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“We made it.”
The time has come to unveil our Top 25 Films of 2014. Our film staff worked hard not only on this list but on all of the features you (hopefully) read earlier this week. This feature in particular was difficult to put together due to the high number of very good-to-great movies that were released over these past 12 months. After careful calculation and always healthy debate (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), we present our final readings to you now.
Here’s to 2015 and, most importantly, to The Interview seeing the light of day sooner rather than later.
25. Guardians of the Galaxy
Much of Guardians of the Galaxy’s success came out of surprise. Here were an untested gaggle of superheroes, the stars of a series that never quite transcended the collections of avid comic collectors, starring that funny dude from Parks & Rec and directed by a guy whose last credit was on the execrable Movie 43. In the minds of casual comic book fans, the people won over by big-budget, star-powered epics like The Avengers, trailers for Guardians resonated as superhero saturation, Marvel trying to wring every last dollar out of its most dormant properties.
But then there’s that Walkman, the object that’s emblematic of everything Guardians of the Galaxy does right. We feel its significance in the emotional prologue, and we see its mirth in the following scene, when Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill — ahem, Star-Lord — shucks and jives his way across a barren planet to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”. That depth extends to its cast; Rocket, for example, serves as a consistent source of comic relief, but pour a few pints down his throat and watch the bile rise, the resentment and self-pity. That may sound a hair weighty for a superhero flick, but director James Gunn leavens it by emphasizing themes of friendship and teamwork.
It’s difficult, balancing the action with the stillness, the comedy with the drama. Guardians of the Galaxy, better than nearly all of its modern contemporaries, nails it, nestling snugly in that sweet spot between spectacle and pathos. And suddenly Guardians wasn’t a cash grab at all; rather, it was the breath of fresh air Marvel’s shared universe needed. –Randall Colburn
24. Jodorowsky’s Dune
Alejandro Jodorowsky really, really wanted to be the one to bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to vivid life. The pioneering, deeply odd filmmaker took all manner of great strides toward bringing the 1965 novel to screens. In 1975, Jodorowsky picked up the film rights, invited the late, great H.R. Giger on board to handle the fantastical character designs, had his son Brontis learn martial arts on a rigorous timetable, and prepared to unleash a film on audiences unlike anything they had ever seen before, whether from Hollywood or from the groundbreaking cult filmmakers of the time.
Now, that’s not to downplay Jodorowsky’s history; were there a Mount Rushmore for the pioneers of the midnight movie, Jodo would be there on the merits of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. But the wonderful documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t necessarily a profile of one of cinema’s all-time visionary madmen, though it serves that purpose as well. The film is far more interested in the complete failure of the Dune project, a failure that resulted from a combination of lacking technology, Jodorowsky’s utter immovability as a filmmaker and leader in general, a Hollywood that was only getting its feet wet in big-budget filmmaking with Star Wars, and a vision for which the world simply wasn’t ready. Dune never came to be, at least in his hands. Eventually David Lynch took a stab, one that Jodorowsky himself gleefully ridicules onscreen.
Above all, Jodorowsky’s Dune is about a kind of creative idealism that’s become rarer with each passing year at the studio level, hearkening back to a time when filmmakers were still trying to pave new ground and could sell a studio on a sci-fi movie with a script the size of a phone book (as many allege in their testimonials), simply on the strengths of Jodorowsky’s relentless conviction. The film never came to be, but its DNA lives on in a number of other movies (the Alien franchise in particular), and even now, the 85-year-old Jodo’s eyes light up with fury at the very mention of it. It might not have happened, but it was never once forgotten. –Dominick Mayer
23. The Homesman
Once upon a time, a stubbornly uncompromising, absolutely unsentimental picture like The Homesman would be on every critic’s list. And that time was probably the ’70s, when characters in character-driven dramas didn’t need big arcs to keep you captivated, and they sure as hell didn’t get a happy ending.
There’s no happy ending to The Homesman. Hell, there isn’t a happy anything in this harsh, heartbreaking, and jet-black, bleak depiction of frontier strife in Nebraska, circa 1850. It makes you sad, for damn sure. And if it makes you mad, you should be, because it doesn’t apologize for sucker punching you and leaving you for dead with a mouth full of dirt and a gnawing at your stomach. You can take it as feminist Western. You can take it as an austere anti-Western. You can take it as No Country for Any Man or Woman, Period. Just don’t take it as a chore, because it’s poetry. Not the kind of poetry you politely admire or endure. This is Tommy Lee Jones poetry. No 10-dollar words, just true grit and no bullshit.
I’ll admit I’m overselling it, but that’s because it’s such a tough sell. Hilary Swank (who’s always admired, but never a draw … unless you rushed out for Freedom Writers) plays a depressed Midwestern spinster/farmer doomed to die alone because the menfolk of the lil’ farming village continually and callously call her “plain.” She takes the thankless task of transporting three crazed women via covered wagon across the merciless plains to a loony bin in Iowa, with help from surly ol’ claim jumper Tommy Lee Jones. And there’s diphtheria and infanticide in a film that’s ultimately about rejection and regret. Tough sell, indeed.
