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The 20 Best Films Of 2014

The 20 Best Films Of 2014

From the ridiculous to the sublime, as part of our ongoing year-end coverage, we recently looked at the worst films of the year, but we wouldn’t want to rest on a negative note for too long, so there was only one way to go from there: to The Playlist’s Official 20 Best Motion Pictures of 2014.

Traditionally, we’ve run separate lists by separate staffers, but this year, we also wanted to try something a little different. So for the first time ever, editors, staffers, contributors and contributing writers were polled on their top 10 lists, with ten points awarded for first place, nine for second etc, resulting in The Playlist’s top twenty.

It’s always worth noting that with Playlisters based everywhere from L.A. to Berlin, not everyone sees everything at the same time, and as we closed polling this past weekend, it’s possible that we’d have seen certain movies yet to hit wide release climb higher (given the passion from the few who saw films like “Mommy,” “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year,” those in particular could have ended up further up the list). But nevertheless, it’s been a fascinating process to watch the poll take shape (especially with the runaway number one film, which took almost twice as many points as its closest competitor), and we think we’ve ended up with a list that represents the site as a whole.

There’s still plenty more year-end coverage to come, and there have been quite a few Best of the Year features already (which you can check out here). But for now, take a look at the top 20 below, and let us know your own lists in the comments section.

20. “The Rover
If one takes “The Rover” on its own methodical, minimalist terms — an existentialist fable that burrows deep into the moralism of its corrupted, barren landscape — it’s hard to deny that writer/director David Michod’s sophomore effort wholly accomplishes what it sets out to do. Stripping away all narrative complexity to the point of abstraction, the character study really breathes, but in such a completely different way to Michod’s triumphant last featureAnimal Kingdom,” that after just two features and a few shorts, Michod has us convinced he’s the real deal. Featuring a stunningly grizzled, grimy lead performance by Guy Pearce, easily one of our favorite working actors, and an impressive turn from Robert Pattinson who is growing as a performer with every film, it’s a movie that pulsates beneath the surface and in the long silences between dialogue and outbursts of violence. And it’s starkly beautiful to look at and to listen to, eschewing revelations and plot twists to deliver its deceptively simple story through mood, tone and atmosphere. [Read our review].

19. “Selma”

It’s amazing what filmmaker Ava Du Vernay has accomplished over such a short filmography — you’d never guess that “Selma” is only her third feature-length drama. The story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s pivotal civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama — a pilgrimage that led to the landmark passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — “Selma” is deeply moving. And yes, it’s an “important” film, but one of such intelligence, craft, dignity and empathy, that any cynicism you may have about its motivations will quickly disappear. Alive and vital, “Selma” eschews traditional stuffy biopic notes, with David Oyelowo’s elegant performance proving effortlessly genuine. And the picture provides a warm, lived-in look into MLK’s life that is full of human dimension, while also being vividly shot by Bradford Young (the year’s MVP director of photography for “Selma” andA Most Violent Year”), who imbues every frame with a textured authenticity and intimacy. “Selma” may check off all the Oscar boxes — it’s emotionally stirring, inspirational, crowd-pleasing, powerful and socially relevant — but if Best Picture has to hit these criteria, let “Selma” take it for all the right and honest reasons. Either way, this soulful, humanist triumph might be more worthwhile than anything you pay to see in theaters this year. [Read our review].

18. “Mommy”

In any other hands, “Mommy” wouldn’t work. The sci-fi-ish prologue is unnecessary, the movie runs too long, and the opening twenty minutes may well be a deal-breaker for some. But they’d be giving up on one of the most excitingly fresh, unapologetic directorial voices of the moment in Xavier Dolan and missing out on what ultimately becomes one of the most beautiful, goddamn heart-bursting movies of the year. Breakout Antoine Olivier Pilon is the wild, unpredictable, ADD heart of the movie, in which a teenager, fresh out of juvie, returns home to live with his mother Diane (Anne Dorval). But he’s too much to handle, and so an unlikely alliance is formed with Kyra (Suzanne Clement) the neighbor who gives Steve care and guidance, while Diane earns their keep. This is almost beyond soap opera, an all-levels-to-ten tribute to the heart-breaking ferocity of the mother-son bond marked by three stunning performances. Dolan’s use of music has never been better, with two sequences in particular providing swooningly gorgeous, unexpected audio/visual pairings, and lest you think the Academy ratio is a gimmick from the young filmmaker, it’s a choice that ramps up the intensity in a film where the emotions threaten to leap off the screen and eat you whole. “Mommy,” much like Steve, is wild, reckless and flawed, but like Diane, that’s why we love it to death. [Read our review].

