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The 25 Best Films of 2014

These films prove essential not just to discussions about the state of cinema, but the very fabric of quotidian life.

The 25 Best Films of 2014
Photo: IFC Films

In a year when The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game offer a most banal and repressive sort of historical biopic treatment for their respective subjects (and are being largely celebrated nonetheless), it becomes ever more important to draw lines in the cinematic sand to understand what we talk about when we talk about movies. Art historian Michael Fried once wrote of the burgeoning war between theater and modernist painting, and in many ways, contemporary filmmaking is rife with similarly antagonistic, fiery battles. As a culture, we can choose to celebrate the ideological claptraps of an egocentric, technically impressive whirligig (Birdman), the continued formal fury and narrative insouciance of one of the New Left’s original enfant terribles (Goodbye to Language), or a politically volatile, seductive reemergence of the city symphony film as techno-urban nightmare (Under the Skin). Our selections prove imperative and essential not just to discussions about the state of cinema, but the very fabric of quotidian life, where the sensibilities fortified in movie theaters (and on laptops) necessarily translate to the actions foisted upon citizens in homes, streets, and courtrooms.

After all, 2014 reveals that the examination room of a children’s hospital in Mexico City (The Naked Room) can prove just as towering a social document as looking behind the scenes of a world-renowned art museum (National Gallery). Speaking of art history, Mike Leigh offers a biopic of painter J.M.W. with self-reflexive grace (Mr. Turner), while Ming-liang Tsai has made one of the most covert examinations of the overlap between painterly and cinematic images in film history (Stray Dogs). These wholly severe examinations of public spaces being inextricable from private passions reveal a throbbing artistic determination from filmmakers old and new, but even the year’s seemingly softer art-house fare proved otherwise, such that outwardly satirical films yielded a savage deconstruction of white intellectual privilege (Listen Up Philip) and an incendiary screed challenging claims of a post-racial, cultural chill (Dear White People). To wade through the awards bait, assuaging sequelitis, and White Elephant blackholes is to rekindle a politically informed human spirit that continues to vitalize the essence of meaningful cinematic expression. Clayton Dillard

Editor’s Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26–50.


The 25 Best Films of 2014

25. Dear White People

Justin Simien’s bold-as-brass debut, Dear White People, is more of a call to conversation than a call to action. Set at a fictional Ivy League school that serves as a microcosm for “post-racial” America, it anarchically contrasts the personalities and ideologies of its African-American and white characters, revealing how these lives have been pigeonholed by the media over the years. The eclectic, self-aware ensemble gives the script’s thorniest propositions the sharply observed articulation they deserve, and is anchored by the fiercely determined Tessa Thompson as Samantha. She’s hoisted into a position of revolutionary power she craves, but nonetheless feels insecure within, and it’s this tortured sense of self that becomes the heart of Simien’s exploration of identity paradoxes, from how they’re constructed to how they’re dismantled. Around her, Simien, who clearly recognizes that one of the most subversive ways to provoke is through energized humor, throws poison-tipped darts at both historical and contemporary issues of racial tension, exposing the unwitting racism that most of us carry around with us. But as confrontational as the film’s comedy may be, it’s noticeably free of judgment. In the end, the triumph of Simien’s satire is how it reveals the filmmaker to be the canniest of equal-opportunity sympathizers. Nick McCarthy


The 25 Best Films of 2014

24. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

The “darkness” in the title of avant-garde filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’s feature collaboration A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness turns out to be something more broadly existential than narrowly specific. The nameless central figure of the film (played by musician Robert A.A. Lowe) goes through the film trying on three different identities in three different milieus: living among hippies in an Estonian commune, by himself in the wilds of Finland, and finally making a go of it as a lead singer and guitarist for a black-metal band in Norway. Even after all the high-pitch head-banging music-making in the film’s last act, this lonely figure still walks off into a literal pitch-black void. In A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, however, whether or not this person ever discovers that sense of self he seeks matters less than the fact that he remains alive to continue that search. Such a search is the essence of humanity, and Russell and Rivers fashion from this eternal fact a triumphant work of distinctive, abstract, universal poetry. Kenji Fujishima