But this journey is often exciting, continuously nerve-wracking, and always hypnotizing, and it’s filmed with the majesty of John Ford if he had the stomach to toss an infant down an outhouse hole. It’s the only film this year that made me react, loudly, with uncontrollable shouts of “No!”, “NOOOO!”, and “OH MY GOD!” And it’s a pity that Hilary Swank’s pitch-perfect performance has gotten little recognition. When any actor wins more than one Oscar, you start to resent them. But I wish she got a nod for turning this “plain as an ol’ tin cup and bossy” plainswoman into a character you truly mourn for. As for Tommy Lee, it’s not only his finest work as a director … it’s one of his greatest roles. In his final scenes, he underacts regret so honestly; it adds new lines to his weathered face. –Roy Ivy
22. Two Days, One Night
Marion Cotillard gives a moving, human, saddening, and maddening showstopper of a performance in the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night. Cotillard plays Sandra, a young Belgian mother who pleads with her co-workers over the course of a weekend for the chance to reclaim her job. It’s an objective, unbiased account, a sort of blow-by-blow, as Sandra goes from co-worker to co-worker asking them to reconsider her place at the solar panel company she was let go from.
Her being dismissed meant significant bonuses for everyone at the factory; it might have even been a smear job. She did have a nervous breakdown, a bout with depression that called into question her ability to contribute. So, if she comes back, people lose their bonuses, and she has to look those people in the eyes, people who she begged to come back for work. Some support her, while others see her as a big problem. It’s all very painful, but we share Sandra’s experiences as she endures. She just has to.
She just wants her damn job back. At least, that’s the high concept summary for Two Days, One Night. But there’s more to it than that. It’s a fragile story about one woman’s struggles with self-doubt, the pains of begging, and trying to move on with her life. The Dardennes direct with a very honest and comprehensive eye for every detail. Sandra isn’t a working-class hero or a struggling mom; she’s just a person trying to give herself a sense of feeling whole once again.
Two Days, One Night shows how easy it can be to fall into despair when you’re robbed of your livelihood, but no matter how dark and sad life gets, there is always a spot of hope out there — and that’s something worth clutching. –Blake Goble
21. The Guest
Well, this is the fucking coolest movie of the year.
No need for dressed-up hyperbole for The Guest, folks. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett join forces once more after 2011’s highly entertaining and bloody You’re Next to deliver a movie that pays homage to the past without ever feeling derivative. Its score is inspired by 1983 John Carpenter, but it doesn’t quite feel like a genre picture. If anything, it’s a genre-less movie that dabbles in dark comedy, shoots to kill during action sequences, pill-pops in sci-fi, and terrifies during its successful attempts at horror. That Wingard/Barrett capture all of this in a tight 99-minute period is a minor miracle and a total act of defiance against needing to strictly stick to one specific tone to create a solid movie.
The Guest in question is David Collins (former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens), who arrives at the family home of the Petersons. Claiming to have been a friend and fellow soldier to the family’s fallen son, the Petersons are taken with him immediately, the one exception being that of big sister Anna (Maika Monroe, star of next year’s terrifying It Follows). Something is definitely off with David, and as the mystery unravels, we discover just how off he really is.
The movie succeeds because it isn’t in a hurry to be anything. It doesn’t follow any particular beat. When you think the film is about to explode in a hurricane of violence, there is a dinner scene. When you think the film is settled into a groove, someone gets blown away. As outrageous as it may get, The Guest never suffers. Wingard’s best film is a lovingly crafted piece of pop culture that manages to be unpredictable, scary, and most importantly, a good time. –Justin Gerber
Not all works of literature should be adapted to the screen. Too often, it’s a result of laziness, searching for a pre-packaged deal to sell. But Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, Wild, is one of those rare examples of a book that works just as well to cuddle up with, highlight, and return to for inspiration as it does to watch as a film, resplendent in all its tragedy and catharsis, ugliness and beauty. Cheryl is more than just a stereotypical neurotic who needs to loosen up or a stock depressive following a breakup, searching the Pacific Crest Trail for some peace of mind. Cheryl is completely broken, used up, flayed open. A pretty Eat, Pray, Love journey this is not.
Reese Witherspoon gives a riveting performance as Cheryl, who is not only reeling from the end of her marriage with Paul (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom), but the numbing, self-sabotaging addictions that caused it — heroin, promiscuous sex — all stemming from her overwhelming grief over the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). “She was the love of my life,” Cheryl says. And in flashbacks, we see how much that meant to her and exactly how much was lost.
It’s an unfortunate truth that juicy roles for women over a certain age (Witherspoon is 38, Dern 47) are hard to come by in Hollywood. Thankfully, these two, who have been turning in stellar work for decades and are a lock for Oscar nods this year, were given the gift of great material in Wild: a film that makes hiking 1,100 miles to self-forgiveness and screaming like hell on a mountaintop feel as raw and liberating as it should. –Leah Pickett
“But Cooper! It’s not possible!” screams the ship’s robotic assistant.
“No. It’s necessary,” declares the spaceship’s cowboy captain.
This could be Christopher Nolans’ entire M.O. right here. Nolan makes films that challenge plausibility and possibility at every turn. Interstellar is no different, what with the theoretical adventures brought on by wormholes. Does it make sense for a space team to re-dock with a damaged space station before an undiscovered planet’s gravity sucks it back into the atmosphere and destroys the station? It may be a questionably impossible move, but it’s certainly the most exciting one. Interstellar’s loaded with these moments, and that’s what makes it so damned exciting.
A grand and human space adventure, Interstellar is Nolan’s 2001, his 2010, his The Right Stuff, his Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl, his Malick film, his Heinlein film, and his Asimov film. Actually, come to think of it, Interstellar is the heart and soul of science fiction, pure and alive. Rooted in theoretical astrophysics, the sci-fi drama takes fascinating new scientific ideas about intergalactic space travel and plays around with them. What’s on the other side of the potential miracle gateways in deep space? What’s the cost of getting there? What sacrifices must be made for the sake of something that’s meant for mankind? Space and rockets and robots, oh my.