17. “Ida

Given that it went rather overlooked on the festival circuit at the end of 2013, it’s been hugely gratifying to see the cult of “Ida” grow over 2014, as the film became a legitimate indie sleeper hit, and probably the front-runner for the Foreign Language Oscar. Pawel Pawlikowski’s return to his native Poland, it’s a small, personal and beautifully formed little gem, focusing on novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, who’s astonishing for a first-time actor), who discovers that she’s actually Jewish, and sets out with her aunt (the equally-astonishing Agata Kulesza) to look for her parents’ grave. It sounds bleak, and with its stark Bressonian black-and-white Academy ratio framing, seems like it could look that way too, but it’s a film of great warmth and power. For such a brief film (just 80 minutes), it’s also hugely substantial, packing in issues of identity, faith, history, guilt, sexuality and nationhood, while also being one of the most beautifully composed films in recent memory. It’s a staggering achievement, and we’re delighted to see so many take it to their hearts. [Read our review].

16. “The Grand Budapest Hotel

We hope the Academy doesn’t forget this delightful Wes Anderson film come Oscar time, because for our money, it’s easily one of his best films to date, and one of 2014’s signature titles. With a spring release that was rewarded with deserved critical and financial success, it felt for the better part of 2014 that everyone was talking about ‘Grand Budapest.’ And for good reason: it’s funny as hell, with an against-type turn by Ralph Fiennes as a dandy, possibly bisexual and ultimately heroic hotel manager that’s award-worthy without being obvious. The gorgeous music by Alexandre Desplat is a large part of the film’s success, with the score (like the film) constantly on the move, always one step ahead of the audience, jumping from genre to genre (screwball sex comedy/prison break/quasi-World War II/stories within stories). Art directed with trademark Anderson perfection and nostalgia, it’s simply one of the most flat-out entertaining films of this year, even with an ending that’s so beautifully sad. [Read our review].

15. “Nymphomaniac

Entertainment Weekly can suck it. By now we all know they’ve chosen Lars Von Trier’s symphonic sex saga “Nymphomaniac” as the very worst film of the year, which hurts our brain. You may have to be down with Von Trier’s peculiar interests in order to truly savor both volumes of “Nymphomaniac,” but that they are boisterously alive and creatively ingenious pieces of work is undeniable. ‘Vol. 1’ gives us one of Von Trier’s most accessible films to date: brimming with pizzazz, a remarkable screen debut by Stacy Martin, and a rejuvenating portrait of a woman entering adulthood. ‘Vol. 2’ turns a caustic corner, and reminds us that this is, after all, the familiar dark and twisted Danish lord directing. Even if Von Trier’s pessimistic view of humanity isn’t something we’d completely side with, and even if the last 90 seconds of Volume II cleave opinion even further, “Nymphomaniac” in the main is simply a stimulating cinematic tour de force full of Von Trier brio. [Read our reviews of Vol. 1 here and Vol. II here].

14. “A Most Violent Year”

J.C. Chandor is proving himself to be one of the slipperiest filmmaking chameleons, ping-ponging from a financial world thriller (“Margin Call“) to a robustly existential outdoor adventure (“All Is Lost“) to “A Most Violent Year,” possibly his deepest and most accomplished film to date, a period drama set in 1981 that speaks endlessly to the world around us today. Oscar Isaac leads the film, playing an immigrant who is running a heating oil business that is being attacked on all sides, coming under scrutiny from a federal investigator (“Selma” star David Oyelowo) and being targeted for a series of heists (rendered as thrillingly suspenseful set pieces). Isaac just wants to stay on the right side of the law, even if everything is pulling him towards criminal activity (personified by his brassy, mobbed-up wife played by Jessica Chastain). “A Most Violent Year” is about the ways in which the American Dream can become corrupted and how its pursuit can ruin lives, and is one of the year’s most gripping and, thanks to Bradford Young‘s wintery widescreen photography, most gorgeous movies. [Read our review].

13. “Interstellar

Perhaps it’s not that surprising that some audiences have been reluctant to embrace this film, even outright rejecting it (like our original reviewer). It’s undeniably goofy at times, even cheesy in its tipsy balance of grand/intimate, but it’s also so earnest and made with such artful craftsmanship that its power, for many of the rest of us, is undeniable. We can discuss formats all day long (and we did), but in the end, “Interstellar” has a sense of adventure, and a scope of ambition in tackling the Big Questions that really no other blockbuster even nodded to this year. In Christopher Nolan’s space opera, the Earth coming to end is not a time mourn but an opportunity to explore new worlds and evolve as a species — it’s easily his most affecting, emotional work, that may have introduced a few of us to a new experience: crying at a Nolan film. His place in the pantheon of modern auteurs is well-earned, but “Interstellar” evokes a spirit of human endeavor and an old-fashioned awe at the idea of space exploration, that makes all the spectacle somehow endearing too. [Read our review].

12. “Guardians of the Galaxy

Going in to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” we, like most other commentators, weren’t sure quite what to expect. Granted, the Marvel hype machine was running at full steam, but this adaptation of one of the comic book giant’s lesser-known titles seemed like a gamble. Fronted by Chris Pratt, a guy best known for a supporting role on a sitcom, and featuring a gang of deep space outlaws, including a thief, a ruthless assassin, a literal minded thug, an anthropomorphic raccoon with a penchant for heavy arms, and a talking alien tree who only says three words, it was however a gamble that paid off big time as ‘Guardians’ became the biggest movie of 2014 in the U.S. (second worldwide only to Michael Bay’s latest “Transformers” offering). It’s also one of the best times any of us had in a movie theater all year, mixing the high adventure and clever humor of an “Indiana Jones” movie with the swashbuckling deep space action of “Star Wars.” Marking the transition of James Gunn from making quirky, skewed-vision, offbeat personal low-budget indies, to making quirky, skewed-vision, offbeat multimillion dollar blockbuster tentpoles, there were few developments in 2014 more heartening. In a future where every second summer film is going to be a Marvel universe offering, having Gunn on board delivering something as idiosyncratic as ‘Guardians’ can only be a good thing. [Read our review].

11. “Whiplash

Jazz bobs and weaves, it hits with unexpected rhythms, delights in accomplished technical feats of musicianship and wows with thunderous emotion at its highest peaks. So too does Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” Like pairing a jazz veteran with a rookie wired and ready to prove himself, J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are less directed than conducted by Chazelle, and churn out Blue Note- (and Oscar-) worthy performances. Simmons has the role of a lifetime as Fletcher, the music school band leader who manipulates and abuses his players into greatness. Or at least, aspires to: he’s yet to create the next legend, but he sees something in drummer Andrew’s (Teller) double swing time that bodes for a future that could be life-changing… if it doesn’t kill them both first. Puffed up by ego, fueled by ambition, and unwilling or unable to stop until greatness is achieved, Fletcher and Andrew are in perverse need of each other to achieve their dreams. And this all plays out in the film’s blistering finale, a musical performance that’s character-driven, an action-packed sequence that doesn’t need one pixel of CGI. Watching Fletcher and Andrew circle each other like boxers, push and pull, and finally achieve through blood, sweat, and hubris the masterful musicianship they’ve been seeking, may make you leap out of your seat and burst into applause. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” Fletcher says. Well, no need for those words here: “Whiplash” is flat-out great. [Read our review].

