This year we compiled an aggregated Playlist Best Films Of The Year which you can find here. However, regular contributors were also given the chance to submit personal lists. Here’s the rest of our substantial year-end coverage, among which you’ll find other personal top ten lists from our staff.
Film geeks like myself (who really own the “geek” part of the term) have received a lot of cinematic gifts in 2014. This year saw a number of indie films encroaching on genres normally reserved for blockbusters with great results. The vampire movie got a much-needed infusion from both Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” and first-time Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Bong Joon-Ho went beyond the monster movie and tackled more sci-fi with his English-language debut “Snowpiercer.” Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” showed us a look at alien invasion unlike any other. With “Birdman,” Alejandro González Iñárritu even brought his own version of the superhero story to the screen.
What’s equally refreshing is that for every big-budget bore like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” there were successful, well-crafted offerings for multiplex audiences. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Gone Girl,” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” all entertained without embarrassing moviegoers, critics or the filmmakers themselves. More people should have seen the incredibly fun “Edge of Tomorrow.” Even Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” which came undone in its final act, demonstrates that artistic ambition and intelligence aren’t out of place in the biggest of studio films. It all seeks to remind us that entertaining films can be artfully made, and serious films don’t have to lack for fun.
Where 2015–and beyond–can still see improvement is putting filmmakers behind the camera who aren’t only white men, as well as making more movies with women at their center. Even with making the effort to see as many films with female directors as I could this year, I still only saw about a dozen movies with women at their helm. Hopefully, the hiring of Michelle MacLaren for “Wonder Woman” points to better things to come in this area, as does the success of films as varied in quality as “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Lucy” and “Maleficent.”
Even though 2014 was a record for me in terms of movies seen, there are still a few I haven’t caught, such as “Mommy.” That said, the absence of “Boyhood” and “Foxcatcher” from this list is not because I haven’t seen them.
10. “Obvious Child”
For all the press around the death of the romantic comedy, indie film is continuing the tradition, imbuing storylines with invigorating quirk and a focus on character. “Obvious Child” is most well-known for its matter-of-fact depiction of abortion, still a rarity in film and TV, despite the number of women who have had the experience. But even if you take out the controversial elements, this is a strong first feature from Gillian Robespierre and a star-making performance from Jenny Slate. It’s hilariously frank from its opening moments (I apparently like jokes about vaginal discharge far more than our own Ben Brock) and genuinely sweet in the interactions between Slate and costar Jake Lacey.
Laura Poitras’s film on Edward Snowden isn’t your standard political documentary where a filmmaker explores what happened after the fact; instead, she’s a key player in the real-life events she’s recording, bringing immediacy and intimacy to “Citizenfour.” She manages to make encrypted email and instant message conversations with the whistleblower feel as riveting as chase scenes in an action movie, while the conversations with Snowden himself are illuminating and not a little frightening. It’s hard not to come away from the documentary on Snowden’s side, but that’s a testament as much to the persuasive powers of the filmmaker as to the argument itself.
8. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Equal parts delight and darkness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is more than just a stylish lesson in Wes Anderson as auteur. It’s more violent and touch sadder than anything the director has produced to date (and his best film since “The Royal Tenenbaums”), but it’s also one of his funnier films, thanks largely to a zany, perfectly comedic turn from Ralph Fiennes. Though he’s famous more for dramatic turns, this matches his humorous supporting role in “In Bruges” in laughs per minute on screen. Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton and other big names make brief appearances, but I was even more charmed by newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero. Even with all that acting talent, my favorite scene was one without a single person: the mountain chase sequence, whose miniatures had me giggling in wonder.
7. “A Most Violent Year”
Jessica Chastain’s hair and costumes alone are almost enough to push J.C. Chandor’s third film into my top 10, but “A Most Violent Year” has merits beyond all things Chastain (including her fierce performance). No movie about securing a loan in the heating oil industry should be this engaging, but a solid script and some fine work from Oscar Isaac and the irreplaceable Albert Brooks elevate the film above a standard crime drama. Setting the film in gritty, dangerous 1981 New York City adds additional depth, as does Bradford Young’s stark, wintry cinematography.