It’s pure exploration, and Nolan gave his viewers dazzling sights and sounds from beyond the stars. Yet, what keeps Interstellar spiritually grounded is its very human element as well. Composer Hans Zimmer gives us beautifully cacophonous and sonic music, while Nolan offers breathtaking visual effects of sights we’ve only started to contemplate and production design of the impossible, giving the biggest and brainiest commercial action spectacle imaginable. Still, it doesn’t hurt to put real and human people inside the large vessels. Interstellar is equal measures head and heart. – Blake Goble
18. The Skeleton Twins
Whenever SNL actors leave the show to embark on a movie career, I can’t wait for them to fall on their asses and come running back to Rockefeller Center with their tails tucked between their legs. But with The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig broke the curse (despite the fact that they came back to guest host the show to plug their movie) and proved their mettle as legitimate actors who can carry a movie and be taken seriously. They won’t be dumpster diving with Chris Kattan anytime soon.
On one hand, The Skeleton Twins is your typical Sundance trifle with Duplass written all over it. It’s mushy, the score tries way too hard, and the last act really piles on some unneeded drama. But the dang thing works thanks to compelling performances from the entire cast and not just the leads. As estranged siblings with shared suicidal and self-destructive tendencies attempting to heal old wounds and create new ones, Hader and Wiig effortlessy earn your sympathy. The screenplay’s gaps are filled with their built-in chemistry; you believe this duo, you root for them, and you actually forget about Gilly and Stefon.
(Meanwhile, in the periphery, Ty Burell is terrific in a difficult role as Hader’s former high school English teacher/lover. And you’ll feel heartbroken for Luke Wilson as the world’s nicest husband and saddest cuckold.)
It all boils down to the Starship scene. A bummed-out Hader tries to cheer up a bummed-out Wiig with a lip-synch dance to the Mannequin theme. On paper, this makes me gag. But as it plays out, with Wiig stubbornly holding out on taking the Grace Slick lines until just the right moment, it rises above becoming a Stepmom sing-along and turns into one of the most magical scenes of the year. Or maybe I’m just a sap. –Roy Ivy
17. A Most Violent Year
“In this day and age, to get people to go out there and see a movie, you need to make sure that the event feels like it is worth that journey,” director J.C. Chandor told Deadline earlier this month. “My specialty is seeing those real people when they’re being tested.” Survival is what each of his films boil down to — whether’s it’s on Wall Street (Margin Call), at sea (All Is Lost), or in the urban jungle of 1980s New York City (A Most Violent Year) — and he’s a sucker for squeezing his characters’ necks until they’ve slowly rolled their eyes back into submission. He releases his grip, of course, but only because he knows they’re deserving of such respite. His latest victim might be his sharpest.
Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, a driven immigrant who’s trying to close on a location that will offer his heating-oil company a lucrative and competitive spot in the market. However, he refuses to dirty his own hands, which proves complicated amidst the most dangerous year in New York City’s long-storied history. In light of this, several outside forces shake his moral codes, and true to Chandor’s vision, Abel’s pushed to the limits as he protects not only his name and his business but also his family.
A Most Violent Year is a stylish film that should remind its audiences of the gritty, subtle filmmaking of Sidney Lumet (A Dog Day Afternoon), William Friedkin (The French Connection), or even early Martin Scorcese (Mean Streets). Yet despite its remarkable attention to detail, Chandor lets his performances carry the story for him, specifically Isaac. Abel’s own pragmatism provides quite a tricky hurdle to jump for the young actor. It’s a reserved role that blossoms with the little nuances, all of which Isaac delivers with precision, making this another essential performance on his unshakeable resume. Jessica Chastain, meanwhile, gets to have a little more fun as his more abrasive wife, channeling Michelle Pfeiffer’s role in Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
Speaking of which, there’s an uncanny link here to De Palma’s celebrated remake. Gone are the cocaine ski slopes, the automatic weapons, and the best of Giorgio Moroder, but what remains is that divine hunger for success and the general malaise that comes with such a diet. (It also helps that Alex Ebert’s score feels vaguely similar to Moroder’s, only far more subdued and without any attainable montage themes.) The difference is that Morales isn’t your average gangster; no, he’s smarter than that — he’s a businessman. While some may argue over the difference between the two, most will agree the latter’s far more dangerous and powerful and resilient. –Michael Roffman
16. Gone Girl
Gone Girl might not be David Fincher’s best film (Zodiac), nor his most critically acclaimed (The Social Network), nor his most culturally relevant (Fight Club). But, by Jove, it’s his most entertaining. This expertly crafted thriller has every ingredient necessary to please the popcorn crowd: an A-list cast (Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris, and Tyler Perry), a script based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, an unexpected twist (for folks who didn’t read the book), and style and atmosphere to spare. It’s also smart and layered, sparking endless dialogue about its meaning.
Gone Girl is that rare film that both the average moviegoer and the snooty grad student can’t stop talking about. Is it misogynist trash, or is it a feminist manifesto? Is it racially myopic, or is it a commentary on the media’s obsession with pretty blonde women? Whatever the answers, I’m sure that the writing staff at Jezebel got calluses on their blogging fingers trying to find them.
As fun as it is to speculate on Gone Girl’s sociopolitical themes, it’s not nearly as fun as just watching the film’s complex mystery unfold. It’s a puzzle that keeps viewers on their toes, an intricate interweaving of his-and-hers narratives with a dose of laugh-out-loud dark comedy thrown in for good measure. However, the film’s real pièce de résistance is Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, one of the most fascinating femme fatales Hollywood’s given us in ages. She’s whip-smart and sociopathic, capable of pulling of some really perverse shit without losing her appeal. At least not entirely. Her character, like the movie as a whole, is divisive, but infinitely watchable. –Adriane Neuenschwander
15. Blue Ruin
Read an interview with Blue Ruin writer/director Jeremy Saulnier and you’ll find no pretension, no cocktail words about artistic vision and influences. No, Saulnier’s all business, most eloquent when it comes to budget constraints, Alexa digital cameras, and J.L. Fisher Model 11 dollies. That’s because Saulnier’s a pro, a seasoned cinematographer for whom story stems from images: “I see films first visually,” he tells The Dissolve, “and then just try and describe that on the page.”
Watching Blue Ruin, the story of a drifter’s revenge and its subsequent fallout, this is both evident and, well, not. I say not because Saulnier’s script feels cerebral and polished, the sort of thing a Coen Brothers’ disciple might’ve fine-tuned over a two-year graduate program. That said, it also feels like a vessel; there’s a reason there’s just a handful of dialogue in the film’s first 25 minutes, and it’s probably no surprise that this is when the film fires on all cylinders. Countless images resonate from that first act: Dwight, our shaggy protagonist, digging through the trash as carnival rides caterwaul in the background; a naked swim at sunset; frail arms and a gore-laden white tee.
Of course, that’s not to say the rest of the film is somehow inferior. It’s just that when Dwight shaves his beard, he transforms from a careless, vengeful drifter into a brother and uncle with everything to lose. As Dwight, Macon Blair walks that tightrope with graceful restraint, all the while injecting dose after dose of cathartic humor into his character’s half-baked attempts at subterfuge.
In the end, despite its prevailing themes of family and legacy, Blue Ruin can feel as cold as Saulnier’s Alexa on a wintry midnight. Here, that’s not a bad thing. Saulnier’s nuts-and-bolts approach and the cast’s icy restraint coincide with Blue Ruin’s seemingly godless milieu, resulting in a film that seeps into your bones like a dry, bitter wind. –Randall Colburn
Like the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Kubrick, and the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas) before him, Bennett Miller is one of those unique directors who, in his relatively short career, has never made a bad film. Capote was a revelation, Moneyball equally impressive, and his third narrative feature, the dark and brooding Foxcatcher, may just be his best.
Miller takes his time between projects — Capote premiered in 2005, Moneyball in 2010, Foxcatcher in 2014 — because his subjects are real people with true stories that merit accuracy, thoughtful interpretation, and due justice. His color palette also remains consistent throughout: slate gray and gauzy white, whether it be in the clouds hovering over his stark, still expanses (a blank stretch of Kansas farmland, an empty baseball stadium, the grim, hazy breadth of the Foxcatcher estate) or in the mists that percolate his cold, autumnal dawns.
Another of Miller’s overarching themes is the pathos of ambition. Truman Capote (the Oscar-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman) lies to Perry Smith about how he is using Perry’s tragic story, and their budding friendship, to sell a book, blatantly titled, In Cold Blood. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) sees a flawed system in baseball that he knows he can change, if only he can get past the old guard of hostile, underhanded coaches and scouts who are hell-bent on winning their way.
And Steve Carrell, almost unrecognizable as Foxcatcher’s beak-nosed lead, John Du Pont, is so drunk on the promise of glory that it becomes a poison he feeds his subjects — at first slowly and seductively, then with no-turning-back barbarism — until winning becomes more important than breathing, ambition has no stopping point, and the ultimate prize matters more than life itself.
Carrell clearly took on this mentality when realizing Du Pont, the real-life millionaire, wrestling coach, and convicted murderer whose loneliness and repression manifests itself in strange, halting speech, manipulative tactics, and creeping, thinly suppressed rage. He is a monster, to be sure, but in Carrell’s portrayal, a deeply understood and well-crafted one as well, far from a cliché.
And, as the two wrestling brothers in whose lives Du Pont becomes irrevocably intertwined, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum are also affecting, particularly Tatum. One day, when Step Up and the G.I. Joe films have been washed away by the sands of time, Tatum, so good in this and in Magic Mike, Side Effects, and others, will get the critical recognition that he deserves. –Leah Pickett
13. Closed Curtain
A lot of questions get asked while watching Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain. It’s a movie with a lot to ponder. So, it’s about some guy running away from the world in a house? Why is this man hiding, alone, in this beachside house? Who is he? How did he get here? What’s the story between him and his dog? Why is he refusing to leave this house? What’s out there that’s so dangerous? Why do we hear of rebels and protest outside but are never given the opportunity to see it occur? Wait, how did these people get into the man’s home? Who are they? Okay, hold up, the movie’s just stopping right now. Seriously, it stops and now Jafar Panahi is inhabiting his own film? Why? Isn’t he under house arrest in Iran, and, well, not allowed to make movies? Should we be allowed to watch this film right now? Are we getting Panahi in a whole lot of trouble?
Closed Curtain is a film interested in presenting scenarios and asking questions as opposed to telling easy stories. The more you ponder its mysteries, the greater the film’s rewards become. Closed Curtain is a complex tone poem, a cry for help from a man in creative crisis, forced to work and invent while stuck in his own home. Jafar Panahi’s house arrest seemed like an enormous setback for the talented Iranian artist. If he can’t practice his art, let alone leave his house, what can he do? Panahi made Closed Curtain, that’s what he did. This is a fascinating and inventive experiment and testament to one man’s creative freedom, regardless of circumstance. Here is a man, locked within his own home, generating and maintaining intrigue with filmmaking, pure and simple. What you make of Closed Curtain is entirely up to you, but what matters is this film exists, and this director is making art against all odds. –Blake Goble
12. Inherent Vice
There’s such a kinship between filmmaker and source material at work in the case of Inherent Vice that it’s hard to believe that Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon didn’t collide sooner. “Collision” is a good word for Vice in general; ostensibly the story of “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and his pursuit of his ex-lover’s new beau, who’s found himself in some kind of odd business involving hallucinogens, a menacing psych ward, and about a hundred things, the film is less focused on story than it is on tone, feeling, and the temperature of a changing era.
