Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
An actor taking one last shot at redemption. A young woman realizing that we all have to look back to move forward. The arc of boy to man. The best films of 2014 took viewers on unpredictable journeys that somehow still felt universal and emotionally resonant. The diversity of this unique year in film is reflected by a top ten that spans the globe from San Francisco to Poland to New York to Detroit to an imaginary place called Zubrowka, but that always draws the viewer back toward universal concerns. You didn’t have to have grown up in Austin to see some of your childhood in Richard Linklater’s cinematic experiment "Boyhood." You didn’t have to be alive during the marches in Selma to feel the electricity in the air as protestors march in Ava DuVernay’s "Selma." You didn’t have to be stoned to feel the buzz of P.T. Anderson’s addictive comedy "Inherent Vice."
About the rankings: We asked our ten regular film critics to submit top ten lists from this great year, and then consolidated them with a traditional points system—10 points for #1, 9 points for #2, etc.—resulting in the list below, with a new entry for each awarded film. We’ll publish all of our individual lists, along with many more by our regular contributors, tomorrow.
Note: There is one film not on the list below that we all hold so close to our hearts that it proved understandably difficult to compare to the rest of the films screened this year. To say that we have a personal connection to Steve James’ documentary “Life Itself” would be a drastic understatement. Without Roger Ebert, none of us are here. For many of us, he was a friend and colleague. For others, he was an inspiration. And, yet while it could be argued that we may be biased, we also would be the first people to cry foul if “Life Itself” somehow didn’t do justice to its source material or subject.
However, judging from the awards it’s been piling up this season, that clearly wasn't the case. Based around remarkably frank footage of Roger and Chaz Ebert near the end of Roger's life, and sewn together with generous excerpts from Roger's same-titled autobiography, “Life Itself” has reached far beyond those who were lucky enough to know Roger privately or professionally. Recognizing that Ebert was always a newspaperman, James approaches his subject from every angle—the professional, the personal, the biographical, and so on. And each of these pieces is one brushstroke in this remarkable portrait of a life. At screenings around the world, from Sundance to Ebertfest to Cannes, “Life Itself” has carried a rare emotional resonance. So consider it an unspoken, perhaps asterisked eleventh title on the list below.
“Two Days, One Night” asks a loaded question: Would you give up a much-needed and well-deserved year-end bonus to save the job of a co-worker? It’s an idea rich with philosophical and psychological underpinnings; an experiment that would easily lend itself to the sadistic provocations of a Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier. Under the auspices of the Dardennes, this dilemma becomes the basis of a suspense thriller as delicate as the rebuilt psyche of its heroine, Sandra (Marion Cotillard). Having proven herself redundant by taking a leave of absence after a nervous breakdown, Sandra must convince her colleagues to vote against their own best interests to save her livelihood. The outcome is never really in doubt, though there’s an extra detail that comes unexpectedly. Instead, “Two Days, One Night” invites the viewer to walk a mile in the shoes of characters on both sides of the equation. As Sandra patiently and, in sometimes heartbreaking fashion, states her case to the voters, we feel ourselves leaning towards, or away from, our original positions. Both sides have an understandable, credible case, forcing a showdown between our selfish and charitable natures. Along the way, the Dardennes drop pebbles of ideas which form enormous ripples of contemplation: Is the company’s idea of a vote a statement of democracy or one of cowardice? Does Sandra deserve a second chance? Have the good intentions she fostered in the past toward a particular colleague paved her road to hell? At the center of “Two Days, One Night” is a spectacular, understated performance by Marion Cotillard. Bucking the tradition of using non-actors, the Dardennes hire a seasoned vet and she returns the favor by stepping brilliantly into the obscurity of her character. Whether you are for or against her plight, her performance refuses to afford you an easy escape from your decision. At times thought-provoking, harrowing, funny and mournful, “Two Days, One Night” deserves a spot on this and every other ten best list of 2014. (Odie Henderson)
9. “Selma” (Ava DuVernay)
"Selma" is a small miracle: a film about a key moment in the American Civil Rights movement that has all the trappings of a self-congratulatory, Oscar-bait historical picture, but none of the bombast and far greater intelligence. As written by Paul Webb, directed by Ava DuVernay and performed by a huge and consistently engaging cast, it has a knack for laying out precisely what is at stake, personally and politically, for every character and group during every moment in the story, and doing it in a way that seems organic.
