2014: Favorite 30 Films of 2014

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

Last year, we claimed that our favorite films were characterized by a “triumph of the real.” Man, we’re fickle. This year, as far as reality went, we just couldn’t even. Instead of 2013’s actual people, our favorite characters were children’s toys (The LEGO Movie), superheros (Birdman), aliens (Guardians of the Galaxy), and vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive). Instead of 2013’s refigured documentary techniques, it was the pulpy remnants of genre filmmaking — both in style and subject matter — that dripped down our list, starting with our honorable mentions (The Guest, The Rover, The One I Love) and ending in a pitch-black puddle at our #1.

Our interests in genre filmmaking and the imaginary were hardly escapist. Eye-searing violence — whether instrumental (Blue Ruin, Borgman) or for its own sake (The Raid 2, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?) — was inescapable. Sex was nearly always linked with death (Stranger by the Lake, Under the Skin, Gone Girl), torture (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely), or at least suspicion (Nymphomaniac) and blackmail (Nightcrawler). As Wes Anderson toyed with dismemberment and murder (Grand Budapest Hotel), and romcoms revolved around shmashmortion (Obvious Child), even the usual go-to filmic safehouses were markedly macabre. (Let’s not even mention honorable mention Moebius.)

Even when we were waist-deep in filmic blood and sad cum, though, it was impossible to read all this bodily fluid as any kind of grand narrative. Taken as a whole, our favorite films of 2014 offered more counter- and micro-narratives than anything else. Two genuine Hollywood blockbusters adapted childhood (Lego) and adolescent (Guardians of the Galaxy) brand names so delightfully that even our cynical, cold, Bela Tarr- and Harmony Korine-filled hearts opened up to them. But even though Hollywood seemed to have finally gotten its shit together, two newer indie distributors — A24 and Drafthouse Films — were already leaving it in the dust, together releasing a whopping one-fifth of our favorite films, including our #1.

Turning from industry to auteurs, middle-aged and just plain-aged masters made career-defining works that compounded their stylistic idiosyncrasies in ambitious, sometimes divisive ways: Sion Sono and Jean-Luc Godard interrogated their filmic careers through experimentation in new (for them) ways of filming — 35mm and 3D, respectively — while Richard Linklater and Alejandro Jodorowsky each attempted to account for the passage of time in some of the most compelling quasi-autobiographical works yet made. Along the same lines, Alex Ross Perry, an up-and-coming NYC director, dared us to read autobiography into his film about an up-and-coming NYC novelist/endearingly pretentious jerkwad. (So much for everything I just said about “the real” not making much of an impact in 2014.) Meanwhile, Josephine Decker, a young woman we had only admired as an actress, gifted us a two-film directorial debut that challenged aesthetic and narrative limits more successfully than most directors do in a lifetime.

The takeaway, if anything, is that it was a great year to watch movies, whether at the multiplex, the arthouse, or some newfangled VOD platform. We couldn’t even fit all of our favorites on this list, so read the names of these honorable mentions before moving onto our blurbage: A Field in England, The Rover, A Most Violent Year, Tatuagem, Manakamana, The Guest, Ida, White Bird in a Blizzard, Two Days One Night, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Art and Craft, The Last of the Unjust, Citizenfour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The One I Love.

30. The Overnighters
Dir. Jesse Moss

[Drafthouse Films]

A man with sincere, immeasurable faith is always a welcome sight, especially if that faith is constantly poked and prodded. We are beings driven by passion, and so when Pastor Jay Reinke risked domestic, professional, and spiritual ruin by fighting for the right to house migrant workers in his small-town North Dakota church, it was difficult to not admire him, and thus easier to mourn. Even more compelling was Jesse Moss’s ability to remain the unblinking fly on the wall, to capture several descents into ruin in progress. There was little time to reflect in The Overnighters; the oil riggers, the churchgoers, the Overnighters themselves, etc., were processing every bit of grief and glory along with the audience, rendering us participants rather than mere spectators. I watched The Overnighters waiting, hoping, for Reinke to crack. Surely his generous, other-cheek-turning cordiality had a rupture point; a fissure for an oily blackness must surface in the face of the kind of Jobian fates he endured. But Reinke never cracked, and we didn’t know whether that was just in his nature or because the cameras were on.