Like Anderson’s last film, The Master, Inherent Vice wanders through one strange tableau after the next, but unlike that film, Vice mourns not for what’s already happened, but rather for what’s on the way. Doc collides with all manner of Pynchonian ‘70s Southern California types, from a hyper-positive ex-junkie to a Black Panther with white supremacist ties to “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an aggressively square cop whose tight, disciplined exterior barely masks a man desperate to enjoy a little bit of the counterculture he spent the ‘60s trying to destroy, before it’s actually gone for good.
It’s weird stuff, and to reiterate, like the best film noir, Inherent Vice is far more about the journey than any kind of meaningful destination. But that destination, when the film arrives, is one of beauty and tragedy all at once, a reminder that the times are indeed changing and only move forward, never back. The film is at once a slapstick comedy, a neo-noir, a period-set meditation on a more innocent America as it was losing that virtue forever, and one of Anderson’s very best films in a formidable line of them.
And for all its cynicism about love and beach-bum reveries, there’s a tiny part of Doc (and Anderson) that wants to believe that all that hippie stuff wasn’t for nothing, one that’s best suggested by the late-game appearance of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”. For all the things Doc doesn’t know, and the fewer still he does by film’s end, Cooke puts it best: “But I do know that I love you/ And I know that if you loved me too/ What a wonderful world this would be.” –Dominick Mayer
11. The Babadook
Here’s what Academy Award-winning filmmaker and director of The Exorcist William Friedkin has to say about The Babadook (via HitFix): “It delivers on what it’s supposed to. It’s not only the simplicity of the filmmaking and the excellence of the acting not only by the two leads, but it’s the way the film works slowly but inevitably on your emotions. And you have to be completely shut down, I think, not to be at least very moved by it in a terrifying sense.”
Now, here’s what I’ll add: “Totally agree, Bill. Director Jennifer Kent successfully managed to translate feelings of grief and remorse into an uncomfortable 93-minute parable that preys upon the imagery of motherhood. The bond between actress Essie Davis and her on-screen son, portrayed by the wildly brave Noah Wiseman, is quite palpable. Enough so that I couldn’t help but scream for the little bugger as his mother becomes possessed by the titular ghoul.
“Suffice to say, Kent learned a thing or two while serving as an assistant to Lars von Trier amidst his production of 2003’s Dogville. Visually, the Danish filmmaker’s cold, cutthroat style informs much of the tones in The Babadook — specifically, the bleached colors from within the house, where the central action takes place, and the coarse artwork by American illustrator Alexander Juhasz. There’s a dense feeling of dread that’s quite contagious.
“Perhaps that’s the strongest facet of this little Australian horror film. Some might argue the metaphors are too heavy-handed, but they’re the steel spine of what’s otherwise a remedial ghost story that’s been told by Blumhouse Productions at least five times this year alone. There’s also a menacing allegory for child abuse that should really strike a nerve for any parent or any child who’s ever had to slam their door, post up their desk chair, and hide in the closet with a prayer.”
Okay, it’s your turn. –Michael Roffman
10. Life Itself
The strangest thing happens in the middle of Life Itself. Clips from great movies (Cries & Whispers, 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name a couple) are shown, with the reviews of former Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert’s being read over the scenes. While it may just be words, it’s really like having him grace us with his presence for a brief, final moment, and it’s wonderful.
Steve James captured the essence of Roger Ebert, over 40 years of a man’s career, and handed audiences a comprehensive and meaningful eulogy. In a year filled with deep, character-driven, and biographical documentaries, Life Itself stood out as a touching remembrance and farewell. It’s a kind and in-depth bit of cross-textual work: a documentary, focusing on a film critic, who loved life and cinema. Roger Ebert wrote some of the loveliest things imaginable about the movies, and he was a cantankerous raconteur and an articulate advocate for film art. Yet, the film doesn’t forget he was a man, too; he was a Chicagoan with a love for his family, a guy who loved picking fights with Gene Siskel, and above all a superb writer.
Audiences have seen the classics and have had their own experiences and interpretations. Pictures are worth thousands of words, right? Yet, Roger was able to distill what we were seeing with a few, often perfect words. Life Itself plays footage of Cries & Whispers and Ebert’s review from February 1973 is read: “It is hypnotic, disturbing, frightening. It envelopes us in a red membrane of passion and fear…” In this moment, you feel this strangely comforting sensation as you’re reminded of not only Ebert’s total expertise but his gift of getting people thinking. You feel a deeper appreciation and a sense of gratitude because Ebert was thinking out loud. His reviews weren’t meant to be taken as manuals or consumer reports but rather open discussions and provocations. That was his grand contribution, and Life Itself reminds us of that. –Blake Goble
9. Obvious Child
Perhaps no other film this year pulled off such an amazing emotional juggling act as Obvious Child, the first feature from writer-director Gillian Robespierre. It deals with the hot-button topic of abortion without being preachy, sentimental, or even overtly political, instead portraying it as a scary decision that many women make as a matter of self-preservation. When you’re barely mature enough to take care of yourself, as the film’s protagonist Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) seems to be, you sure as shit can’t raise a baby. But despite that theme, Obvious Child isn’t a bummer. It somehow manages to create a perfect tonal balance, one where existential crises coexist with fart jokes. Lots and lots of fart jokes. It’s also one of the smartest, most resonant romantic comedies I’ve seen in years.
