More than most years, 2014 seemed to boast a wide range of titles on critics’ Top 10 lists. With a few notable exceptions (Boyhood, of course), there weren’t many films you’d be to sure to see among any critic’s favorites. I’m not sure whether this lack of consensus speaks to the diversity and high number of quality films released, or instead indicates a lack of truly exceptional films. Looking back over my own year of film watching, I can see both arguments. Only a few movies stood out as instant classics, indelible statements that will grow richer over time. While those occupy the top of my list, there were plenty more stand-out films, maybe not masterpieces, but examples of the cinematic diversity 2014 had to offer and worthy entires on my list of the Top 20 films of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Snowpiercer, Life Itself, The LEGO Movie, Blue Ruin, Hide Your Smiling Faces
Regrets: Selma, Two Days One Night, Mr. Turner, Winter Sleep, Jauja, Force Majeure, Tale of the Princess Kaguya
20) 12 O’Clock Boys / Lofty Nathan
This intimate and personal documentary from first-time director Lofty Nathan follows a few tumultuous years in the life of Pug, a tenacious boy living in Baltimore who dreams of being accepted into the titular gang of dirt bike hooligans. The 12 O’Clock Boys have an indomitable rebellious spirit that captures Pug’s imagination, but Nathan’s film also chronicles the disturbingly relevant and contentious relationship between the city’s black youth and its law enforcement.
19) Locke / Steven Knight
Set entirely in a car over a 90-minute ride and featuring only one on-screen character, Locke makes the most of its limitations, continually ratcheting up the tension. Boasting a commanding performance by Tom Hardy, Locke shows that a rich screenplay, well-crafted drama and visual intelligence can make even the most static scenario seem impossibly dynamic.
18) Love Is Strange / Ira Sachs
This tender and beautifully observed romantic drama focuses on the relationship between two older gay men, finally married after decades of partnership. Sachs is always minutely attuned to the changing dynamics of each scene and the small, telling physical gestures from his fine cast. As a result, Love Is Strange is perceptive and fair, not just to its two main characters, but to all the people their lives touch.
17) Whiplash / Damien Chazelle
Whiplash carries more dynamism and verve in its final musical sequence (certainly the most rousing scene of the year; perhaps also the best) than most entire films. Director Damien Chazelle leaves the moral implications of his destructive mentor/pupil relationship vague—and occasionally paints with too broad a brush—but his fleet editing keeps the film sizzling and intriguingly off-kilter.
16) Only Lovers Left Alive / Jim Jarmusch
Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t about vampires, it’s about the burden of immortality and the particularities of a centuries-old romance. The perfectly cast Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton ooze cultured charm, sex appeal and detached cool, but Jarmusch brings more richness to the film by focusing on the deep melancholy this exhausted but indomitable pair feels for the culturally impoverished human race.
15) The Trip to Italy / Michael Winterbottom
Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to his delightful road comedy The Trip reunites British comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan for more delicious meals, beautiful countrysides and hilarious celebrity impressions. While The Trip to Italy is certainly one of the funniest films of the year, its success, like that of its predecessor, lies in quietly burrowing into the foibles and relatable mid-life crises of its stars.
14) Lucy / Luc Besson
Lucy may be dumb as rocks, but it shows more thought and care than most Hollywood action films: it has the decency to run only 90 minutes, keeps its foot on the accelerator and doesn’t subject the viewer to sea of chaotic and incomprehensible visuals masquerading as “immediacy and intensity.” The film’s science may be unintelligible—and who really cares?—but its images never are.
13) Manakamana / Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez
Continuing the trend of strong, structural and experimental documentaries to emerge in recent years, Manakamana revels in the pleasure of people-watching. Comprised entirely of static long-takes of passengers riding a cable car to a temple, the film may test the patience of some, but in a way that’s precisely the film’s exercise. As we watch the passengers fidget, stare out the window or make awkward conversation, Manakamana also gives us the space to consider how we act while at rest, watching this strange little film. (Read my full review.)
12) The Strange Little Cat / Ramon Zürcher
This striking and subtle debut from Ramon Zürcher shows a confident, original cinematic voice. Emerging from beautifully composed domestic tableaux, The Strange Little Cat crafts a bewitching tone, pitched somewhere between surreal absurdity and minimalist realism, but best of all, it lets us see the world around us through fresh eyes. (Read my full review.)
11) Mistaken for Strangers / Tom Berninger
Following in the footsteps of first-person documentarians like the great Ross McElwee, Mistaken for Strangers takes a celebratory tour video for the band The National and turns it into a surprisingly poignant tale of sibling rivalry and self-discovery. Like McElwee, Berninger understands that the intimacy and relateability of this first-person form comes from brutal, often hilarious, self-depricating honesty.
