Not to belabor the point, but there were a lot of movies to see this year. I didn’t come close to seeing them all. I’m not sure who did. I saw close to a tenth of the nearly 1,000 new releases in 2014, which is a small achievement but still a lot of time spent in screening rooms, mega-plexes, film festivals and my own room. This list below encapsulates my ten favorites of the year, along with ten runners up, that moved and spoke to me the most. They are subjective responses and personal recommendations to a diverse year in film.
A lot has already been written about Boyhood‘s elemental conceit: the film was shot over 12 years. But Richard Linklater captures Texas middle-class life in such a beautiful, ordinary way that the technical achievement never supersedes the story he’s telling. I don’t remember a film affecting me this way before — in its attention to the small joys and domestic pains, in its honesty and anxiety in this new century. It’s the rare grand film that feels so wonderfully personal, like it could happen every day.
J.C. Chandor’s latest film is an intoxicating story of power and corruption and the fine line a wealthy heating oil magnate must walk between them. Taking place in 1981 New York City, A Most Violent Year is a tribute to 1970s filmmaking and to the meaty mob movies that thrived in the shadows cinematographer Bradford Young chillingly creates on the dangerous streets truck drivers and salesmen aim to survive. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain give passionate but incredibly nuanced performances as husband and wife struggling to avoid collapse.
It’s rare to find a movie that demands your attention in every scene. Damien Chazelle’s intense, wrenching portrait of a young, aspiring jazz drummer and his physically and verbally intimidating mentor sizzles with rare, captivating energy. Miles Teller fills every frame with a roller coaster of highs and lows, lifted and burdened by an unmatched ferocity from J.K. Simmons. Its ending leaves you trembling with fear and awe, inspired by every element this small film has thrown at you. You feel the blood, sweat and tears sacrificed for this story and and you can’t help but stand and applaud.
In some ways, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu takes Whiplash’s energy and injects it into his intricately woven meta-comedy about a washed up Hollywood actor hoping for a late-career revival on Broadway. Emmanuelle Lubezki’s nonstop camerawork provides the foundation for a film that is always moving thanks in large part to Michael Keaton and an incredible supporting cast led by Edward Norton and Emma Stone. This is about battling internal demons, dealing with demonized actors and examining perception. It’s a very personal piece of art, though its joys feel universal.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma is an exquisitely rendered collection of powerful stories, people and movements. David Oyelowo brings Martin Luther King Jr.’s spirit into unflinching light, delving into his heroism and humanism in equal measure. His speeches gather the same momentum in tone and confidence, unpacking the incredible grassroots support that helped thousands eventually cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and protest for a Voting Rights Act. You feel the political, racial intensity of the current climate in this film and admire the similarities in how crucial its gatherings and marches were to ignite change and awareness. DuVernay shoots the crowds that lined up to peacefully protest with an unwavering focus. She examines each marcher with intense symmetry, and captures the difficulty and determination of the constant negotiations King made between the President, the governor, policemen and his own supporters. Changes don’t happen with just a march. They happen because of the sacrifices it took to march and what sacrifices marchers are willing to take.
A smart, pulpy, metaphor of a movie, Snowpiercer proves that an action film carrying heavy themes of inequality and class warfare can find new ways to share a familiar story. The last remnant of the population stuck on a never ending train chugging around a frozen, post-apocalyptic world, an inevitable revolt led by Chris Evans –and given obstacles by Tilda Swinton– ensues. The grimy group proceeds from the caboose to the engine with beautiful, bloody choreography that director Bong Joon-Ho orchestrates masterfully, maximizing his cast and space on a train cramped with color and inspiring persistence.
Swedish director Ruben Ostlund has made a remarkable film out of an unthinkable dilemma. Force Majeure, about a family on a ski vacation and a father’s life-altering, instinctual decision, grapples with man’s weakness many films are afraid to explore. It quickly turns into a psychological thriller, whose existential questions begin to infect friends and impart doubts and fears into every relationship. Cooped up in a ski resort for five days, each family member is tested in the wake of this paternal decision and you can’t help but contemplate your own hypothetical response. Ostlund teases you with its premise and tantalizes you with the serenity of the white, majestic landscape.
What makes Citizenfour so fascinating– what makes it thrilling, important, and eye-opening– is its ability to show just how ordinary making history can be. Director Laura Poitras, along with journalist Glen Greenwald, gains unparalleled access to Edward Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room the week he agrees to disclose information to be spread worldwide as an employee of the NSA. You watch Snowden and you see just a regular kid, the human behind the mass produced posters, head shots and twisted motivations people claim he has. You see someone changing the way we think about our government and its practices as he sits on a bed, coding on a laptop listening to Selena Gomez on the radio. The documentary’s access is nearly as remarkable as the access the government has on us.
The honest and sentimental chords in Love is Strange, director Ira Sach’s glowing and lyrical love letter to lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, makes its story about a longtime, gay couple that much more embraceable. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play two recently married men who must live separately after one loses his job at a catholic school. The particular situation is whimsical, sad and connects with a niche crowd, but its portrayals of family and relationships find an authenticity almost everyone can claim to be familiar and comforting.
10. Edge Of Tomorrow
Yes, this one made my list. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in a blockbuster that should have stolen summer but ended up with just a minor burglary. Director Doug Liman takes a snappy premise– a PR man gets enrolled into the army and keeps waking up on the same day to fight apocalyptic aliens– and injects it with intelligence and humorous role reversal. Cruise plays an amateur fighter that must learn how to escape a Groundhog Day scenario from Blunt, the most equipped warrior in charge of training him to snap his curse and save the population. Liman’s effects are visceral and sharp. It’s the kind of fun the movies should have more of.
10 Runners Up: