The common refrains apply here, as always: I saw a lot of movies, but not nearly enough (I still didn’t see A Most Violent Year, Leviathan, Mommy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and others). Making this list was hard. Don’t let anyone tell you 2014 was a weak year for movies. I wish I could have included, say, Ida, Mr. Turner, Manakamana, and We Are the Best!, among many more.
Mostly, I’ve gotten to the point where the list feels “right.” It feels reflective of the things I really loved, the things that made me think and feel, and the things that seem important and meaningful in this moment.
20. Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
Deft, frank, and charming. It is a true disservice to call this “the abortion comedy.” It’s infinitely better than that label.
19. Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat.) (dir. Doug Liman)
Repetition and difference. WWII as a sci-fi video game. Emily Blunt with a giant sword. Tom Cruise rocking that magnetic action hero swagger. It just works.
The Best Movie About Doppelgangers in a year with a surprising amount of them.
17. Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Explores the relationship between psychological and geographical topographies, but the terrain is largely interior.
A parable of U.S. state surveillance about drone strikes against citizens? Suggesting the intelligence community is extending totalitarianism? Bombast aside, it’s more subversive than one expects from Marvel Studios.
15. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)
Come for the stuff about television news and Jake Gyllenhaal’s crazy-creepy smile, but stay for the spot-on way this movie demonstrates capitalism’s exploitation of labor.
14. Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
A nasty, intense revenge movie that takes every drop of blood very seriously. The first twenty or so minutes are virtuoso.
13. Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
I love this movie. I really do. I love how bonkers it starts, and how melancholy it gets. I love how full its heart is, and how that heart really sneaks in out of nowhere.
12. Goodbye to Language 3D (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Godard’s massive return to relevance feels as aesthetically daring and politically provocative as his experiments towards the end of the 1960s. 3D—that is to say, cinema’s latest technology—gives him both a new level of playfulness and a new layer of seriousness.
11. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
What’s most fascinating about Gone Girl is actually what it’s not about. That is to say, this is a movie where a missing (rich) white (psychopathic) woman dominates the media and a community while markers of economic recession, homelessness, and other systemic social problems linger in the background.
10. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)
These are well-tested scares—drawing on a well of Roman Polanski and David Lynch for inspiration, among others—but Kent makes them new, at times even primally unnerving, with the help of stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. Also I love Mr. Babadook.
9. Force Majeure (dir. Ruben Ostlund)
A brutally funny takedown of gender norms in contemporary culture, Force Majeure places its camera far away from the action. It’s contemplative but incisive and sparse but funny. It’s a microcosmic film that feels, at times, gigantic.
8. The Immigrant (dir. James Gray)
An old-fashioned, sumptuous melodrama about the turn-of-the-century American dream, its golden hues and recreations of New York City are beautiful enough to make you cry (that last shot! Oh, that last shot!). Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix sink their teeth into the material. Gray exquisitely channels a kind of weepy melodrama that rarely—if ever—exists anymore.
7. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)
I feel about Selma much the same way I felt about Milk. It’s wonderfully crafted and powerfully acted, but the context of its release—aka, the last six months of racial politics in America—give it a profound urgency. Its images and words sting.
6. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
PTA continues to refine his long-take aesthetic and his depiction of how power operates in various times and places (though mostly, Southern California across the twentieth century). Inherent Vice is much more than a stoner comedy or a muddled plot. It’s a modern-day Chinatown (okay, that’s being hyperbolic) in how it tracks the confusing and impenetrable ways power organizes society and attempts to obliterate the ethos of the 1960s. This is a hazy, saturated world that feels frighteningly close to evaporating.
5. Two Days, One Night (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardennes’ chronicles of working-class life reach, for me anyway, a new high. Like most of their work, this is a loose, aesthetically minimalist (that is to, realistic) film that breathes in its quiet moments. Cotillard is magnificent (isn’t she always, though?) and gives the film its empowering thrust. The world they depict is cruel, but it’s one where people are willing to fight for their well-being.
4. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
Under the Skin is a visionary, haunting film. It starts as an odd meditation on being a desired woman, and broadens into more about what it even means to be human and to have a body. Like some of the very best cinema, it’s devoted to making us look at things differently—be that how we think about driving or walking through space, or how we conceive of our own bodies and what they mean for how we move through the world.
3. Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)
It’s a cold and restrained film, one that almost seems afraid of penetrating too deeply, but its themes are as old as any in American popular culture: the individual trying to succeed, money as the root of all evil, the divides between the rich and the poor. Its bizarre allusions to American history widen its foggy landscape to a deeper vein of exploitation.
2. Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras)
Its status as a historical document of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of information about U.S. surveillance policies alone would make this important, but Poitras and collaborator Glenn Greenwald use Citizenfour to explicate the stakes of surveillance on a global and everyday scale in an incisive and painfully clear way.
1. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
Enough ink has been spilled over the very existence of Boyhood, so I’ll just say: the real triumph of the film, for me, isn’t necessarily its 12-year production time. Rather, Boyhood restores everyday life to cinema. By that, I mean it lives and thrives in mundanities, repetitions, and routines. It is about all those tiny things that happen to us, and how those little things accumulate into something broader, richer, and more meaningful. Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. Boyhood pastes them back in, to beautiful effect.