The 25 Best Films of 2014

23. Level Five

Chris Marker’s Level Five made for a particularly eerie cinematic experience by the fact that it was released 17 years after its making. The temporal gap gives it a cryogenic quality that only enhances the film’s prophetic aura. The melancholy that afflicts the director’s surrogate, Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), who addresses the camera as though she were Skyping her dead lover, is like a message in a bottle whose tragedy remained muffled for too long not to metastasize the very ocean through which it traveled. Here the essay film’s most basic element, the lyrical way in which it renders public the private machinations of thinking, imbricates itself with an intimate tale of grief ensconced by technology and the communal horror of the Battle of Okinawa, itself shielded by nothing. The timbre of Marker’s narration suggests an author too weathered by the human experience to be affected by his own poetry—a somberness akin to the blunt exposition of a deadly prognosis. Belkhodja’s face is perennially swollen, as if sucker-punched by sudden loss, and by the realization that loss is all there is. Marker weaves his cinematic thread by contaminating world events with a mourning as inaudible to the world as it is symbiotically connected to it. Diego Costa


The 25 Best Films of 2014

22. Starred Up

Not since Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet have audiences been treated to a drama that delves into prison life with such psychological acuity and sociological precision. In David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, a rebellious youth, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), lands behind bars and quickly sets out to defy every type of authority. He’s no stranger to the prison routine, and to watch him arm himself against the guards is like watching a soldier get ready for redeployment. And as Eric’s violent antics bring on the gore, we descend into the depths of his tortured id. Still more riveting than the fights, or Eric’s hell-bent trajectory, is the discovery that one of the most powerful thugs on the inside is in fact his father. Oppressive and repressed, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) tries to sabotage his son’s shaky first steps in group therapy. Tempers erupt, fueled by multiple prison rivalries and competing self-interests. Mackenzie keeps his storytelling flowing briskly, to the edge of breathlessness, but never skimps on situational nuance. O’Connell and Mendelsohn deliver superb, flinty performances, meting out love and odium in equal measure, and supported by a standout cast. Ela Bittencourt


The 25 Best Films of 2014

21. Norte, the End of History

Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History unfolds over four hours, loosely transposing Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment into a Filipino context. It’s a headily philosophical drama that’s unmistakably, and remarkably, intimate at heart, tracking the lead-up to and fallouts of a murder through its three lead characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero), the perpetrator of the crime who’s never charged and becomes overcome by his guilty conscience; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the poor villager who gets convicted and imprisoned in Fabian’s stead; and Joaquin’s wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), who’s left alone to look after her younger sister and two children. The result is a profound exploration of guilt, forgiveness, class, justice, and ethics, with Diaz’s patience in telling his characters’ stories and his empathy toward their plights assuring that these themes never become strictly conceptual. On the contrary, even as the film leaves space for scenes of lengthy moral discourse, Diaz keeps matters grounded in the lived experience of his characters, for whom choosing between right and wrong, good and evil, is no mere intellectual discussion. Tomas Hachard


The 25 Best Films of 2014

20. The Naked Room

Gilles Deleuze once wrote of the close-ups in Persona: “Bergman has pushed the nihilism of the face the furthest, that is its relationship in fear to the void or the absence, the fear of the face confronted with its nothingness.” A reckoning of sorts with that nihilism, even a rebuke of it, The Naked Room gives a face to the void. Director Nuria Ibañez, a “direct cinema” proponent, places the viewer in the position of the unseen psychologists who allow a collective of boys and girls at a Mexico City hospital to open up about how such horrors as sexual and physical abuse, rape, homelessness, and domestic violence have affected their young lives. And through the tapestry of haunted faces she stitches together, a picture of a nation failing its youngest generation slowly comes into focus, though this is less rage against the machine than potentially healing show to empathy. Whether sobbed or whimpered, these confessions ring with a sense of relief, as if being safely spoken aloud for the first time, suggesting that these children may not be chased by their wounds for the rest of their lives. Ed Gonzalez