Part of that success is due to Robespierre’s script, which finds sweetness and humor in otherwise mundane scenarios, from warming a butter packet between your hands to stepping in dog shit. But the film’s real heart comes from its leads: Slate and Jake Lacy as Max, the guy who unwittingly knocks her up. The couple has that kind of natural, witty repartee that’s reminiscent of classic movie duos — think Woody Allen and Diane Keaton or Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but with way more scatological talk. And like those iconic twosomes, Slate and Lacy are actually equals. Neither one is schlubby or needy or any other rom-com archetype that Garry Marshall has a patent pending on. Instead, they’re fully fleshed-out characters with quirks and typical twentysomething insecurities, and so you root for them.
And if the film’s final scene — when the couple cozies up on the couch after Donna’s abortion to watch Gone with the Wind together — doesn’t make you squirt out a single tear, nothing will. It’s one of the most weirdly moving, perfect mashups of old-school courtship and Millennial convention-bucking film has to offer. –Adriane Neuenschwander
8. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The most polarizing film you’ll find in our Top 25 is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I can see where people are coming from regarding its attack on criticism and an ending that could be viewed as a bit too open-ended, but at the end of the day, we believe that Birdman, in lieu of a more clever analogy, soars.
We weave in and out through reality and the deluded daydreams of Riggan Thomson, a has-been Hollywood actor who literally can’t shake off a superhero character he played decades earlier. What separates this film from others that tackle similar subjects is Iñárritu’s decision to film the movie as though it takes place in one shot. What separates Birdman from other works that use that tactic (e.g., Rope, Safe House) is that it doesn’t take place in real time. One turn around a corner and we could be looking at an event taking place 12 hours after the scene we’ve just witnessed. A leap onto the stage and we’re suddenly in previews for Thomson’s play. You have to be a little crazy to attempt such feats, and fortunately for us, Iñárritu was crazy enough for the job.
The innovative direction deserves all its commendations, but the movie would ultimately fail were it not for the performances. Emma Stone is at her best as Thomson’s daughter/assistant beset by issues that are largely attributed to a father who wasn’t around enough. Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner is a heightened version of himself — an actor who makes Thomson’s life miserable. At the end of the day, though, the film belongs to Michael Keaton as the titular character. Iñárritu spends most of the film in his face, revealing every ounce of pain Thomson is battling both internal and external. Keaton gives the movie as much of himself as possible, and in a career full of great performances, this may be his greatest of all. –Justin Gerber
7. The Raid 2
It weighs in at a portly 150 minutes. That’s way too damn long for any action flick. And if you’re an average gore-hound, you may be tempted to watch The Raid 2 like a porno. It’d be easy, and still satisfying, to skip through the plot and dialogue and engorge on the never-ending blood bowl buffet of fight scenes. The toilet fight! The mud fight! Nightclub! Restaurant! Kitchen! Gigantic empty garage! Hammer Girl! Baseball Bat Boy! And that holy-mother of a car chase (oh, how I love that machine gun unloading into a motorcycle helmet). But if you do that, you cheat yourself out of an ambitious, involving, go-for-broke action epic that could stand to lose a few pounds, but truly earns its heavyweight running time and its ranking as one of the year’s best.
Didn’t like The Raid: Redemption? Me neither. Great fights, sure, but its pencil-thin plot, boss-level video game structure, and lack of emphatic heroes or truly vile (or even interesting) villains just wore me out. But with The Raid 2, director/writer/editor Gareth Edwards learned from his mistakes. This time we have a story. And while it’s a rehash of every “undercover cop goes in too deep to infiltrate mob/gangs/corruption” plotline from Infernal Affairs to Serpico, it’s a captivating trope done right. This time we really give a damn about our returning hero Rama (the seemingly indestructible Iko Uwais). Always on the verge of having his cover blown, the poor guy goes through years of hell as he wheel-chairs half the population of Jakarta. And this time we have some vile villains to hate, too. As Uco, the whiny mobster son looking to dethrone his papa, Arifin Putra smolders like an Indonesian James Franco. And you can’t wait for the other big baddie Bejo, who looks like Indonesian Jason Schwartzmen, to get his.
Paced like a Viagra overdose, The Raid 2 rarely loses its wood. In fact, this cinematic defibrillator needs its little lagging moments to give us some breath between the blowouts. And in this age where directors fall back on epileptic camera movements to convey action, The Raid 2 reminds us of the power of meticulously crafted fight choreography. They spent 18 months preparing these fight scenes, and it really shows. These guys really hit each other, and we see and feel every blow of it in this rare, bloody steak that’s easily one of the best action pictures of all time. –Roy Ivy
Ida is a throwback in the best possible way. On the surface level, it looks like a film made during the European New Wave. Its cinematography — a joint effort from Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski — is breathtakingly beautiful, with rich black-and-white photography perfectly capturing the austerity of the film’s wintry Polish setting. Director Pawel Pawlikowski also tips his cap to the past by filming Ida in an old-school 1.37:1 aspect ratio, a nearly-square frame that draws even more attention to his unique, off-centered compositions. But it’s more than just technique and other matters of film geekery that make Ida feel like it’s from a different era; it also shares the subtle, deceptively simple storytelling that dominated so many European art films of the ‘60s. This is the kind of movie that would make the ghosts of Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman so happy that they’d high-five each other.