10) The Immigrant / James Gray
James Gray makes beautiful and evocative films of a type rarely seen these days, and The Immigrant is certainly his most beautiful. With stunning, amber-hued cinematography by Darius Khondji, The Immigrant evokes the glow of lamplit, early 20th century New York City, as well as an equally antiquated style of emotional sincerity. Gray’s work can be unabashedly melodramatic, and while the elevated tone alienates some viewers, it dovetails perfectly with the personal saga at the film’s core—a strained and predatory relationship between a hapless immigrant and a broken showman.
9) The Babadook / Jennifer Kent
Yet another superlative debut 2014 feature, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook operates within a long tradition of horror films about motherhood. It’s also the rare modern horror film with no jump scares or cheats of any kind. Instead, Kent and her brave and committed lead Essie Davis rely on an incisive honesty to transmute the psychological strain of a single mother and her child into an external terror. (Read my full review.)
8) Foxcatcher / Bennett Miller
Foxcather is a work of incredible and moving intimacy. Whether physical, emotional or psychological, the intense closeness among the sibling wrestlers and the unstable coach at the film’s core creates a stifling, eerie mood. More than his previous two efforts, Miller elevates his strong material here, imbuing the film with a hushed tone that a lesser filmmaker wouldn’t realize it needs. This strange quiet and stillness reverberates throughout the film, from its score to gorgeous static images that echo landscape paintings of the country’s revolutionary beginnings, where a similar single-minded ambition wrought different consequences.
7) National Gallery / Frederick Wiseman
With Wiseman’s characteristically infallible precision, patience and eye for details, National Gallery makes time for drowsy museum visitors, nude models in art classes, janitors, framers and more. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, National Gallery seems just as fascinated by the subject of its titular institution—art—as it is by the interconnected agents that make it function. (Read my full review.)
6) Listen Up Philip / Alex Ross Perry
Through the beautiful, rich grain of Super-16 footage and bold jumps in chronology and point-of-view, Alex Ross Perry gives this biting, ironic character study a distinctly novelistic tone, as fitting to this story as it is difficult to achieve in the medium of film. His primary success is in laying his characters bare. All three leads are extremely intelligent people; they say what they mean and have no trouble expressing themselves. Perry is similarly honest and articulate. (Read my full review.)
5) Like Father, Like Son / Hirokazu Koreeda
Shamefully my first encounter with Hirokazu Koreeda, seeing Like Father, Like Son confirms the gentle spirit so many others see in the Japanese master. This thoughtful drama centers on two families from different socioeconomic backgrounds who learn that their sons were switched at birth six years ago. Should they switch children and raise their biological offspring or continuing rearing the sons they love? Transcending this pat high concept, Koreeda breathes into existence a delicate and thoughtful film about family, friendship and expectations.
4) The Grand Budapest Hotel / Wes Anderson
As much as anything, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film about storytelling, about the stories we live through, those we tell each other, and those we tell ourselves. It’s a film about the joy we take in these stories, and the sadness they help to conceal. But above all, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a complete delight, fast-paced and fantastical and full of wit and whimsy. (Read my full review.)
3) Inherent Vice / Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s delirious new acid trip of a film is a hazy descent into a surrealized 1970s L.A. full of drugs, paranoia and combustible cultural tension. It’s absurdist, discursive, elegiac, madcap, laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly tender—and most importantly—expertly balanced. Anderson is one of our most ambitious and talented filmmakers, and Inherent Vice shows that his skill reaches beyond bold cinematography into an impressive mastery of tone. (Read my full review.)
2) Goodbye to Language / Jean-Luc Godard
Goodbye to Language creates a whole universe of aesthetic possibilities, and its meaning is as much about this visual universe as any conceptual framework used to evaluate its content. This wild and thrilling blend of visual modes is Godard’s true vocabulary; his images speak for themselves. Goodbye to Language—and maybe all of Godard’s films—isn’t about language and its significance, but rather the raw power of images and the unexpected results of their infinite combinations. (Read my full review.)
1) Boyhood / Richard Linklater
In the wake of awards season and effusive, near-universal praise, Boyhood might be at risk of suffering from undeserved expectations. It’s not that the film isn’t great (it surely is), nor that its impact has already come and gone (it will only grow with time, as it did in its creation). Rather, Boyhood deserves to met on its own terms, and the incredible feat of its production belies the modesty of its tone.
Boyhood is not out to impress, but to quietly contemplate. It doesn’t seek to manufacture artificial drama, only illuminate the banal and mundane dramas that make up our life. To my mind, the unique power of the film’s sustained, twelve-year “present-tense” is indeed profound, but the philosophical thoughts on the nature of time that it inspires threatens to overwhelm its approachable, humane spirit. I suppose, then, that Boyhood is a very rare film indeed, and not merely because of its structural ambition or thematic richness. Instead, Boyhood is as moving and powerful as it is because it achieves this richness through simplicity and humility, and with a wisdom, sincerity and depth of feeling it graciously extends to the audience. (Read my full review.)