The 25 Best Films of 2014

19. Ida

Ida uses an investigation into the annihilation of a fictional Jewish family in Poland to pose the same question asked by Night and Fog’s narrator of the Holocaust’s killers: “Are their faces really different from our own?” With minimal dialogue, luminous black-and-white cinematography, and penetrating performances, Pawel Pawlikowski’s quietly devastating film contemplates the horrible helplessness of the ordinary citizens caught in the maws of the Nazis’ murderous totalitarianism. The unearthing of an unmarked grave is almost unspeakably sad, not least because Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) and her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), endure it with their customary stoicism, their dry eyes and dignified bearing reminding us of the depth of the losses they’ve been living with—and shaped by—for more than two decades. Ida makes the lives of the family at the center of its story tangible and their deaths tragic, rejecting both the sentimentalized kitsch and the faceless victimhood to which Holocaust fiction so often assigns its characters. But what makes this movie truly great is its empathy for the family’s Polish neighbors. In a pitiless system like the Nazi occupation, the film reminds us, perpetrators can be victims too, compelled to make terrible choices that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Elise Nakhnikian


The 25 Best Films of 2014

18. Story of My Death

Albert Serra’s Story of My Death is a toweringly polymorphous film that, despite its seemingly esoteric sensibilities and pacing, offers recourse to any number of potential cinematic discussions. Although outwardly a fiendishly scatological, historical chimera of Casanova meeting Dracula at the end of the 18th-century, the film transcends mere revisionism through Serra’s use of digital cameras, which implicitly critique the often predictably middlebrow leanings of wigs-and-waistcoats filmmaking. Yet the film beats accusations of basic provocation by rigorously unmapping standard philosophical narratives, such that a transition from the rational to the romantic becomes less an intellectual certainty than an unchained playground for engaging the carnivalesque. Not simply bound to its period-piece setting either, the Catalonian filmmaker is adamant that contemporary political resonances can be achieved with ridicule and gross-out humor recalling the work of Duŝan Makavejev. In turn, Serra offers a costume drama as drained of its mythological and pop resonances, making the entire film a perverse, prolonged act of vampirism. Think of it as the aesthetic inverse, but ideological cousin to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Dillard


The 25 Best Films of 2014

17. Closed Curtain

A barbed, critical supposition, involving a dog lover and writer living in exile by the Iranian seashore, incrementally sheds its proverbial skin in Kambuzia Partovi and Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain, providing a skeletal self-portrait of Panahi and banished artists of his particular ilk. The clever storyline conceit that opens the film is picked away at, through disruptive plot twists and tonal shifts, and what’s finally left is a lacerating vision of a frustrated artist idling and wasting away. If This Is Not a Film gazed at a director plentiful in ideas, but lacking in the basic liberties needed to put them into practice, Closed Curtain imagines the actual staging of many scenes, and still finds the spirit of expressive invention wounded, sickened by the real world and its ugly fears and prejudices. That’d be the very same world that spurred the concept of the writer’s exile with his canine companion, a mild play on Iran’s attempt at criminalizing and vilifying dog ownership in 2011. No matter the canniness of the fiction, however, the shattering conclusion of this bewildering masterwork renders the outrage and despair of stilted artistry with startling clarity, where censorship in the arts can be tied directly to a government’s crooked reliance on social control. Chris Cabin


The 25 Best Films of 2014

16. Manakamana

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana effortlessly blows a day’s tiniest quotidian moments up for the big screen, wasting zero time explaining or tiptoeing around its rigid, chapter-like narrative structure. The documentary cycles through 11 long, single takes filmed within a rickety cable car en route to one of the most sacred temples in Nepal (the film’s namesake); all journeys are either to or fro, but the passengers change with each successive round. Spray and Velez’s trips hum along meditatively and yet with a whiff of the filmically confrontational: Clearly coached to avoid engaging the lens, passengers’ faces hover with disengagement, just out of bounds for the viewer and yet also mired, front and center. There are plentiful glimpses of surrounding green valleys, but they’re refracted through the window, basking the travelers—on a clear day, at least—in rear-projected daylight. Muted and transcendent (at one point an elderly woman, enjoying an ice cream sandwich, muses, “Hills and trees everywhere, so delightful”), this is a documentary as aware of its endemic restrictions as it is liberated from them. Steve Macfarlane