In its brief 82-minute runtime, Ida tells the story of a young nun, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is forced to visit her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), before taking her vows. She soon learns that she’s Jewish, and that the rest of her family was killed during the Holocaust. Given the gravity of its subject, Ida could have easily devolved towards melodrama, but instead it becomes a character study of two diametrically opposed women — one naive and pure, the other cynical and hedonistic — coming to terms with life’s brutality. Both leads give understated, nuanced performances that should (but probably won’t) land them Academy Award nominations.
Yet, despite the fact that Ida rejects most of the aesthetic and narrative conventions that popular cinema holds so dear (no CGI explosions or Kanye on the soundtrack here, folks), it has the potential to be a real crowd-pleaser. It’s uplifting and haunting and beautiful. It’s a movie for people who love movies. –Adriane Neuenschwander
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
When it comes to casting, Wes Anderson is eight for eight. Whether it’s small roles like James Caan in Bottle Rocket, bit parts like Jeff Goldblum in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or banner positions like Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, the well-dressed Texan can do no wrong. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, he outdid himself by casting Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H. — not only is it the funniest performance of 2014, but Fiennes’ strongest in his 30-year-long career.
Anyone can curse, but few do it well. When Fiennes says “fuck it” following his breathy preamble to co-star Tony Revolori, it’s a sharp stab to the gut that forces you to laugh long and hard. After all, he’s warranted that response; it’s a selective slice of profanity that’s used for emotional effect, precisely what swearing is supposed to do. That outward elegance is about the best way to explain Fiennes’ meticulous character, who unilaterally elevates his surroundings, both the setting and cast.
And it’s quite crowded in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka: Revolori, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Harvey Keitel, and the list goes on. Each character and each locale — whether it’s the titular hotel, the icy cliffs, the mountaintop monastery, or the remote prison — respond to Fiennes’ brazen energy. Not since the aforementioned Hackman has an actor or actress enlivened Anderson’s world, and what a world he’s created here.
Fantastic Mr. Fox aside, The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most ambitious work yet. So much of the film begs for the clerical use of the word “epic,” but he earns it. The action is large, the settings are expansive, and the designs appear far more intricate — hell, even the comedy’s broader! Yet what’s truly remarkable about his direction is the way he crafts the story. It’s told through a series of ages and perspectives that work out like a Russian nesting doll.
Because of this style, there’s an underlying commentary about the terrifying, fragile existence of stories. We’ve just witnessed this outstanding spectacle — a hilarious, larger-than-life tale that nobody should ever forget — and yet we’re shown exactly how time moves on despite any earlier fanfare. In effect, that elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel from not only being this year’s best comedy but one of the more sobering lessons of mortality that should stick with us for, well, who knows how long. Fuck it. –Michael Roffman
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” You want to disagree, but he’s right. Terence Fletcher, the iron-forged music instructor, played with such monstrous aplomb by J.K. Simmons, is right. When he hollered and exploited, all but ripping the callouses from drumming prodigy Andrew’s palms with his teeth, he was right. You want to make him a villain, and up until that moment you probably have. But when Simmons, with a vulnerability heretofore unseen, utters that sentence in the third act, it’s clear he believes it. And during the film’s harrowing final sequence, when the film practically begs you to see it as a final battle between Andrew and Fletcher, you see just how right he was.
Whiplash is a film about genius and what it takes to cultivate that genius in the young, gifted, and impressionable. And what it takes, according to the film, is a helluva lot more than effort. Writer/director Damien Chazelle never shies from the physical and mental toll Fletcher’s pedagogy has on Miles Teller’s Andrew, but he also never argues against it. I imagine Chazelle, a prodigy himself at just 29, has a Fletcher of his own; his deep emotional connection, to the material, but also to his protagonists, is evident, and the triumphant ending — much more ambiguous, I’d say, than a surface read might suggest — leaves us pondering just how intertwined Andrew and Fletcher’s destinies have become.
Chazelle also showcases a sure hand behind the camera, injecting Whiplash with the off-kilter intensity of a seven-stroke roll. His lens climbs over every edge of Andrew’s drum kit, becoming borderline exploitive in the ways it fetishizes the blood spattering his drumhead. That violence, however, is key to Whiplash, as the dread pulsing beneath every jittery rhythm begins to make the film feel like its own kind of thriller, with every measure taking us one step closer to defusing the bomb. –Randall Colburn
The process behind how Richard Linklater shot Boyhood piqued the interests of both audiences and critics alike, and it’s perfectly understandable why so many (us included) were so fascinated. In an era generally devoid of anticipation and stuck in a “gimme it now” mentality, Linklater’s film took its time. I don’t mean the film took its time pacing and storywise; I mean the production took its time. Long, frustrating shoots are nothing new in the moviemaking business. Look at Coppola’s nightmarish Apocalypse Now shoot or even Kubrick’s overtime-shoot for Eyes Wide Shut. The difference is that these films weren’t planned to run so long. Boyhood was a deliberately long, 12-year shoot. Again, that’s not 12 months, that’s 12 years.
Linklater went above and beyond the secrecy surrounding the project and headlines of its timeline. He made a deeply moving film that flows seamlessly as the years go on, sacrificing title cards and timestamps in favor of songs from the new era it’s entering, a new hairstyle, and even growth spurts. The time jumps are evident not so much because of these clues but because we are watching a child grow up before our eyes.
Boyhood follows a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) throughout his, well, boyhood. We meet him as a six-year-old and say goodbye to him as an 18-year-old experiencing his first day away from home as a college student. Linklater doesn’t solely concentrate on major firsts for Mason (we don’t see his first kiss, his first toke, etc.), opting to treat him as an observer as much as he is treated as the main subject. Through his eyes we see the redemption of his once-absentee father (Ethan Hawke) and the struggles of his single mother (Patricia Arquette), and most importantly, how time sneaks up on us when we don’t expect it.
