectly summarizes the complicated, need/hate relationship between America and its immigrants.

10. The Babadook: Great horror films have a way of sneaking up on you. While certain favorite films of recent years are movies that I anticipated for months on end (A Serious Man, Tree of Life, Boyhood) due to a combination of festival circuit buzz and my built-in fondness for the filmmakers, most of the great horror films I've seen in the past decade (The Descent, The Orphanage, Let the Right One In) have sprung up out of the shadows like so many big-screen boogeymen. So it was with The Babadook, an Australian import which feels like an instant classic. Like so many great horror films, it's less about the specific onscreen evil (personified by an already-iconic figure with big teeth and a stovepipe hat) than about the metaphorical terrors that evil represents. It's smart, nervy, frightening stuff – doubly so if you're a parent.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive: Here's a vampire movie that reminds us of the genre's rich possibilities, and of Jim Jarmusch's considerable filmmaking talents. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton do tremendous work as centuries-old bloodsuckers sharing a romantic reunion and seeking a state of existence that satisfies Swinton's joyful hunger for new experiences and Hiddleston's curmudgeonly yearning for days long gone. Likewise, the movie finds a fascinating balance between demonstrating an affection for certain bygone glory days and cautioning against needless (and dishonest) sentimentalization of the past. It's one of the finest films Jarmusch has made, and almost certainly the coolest.

8. Nightcrawler: Less an indictment of TV journalism and more an American Psycho-esque satire of modern business culture, Nightcrawler is one of the year's most squirm-inducing entertainments. Jake Gyllenhall does the finest work of his career to date as the soulless, hungry freelance reporter Lou Bloom, oozing a dangerous energy I've never seen from him before. Dan Gilroy's directorial debut (one of the strongest I've seen in recent years) is savagely funny, unnervingly familiar and mortifyingly gripping. It's funny – and scary – because it's true.

7. Under the Skin: Though Jonathan Glazer's first film in a decade is based on a novel, it offers a level of pure cinematic storytelling that no other medium could have possibly achieved. Stripping the book of most of its tone, dialogue and plot, Glazer delivers an insinuating, unsettling piece of Kubrickian sci-fi that feels as hypnotically alien as its central character. This is masterful audiovisual storytelling, with recurring musical and visual cues subtly underlining crucial ideas in an inventive manner – and yet the story the film tells is a fundamentally simple, affecting fable. The film often feels like a masterful episode of The Outer Limits played at ¼ speed. It's not for everyone, but those who tune into Glazer's wavelength will be rewarded.

6. Inherent Vice: Years from now, I suspect that I'll look back at this list and kick myself for placing Paul Thomas Anderson's stoner-noir-mystery-comedy-tragedy-Pynchon-thingum in this slot, as I'll undoubtedly think that it's either much too high or way too low. For now, let it be said that I'm more or less in love with this wondrous head trip of a film, which resonates strongly (if enigmatically) on a thematic level and which more or less pushes all of my buttons on an aesthetic level. The movie is many things, but like Anderson's last two films, it's largely the story of a complicated relationship between two men trying to find (for reasons which may or may not be pure) some measure of common ground within a vast ideological divide.

5. Whiplash: This is a roaring thunderstorm of a movie that plays like an innovative, musically-charged remake of the first half of Full Metal Jacket. J.K. Simmons delivers the year's most electrifying performance as abusive music conductor Terrence Fletcher, commanding the screen to such a strong degree that he remains a dominant presence even when he's absent. The film asks some thorny questions about the price of attaining greatness, and delivers some equally thorny answers. Damien Chazelle's direction is confident, quick and precise, ensuring that the movie has as much rhythm as the music. Whiplash doesn't just bring you to the edge of your seat – it grabs your throat and slams you against the wall.

4. Calvary: John Michael McDonagh's sophomore feature is one of the most deeply Christian films I've ever seen, which is to say that it embodies the spirit of Christ's teachings to a much greater degree than something like Left Behind or God's Not Dead. Centering on a gruff-yet-tender performance from Brendan Gleeson, the film offers a spiritually resonant parable in the form of an unconventional mystery. It's an imperfect film – it turns its supporting characters into broadly-drawn types for the sake of its potent metaphorical message – but it speaks the truth with empathy, humanity and love. It's the richest sermon I've heard in years.

3. Ida: Austere, quiet and brief, this Polish export strips its story down to the bare essentials and packs a devastating punch as a result. There isn't a single shot, facial expression or camera move that feels wasted or unnecessary – it's a movie that demands and rewards attentiveness and empathy. Its portrait of spiritual angst and doubt rivals that offered by the films in Ingmar Bergman's “Silence of God” trilogy, and it builds to one of the year's subtlest, most powerful conclusions. Ida finds a gentle, honest way to articulate something I have long felt but have never been able to adequately express.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson's latest effort feels both familiar and fresh. Combining the frantic, bustling pace of recent efforts like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom with the deep soulfulness of his earlier efforts, Anderson delivers what may well be his most assured film to date. Centering on a delightful performance from Ralph Fiennes (one of the actor's best, which is saying something), the film delivers so many joyful laughs and inventive sight gags that its fleeting, expertly-timed moments of genuine emotion blindside you. The film concludes with a series of brief shots – cut/cut/cut/credits – and each one contains a torrent of feeling. At a first glance, Anderson's movie looks like one of those elaborate little confections featured so prominently in several scenes - but as one of those scenes suggests, dig in and you'll find something of tremendous value and substance inside.

1. Boyhood: The fact that Richard Linklater's sprawling masterpiece took twelve years to create was a central part of its marketing campaign, but the movie is so much more than a lofty gimmick. With tenderness and precision, it captures every stage of a child's journey to adulthood by placing the emphasis on the sort of moments other movies ignore. Most of the "big" events - the first kiss, the first big mistake, the first day of the first job, etc. - happen offscreen, as we take a close look at the sort of mundane, everyday moments that often play a crucial role in informing who we are. Though this is a definitively male-centric story (hence the title), it's hard to imagine any viewer not finding something which feels painfully/beautifully/touchingly familiar here (not only in young Mason's life, but in the lives of his parents, so perfectly played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). Combine the wildly ambitious nature of the project with Linklater's patience, creative stability and insightful honesty, and you have a movie which does something I've never seen another movie do: it captures time in a bottle. For the first time, I feel as if I've witnessed life flashing before my eyes - not my own, but one so masterfully captured that it might as well have been. There are other 2014 movies that come closer to "perfection," yet none quite match Boyhood's greatness.