The 25 Best Films of 2014

15. The Strange Little Cat

With The Strange Little Cat, first-time German filmmaker Ramon Zürcher delivers a tour de force so quietly beguiling that by the end of it you may still be asking yourself what it’s all about. It’s unclear to what extent Zürcher aimed to channel Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with a cast standing in for the beetle, but here’s a tale of family dynamics that’s as imaginatively insular and, oftentimes, as enthralling as Gregor Samsa’s. The film’s minimalist plot can be summed up thus: a middle-class family breakfasts and cooks together, while the family’s cat and dog go on apartment-wide prowl. Soon more family guests arrive, and the afternoon, shot almost entirely inside the apartment, ends with the ailing grandma snoozing at the dinner table. The Strange Little Cat can’t be said to strictly have a plot, but its structure isn’t patchwork either. What follows are small ways in which family members shut or seek each other out. The fine-tuned, delicate performance of Jenny Schilly, as the mother, weaves the scenes together, like a musical piece. Fleeting moments are deliberately charged: a bottle spins inside a pot, a moth clings to the lampshade. Objects, pets, and people occupy the same plane of interest in this beautiful mosaic of domesticity—and yes, occasional, miniaturist terror. The effect is Kafka meets haiku, wonderfully grounded yet undeniably abstract. Bittencourt


The 25 Best Films of 2014

14. National Gallery

Superbly analytical, Frederick Wiseman’s latest vivisection of an august institution catalogs the ways of seeing just as it reveals myriad impediments to seeing well. Docents engage and annoy, preservationists probe thorny questions of artistic intent with invasive techniques, and administrators grapple with how to modulate the demands of popular appeal and elitist esteem. Meanwhile, spectators look at paintings in various states of thrall, oblivion, and studied detachment. The paintings are cropped so that they, too, are a part of the conversation: They stare back and beckon or imperiously gaze in other directions, bored by our judgments. For two hours, National Gallery is prototypical Wiseman, a serene yet lively site for discourse about the public good. Then, a poet, a pianist, and a pair of dancers enter the viewing galleries, and art enters into and invaluable and ineffable dialogue with itself. The film’s voluminous discourse about artistic intent and proper engagement yields to a quietly radical essay on the varieties of artistic language. As cadence, sound, movement and stillness interact in Wiseman’s penetrating montage, the only word that comes to mind is rapture. Christopher Gray


The 25 Best Films of 2014

13. Listen Up Philip

Alex Ross Perry’s comically deadpan study of the repellent Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a writer whose narcissistic dedication to his craft leaves a trail of emotional damage in its wake, uses a searing black wit, literary dialogue, and abrupt shifts in perspective to subtly give way to something disarmingly tragic: The inability to reconcile artistic success with a gratifying personal life. In Philip’s insecure worldview, one can’t benefit from the other without one suffering, which cannily furthers Perry’s ongoing exploration into the complex human need for intimate companionship, and comes branded with the director’s unique and eccentric sense of empathy that transcends the film’s easy pigeonholing as a Philip Roth love letter. The personalities featured in the unapologetically lo-fi Listen Up Philip are mercilessly insufferable, despicable and alienating, but, in a time when an increasingly gentrified indie-film landscape has become overrun with filmmakers’ tepid Hollywood calling cards, their company (to paraphrase the perfectly cued Supremes track at the end of Listen Up Phillip) brings on a symphony. Wes Greene