10. “Inherent Vice

After your first viewing, you may not know what to make of “Inherent Vice,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature film and the first ever adaptation of literary giant Thomas Pynchon. And that’s okay. For as much as Anderson claims to make films for the Saturday night crowd, he’s really making them for the ages and he’s not afraid of leaving a few people behind to get there. His most ardent fans (and we count ourselves among them) have learned that he never repeats himself and whatever he does next will be a complete 180 from whatever he did last time. And sure enough, coming hot off the heels of “The Master,” his divisive post-WWII drama, he takes yet another left turn for ‘Vice,’ a 2 ½ hour broadly comic and profoundly melancholy experience that’s unlike anything else Anderson has made but could only have been made by him. Once again he’s assembled his all-star team, from Robert Elswit’s grainy, gorgeous 35mm cinematography to Jonny Greenwood’s mesmerizing score to an A-list ensemble, some of whom turn in career-best performances in essentially 1-2 scene parts. Holding the film together is Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else embodying him quite as perfectly as the actor does here, as a puppydog optimist and aching romantic. Anderson grasps onto the novel’s Doc-Shasta romantic thread and tugs on it hard, using it to pull the audience through the labyrinthine story. The mystery may be hard to follow but it’s really just window dressing; this was always going to be a love story. The film may simply be too out there to figure heavily into year-end discussions but give it some time and we’d wager it will start cropping up on Best of the Decade lists a few years down the line. [Read our review].

9. “Leviathan

Ever since Cannes, we’ve been joining hands with fellow critics and singing the praises of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s unforgettable, deeply affecting, impossibly sophisticated “Leviathan.” In a year that has the word “epic” bandied about the playground like it ain’t no thing, in many ways it feels like it should be sheltered and reserved to describe the enchantment Zvyagintsev and his crew of exemplary professionals have managed to conjure up here. Inspired by a blue-collar working man who went on a bulldozer rampage in a small town in Colorado in 2004, Zvyagintsev had the desire to direct a story of a man in a desperate struggle with his government, slowly losing everything he holds dear. Adding connective tissue from the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes’ book on statecraft with which the film shares its name, and setting the story in a Northern Russian town close to the Black Sea, Zvyaginstev assembled a terrific ensemble of actors (stand-outs being the two King pieces on either side of the chessboard; Roman Madyanov as the Mayor and Aleksey Serebryakov as Nikolai), and worked from a script co-written by his writing partner Oleg Negin (with whom he shared Cannes’ Best Screenplay honor). And the result is a profound film of honest-to-goodness Biblical proportions delivered with a kind of invisible grace, which lodges itself in the memory banks and reverberates with an emotionally stirring, painfully real vision of humanity. Here we have the modern artistic sibling to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, connecting the moral fibers of a nation’s political, religious, and familial values, exposing their corrupted knots and soaking them in an ocean of vodka. And it’s absolutely brilliant from first frame to last. [Read our review].

8. “Snowpiercer

We waited a long time for “Snowpiercer,” but it was worth it. After picking up the distribution rights to South Korean hit machine Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of an obscure French graphic novel, The Weinstein Company engaged in a very public flame war with the filmmaker over 20-minutes’ worth of cuts, that thankfully never happened. Set on a train that endlessly circles the frozen wastes of a new global ice age, a vicious, rigid class system develops among the last vestiges of the human race. Having had enough of the proverbial boot on their throat, the passengers at the back fight their way to the front, where the upper crust live in luxury, with things like education for their kids, natural light, and food that doesn’t look like grainy gelatin. Impeccably stylish and stylized though it is, this isn’t a black-and-white story full of definites, and its interpretations continually shift and shimmy just like the titular train rattling down its post-apocalyptic track. Holding the film together are two great performances: from Chris Evans as the insurgent leader Curtis, the most varied and intense work he’s ever done, and a brilliant wing-nut from turn from Tilda Swinton as the vehement idealist Mason, who talks a much bigger game with a gun in her hand, and who occasionally wears a shoe on her head. There’s just enough of a sliver of hope in “Snowpiercer,” and enough flashes of the most mordant humor, to keep it from being completely crushing, but it’s the bleak, damn near desolate texture Bong brings that makes it so utterly compelling. [Read our review].