29. Enemy
Dir. Denis Villeneuve

[A24 Films]

Allegorical and strange, Enemy was a provocative clash between the arthouse and the grindhouse. After collaborating on Prisoners, a terrific yet underrated thriller from 2013, director Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal reunited for a frightening, wickedly obtuse existential thriller. Gyllenhaal starred as Adam, a mediocre professor who led a mediocre life until he discovered that he had a double named Anthony, who lived as an actor with a pregnant wife. Out of instinct and raw fear, the two hated each other immediately, and the rest of the film was about the subsequent, seductive possibility of a double life. While Enemy was based on a novel by the late Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, there was a constant sense of menace here, with sickly-yellow cinematography and a portrayal of Toronto suburbs as if they were a brutalist, hellish nightmare. Nowhere looked safe or familiar, even when Adam and Anthony were in their homes. But no discussion of Enemy was complete without its penultimate shot, which was shocking and cruel in sublime ways. I wasn’t sure whether the shot was a joke or a metaphor, but it was powerful enough to burrow into our minds, with Villeneuve offering no easy answers.

28. Calvary
Dir. James McDonagh

[Fox Searchlight]

To say that John McDonagh’s comedy was as black as a pint of stout would be correct, but it’s nothing like a full account of this film’s depths. It opened in the confessional, with a confession of a sin to come: “I’m going to kill you, Father.” This propelled Father James (Brendan Gleeson) into a search for answers, both for the mystery surrounding his promised end and for the shames of the past. He was the good priest who must die because nobody would miss a bad one, and that solid physical presence of Gleeson’s was such that you believed in his goodness, even after glimpses of a life lived less Godly. His parish was altogether more heathen, populated by strange, rackety characters (those other Irishmen of the moment, Aiden Gillen and Chris O’Dowd) radiating sociopathic levels of eccentricity. Like his previous film The Guard, McDonagh sought out clichés of Irishness and did his best to batter them out of all recognition. But by the film’s shattering end, he also did a great deal to renew them. As black as a pint of stout, then, but with a hint of something else. Cyanide, perhaps. Or even holy water. An Irish film, anyway.

27. Nightcrawler
Dir. Dan Gilroy

[Open Road Films]

Here’s a recipe for a Nightcrawler: one part Taxi Driver, one part The King Of Comedy, a spritz of Collateral, and a dash of American Psycho. Chug straight from cocktail shaker (who has time for a glass in the dog-eat-dog world of the local news cycle?). Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut veered ever so close to a polemic tone, but it thankfully avoided careening into soapbox territory as it examined Louis Bloom, the frightening yet fascinating newsman on a quest to find his talent and achieve success by any means necessary. Yes, there was media commentary as blunt as Peter Finch’s “Mad as Hell” speech in Network. Yes, there was a grimly uncomfortable sexual power dynamic at play with local news director Nina (Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife), who espoused the “it bleeds it leads” mantra that Louis exploited with surgical precision. But at the center was Jake Gyllenhaal, who was more charismatic and arresting than he’d ever been in his career. While Denis Villeneuve’s one-two punch of Prisoners and Enemy got many of us on the Gyllenhaal bandwagon, it was Nightcrawler that left no room for skeptics of his prowess.

26. Whiplash
Dir. Damien Chazelle

[Sony Pictures Classics]

There was something classic about Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, both in its structure and the way it grappled with unabashedly big and emotional questions about art, suffering, and catharsis. Drawn from Chazelle’s own life experience, the film told the story of an aspiring jazz drummer at a music conservatory and his brilliant and abusive teacher. Chazelle distilled this down to its essence, the tension and pressure, pain and madness of a young man’s desire for greatness. He externalized those dark emotions by modeling Whiplash on boxing and sports movies, driven by rhythm, blunt aggression, and percussive editing. Forget fluffy unicorn dreams of creative fulfillment; this visceral style was all blood, sweat, and tears. What could have veered into melodrama was anchored by the tough performances of Miles Teller as the drummer and J.K. Simmons as the teacher, both locked into their roles with intensity. Let the jazz purists kvetch about the details; the showdown in the film’s jittery finale was pure suspense.

25. 12 O’Clock Boys
Dir. Lotfy Nathan

[Oscilloscope Laboratories]

Growing up in Baltimore’s west side doesn’t give you many options. When almost everyone around you (other than the police) is either broke, deep in the dope game, or imprisoned in the massive city jail (or the state pen), freedom is at best an elusive quantity. Enter the 12 O’Clock Boys, a group of young men and women who ride dirtbikes and ATVs en masse through the city, angling for an ideal, 90-degree wheelie as they fly at incredible speeds. Director Lotfy Nathan’s glimpse of these riders through the eyes of Pug, a pre-teen 12 O’Clock aspirant and animal lover, never blanched at the legal and physical danger inherent in the group’s activities, deepening our fascination at the thrilling spectacle while still transmitting the price of admission. But more importantly, Nathan captured a child’s dream of freedom and the relentless drive he summoned to realize it. With ecstatic glee and profound empathy, 12 O’Clock Boys gave us what few have ever been willing to grant the residents of Baltimore’s toughest streets: the struggle not just to survive, but to live.

