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.

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.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy
Dir. James Gunn

[Marvel Studios]

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy opened with a young boy seated in a dark hospital corridor, his eyes closed, listening to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” on a portable cassette tape player. He sat, lost in temporary ecstasy for a few seconds, before being shaken out of his stupor to the reality of his mother’s imminent death from cancer. This brief moment essentially gave us the whole film in a nutshell, as Guardians of the Galaxy was nothing if not an escapist science fiction fantasy that, despite its humor and glossy veneer, was at its core a story of insecurity, loss, and death. As we watched Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) rocket off into the cosmos, along with his merry band of losers (in the most literal sense of the word), the film enacted its own promise: a journey to the stars to forget the real world for a couple of hours. And despite the mega-effects and blockbuster action sequences, Guardians was a science fiction film where the most pivotal piece of technology was a cheap Walkman. So with one foot in the stars and one foot firmly on painful planet Earth, Guardians of the Galaxy invited us to put on headphones, close our eyes, and let the fantasy temporarily take us away.

09. Butter on the Latch / Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Dir. Josephine Decker

[Cinelicious Pics]

Perhaps a familiar face to regular TMT film readers, arts-scene polymath Josephine Decker bit into 2014 cinema with two brilliant directorial efforts, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Uniting the two films were shaky handheld visuals that remember their subjects like fever dreams. The fluttering cinematography transcended the point-and-shoot amateurism of a YouTube upload and transformed it into something lyrical and haunting, with precious details either out of focus or out of frame, creating menace, ambiguity, and, in a landscape where everyone has a camera in their pocket, authenticity. As we followed the stories of a hired farm-hand’s nauseous romance (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) and two friends’ somehow simultaneously tense and idyllic stay at a folk camp in California (Butter on the Latch), we experienced in-depth character studies while delving minimally into anything plotty. The films managed to feel literary without being wordy, casual without being blasé or boring. Decker’s voice uniquely combined gentleness with a dark undercurrent, making compelling anything on which she trained her camera.

08. The LEGO Movie
Dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

[Warner Bros.]

If we critics are honest, the greatness of The LEGO Movie might be overstated in relation to how low our expectations likely were for it. A film based on a bunch of plastic building blocks sure seemed like a dead-on-arrival proposition. Yet writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller wound up with a smart, witty, action-packed movie that spoke directly to the creative spirit of their source material and that not even a wonky, hoky live-action sequence could ruin. All of those positive qualities became even richer thanks to some eye-popping computer animation and pitch-perfect voice acting work by Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, and an especially ridiculous Liam Neeson. Apparently a sequel is in the works, which has me instantly suspicious. But, again, that might work to Lord and Miller’s advantage, as they could wind up sucker-punching us with excellence once more.

07. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Dir. Sion Sono

[Drafthouse Films]

The capacity to communicate a joy that’s both tangible and exhilarating without careening headlong into some kind of Hallmark Card/Lifetime Network schmaltz freakshow has never been in over-abundance, yet it’s something that Sion Sono pulls off pretty damn consistently. Whereas our culture’s preoccupation with tacky displays of saccharine sentimentality is nothing new, it sure seems that it’s getting a lot easier to mass produce emotionally-manipulative content for profit than ever before. A natural effect of which is a generally healthy skepticism toward anything that radiates pure, undiluted happiness, and it’s no secret we’ve got plenty of curmudgeonly skepticism to go around here at TMT. However, this year saw our favorite ridiculously prolific director making his most unabashedly joyous film to date. Sono’s masterful ode to the spectrum of Japanese cinema was an intense, intensely screwed up, and altogether incredible movie experience. If TMT Film gets amped up about movies that blur the line between auteurism and gleeful trash (which, duh), then Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was something of a coup. Everything about this movie was great, from its loving send-up of yakuza movies to the way it so thoroughly nailed the excitement, fatigue, and full-hearted youthful exuberance of trying to make a movie without much money or decent equipment. We loved every minute of it.

06. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
Dir. Ben Rivers & Ben Russell

[Rouge International]

Once again, this decade proves its greatest strengths are in materialist cinema, but in the case of the wondrous A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, spare and languid quasi-documentary images of water, trees, communes, and black metal were steered toward incantatory rather than descriptive ends. Starring Lichens’ Robert A.A. Lowe, this elliptically moving ode to stasis and movement both social and physical eclipsed the previous work of both co-directors, reinvigorating slow cinema and morphing hipster iconography and neo-New Age referents into something imagistic and powerful. Perhaps the first film to grasp black metal on an aesthetic level, it was a sustained roar into the ether and a triumph that earned its weirdly literalist title.