7. “Only Lovers Left Alive

From its opening titles set in a heavy metal/medieval font, “Only Lovers Left Alive” is a study in perfectly made artistic choices. Almost plotless, but never aimless, Jim Jarmusch’s take on the vampire genre is exactly what you’d expect from the director at his best: full of mood, dry wit and solid performances in cities as diverse as Detroit and Tangier. As centuries-old vampiress Eve, Tilda Swinton has gotten most of the praise for the cast, but viewers shouldn’t overlook the rest of the talent: there’s a magnetic turn from Tom Hiddleston as her depressed vampire lover, Adam; nice supporting roles for Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin; and we were equally enamored of both John Hurt as an undead Christopher Marlowe and Jeffrey Wright as a doctor who helps the ageless couple procure their drug of choice. Above all, the film is a pair of love stories. At its heart is the epic romance between Adam and Eve, that spans continents and centuries, but just as central is the love story between the couple and art. Eve adoringly pores over books, stuffing her suitcase for a trip with titles like “Infinite Jest” instead of clothes. Meanwhile, reclusive Adam makes music that inspires obsessive listeners, while refusing to bow to the latest technology or trends. But while “Only Lovers Left Alive” is impeccably cool, that doesn’t mean that it’s above real emotion. The film is surprisingly affecting, with each detail creating a picture that is as impossible to get out of your head as a perfect rock’n’roll love song. [Read our review].

6. “Boyhood

There’s already been endless discussion of what a technically daunting and logistically complex undertaking Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood” was, and this is certainly true, since as we know now, the director filmed one child (and a small satellite of professional actors, including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) intermittently over the course of 12 years. And, yes, nothing like this has ever really been attempted in narrative feature filmmaking before, but underneath the novelty factor of the approach, it is a profound rumination on time and the way our personalities are shaped by the people and events around us, which just so happens to be housed in this unique framework. Linklater has always been obsessed with time; you can see it in his “Before…” trilogy and in his exercises in period filmmaking (“The Newton Boys,” “Me and Orson Welles,” “Dazed and Confused“). In an interview late last year he said, “It’s the big element of our medium – the manipulation of time, the perception of time, the control of time. It’s the building block of cinema.” And he is fascinated by the structural and personal implications of his bold experiment, but you can be dazzled by its form while also connecting deeply to the material (via the nostalgia-inducing cultural signposts like an old Nintendo system or a pop song that is still lodged in your head, all these years later). As a filmmaker, Linklater has an innate ability to target something both specific and universal, and “Boyhood,” in the subtlety of its filmmaking and the grandness of its ideas, is his ultimate achievement to date. [Read our review].

5. “Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”

Every once in a great while a film comes along that makes you wonder, “Where the hell has that guy been?” and reminds you of why you loved that guy in the first place. This year that guy is Michael Keaton and that film is “Birdman,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s virtuoso meta-fable of an actor fallen from grace. As Riggan Thompson, a former Hollywood sellout looking to stage a comeback on Broadway, Keaton channels the live-wire energy he’s long been known for but also shows us layers of sadness and desperation that we’ve never really seen from the actor, and certainly not in a showcase part like this, surrounded by a terrific ensemble including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis. Much has been made of the film’s awe-inspiring “single-take” (actually achieved by seamlessly stitching together its merely very impressive long takes) and the film’s detractors have pointed to that as a gimmick. But the technique isn’t merely Iñárritu showing off (though it is that too), it’s also the best way to communicate the film’s manic energy and immediacy, in a world where where mundanity and surreality collide. With his first four features Iñárritu was in danger of hitting the same notes one too many times and thankfully he switched instruments just in the nick of time with this massively entertaining, genre-defying film — we come up short on comparisons when trying to describe it because there’s really nothing quite like it. Which is probably the best recommendation of all. [Read our review].

