2014 was a solid year in film—meaning that I saw a lot of movies I liked, but not so many that I truly loved. Which actually made this list more of a challenge, as there wasn’t that significant a gradient in how I felt about most of the movies that ended up on it. That’s particularly true for those in the lower half and the ones that just missed the cut; depending on my mood or how recently I saw the movie, the ranking order could be different on a different day. But for now, here are my favorite movies from 2014:
1. LIFE ITSELF
This one’s personal for me, as someone who grew up watching Siskel and Ebert and continued to follow the latter as he transitioned seamlessly to the “Everyone’s a critic” Internet age. The only published movie critic of our time with household name status, Roger Ebert used that status not to separate himself from the larger moviegoing population but to engage them in ongoing dialogue, even as he fought the cancer that would cost him his jaw and his ability to speak—but not
his voice. “Life Itself” beautifully captures how that voice, and the man behind it, developed and endured.
What’s most striking about this firecracker of a film is its intense energy
. Even in its quieter moments, you still feel it, like a tightly wound coil about to spring, all emanating from the push-pull of a single relationship between a gifted pupil (Miles Teller) and a teacher (J.K. Simmons) whose demands and expectations border on sociopathic. (The other, gentler relationships in the film serve only to throw the main one into sharper relief.) Is what we’re seeing true to the spirit of jazz or art, probably not; does it stretch plausibility at times, definitely; is it abuse, plain and simple—well, it’s abuse all right, but there’s nothing simple about it. Some may view the ending as a tacit endorsement of the abuse, but I see it more as the culmination of a power struggle that, in the process, produces something truly electrifying. It helps that both Teller and Simmons deliver propulsive, career-making performances that play off each other brilliantly.
Although it’s not a historical film per se, there’s a whole lot of post-WWII Polish history and national psychology packed into Pawel Pawlikowski's film about a young Catholic novice in 1960s Poland who discovers that she’s Jewish by birth. Her quest to learn more about her family history is short in duration and modest in scope, yet it offers a thoughtful examination of survivor’s guilt, religious faith, and the ability of an individual (or a society) to move past a painful legacy. Exquisitely shot in black and white, “Ida” is a quiet film – almost too
quiet, marked by minimal dialogue and remarkable emotional restraint – but don’t be fooled: beneath its austere surface lies a deep well of feeling.
While all of Richard Linklater’s films feel like labors of love, this one takes his brand of experimental “let’s see where this goes” filmmaking to a whole new level. It isn't so much new in terms of its filming method, which definitely borrows a page from the “Up” documentary series, but new in how it subtly infuses that extra tinge of authenticity into what’s already a naturalistic, episodic chronicle of growing up. Emotional authenticity married to narrative discursiveness is a Linklater hallmark, but their combination here feels especially personal and, by that token, rings especially true.
5. THE IMMIGRANT
What does director James Gray have to do to get noticed? Sadly, I fear the answer is to be less subtle, less contemplative, less anthropological-on-a-small-scale in his approach to his subjects—yet those are precisely the qualities that make his films so memorable. They’re in full force in this early 20th century tale of a young Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) who steps off the boat at Ellis Island only to find herself confronted with a barrage of impossible choices on which her survival depends, including her complicated entanglement with a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s obsessed with her. That sounds more melodramatic than it really plays, and in fact the movie’s strength lies in how quietly and convincingly it presents what could be melodramatic situations. Much of the credit belongs to the actors, especially Cotillard, who manages to be haggard and luminous (but not saintly) at the same time.
6. A MOST WANTED MAN
Despite featuring one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances (and an extraordinarily good one at that), this adaptation of a late John le Carré novel appears to have been virtually forgotten already; the perils of a summertime release? Or maybe the movie’s jaundiced view of post-9/11 counterterrorism geopolitics was just too bleak for audiences to embrace. Nonetheless, that bleakness is the source of its power, as embodied by Hoffman’s character, a classic le Carré protagonist—the jaded intelligence agent who still latches onto a thread of rectitude beneath his protective layers of cynicism and moral compromise. When that remaining thread is finally snapped, the effect is devastating.
So, to those of you who thought “Interstellar” was too long, too slow, too dumb, too sappy, or all of the above: I feel you. Chris Nolan’s biggest movie yet was also his most polarizing, and as deeply flawed as it was ambitious. There were times when I was a little bored, and other times when I was reminded—not in a good way—of “Signs,” the first of many M. Night Shyamalan disappointments. But there were also times I felt genuinely transported, both visually and emotionally, and those are the parts that stayed with me. Granted, seeing the film in 70mm IMAX probably helped. A lot. Still, it had a soulfulness and, dammit, a grandeur
that you don’t see often these days, and that I’d like to see more often.
8. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
A vampire movie for people who can’t abide vampire movies – both the classic horror and the “Twilight”/Vampire Diaries variety. Indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch takes an amusing, if silly and paper-thin conceit – vampires as eternally cool artistes (a perfectly cast Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) who feed as much off the finest fruits of human civilization as they do off human blood (immortal hipsters, if you will) – and parlays it into a wonderfully languorous mood piece that flirts with melancholy without ever really succumbing to it. Actually, it’s just as much a comedy, albeit a gentle one, particularly once it introduces trouble in the form of Mia Wasikowska as a younger, less sophisticated vampire with raging appetites and virtually no impulse control. But it’s Swinton who holds the movie together, with her unearthly pale beauty and her air of having lived centuries (she did once play Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, after all) – if nothing else, the movie’s worth seeing just to hear her elegant drawl dismissing traditional vampiric feeding methods as “so fucking fifteenth century.”
9. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Pure popcorn, but who doesn’t love good popcorn? The tightest, best-constructed, and most all-around entertaining of the Marvel franchise movies, and that’s no small feat. Chris Evans continues to impress as the superhero who struggles to be a beacon of moral clarity in a hopelessly corrupt world, and he’s well-paired with Scarlet Johansson as his much more morally enigmatic ally. (The movie also happens to feature the best elevator fight sequence you’ll ever see.)
10. Tie: BIRDMAN and SELMA
Here we have the “experimental” movie vs. the “great man/historically significant event” movie. “Birdman” is a trip to watch, especially for theater lovers, and features crackling performances from all its major players, but ultimately tries to fly a little too high (literally
, and not just because it features a fictional superhero called Birdman). By contrast, “Selma” stays successfully grounded in depicting how the famous civil rights marches unfolded with a gripping immediacy and fluidity that, unlike, say, Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” sometimes makes you forget you’re watching a movie. It's also anchored by David Oyelowe’s riveting turn as an all too human MLK who’s as much canny political operator and strategist as stirring orator and civil rights hero, and who’s also racked with moments of weakness and doubt. The one fly in “Selma”’s ointment is Tom Wilkinson’s dour portrayal of LBJ, whom the movie somewhat unfairly characterizes as more hostile to MLK’s move for voting rights than he was in reality. (Still, it bears noting that the amount of dramatic license taken with that bit of history is no more than what many other highly acclaimed historical movies get away with on a regular basis – see, e.g., “The Imitation Game.”)
The Imitation Game
– despite playing fast and loose with historical facts and cleaving to a tried-and-true Great Man Oscar Bait formula, it’s an eminently watchable, surprisingly affecting film; a good example of why and when the formula works.
The Two Faces of January
– wannabe Hitchcock, but oh how gorgeously executed
– forgettable music, but memorable charm
The Skeleton Twins
– well received when it came out, it, too, seems to have been largely forgotten. It shouldn’t have been: Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader are magic together.
– a little too much quirk (even for a movie about a musician who wears a giant paper-mâché head at all times), but it’s grown on me rather than fading away; the final couple of scenes really stick with you
– skillful adaptation of a hard-to-adapt novel
Dear White People
– bracingly funny, fresh, and irreverent take on what it’s like to be young, black, and matriculating
– at first glance, a cute Indian rom-com, but what’s stayed with me is its quietly poignant portrayal of loneliness in a big city.
And yes, I liked “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but not quite enough to put on this list. In a weaker year, they’d likely have made it.