The film stands proudly beside Linklater’s Before trilogy and Dazed and Confused as his greatest films and may stand alone ahead of those films as we get further and further away from its theatrical release. As we learn in the movie, only time will tell. –Justin Gerber
A violent crime “creeping into the suburbs.” It’s this goldmine of tragedy porn, shock gore, and scare tactics that gets ratings-hungry broadcast news producer Nina (Rene Russo) all hot and bothered and also what propels reptilian loner Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) to do her bidding. But really, this is a job better suited to Bloom, who has finally found a way to marry his sociopathy with his love of capitalism.
Bloom is the perfect “nightcrawler,” a pejorative term given to the entrepreneurial shutterbugs who swarm upon a crime scene and sell their footage to the highest bidder, because he is an inhuman being. We never see him sleep. He rarely blinks. He speaks in business mottos and idioms (“Communication is the number one key to success”; “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket”; “A friend is a gift you give yourself”) that he hoards as canned responses to basic human interaction. He has no conscience, no empathy, no soul behind the carved-out hollows of his eyes. But Bloom’s thirst for money and power is unquenchable, making him a heroic arm for the 24-hour news media and their masturbatory cycle of paranoia and bloodlust.
Nightcrawler is so prescient, and as a result, effortlessly quotable, for two major reasons. One is our filmmaker of the year, Dan Gilroy, an established screenwriter (Two for the Money, The Fall, The Bourne Legacy) who dazzles with his first directorial feature, zero-ing in on the seedy underbelly of modern-day Los Angeles, the “City of Angels,” as an effigy of the Devil’s playground. Of course, Gilroy had no way of knowing what would happen following the production of this film — most notably, the focus on the black-on-white violence aspect of the police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, coupled with the growing proclivity of witnesses to film a car crash, fire, or brutal assault on their iPhones first, get help second. And yet, Gilroy’s careful composition and razor-sharp script cut to the marrow of how desensitized, voyeuristic, and rabidly, morbidly sensational our society has become.
And then there’s Gyllenhaal as Bloom, delivering a career-best performance as the Travis Bickle to Nina’s Betsy, the Don Quixote to co-rider Rick’s Sancho Panza (Riz Ahmed), transforming himself into the skeletal, humanoid version of a creeper-crawler and clipping through lengthy chunks of monologue with astounding precision and control. His behavior is vile, his placid physicality makes your gut squirm, but it’s also damn near impossible to take your eyes off of him.
“I think Lou is inspiring us all to reach a little higher,” declares Nina, without a drop of irony. And if that doesn’t send a spidery chill of dread down your spine, well, that’s even more terrifying. –Leah Pickett
1. Under the Skin
Under the Skin is the kind of cinematic experience that you get once a year, if lucky. Hell, if you get it once every few, it means that for all the histrionic discussion of how the end of cinema is indeed nigh, we might be okay after all. It’s a brazen piece of filmmaking, transcendent in intention and execution alike, a grand statement on what it is to be human, and specifically female, in a year where the politics of the autonomous body were more aggressively contested from all sides than ever before. But let’s dial back the grad school diatribe just a little bit: Under the Skin is a great film. It’s utterly terrifying, endlessly poignant, and thought-provoking in a way fewer films are with each passing year. For our money, it’s the best film of 2014.
Despite some claims that the film is anti-narrative, we’ll argue that this is hardly the case. It’s just storytelling stripped to its barest essentials, utilizing texture and allusion to construct the world around Scarlett Johannson’s unknown woman. In a career-best performance, Johannsson offers her star persona to director Jonathan Glazer (in his first film in nine years, even though this one was supposed to have come out long before this past spring) for the sake of indicting the ways in which we view others, especially women, less as human beings and more as vessels for our own projections.
That’s how the men of a never-bleaker Edinburgh treat her, at least at first. Johannsson’s unnamed drifter wanders the streets in an unmarked white van, prowling the streets and shopping malls by day for lonely men, men easily seduced enough by a woman who looks like Scarlett Johannsson that they’ll follow her anywhere, especially if it’s to her house. But her house isn’t so much a house as a contained nightmare, a place where unimaginable and largely unexplained things happen to those who enter. This is her role in the world, and she plays it far too well. One day, though, she starts to change. She starts to consider, even briefly, whether what she’s doing might be wrong. And that’s where the trouble really starts.
Under the Skin is a deeply sorrowful film, but also one beguiled by the idea that there is good in the world. This, however, is briskly cut off by the larger concept that there are few weaknesses in the world more potentially hazardous to a human being than empathy. It’s bleak stuff, in the grandest possible sense, but it’s also reflective of a modern world in which people have increasingly begun to demand their humanity, no matter what spectral figures may try to withhold it and no matter the consequences. Under the Skin is about that tension and that struggle. As Johannsson strays from the ascribed rhythm of her day-to-day life, lighting out for the Scottish highlands in pursuit of something she desperately craves but can’t seem to name or fully understand, there are others out there with a vested interest in forcing her to know her place. But she, ultimately, evolves beyond this, beyond anything knowable to humankind. She demands dignity, and the film’s cruelest revelations come with the realization of what it truly costs to claim that. –Dominick Mayer
1. Under the Skin
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
7. The Raid 2
8. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
9. Obvious Child
10. Life Itself
11. The Babadook
12. Inherent Vice
13. Closed Curtain
15. Blue Ruin
16. Gone Girl
17. A Most Violent Year
18. The Skeleton Twins
21. The Guest
22. Two Days, One Night
23. The Homesman
24. Jodorowsky’s Dune
25. Guardians of the Galaxy