Everyone makes lists in December. I start building mine in January. A little while back, I realized that the pressure to consolidate a whole year’s worth of movies into a single ranked overview required long-term planning. It also required a lot more than 10 slots — so while the following rundown certainly adheres to that formula, it’s not alone. I tried to spread the love across as many lists as possible. But make no mistake: Herein lie my absolute favorites among the titles released in the U.S. during this calendar year.
As usual, I maintain that anyone convinced this was a weak year for cinema simply didn’t see enough of it. This was, in fact, a superb year for movies that forge new territory: Richard Linklater made one that took 12 years to complete; Wes Anderson brought newfound depth to his eccentric narrative style. There were some extraordinary first-time directors who brought us worlds both alien and familiar; and we celebrated movies from around the world that confronted historical and social issues with a renewed poignancy set to last for ages. Plus, another super-cool Jim Jarmusch movie.
Herein, the very best movies of 2014:
10. "Inherent Vice"
There are two groups of people who watch "Inherent Vice": Those who think it makes no sense and those who think it makes perfect sense. So it has gone with Thomas Pynchon novels since the very beginning. Leave it to Paul Thomas Anderson, who is steadily becoming one of the great American storytellers of our time, to reign in Pynchon’s meandering 60’s-set tale of a stoner detective and craft…a meandering 60’s-set tale of a stoner detective. Alternately goofy, gently melancholic and meditative, "Inherent Vice" reflects its protagonist’s confounded state — and, by extension, the general sense of disconnect experienced by a whole generation.
9. "The Double"
"The Double" is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but there's a lot more than the sensibilities of the Russian literary giant hanging over this grimly amusing picture. In his strangest performance to date, Jesse Eisenberg plays two characters, although it's hard to tell if one of them really exists. British director and comedian Richard Ayoade's follow-up to his stylized coming-of-age tale "Submarine," the abstract drama owes an obvious debt to "Brazil," but also borrows liberally from the likes of "1984," the labyrinthine plotting of a Kafka story and the outmoded aesthetics of '80s computer commercials, while maintaining a deadpan stillness that calls to mind Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Yet the familiar elements of "The Double," which Ayoade co-wrote with Avi Korine, coalesce into a unique whole that turns the material into a contemplative nightmare.
8. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
If the fashionable bloodsuckers of the "Twilight" movies traded their frantic stares for expressions of ennui, they might have something in common with Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the retro-cool vampires at the heart of Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive." But that could never happen. Jarmusch's characters are always too hip for the mainstream, which he reminds viewers by making a welcome return to the realm of deadpan comedies that put his work on the map. A centuries-old couple bored with contemporary society, Adam and Eve spend part of the movie living separately in Detroit and Tangiers before uniting at each location, muttering refrains about modern culture and recalling better times. They have sparse company in their understated despair: An enjoyable John Hurt surfaces in a few scenes to play the stately Christopher Marlowe, still hurt by living eternally in the shadow of William Shakespeare. Eve's horny younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) crashes at Adam's Detroit home in search of an excuse to party and briefly causes problems that, if they didn't involve casual violence, wouldn't seem out of place in a chick flick. But "Only Lovers Left Alive," despite its unapologetically silly developments, also contains the wistfulness and wine-drenched romanticism of "Before Sunrise" and its sequels. "It's over for us, isn't it?" Swinton's vampire sighs when thinking about the past. But "Only Lovers Left Alive" is the latest suggestion that one America's great modern auteurs has plenty left to say.
7. "Starred Up"
It’s been a big year for Jack O’Connell, but it all started with "Starred Up": David Mackenzie’s rough, gritty prison drama, which ultimately blossoms into a surprisingly bittersweet father-son bonding story, surfaced at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release last summer. In the meantime, O'Connell delivered another pair of intense performances as indefatigable survivalists in a pair of wartime dramas — Yann Demange’s "'71" and Angelina Jolie’s "Unbroken." But it’s not just O’Connell, as a violent youth inadvertently forced into the same dangerous enclosure as his deadbeat dad, who gives "Starred Up" its powerfully engaging core. The movie speeds ahead with a jittery, unsettling quality on par with its setting. At once an exposé of the British prison system (culled from screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s background as a prison therapist), a thrilling action movie involving police brutality that feels eerily contemporary, and a narrative trajectory that never slows down, "Starred Up" is the rare case of a movie as terrifying as it is emotionally profound.
Pawel Palikowski’s black-and-white period drama focuses on a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) in the late 50’s who discovers she’s the daughter of a Jewish family that died during the war. Arriving in the opening minutes, that hook is just the start of a fascinating voyage into post-WWII Europe that’s equal parts brooding tragedy and deadpan road trip comedy. Trzebuchowska’s remarkably versatile performance provides a wonderful magnification of the dichotomy between secular and religious attitudes that ultimately splits the difference. It’s the most sophisticated treatment of cross-generational Holocaust trauma in ages.