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.
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev has shown a penchant for studying desperate characters trapped in worlds much larger than anything under their control. From the two boys at the mercy of their demanding father in “The Return,” to the elderly working class woman in “Elena” driven to crime for the sake of her son’s finances, Zvyagintsev has assailed Russian society from the inside out. But none of his preceding features reaches the heights of dark, probing inquiry on display in his beautifully layered epic “Leviathan,” a tragedy of biblical proportions in which fear and disillusionment are more central than the plot itself, and only the heartless people in power can find gratification. The story of drunkard Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), an auto-repairmen who lives in a remote town by the Barents sea in northern Russia with his soft-spoken wife Lilya (Elena Liadova) and adolescent son Roma (Serguei Pokhodaev), “Leviathan” finds its hapless star facing grim odds from the outset: Corrupt mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) tries to snatch the poor man’s land in order to build new developments. Kolia enlists the help of his old pal Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), a slick lawyer from the city who concocts a scheme for blackmailing the mayor into leaving Kolia alone. But Vadim and his henchmen have more power than any judicial process can possibly contain. Using a steadily involving tone that splits the different between literary sophistication and a Biblical scale, the movie builds to inevitable tragedy but also transcends it with loads of personality and shifting perspectives. It’s heavy with sadness, but the waves of sorrow carry a degree of intellectual prowess that imbues each scene with a wealth of implications.
4. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Over the years, Wes Anderson’s movies have steadily developed a lush, eccentric world that operates on its own terms, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” excels at exploring it. Anderson’s colorful period piece reflects the sensibilities of its creator at the height of his artistic confidence. While it notably draws from preexisting material — namely, the writings of Viennese intellectual Stefan Zweig, though Anderson has also tipped his hat to various other sources of wartime literature — one of America’s most distinguished modern auteurs has spun his clutter of reference points into a collage-like fantasy adventure that clearly fuses with the rest of his oeuvre. Yet within the constraints of his distinctive tinkering, Anderson remains a compelling storyteller who provides an actor’s playground, in this case providing Ralph Fiennes with one of his most distinguished roles. While it has many familiar ingredients — from the atmosphere to the ensemble of Anderson regulars in nearly every part — in its allegiance to Anderson’s vision, everything about “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a welcome dose of originality.
The camera-wielding researchers at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, an eccentric team responsible for experimental documentaries like last year’s groundbreaking fishing-boat portrait “Leviathan” and the shepherd-focused “Sweetgrass,” typically refuse to identify as “filmmakers” in the traditional sense of the word. The group’s latest effort, the startlingly unique viewing experience “Manakamana,” provides the best case for that claim. Shot with a static camera exclusively within the confines of a cable car as it travels up and down the Nepal Valley for a series of 10-minute rides, “Manakamana” contains nothing traditionally movie-like in its progression. And that’s exactly what makes it one of the most engrossing cinematic achievements to come along since… well, “Leviathan.” While it has no precise narrative arc, “Manakamana” slowly grows its intrigue, rewarding patient viewers with a fascinating showcase of various occupants and an overall meditational quality. While impatient audiences may grow frustrated with the experience, that very reaction speaks to its appeal. “Manakamana” says as much about the erosion of patience as it does about the value of holding onto it.
2. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”
What is exactly is Ana Lily Amirpour’s Sundance-acclaimed debut? Stumbling in the darkness in an effort to describe its haunting, poetic appeal, many of us find ourselves coming back to these six words: black-and-white Iranian vampire movie. And while that’s certainly true, it only begins to convey Amirpour’s wondrous fusion of deadpan comedy, thrilling music choices, and small intimate moments that say far more than her generally soft-spoken, forlorn characters. Set in the imaginary town of Bad City, where the resident bloodsucker prowls the town in a hip striped shirt (and even nabs her own skateboard), the movie has a retro chic quality but never takes it for granted. Amirpour’s slow-burn technique makes it impossible to predict any given moment, so that even the slightest tonal shift can feel revelatory. It’s a movie that gets under your skin without scaring you off: Multiple viewings yield fresh results each time out. Some filmmakers spend their entire careers rehashing formula. Amirpour’s ability to break it wide open her first time out bodes well for whatever comes next.
Over 12 years ago, Richard Linklater started production on a movie following the development of a child from the age of seven through the end of his teenage years. If there was ever project that demanded to be informed by the history of its making, “Boyhood” is it. Epic in scope yet unassuming throughout, Linklater’s incredibly involving chronicle marks an unprecedented achievement in fictional storytelling — the closest point of comparison, Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, don’t represent the same singularity of vision. Shot over the course of 39 days spread across more than a decade, “Boyhood” is an entirely fluid work that puts the process of maturity under the microscope and analyzes its nuances with remarkable detail. More than that, it amplifies the elusive qualities that feed into conscious experience: passing moments that might seem meaningful, dramatic, amusing or scary in the moment before fading into our cluttered memory banks. The “story” of “Boyhood” is less relevant than its ability to enthrall us with small asides even as the years keep moving along. Linklater consolidates his fascination with time and existential yearning at the heart of so many excellent movies, but never forces it. The ultimate triumph of “Boyhood” is that its brilliance creeps up on you.