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


20. Obvious Child
Dir. Gillian Robespierre

[A24 Films]

Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child managed two great feats in one film: it announced Jenny Slate as a strong actor to watch and, more importantly, turned in a great romantic dramedy surrounding the topic of abortion. The film wasn’t a polemic or political diatribe, nor did it toss off the subject matter flippantly. Instead, Obvious Child addressed various aspects of love, modern adulthood, and the implications of parenthood and abortions with aplomb. As written by Robespierre, the film was as light and hilarious as could be expected while doing an impressive balancing act by being sensitive to the realistic decisions women face. It helped too that the cast turned in performances perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film: they were sad without being soul-wrenchingly sad and funny without being glib or quirky about it. But above all else, Slate’s performance and Robespierre’s film were pleasingly human.

19. The Strange Little Cat
Dir. Ramon Zürcher

[Film Society of Lincoln Center]

It was a cuckoo clock of a movie, its characters popping up in doorways or frozen against grids of cupboards in a tightly-packed middle class German apartment. As an extended family congregated for a dinner, the flow of random chatter mimicked social media, with constant comings and goings and characters often left stranded in private thoughts amidst off-screen dialogue. Uptight, ponytailed Mother was a smiling coil of repressed Germanic emotion; her young daughter Clara let out the occasional piercing, Munchian scream. Director Ramon Zürcher played subversive games with film language conventions, inventing eyeline geometries and automavisionesque camera POVs, teasing the viewer with what he cropped out of the frame. The familiarity between the characters belied their inability to connect: long, intense digressions were met with comical non-reactions or offhanded non-sequiturs. Simmering anger erupted in sudden, small acts of cruelty — two oranges thrown with unexplained violence at older daughter Karin; a smack across the head for little Clara. The film delighted in deconstructing itself, at one point offering up a jaunty montage of key objects from previous scenes. Its odd form, more like music than film, felt carefully constructed, but intuitively captured something raw about the loneliness of not being alone.

18. Listen Up Philip
Dir. Alex Ross Perry

[Tribeca Film]

At first glance, Listen Up Philip may have seemed like a templative comedy of manners about a worn-out stock character, the New York intellectual and his personal neuroses. But while the typical Woody Allen film might approach this social type through understated glamorization — albeit by means of satire — very rarely do I see a film where I dislike every single character outright. There was no comic relief or edgy, detached irony in Listen Up Philip. While it’d be unfair to say that everyone in the film was insufferable — the female characters did redeem themselves, at best, or were victimized, at worst, — they were not the central players here. Most of the limelight was instead on Philip: even when he was offscreen, through a peculiarly literary narrative experimentalism, he remained the driving force behind his (ex-)girlfriend’s actions. Alex Ross Perry’s third feature-length film attempted to tackle the broader thought schemes behind our contemporary cultural psyche, transfiguring our cultural malaises into the personality traits within each flawed character — not to mention that the borderline socially-unacceptable honesty in their social relations made for some of the best dialogue of the year. Think of it as The Comedy had it been directed by John Cassavetes: a process of self-knowledge through cringing.

17. Gone Girl
Dir. David Fincher

[20th Century Fox]

Gone Girl — David Fincher’s second consecutive adaptation of a best-selling novel following his take on the story of Facebook — continued the director’s trend of tapping directly into the zeitgeist while sacrificing none of his typically abrasive wit and existential angst. It was a more profound, hilarious, and biting satire than any he had made before, and its brilliant skewering of the façade of not only the all-American marriage, but also nearly all interpersonal interactions cut deep into the core of how we, in the 21st century, related to and presented ourselves to one another. Fincher’s new, even slicker stylistic palette, complemented by another eerily atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, was similar to those of his previous two films, but here it functioned additionally as a polished veneer that barely contained the viciousness and vapidity of the characters and their/our collective narcissism. Even down to the casting of Tyler Perry so blatantly against type, Fincher impeccably portrayed the vast gulf between who we are and who we let others believe we are. The whole film was wonderfully off-kilter, playfully shifting tones from comical to surreal to grotesque, and occasionally all three at once, playing like a 21st-century Blue Velvet, where everyone had a bit of Frank Booth in them and where even a happy ending comes with heavy air quotes and a wink. Some have shortsightedly deemed the film misogynistic, but it was unwavering in its ability to keep everyone in the crosshairs. Gone Girl was pure misanthropy presented as a cold dish at a 5-star restaurant that was ultimately smashed into our collective faces. All we could do was laugh in horror.

16. The Raid 2
Dir. Gareth Evans

[Sony Pictures Classics]

Sequels shouldn’t be this good. Picking up immediately after the events of The Raid: Redemption, The Raid 2 followed rookie cop Rama (pencak silat disciple Iko Uwais) as he went deep undercover to expose police corruption in the underworld. This setup provided writer/director/editor Gareth Evans with more than enough ammo (and knives and hammers and other dangerous things) to craft an epic crime saga that was more developed in terms of characters and themes than its predecessor, but WHO EVEN CARES. What really mattered was that the fights were bigger and better, and that there was a heap of new set pieces (that muddy prison-yard brawl!) and characters (Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Man), not to mention an incredible car chase — in short, everything a successful sequel needs to justify its existence (other than ticket receipts). So despite operating in familiar territory and utilizing well-worn tropes, The Raid 2 remained captivating throughout the entirety of its staggering 150-minute runtime. It seems gimmicky and cheap to use superlatives and sweeping generalizations in a year-end list, but what the hell: The Raid 2 was one of the best action films I’ve ever seen.