Except for some nice support from Paul Reiser, “Whiplash” is a classic two-hander is spirit, pairing Miles Teller’s obsessive student with J.K. Simmons’ maniacal teacher to great effect. Director Damien Chazelle wastes no time getting into the meat of the story about a jazz drummer, then escalating the tension throughout the film and making me glad I have zero musical talent. Simmons is the grander and larger of the two performances, but Teller is equally intense. The film’s final scene hasn’t won everyone over, but I spent the last moments of “Whiplash” in awe of what was on screen and felt like I was gasping for air once it was over.
Boasting as impressive a use of jazz drums as “Whiplash,” “Birdman” walks the line between the orchestrated magic of an epic opera and an improvised solo. It feels remarkably fresh and energetic, but its hard to ignore the careful attention paid to its creation. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione work together to create a single, seemingly seamless take that swoops and swirls through backstage of a Broadway theater and the streets of New York, requiring dizzying choreography and attention to detail. Beyond its visuals, “Birdman” features one of the year’s best and most expansive casts, but Michael Keaton carries the film on his shoulders.
4. “The Babadook”
My first viewing of Jennifer Kent’s perfectly nightmarish film was consumed by fear of the titular creature, who haunts the dreams and days of a single mother (Essie Davis) and her young son. Kent’s direction establishes a constant feeling of dread, with no need for jump scenes to engage the audience. But the moody horror of “The Babadook” had me so busy being terrified the first time I saw it that I didn’t fully absorb the power and range of Davis’ performance. The second viewing not only still had me getting chills, but I was able to notice all the nuances she brings to the role, showing equal ease with her character’s exhaustion, terror, maternal instinct and frustration. Performances in genre films generally get overlooked at awards time, but Davis deserves recognition among the other best performances of the year.
A post-apocalyptic film shouldn’t be nearly this much fun, but that’s not to say that Bong Joon-Ho’s gonzo sci-fi picture is all sweetness and light. “Snowpiercer” begins with dire pronouncements about the end of the world after a catastrophe related to global warming (in 2014, no less), and it ends with some truly disturbing revelations from Chris Evans’s Curtis. But despite all that darkness (plus plenty more in between), Bong’s futuristic heist film was a blast for me to watch, with impressive originality, beautifully choreographed fight scenes and fantastic performances. Tilda Swinton’s Thatcheresque Mason gets a lot of deserved attention, but Song Kang-Ho, Alison Pill, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and lead Evans do less noticeable work but are still worthy of praise. Above all, Bong himself is responsible for the fun. He created so many “gee whiz” (or more likely “holy shit”) moments throughout the film, that it’s impossible not to swept up in the film’s energy.
2. “Only Lovers Left Alive”
An embarrassing confession: prior to “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jim Jarmusch’s films have generally garnered more respect than affection from me, but this meditation on love, time and art had me falling hard. The vampire romance between Tom Hiddleston’s Adam and Tilda Swinton’s Eve crosses centuries and continents, but it was the small moments in their relationship and the film that won me over. From the offering of a blood popsicle to the logistical complications that Eve endures to return to her lover, there are a number of unexpectedly sweet moments amidst the perils of living as a vampire. Beyond its cooler-than-cool characters and aesthetic, “Only Lovers Left Alive” simply looks great, thanks to fine, dreamy cinematography from François Ozon favorite Yorick Le Saux.
1. “Under the Skin”
Combining horror, science fiction and social commentary, Jonathan Glazer’s film feels entirely foreign and new. We rarely see alien-centric films from their perspective, and when we do, it’s never felt this, well, alien. Scarlett Johansson is a stranger, both to her poor Scottish prey and to the audience, with motivation remaining intentionally unclear. Gone are all the human aspects the actress has brought to previous roles; instead, we’re left with a cold predator, who upends the traditional tropes of women as victims. There aren’t any answers here (which is probably why audiences love it or hate it), but there are plenty of good questions. But it isn’t all substance and no style; ”Under the Skin” features a sheer, haunting beauty shot by Daniel Landin and an unsettling score from Mica Levi, all adding up to an experience that left me changed and thinking about it for days.
Honorable Mentions: “Inherent Vice,” “Love Is Strange,” “Cold in July,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” “Selma,” “Pride,” “Two Days, One Night,” “Belle,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Beyond the Lights,” “Gone Girl,” “The Double,” “Nightcrawler,” “Frank,” “The Rover,” “The Immigrant,” “Tim’s Vermeer,” “Enemy”