05. Borgman
Dir. Alex van Warmerdam

[Drafthouse Films]

There’s something faintly nihilistic about wandering. Our idle curiosities, when they arrive, are borne on a sense of security. While one’s longing for and clinging to comfort zones are natural, one’s vague awareness of the world around them can collapse this basic drive. With Borgman, director Alex van Warmerdam showed us a staid, yet logically untethered microcosm of this sort of collapse. While the titular character and his cohorts were an uncanny, cryptic bunch, the family they converge upon wound up being the most confounding. They came off as an extreme, somewhat satirical version of the smugly affluent. The biggest laughs came from the rigid, played-out pathos they feebly inhabited, as the inexplicable events unfolded (cresting with Richard’s relief at having his mysterious “X” tattoo removed). We ambled through this methodical nightmare much like Camiel, faintly stirred but decidedly detached. There was very little shock to this particular cinematic murder spree. In its place was a muted sense of wonder and a strident mistrust of our puzzle­out instincts. The true horror of this film was witnessing the deep wilderness of the unknown grow over the quaint accoutrements of human civilization and feeling a surprising sense of relief.

04. Stranger by the Lake
Dir. Alain Guiraudie

[Strand Releasing]

Every shot and every conversation in Stranger by the Lake was about boundaries. Alain Guiraudie’s film was set in one location (a gay cruising spot on the water) that turned out to be a handful of semi-autonomous zones. Each had its own rules and social customs: the parking lot; the rocky slope for platonic friendship; the beach for flirting and ogling; a boundless and undefined green space for sexual release; and the water, a typically fluid locus of serenity, play, and primal fear. Stranger by the Lake’s leisurely tone and gorgeous naturalism underplayed how rigorously Guiraudie defined and then tested these boundaries, as a community of strangers navigated competing urges toward friendship, lust, love, and death. Acts of personal liberty and of societal transgression became dangerously, intensely confused, until the film’s simultaneously thrilling and bewildering final scene called the very nature of agency into question. Stranger by the Lake can be read as a canonical work of queer cinema about social dynamics under the constant threat of fatal disease (the film’s mythical silurus) and police surveillance, but it’s even better as a film about emotional boundaries and the irresistible pull of irrational desires.

03. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson

[Fox Searchlight]

What’s it gonna take with you people? The “haters,” I mean… I tell you, I’ll bet Busby Berkeley never had to put up with this nonsense (I mean, of course not… no internet). Why, these fine young people went the extra mile to craft for us an extravagant, colorful, fluffy, painstakingly symmetrical piece of entertainment, and yet the brays of the hecklers would nary be silenced! Wes Anderson is “in a rut,” you say? “Endless daddy issues,” is it? “Shallow,” you think? Guess what, palooka: I ain’t listenin’, and neither is Wes Anderson. No matter what you say, he’s gonna keep making these movies, wiping away a single tear with a $100 bill (or color-coordinated handkerchief) every time you talk shit. Taken for what it is (as opposed to framing it with one’s expectations or prejudices), The Grand Budapest Hotel was a fine film, funny and huge and full of glistening wonder, a big show to beat all big shows (sans the dumbing down typically concomitant with such shows). Yeah, it was as emotionally ephemeral as most of Anderson’s films, but those mile-a-minute comic speeches and obsessive details will lodge in your mind’s eye/ear for some time to come, if you let them.

02. Boyhood
Dir. Richard Linklater

[IFC Films]

William Gass put it best: “Childhood is a lie of poetry.” Our memories become like montages: a swift passing of image and sentiment, alight in sepia-tones, and soundtracked appropriately. However, they are notoriously deceptive. Therefore, we’ve supported memories with photographs and recordings and films. We’ve further supplanted those with the unrelenting preservation of curated identities — memories of ourselves distilled to their referents. We long to remember ourselves, even as our memories remain elusive, even as each retelling is slightly different from the last. So we run alongside the lies. We tell ourselves it was otherwise, or could yet be. In the end, as other have already said, we scarcely know ourselves. As 2014 comes to a close, and even my most recent memories begin to dissipate, I remember (I think) the feeling I had as I drove home from seeing Boyhood. I kept silent and fought off tears. No film, in recent memory, has made me feel more vulnerable to myself. The critic in me wants to praise — endlessly — the details. I want to fawn over the innumerable gestures that made it a masterpiece. I want to marvel, with everyone else, at the utter dedication. I want to nod, too quickly, toward its flaws. But the boy in me, whoever he was, has no use for the critic. Somewhere, somehow, in the swirl of experiences I’ve appropriated as my own, I’ve come to touch the heart of the lie. Whatever happened, it’s simply enough to feel its beating.