Spurred by the Birmingham Church bombing, which killed four little girls, Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) comes to Selma, Alabama, looking to give the local civil rights protesters a boost, oppose Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), and light a moral fire under president Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) that will make him grant federal protection to the marchers and inoculate them against harassment by police and local rednecks. But this isn’t a two-dimensional, "saints vs. sinners" melodrama in which the point is to encourage viewers to pat themselves on the back for holding correct opinions. It’s about how history happens: the on-the-ground decisions that capitalize on (and exploit) people’s personalities in order to cause a certain action to occur, thus inching the tacticians closer to their goal.
It’s also about the human frailties that affect policy. Much is made here of the distrust and resentment between local organizers and the King camp, even though they know they’re on the same side, and of the infighting between Wallace and local authorities, and different police and governmental factions within Selma. The film is also very astute about showing how local political protesters and their government opponents use media to get their message out, amplify public outrage, and spur changes in law and policy.
All these factors come together, dazzlingly, in the film’s centerpiece, a succession of scenes in which marchers try to leave Selma via the Edmund Pettus Bridge and walk 54 miles to the state capital, Montgomery to demand reform in voting laws. Although they are bedeviled and obstructed along the way by local officials and police, the world is watching thanks to live TV which broadcasts images of police brutality instantly, and newspaper reporters who write the first draft of history (one that’s sympathetic to the protesters) and publish it the next day. Time, space and rhetoric are all collapsed in these moments, and we get a sense—rare not just in Hollywood films but in all films—of how present-day chaos gives way to lasting change. (Matt Zoller Seitz)
8. “The Immigrant” (James Gray)
James Gray (“Two Lovers”) confirms his place as one of the great cinematic poets of New York City with this masterpiece, a dark and brooding drama that almost seems like two films at once: a tale of sin and suffering set in a crime-filled New York awash with impoverished immigrants from Europe, it is also a hauntingly oblique evocation of a century’s worth of artistic representations of that place and time. Though set in 1921, the film evinces none of the flashy modernizing momentum of the Roaring Twenties. Rather, it seems like it might be taking place a decade or two earlier, in a crepuscular underworld of little light or comfort. At Ellis Island, Polish Catholic immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard), distraught at her sister being quarantined for tuberculosis, accepts help from the suspiciously solicitous Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who sweeps her into a realm of tawdry dives and music halls where he prostitutes her while also falling in love with her. Already fraught with guilt and aggression, their relationship is further complicated by the appearance of Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a stage illusionist who develops his own feelings for the woman. While meticulously depicting the real hardships of immigrant life nearly a century ago, all of it sculpted into a drama of great power and feeling, the film has the inexorable flow of a dream or myth, while simultaneously reminding us of the ways such situations have been treated in novels, theater, opera, and even dance in the last century. But most of all, Gray’s story (which he has said reflects his grandparents’ experience, as well as being autobiographical) and the enveloping chiaroscuro of Darius Khondji’s brilliant 35mm images call up cinematic antecedents, most especially D.W. Griffith and other New York filmmakers of the silent era. Indeed, saintly Griffith heroines embodied by Lillian Gish and other actresses seem to underlie both the Madonna-like character of Ewa and the luminous performance of Cotillard, who learned Polish for the role. Her exquisite work is matched by the forceful turns of Phoenix (a Gray regular) and Renner, whose bitter rivalry provokes the tale’s tragic conclusion. (Godfrey Cheshire)
7. “Birdman” (Alejandro G. Inarritu)
At first glance, this formally dazzling and often hallucinatory black comedy about a once-popular movie star (Michael Keaton) making a last-ditch attempt to restart his career by writing, directing and starring in a seemingly doomed Broadway play looked like it might be the kind of film that dazzles viewers the first time around but which would reveal its hollow nature on subsequent viewings. As subsequent viewings have proven, Inarritu has not just simply given us another extended in-joke that will amuse media types and those who want to at least feel as if they are in the know. Instead, he uses his hero's situation as a way to explore far more universal feelings of despair, alienation and the loss of control that will resonate just as strongly with people who have never once picked up a copy of "Entertainment Weekly." It is a satire, to be sure, but one that manages to be both caustic and humane and when all is said and done, it says more about the human condition in more moving and thoughtful ways than Inarritu was able to accomplish in more ostensibly serious-minded works like "21 Grams" and "Babel." Yes, the parallels between Keaton and Riggan are uncanny in both the most obvious aspects as well as the tinier details but this is not simply a case of an actor essentially playing himself—this is a performance as original and nuanced as he has ever given and fully deserves all the accolades it has received. Alongside his turn, equally fine work is delivered by co-stars Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zack Galifianakis, Amy Ryan and the awesome Emma Stone as well. Watching them spark off of each other throughout is another one of the film's many delights. (Peter Sobczynski)
Jim Jarmusch's vampire love story is a languid dark dreamspace, aching with longing, sharply humorous, and pierced with almost unbearable sadness. It's a swoon of love, so powerful and poignant that emerging from the film is like disentangling yourself from a deep, dream-filled sleep. Lusciously filmed in Tangier and Detroit, exhausted insomniac cities with memories of greatness in their foundations, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is about many things, but one of its deepest pleasures is its romantic celebration of the past, the artists who pierced the veil of time to say something that still has reverb: Christopher Marlowe, Buster Keaton, Eddie Cochran, Albert Einstein, Jack White, the references proliferate. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) surround themselves with the artists who have sustained them, finding great comfort in their collective presence. Jarmusch is interested in how we intersect with time, and how we connect. How do we reach one another?
Popping on a 45 of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love" may seem like a quirky detail, but in Jarmusch's world view, such actions are essential, they keep us connected with the great flow of time. Hiddleston and Swinton create an exhausted and tender space, sensual and full of trust. They approach one another, still, with great kindness, even though they have been together for centuries. Watching the two of them lingeringly suck on human-blood popsicles in a dingy Detroit kitchen is one of the sexiest moments in cinema this year. Einstein's “spooky entanglement” theory is crucial to the film, the strange theory that particles separated from one another, no matter how vast the distance, are still somehow entangled. John Cassevetes once said, “I don’t care about the scene. I only care about what happens between people.” That's the space that Jarmusch cares about in "Only Lovers Left Alive": the space between people and how charged it can be. How sad, how intimate. (Sheila O’Malley)
“Ida” is a road trip drama that takes viewers to new emotional destinations. Poland’s foreign-language Oscar entry is a haunting, black-and-white period piece set in 1962 that summons painful memories of one of the most terrible periods in history—the Holocaust—in a hushed, unhurried way that is harrowing in its intimacy. And it offers a rare female point of view. Our companions are two women who couldn’t be more different, save for the fact that they are both survivors. We meet a youthful novitiate, Anna, at a Polish convent—nearly medieval in its austerity—who is on the verge of taking her vows. Her Mother Superior suggests that the sheltered girl should visit her only surviving relative, her aunt on her mother’s side, before undergoing the rite. Turns out, Wanda is a single, somewhat attractive middle-aged city dweller with a taste for cigarettes, hard liquor and one-night stands.
And what she reveals to her niece would leave her speechless if she weren’t already given to long meditative silences: Anna was born a Jew and her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She was taken from her parents during the war and ended up at the nunnery. She also informs Ida of her work as a state prosecutor for the harsh post-war Communist regime who earned the nickname Red Wanda as she sent wrongdoers to their death. Such pure-of-heart piety and hard-bitten worldliness proves to be a powerful combination as the two join forces to find out the awful truth of what happened to her parents by traveling by car to the family home. Director Pawel Pawlikowski has had success previously, including the well-received 2004 coming-of-age drama “My Summer of Love,” but he seems to have elevated his game by doing his first film set in his homeland. The stark moody beauty of his film goes a long way to distinguish “Ida” from other more mundane fare. But he rightfully puts most of his faith in his incredible actresses. It is hard to watch “Ida” and not constantly seek out newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska’s angelic face. Her expressions of joy, sorrow, anger and even amusement convey so much more than mere words. Meanwhile, Agata Kulesza is a revelation as Wanda, complicated and abrasive yet as surprising in her reactions to their discoveries as is her niece. Pawlikowski manages to sneak in the seductive sounds of Coltrane onto the soundtrack thanks to a handsome young man with a saxophone who hitches a ride with the two women. Just like him, we are privileged to be part of this profound journey with these two memorable women and are forever changed by it. (Susan Wloszczyna)
4. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Wes Anderson)
Upon seeing diligent-but-overwhelmed concierge Monsieur Jean (Jason Schwartzman) put out a cigarette with his spit and forefingers, Jude Law's "Young Writer," the first of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”'s three narrators, conspiratorially says of the character, "I expect he was not very well-paid." There's a world of nuance in that ostensibly inclusive yet fussy aside. It's neither the first nor the last time that one of the film's cabal of story-tellers interrupt themselves in order to simultaneously compose their wandering thoughts and impress their audience, like when F. Murray Abraham's Mr. Moustafa prefaces his own story by saying "It begins, as it must, with our mutual friend's predecessor."
These characteristic digressions are not, in that sense, singular tics, but rather telling hallmarks of writer/director Wes Anderson's baroque style. It's the little things that makes Anderson's latest such a great—maybe even his greatest—film. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a neo-screwball comedy set in an imaginary country, is the kind of movie that appreciates every time you re-watch it thanks to little details like the coat check chit that Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) receives after his cat is thrown out a window, and then collected for him in a small sack: "One cat (deceased)." It's the work of a virtuosic story-teller, one who makes narrative tangents the heart of his work. The film is a masterwork of comic timing and expression, thanks in no small part to Ralph Fiennes's joyfully manic performance as Monsieur Gustave. Fiennes turns on a dime with such hilarious poise, even when he's talking about beating up "a snively little runt called Pinky Bandynsky…because if there's one thing we've learned from penny dreadfuls, it's that when you find yourself in a place like this, you must never be a candy-ass." And yet it's not any little detail that makes “The Grand Budapest Hotel”so good, but rather every little detail, from the constipated, frog-in-throat stare Mathieu Amalric's Serge X. gives Fiennes before Gustave screams to Serge that he should just get to the point to the paltry half-ounce bottle of L'Air de Panache that Gustave takes from an apologetic Monsieur Ivan (Bill Murray). Through his characters, you can see Anderson itching to get ahead of himself, and move his monumental plot from points A to B to R to X. But Anderson somehow never does get ahead of himself. Every puzzle piece fits exactly. (Simon Abrams)
3. “Boyhood” (Richard Linklater)
Life is little more than a series of moments. When you’re young, most of those moments are heavy with importance. What could possibly be more important than the “right now” to a teenager confused about his direction in life or who recently had his heart broken? As you get older, you realize how many of the key events from your childhood merely blur into the fabric of your memory. We often remember the days that didn’t seem quite as intense and forget the days that left us crying. When Patricia Arquette says to her son (Ellar Coltrane) in “Boyhood,” “I just thought there would be more than this,” the generational disconnect in the way we view the world is clear. Mom, THIS is all we need. Few filmmakers, if any, have ever captured this fluidity of perspective as to the moments that make up our lives as Richard Linklater did in “Boyhood.” The argument that it’s not a definitive point-of-view, because we’re not all white kids living in Austin in the ‘00s, misses the universality of Linklater’s purpose. Mason’s childhood is not mine and probably not yours, and yet there’s something so pure about Linklater’s approach to it that the story resonates across gender, race, and generation. Employing a daringly ambitious structure placed on the backs of his equally-committed collaborators, Linklater did something all-too-rare in modern film: He conveyed an oft-told story in a new way. He illuminated his themes through his devotion to his ambitious concept, working as he has so often in years past in a completely collaborative way with great artists including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Working together, they have given us a film that feels deceptively simple—its critics argue its lack of narrative or traditional “plot”—and yet summons an emotional impact in its final scenes that shatters that impression. The seemingly inconsequential beats of a life blend with more intense key moments into a film that has become one of the most beloved pieces of art of the year by transcending its structure and its simplicity. (Brian Tallerico)
2. “Inherent Vice” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Writing on Twitter, the screenwriter and critic Larry Gross (who’s a friend of mine) observed that “the problems with Paul Thomas Anderson’s work are ‘inherent’ in American cinema’s current conditions of possibility.” A knotty thought, but a very pertinent one, because Anderson’s adaptation of a 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel is an all-American film that in many ways goes wildly against the grain of what’s permissible in contemporary American cinema. And in so doing manages not only to be a fantastically astute cinematic realization of the wooly, not-unfriendly paranoid vibe of Pynchon’s tale of a stoner detective in a fictional web in a fictional California beach town, but also very fully a Paul Thomas Anderson film.
