The Best Films of 2014

At a time of downwardly spiraling fortunes for the movie business—and for the place of movies in popular culture—it’s remarkable verging on miraculous that fine films continue to be made. I can’t say I was swamped by candidates for my top-10 list this year—great films were few and far between. Yet the topmost pick was the easiest one.

In “Boyhood,” a boy and his family grow and change over the course of a dozen years, and we see this happen with the same cast, because the film was shot over the course of a dozen years. Think of what that says about the people who made it and their belief in the movie medium. No one asked for contracts. They simply committed to an unprecedented enterprise that could have turned out badly, or indifferently, but, in fact, turned out magnificently. Here’s to the writer-director, Richard Linklater; to his marvelous cast; and to IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring, who managed to find enough money, year after year, to keep the project going.

And here are my other picks, in alphabetical order.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in ‘Birdman.’
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in ‘Birdman.’ FOX SEARCHIGHT PICTURES

Raw energy, dramatic and visual, generated by Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Lindsay Duncan; orchestrated by the director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and photographed by that master of optical ballet, Emmanuel Lubezki. The ending is silly, but almost everything before it is a scintillating account of a washed-up, half-crazed ex-Hollywood icon—Mr. Keaton’s Riggan Thomson—trying to make a comeback on Broadway. If you feel anxious while watching this phantasmagoria, it’s exactly the way the director wants you to feel; that explosive drum track isn’t meant to be a lullaby.


Edward Snowden in the documentary ‘Citizenfour.’
Edward Snowden in the documentary ‘Citizenfour.’ RADIUS-TWC

Laura Poitras’s documentary feature does two things superbly. It documents the thunderclap moment when Edward Snowden’s dump of NSA documents goes public. We’re in Mr. Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room watching him watch the world-changing news unfold on TV. And the movie gives us an invaluable sense of who he is. A whistleblower, yes, but also a thoughtful, extremely likable individual. Whether you think he’s a patriot or a traitor, you can’t doubt the depth of his conviction after seeing this indispensable film.

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in ‘Foxcatcher.’
Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in ‘Foxcatcher.’ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

This fiction film about a celebrated murder case of the 1990s is all about control. The prime mover of its plot, played by Steve Carell, is John du Pont, a twisted member of one of America’s wealthiest families. The production’s prime mover, director Bennett Miller, exerts a control that’s remarkably subtle and supple, and no less telling for being invisible. He uses eerily nuanced tone—and flawless performances by Mr. Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo—to sustain an atmosphere of nameless evil and looming tragedy.

Paul Schlase, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel.’
Paul Schlase, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel.’ FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Wes Anderson’s film has been conceived in the spirit of joyous artifice. Hardly a moment goes by when there isn’t something to make us smile—a pretty image, a funny line, a droll sight gag, a charming set, a striking juxtaposition of color or tone. The setting is the Republic of Zubrowka—first in the bleakness of that tiny state’s postwar communist rule, but then, through flashbacks, in the fragile grandeur of the early 1930s. That’s when Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave, a cosmopolitan legend in his own time, reigns supreme in the vast and elegant spa hotel of the title.

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in ‘Ida.’
Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in ‘Ida.’ MUSIC BOX FILMS

Whether you pronounce the title EYE-da or EE-da, it’s a perfect film. The running time is only 80 minutes, but whole lives unfold. (The setting is Poland in the early 1960s.) It’s in black-and-white, but so nuanced, photographically as well as dramatically, that color might get in the way. The heroine’s name is Anna—at first. She’s a young novice, a week away from taking her vows in a convent in the countryside. What she learns about herself, and her name, comes—at first—from an aunt she didn’t know she had. The film was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, and shot, digitally, by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal.

Sergey Pokhodaev in ‘Leviathan.’
Sergey Pokhodaev in ‘Leviathan.’ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s examination of moral decay and political corruption in Vladimir Putin ’s Russia is a masterpiece. I’ll be reviewing the film fully next week, when it starts its national release. For now, though, I’ll fall back on something I wrote after seeing it this September at the Telluride Film Festival. As visual art, “Leviathan” is majestic—the cinematographer was Mikhail Krichman—with the majesty enhanced by a pulsing Philip Glass score. As social and political observation, it’s a portrait of a once-great nation going down a rusty drain.

Tom Hardy in ‘Locke.’
Tom Hardy in ‘Locke.’ A24/EVERETT COLLECTION

More than an advocate for this film, I’ve become a missionary, because it’s a tough sell for some until they see it. Tough because it sounds like a gimmick, and claustrophobic to boot, when it is neither, even though the whole thing takes place in a BMW on an English motorway at night. What you see most significantly, though, is one of the most powerful performances ever put on film: Tom Hardy as a construction engineer, Ivan Locke, navigating a moment of excruciating crisis in his life.

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in ‘Mr. Turner.’
Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in ‘Mr. Turner.’SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
‘Mr. Turner’

Timothy Spall stars, and dazzles darkly—not a simple feat to pull off—in Mike Leigh ’s marvelous evocation of the English painter J.M.W. Turner in his latter years, during the early part of the 19th century. Visually the film is a feast, as rich as the subject demands. Dramatically it’s unconventional, less a plot with conflicts and twists than a privileged meander through the life of a flawed artist who produced great art.

‘Under the Skin’

Scarlett Johansson in ‘Under the Skin.’
Scarlett Johansson in ‘Under the Skin.’ A24 FILMS
Scarlett Johansson gives a sensational performance as something or other—an alien something that takes on the guise of a beautiful human woman—in Jonathan Glazer’s deceptively simple, ineffably scary sci-fi-ish thriller. “Under the Skin” is about seduction, and predation: The woman’s victims meet surreal fates that should be seen, not described. Yet it’s also about seeing and hearing this world of ours through an alien sensibility—the film, set in Scotland, becomes an adventure in perception—and watching its ambiguous heroine learn what it is, for better and much worse, to be human.

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