01. Under The Skin
Dir. Jonathan Glazer

[A24 Films]

What shape are binaries?

In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin — a film that many critics tidily read as a fable about inequality in the construction of and dynamics between men and women — the primary form was symmetry. Two simple, glossy orbs were the first images to appear on screen, moving gently against a background of blankness, their abstractness eventually congealing into an eye. The shapes of elementary school geometry have rarely been so inexplicably menacing.

As an alien creature with a human female’s appearance and a world of social knowledge to master, Scarlett Johansson’s own face often recalled the formally-precise blank space of that opening sequence as she navigated urban Glasgow in a white van, methodically using the language of gender performance as an instrumental device — instead of an identitarian expression — to ask men for directions, determine if they were alone and vulnerable, and lure them, with the promise of sex, to a house whose interiors resembled an obsidian pitcher plant in both form and function.

Glazer filmed Johansson unglamorously, emphasizing her body-as-object instead of the aura surrounding it (men and landscapes, too, had pronounced physicality: at one point, Johansson’s sleeping form was superimposed over a forest — it was not a juxtaposition). The alien protagonist blended into the street scenes of everyday Glasgow and, more importantly, into the film’s stunningly integrated documentary sequences (some of the men who approached her were not actors). The camera turned us into anthropologists, observing — like she did — ordinary men with detached but intense curiosity: the little ways their clothes didn’t fit right, how flattery made them take up more space. We also observed Johansson as she observed herself: when she stood naked in front of a mirror examining her new body with curiosity and concern, we likewise scrutinized the novelty, deciding what it meant. Her real eyes, audiences might have noticed, were not as centered as the orbs of the opening sequence they echoed.

The men she had captured decomposed into raw materials, while Johannson, having learned too much about society to be able to prey on it, fled. A man in the woods politely determined if she were alone and vulnerable, used a reconfigured combination of her own approach of sex and violence, and after discovering the non-human form lurking underneath, decomposed her into raw material. Through fire, instead of liquid. The film ended with a plume of smoke against a sky that was nearly blank with snow, reminding us, as the film’s introduction did, that in the move from flesh to abstraction, the body gets left behind.

Symmetry is beautiful. Under the Skin, while terrifying, was not an exception, even as it refused to use symmetrical human bodies as shortcuts to beauty, preferring to construct its own. Its narrative circularity; Mica Levi’s haunting, repetitive score; the recurring and prolonged use of the screen as alternately white and black blank space; circles and orbs; the decompositions of bodies — these were the most starkly gorgeous filmic aesthetics of 2014.

Symmetry is also a mirror, a Rorschach, a reflection of who is looking. A critic at a popular listicle site argued — with a few lines of text and a series of .gifs — that Under the Skin subverts the male gaze, citing Laura Mulvey’s 1975 concept — which borrows heavily, especially in the castration anxiety area, from Freud — explaining the relationships of power between viewers, camera lenses, and actresses in 1950s cinema. It’s true Glazer did not objectify bodies. Instead, he considered them as objects, not signifiers of something else: a gender, a social dynamic, power. Johansson’s alien was neither shorthand for the idea of patriarchal filmic pleasure nor shorthand for its opposite.

Johansson has recently performed a string of variations on inhumanity, from this year’s Lucy, in which she played a human who masters all knowledge in the universe, to last year’s Her, in which she played an operating system that masters all knowledge in the universe. Under the Skin wasn’t only the best of these performances, but also the only one that positioned the body as a path to knowledge rather than an obstacle to it. Under Glazer’s lens, the metaphysical — whether data, identity, or ideology — was re-embedded into the site from which we experience it daily, and from which media — and its critics — daily wrenches it away.

Glazer’s previous films — Sexy Beast, Birth, and some music videos for a band TMT used to like — were interesting, but we couldn’t have predicted such a profoundly vital statement — or the negation of one — from him this year. Instead of the long-awaited apex of an artistic trajectory, Under the Skin just appeared here unexplained, much like its protagonist. But unlike her, we’re still trying to learn its alien language, and grateful for the opportunity.

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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