24. Only Lovers Left Alive
Dir. Jim Jarmusch

[Recorded Picture Company]

When viewed in its entirety, Jim Jarmusch’s filmography is one antihero, morphing through different identities and circumstances, reconciling himself with a surreal but darkly comic world. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; throw vampires in it. Only Lovers Left Alive marked Jarmusch’s first venture into fantasy and, in particular, a genre hung upside down and drained over the past decade. What was remarkable here wasn’t how OLLA (lol) differed from its contemporaries in the vampire genre or the fact that Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton might’ve been the most androgynous couple ever filmed, but how Jarmusch infused his signature modern-man malaise into the centuries-old lives of bored monsters. Traipsing between Tangiers and the picked skeleton of Detroit, Only Lovers Left Alive followed the lives of the things going bump in the night and how bored they were with everything. More than just one of Jarmusch’s seedy jaunts through urban environments, OLLA glimpsed into Jarmusch’s growing preoccupation with art and its place through time, waxing anxious over whether what we create has any lasting value through the years. Plus: John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe. John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe in Ray-Bans. Medieval fresh.

23. We Are the Best!
Dir. Lukas Moodysson

[Magnolia Pictures]

If there was another movie this year that tapped as deep into the spine of adolescent adventure and angst as We Are the Best!, I didn’t hear about it. And if there was, I would have a hard time hiding my bias for this one. Three girls from 1982 Stockholm defined cool with their exaltation of noise and subtle rebellion. Beginning with long talks on the phone bemoaning their parents, a simple idea (Let’s start a band!) gave way to atonal basement bashing. With new-wave at its peak, their mission was to raise hell and piss off the naysayers. And by they end, they did. Loose, angry, and relatable, the performances in We Are the Best! were astonishingly mature, even inspiring. They would have overshadowed everything else if the film weren’t so cohesive. From the script to the intimacy with the characters, this was a return to form for director Lukas Moodysson — arguably his best film since the tragically real Lilya 4-Ever, possibly ever. But it was also a departure full of exuberance and mischief. The girls made one song, an imperfect gem, punk at its core: “Hate the sport! Hate the sport!” Those three words encapsulated everything that made this film great: humor, passion, and bad haircuts.

22. Nymphomaniac
Dir. Lars von Trier

[Zentropa Entertainment]

This year witnessed the long-awaited Nymphomaniac, Monsieur von Trier’s two-volume, softcore clusterfuck and satisfying conclusion to his Depression Trilogy (following Antichrist and Melancholia). At the forefront was none other than his serial muse, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was head-scratchingly captivating as Joe. The narrative consisted of Joe relating to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) the travails of her sexual identity through flashbacks from childhood to the present, punctuated by Seligman’s struggle to psychoanalyze (analogizing her experiences with different tropes and figures). Joe navigated the experiences of her younger self (graphically and disarmingly portrayed by Stacy Martin), in the iterations of the progression/digression that crystallized into her nymphomaniac identity. Von Trier’s casting of Christian Slater and Shia LaBeouf seemed to be a wink of sorts (as her father and primary objet d’amour, respectively): LaBoeuf’s presence was especially grating and excessively nude, and we wanted more of standouts Uma Thurman, Jamie Bell, and Willem Dafoe. But it was fine, because the film thematically encompassed more than a parable of sexual addiction, exploring the intricacies of sadomasochism, psychosis, primal jealousy, and the politicization of gender; all intertwined with our unrelenting and insatiable efforts to extract meaning from it all.

21. The Dance of Reality
Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky

[ABKCO Films]

Following a prolonged absence from cinema, Alexandro Jodorowsky demonstrated this year that his vitality as a filmmaker and his creative spirit were both as vital and energetic as ever. In The Dance of Reality, visions of circus performers, plague, bizarre love scenes, and war mixed together in a surrealistic whirlwind that gave a sock to the gut in one moment and tears of joy in the next. Drawing on his personal philosophy of psycho-genealogy, in which one heals their own wounds by understanding their predecessors, he made the most meta of meta-films, calling upon his real-life son, Brontis Jodorowsky, to play his father and appearing in the film throughout as a spiritual guide to himself as a child. Singular in his visual and narrative approach, the director refused to pull from the same bag of movie recipes as his more conservative contemporaries. It took a storytelling wizard like Alexandro Jodorowsky to brew the complexity of emotions that the audience experienced after witnessing the bizarre and absurd situations his characters underwent, making us uncomfortable, sickened, fascinated, and hopeful all at once.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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