4. “Gone Girl

One of the most avidly anticipated movies of the year, “Gone Girl,” miraculously, didn’t crumble under the weight of its expectations, managing to surprise, delight and offend in ways few may have expected. “Gone Girl” is a David Fincher film through and through: the grayscale palette, the uneasy Reznor/Ross score, the deep-seated cynicism and irony throughout. But the film exhibits a different, new layer: camp, of all things. From the arch voiceover to the fluffy pink pens of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), “Gone Girl” is Fincher’s take on a Dateline special. Disturbingly dark and deeply funny, the film strikes a tone that is completely unique: simultaneously dry, dour and utterly ridiculous — wait, is Fincher having fun? It seems that the woman’s touch of Gillian Flynn‘s novel and screen adaptation adds a new dimension to the auteur’s work — “Gone Girl” is a monster movie with a Hitchcock blonde as the antagonist, the stuff that men’s right’s activists’ dreams and nightmares are made of. Then again Ben Affleck as the dull-as-paint husband is the stuff that intelligent, independent women’s nightmares are made of too. For once, it’s the man in peril, instead of the woman, for once it’s the female who acts with agency (sociopathic agency but we’ll take what we can get) and honestly, it’s refreshing, all spiced up with a little media satire too. The ultimate anti-date movie, “Gone Girl” is Lifetime true crime gone high brow, masterfully and meticulously executed, with Pike’s Amy an instant icon of the anti-victim. [Read our review].

3. “Foxcatcher

At once a tiny, intimate three-hander and a grand, mythic tale about America and the inherent imbalance of capitalism, “Foxcatcher” strikes a high watermark for director Bennett Miller, a filmmaker who’d already knocked it out the park twice with “Capote” and “Moneyball.” Detailing the extraordinary true story of the Schultz Brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum), Olympic champion wrestlers who fall under the sway of industrialist heir John Du Pont (Steve Carell), the film’s a spare, almost austere parable that tips into absurdity only because it is an entirely absurd, and yet bone-chilling story. And while it takes up over two hours on the screen, as ever with Miller, there’s nothing extraneous, no frame out of place (DP Greig Fraser continually wringing poetry out of the mundane) and no performance that isn’t minutely finely tuned. Each one of the director’s movies has had a titanic performance at its center, but here he’s got three: Ruffalo is as reliably great as ever, yet still capable of surprising; Tatum a revelation even by the standard to which he’s stretched his wings in the last few years; and Carell reaches a heart of darkness that surely few ever thought he’d be capable of. It’s hardly a shock that this is a film that had to go the Megan Ellison route to get made: it’s deeply sad, almost lonely in tone, and savage in the way it holds up a mirror to the rotten core of the 1%, and the callousness with which they can treat the lives of others. But thank God that it did: it might be set twenty years ago, but it’s a vital film for America in 2014, and beyond. [Read our review].

2. “Nightcrawler

On its blackly comic, satiric surface, “Nightcrawler” is an indictment of today’s anything-goes, Twitter-ready media landscape, but writer/director Dan Gilroy knows that one note has been played, and sustained, before. And so coiling underneath his film, prowling with survivor’s instincts and a new-age enthusiast’s optimism is the portrait of one smooth-operating sociopath. Played with gaunt-faced, all-grins commitment by Jake Gyllenhaal, Louis Bloom is Patrick Bateman raised on a diet of Horatio Alger stories and recently gorged on self-help business strategy books. He’s eager to climb the ladder, but in yet another terrifically nuanced turn by Gyllenhaal, aided by Gilroy’s layered script, we see shades of Bloom’s damaged past, one that perhaps found him abused, alone, unwanted. He’ll try anything to make a buck and certainly has, but when his attempt as a freelance video stringer starts yielding real results, what follows is a bleak portrait of achieving the American Dream through the most nightmarish of means. A slithering, steadily uncoiling examination of ambition, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal bring audiences into a Los Angeles not of sunshine, beautiful people and gleaming buildings, but of corroded aspirations and desperate measures that have curdled all morals and ethics. Ultimately, “Nightcrawler” becomes one of year’s finest films by being one of its most uncompromising. [Read our review].

1. “Under the Skin

“There are more things in heaven and earth,” as Hamlet says to Horatio, “than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” And Jonathan Glazer’s bewitching “Under the Skin” may be the best expression ever of a film told from the point of view of one of those things. Profoundly, chillingly alien, Glazer’s uncanny masterpiece feels like it’s animated by an unearthly intelligence, the kind of dark, still watchfulness that is perhaps closest in spirit to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — a perspective that feels simply not-human. So often, when dealing with alien lifeforms in film, we ascribe to them conventional human morality — they are good or bad, vengeful or merciful, evil or pure. But Scarlett Johansson gives an immaculate performance as a creature that simply exists outside that framework, perfectly ambivalent, unmotivated by notions of justice or revenge, only opportunity. At least at the outset, because as the film unfolds, the terrible perfection of her alien design (she is like an elaborate lure, cast by the man on the motorcycle, perhaps) is gradually compromised by the distant stirrings of a kind of humanity: pity, appetite, vanity, gratitude, fear. And all this couched within that remarkable score — all fetal heartbeats, vertiginous strings and amniotic pulsations — and some of the most striking imagery that master stylist Glazer has ever created, the more startling for being set amid the humdrum surroundings of Glaswegian high streets and gray Scottish countryside. It’s that push-pull of the beyond-our-ken and the banal that makes “Under the Skin” such a singular film (a man is bringing an alien home, but he still checks the eggs before buying them) and an example of laser-focused directorial confidence and intent, albeit loosely based on Michael Faber’s novel. Sitting at our number one spot for the year by an enormous margin, mysterious, hypnotic and completely terrifying (is there any scene more eerily unheimlich than Johansson dragging that swimmer’s body past the crying baby on the beach?) the film earns its title not so much for any thematic answers it provides (it remains, to the last, a perfectly sealed enigma) but because for its admirers “under the skin” is where it lives, now and probably forever. [Read our review].

Honorable Mentions: We wanted to stick to a hard top twenty, which meant that plenty of other great movies without the same wide or fervent support didn’t quite make the cut, but they’re worth checking out all the same. Just outside the top ten were Matt Reeves‘ smart, beautifully crafted blockbuster “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” and Australia’s breakout horror “The Babadook” (which placed on four separate lists, but low enough that it ultimately couldn’t crack the twenty).

Past that, there was also support for Denis Villeneuve‘s unnerving “Enemy,” Richard Ayoade‘s similarly doppelganger-themed “The Double,” and the Dardennes’ bruising “Two Days One Night,” while high placings in an individual list from two Playlist contributors saw “The Raid 2” and “John Wick” come near the top 25.

Beyond that, Playlist contributors also named Lukas Moodysson‘s terrific feelgood coming-of-age punk memoir “We Are The Best!,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s epic Palme D’Or winner “Winter Sleep,” Lenny Abrahamson‘s surprisingly wrenching comedy “Frank,” animated excellence “The Lego Movie,” James Gray‘s elegant drama “The Immigrant,” the “Him” & “Her” double-bill of “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby,” Ruben Ostlund‘s jet-black comedy “Force Majeure,” Eliza Hittman‘s under-the-radar coming-of-age tale “It Felt Like Love,” Tsai Ming-Liang‘s slow cinema marvel “Stray Dogs,” summer comedy breakout “Neighbors” and indie rom-com “Obvious Child.”

Further down the individual lists, there were also a brace of documentaries, including the widely praised “Citizenfour,” the searing “The Overnighters” and “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” the tribute to the late theatrical legend. Blockbuster “Edge Of Tomorrow” also figured in, as did James Brown biopic “Get On Up,” Iranian vampire pic “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” acerbic race-relations comedy “Dear White People,” Brendan Gleeson showcase “Calvary,” ’80s throwback actioner “The Guest,” environmental doc “Virunga,” Errol Morris‘ “The Unknown Known,” and stripped-down crime picture “Cold In July.”

Don’t see your own favorite here? What does your own top 10 of 2014 look like? Let us know in the comments and check out the rest of our year-end coverage right here.

– Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Katie Walsh, Cory Everett, Drew Taylor, Kimber Myers, Brent McKnight, Nik Grozdanovic, Erik McClanahan, Rodrigo Perez

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