15. Birdman
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

[Fox Searchlight]

Convention assures us that (outside of black holes, for the Interstellar crowd) time can only move in one direction, but philosophy counters that the past eternally recurs. Alejandro González Iñárritu took this theoretical quandary, ran it through his cinematic blender with some theatrical farce, and somehow came out with both his and one of 2014’s most original offerings. Birdman utilized long takes, fluid tracking shots, and virtuoso editing to create the effect of a single, seamless movement for almost the entire film. Aided by a soundtrack that consisted only of percussion, the absence of traditional montage cuts allowed the film’s temporal march to move steadily onward. For the addled protagonist, Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), the errors of his past continued to haunt him through the voice-over of the titular hero, a non-diegetic intrusion to the otherwise progressive flow of the film. As Birdman’s gravelly voice attempted to convince Riggan, and us, that his one-time “film within a film” powers were real, it became apparent that this was merely misdirection for the true mastery going on: the combined powers of contemporary cinema at work in a film with a unique point of view.

14. Goodbye to Language
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

[Wild Bunch]

What new ways can our aging troublemakers find to fuck with us? When word came that Jean-Luc Godard’s new film would be shot in 3D, the immediate worry was that he would cater to the novelty of the format. Instead, Godard’s budget approach to 3D allowed him to underscore how the juxtapositions that overwhelm Goodbye to Language could collide with and reject one another. Godard’s visual world became both immersive and disorienting, as he followed his dog through a forest or trained his lens on the unforgiving 2D road beneath his feet. The film’s frustrated narratives appeared between scattered waves of sound and light; his characters shrugged and shat their way through heady tautologies, typically naked and mumbling about the old standbys: sex vs. death, infinity vs. zero. At times, Godard’s film would grow restless and walk away from itself, a technical feat that let the viewer alternate between two different films by closing either eye. What few threads of story were on offer quickly gave themselves over to uneasy moods and blasts of sound. Goodbye to Language proved an apt title; the film’s credits list philosophers and composers alongside actors and cameras, an incomprehensible crowd of influences and ideas for us to reckon with. Goodbye to Language is Godard distilled: a film dense with the elliptical taunts of a yawning radical.

13. National Gallery
Dir. Frederick Wiseman

[Zipporah Films]

The latest feature in Frederick Wiseman’s 47-year chronicle of American bureaucracy, National Gallery posited a large and inconclusive investigation: to what extent does a museum pander to the public interest while maintaining its cultural heritage, one that takes considerable time and effort to parse? As ever, Wiseman depicted administration as a slow, grudging process, but it was swiftly outclassed by the vitality of cultural programs and conversations occurring daily in the London landmark itself. There were expected scenes of docents performing open critiques of the work (does Delilah betray Samson?), but more impressive was the amount of attention given to conservation and research, which was as lovingly tactile as it was philosophically questionable. We were shown how the frontal layers and alterations often revealed little of art’s original conditions (nor the dozens of restorators performing them daily), even as we watched how frames were gilded, the steady mounting of a triptych, and classes that taught visionary works to the blind. Wiseman’s films are typically no less than a compelling mixture of concrete statements and abstract metaphors; he simply illustrates the parts, and we reach our own conclusions. In this case, it was a film about Old Masters made by one.

12. Blue Ruin
Dir. Jeremy Saunier

[RADiUS-TWC]

It’s tough to make a revenge flick without endorsing revenge. Hard as a film might try to be critical, to make clear that this is not a noble act, it’s easy for the audience to become the revenge-seeker as the runtime marches on and the tension mounts. Blue Ruin didn’t entirely succeed at defusing that bloodlust, what with its clumsy, sweetly awkward protagonist who just happened to want to murder the man who killed his parents. How the film succeeded in providing more than violent wish-fulfillment was by inverting that mounting tension. Instead of simmering the anger, Jeremy Saunier used his film’s many quiet stretches to drain the puss of revenge’s wound, leaving its central character and audience asking pretty essential questions: Why am I doing this? And is this worth it? Am I just making it all worse? Blue Ruin spent much of its final moments stewing in those questions, in the midst of West Virginian rural beauty that suggested both tranquility and the dark edges of American wilderness, before delivering a final blow. Once it was reached, the blow felt inevitable, but it didn’t feel good for anyone.

11. Snowpiercer
Dir. Bong Joon-ho

[Radius-TWC]

If fans of the current wave of cinematic brilliance cresting out of South Korea somehow figured that its key player Bong Joon-Ho (director of The Host and Mother) hadn’t reached far enough with his maniacal first two features, 2014 offered a compelling reason for those fans to figure differently. Based on a French graphic novel, shot with international financing and an astoundingly broad cast of international stars, Snowpiercer was a lithe assault in the form of a story, the tale of a violent rebellion aboard the roaring bullet train on which every last survivor of the next Ice Age lives. As with any society, but especially, you gotta figure, one that encompassed the last few thousand people on the planet, the train was organized based on a rigidly-enforced caste system: at the front of the train you had the supreme leader, followed by the aristocracy, the military, the educated class, the workers, and, finally, huddled in the caboose, the seething, revolt-ready plebes. Each car that the plebes fought their way through was a new world with its own internal logic and critique of capitalist culture. Bong bounced his dark humor and razor-sharp craftsmanship off this strict linearity like the kind of magician-acrobat-dictator that the greatest directors are sometimes able to embody.

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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