The outrageous gag-based humor is new to Anderson, but the absurdity that animates it is something that does go all the way back to “Boogie Nights.” And as with his 2012 “The Master,” the notes of loss and loneliness and pain Anderson hits as he deconstructs Pynchon’s wise-ass hero “Doc” Sportello—a fallen angel Quixote who’s not entirely surprised to discover that he’s less than the sum of his parts—are not just jolting, they’re practically shocking, as in a sex scene in the film’s last third that throws the loose jokiness that came before into unnerving relief, and throws the notion of redemption out the window if not under a bus. Anderson’s first-rate, seemingly inexhaustible cast, ranging from Joaquin Phoenix to Michael K. Williams to Reese Witherspoon to Owen Wilson to Martin Short to Josh Brolin to Michelle Sinclair (once known as Belladonna) and more, anchored by both new-to-movies Joanna Newsom and new-to-leading-roles Katherine Waterston, is fully attuned to his vision, which is neither as freewheeling nor as plot-negligent as it appears to be on first viewing. This itself speaks to the problems to which Gross alludes; for as much entertainment as any shot or sequence of “Inherent Vice” delivers, there’s a sense that this is not the most immediately user-friendly of films; its depiction of the way things we thought had cohered tend to fall back apart is a distinctly and deliberately uneasy one. (Glenn Kenny)
The year’s best film is also one of its most challenging. If you like your movies comforting, safe and tidy—if you treasure things like catharsis and closure and enjoy having your questions answered—then you should probably look elsewhere. “Under the Skin” is not for you. But if you want to be thrilled and wowed both emotionally and intellectually—if you’re prepared to surrender yourself to inspired visuals and a mesmerizing tone, and to be moved deeply by them—then drop whatever you’re doing and go find “Under the Skin” now. With only his third film (following 2000’s “Sexy Beast” and 2004’s “Birth”), director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer has crafted a minimalist sci-fi masterpiece. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick are not unwarranted, both for his precise tone and for his striking imagery. But Glazer also draws from Scarlett Johansson a performance of great power; it’s the best work yet of her eclectic career.
As an alien being prowling about Glasgow, Scotland, preying on unsuspecting single men to fulfill her nefarious purposes, Johansson is both charismatic and chilling. She can be a ferociously sexy creature to behold—and a little curvier than usual, an appealing surprise—but how she looks isn’t as important as what she does with those looks. Between “Under the Skin,” “Lucy” and “Her,” Johansson has been having a field day lately subverting her celebrated sensuality. The fact that Glazer shot so much of the film using hidden cameras inside a van—often with real people rather than actors who didn’t realize who Johansson was—adds to the film’s allure. It’s a stripped-down, documentary-style approach within a film full of gleaming, high-tech touches. Chief among them are composer Mica Levi’s score—a dissonant jumble that puts you on edge from the start—and the eerie, exquisite sound design. What draws these poor souls in—and what permeates the entire film—is an unshakable sense of loneliness and longing. All these men want to do is forge a human connection, and they vividly pay the price. Johansson’s character starts out on a mission but eventually finds a way to connect, as well. But her fate, though intentionally vague, is nonetheless haunting. (Christy Lemire)