The 25 Best Films of 2014

12. Goodbye to Language

Jean-Luc Godard started his career nudging at any and all constraints, carving out new rhythms based on an eccentric fondness for tongue-in-cheek reinterpretation, creating a personal cinema indebted to memories of the past while intently focused on the future. That initial thorniness has only grown stronger with each successive film, as he aged into the form of the prototypical restless auteur, utterly refusing to rest on laurels, even as this sense of exploration left him detached from a public not ready for the audacity of his experiments. It now finds him, at the age of 84, once again on the forefront of cinematic progress. Just as In Praise of Love identified possibilities in the digital form that still haven’t been adequately explored by other filmmakers, Goodbye to Language bursts through another wall, forcing 3D technology directly into the faces of viewers, exploiting the technology to achieve simple but breathtaking effects which question the mechanics of the entire act of seeing. It’s another reminder that the true capabilities of technology don’t belong to the studios, the big-budget hacks, and the hollow spectacles they produce, but to the bold, the imaginative, and the obstinate, the artists willing to repeatedly break with the sacred tenets of respectability of tradition, broadening and expanding the possibilities of the form. Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Films of 2014

11. Mr. Turner

No living director is Mike Leigh’s peer in portraying the gradual accumulation of detail that eventually renders a human life in full. Mr. Turner isn’t a conventional biography of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh concentrates only on the last 20 years of Turner’s life, and the episodes he crafts don’t reveal much in the way of traditional expository information, ultimately proving just how little typical textbook tickertapes actually matter. Instead, Leigh and his gifted cast, particularly the extraordinary Timothy Spall, paint a minutely textured portrait of an emotional realm. Little anecdotes gather and mutually intensify one another: Turner hugging his father upon return from an art trip, or forgiving a debt owed to him by an envious and poverty-stricken painter, or so delicately and gingerly painting a prostitute, or having quick, desperate sex with his housekeeper. The through line is Leigh and Spall’s conception of Turner as a man whose self-centeredness arises as an almost tragic perversion of an essential gentleness that only reaches unconfused expression in his paintings. Mr. Turner is one of the fullest and most moving biographies ever made. Chuck Bowen


The 25 Best Films of 2014

10. Force Majeure

If there’s any doubt halfway through its runtime that Ruben Östlund’s philosophically minded Force Majeure has a ruffian’s taste for comedy to balance its lofty ambitions, behold the standout scene when its buffoonish antihero, married father-of-two Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), gets caught on the receiving end of a humiliating après-ski miscommunication. Östlund’s sense of humor is like the controlled explosives that haunt his film’s alpine resort setting and become a portentous background motif throughout: meticulously coordinated to only cause ripples, but perpetually capable of unleashing an avalanche, as is the case here. A single-and-ready-to-mingle downhiller from across an outdoor bar relays to Tomas that her friend finds him attractive—only to double back shortly after with the news that her honor was accidentally bestowed to the wrong man. It’s a silly joke made sublime by Östlund’s characteristically frosty visual detachment: a voyeuristic slow zoom well removed from the action that fixates on every nuance in Tomas’s shift from unconvincing bravado to bumbling embarrassment, a perspective that seems to approximate that of an unseen onlooker. In Force Majeure, we’re always that attentive onlooker, locked in a gaze of mortification and amusement at the peculiar lumps of flesh that make up our species. Carson Lund


The 25 Best Films of 2014

9. Stray Dogs

Every bit its equal in terms of its distillation of all the world’s looming despair into a lonely one-man narrative, Tsai Ming-liang finds with Stray Dogs his own equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous Scream in the form of Lee Kang-sheng annihilating a head of lettuce. Like Munch, Tsai has always demonstrated a knack for making the external world seem a drooping reflection of his subjects’ psychic and emotional damage, and Stray Dogs, like The Scream, feels like its maker’s quintessential statement. Kang-sheng’s single—and, in the film’s biggest mystery, perhaps divorced—father lurking around the bowels of Taipei scraping together odd jobs in a never-ending effort to feed his children is both a politically charged proxy for the homeless population and another one of Tsai’s elemental sad-sacks fighting an upward battle against a cruel society. Yet, filled as it is with leaky interiors and marathon long takes (some here pushing 20 minutes), this is definitively not a routine lap through the Tsai playbook: a daring tonal 180 enacted around the midway point takes this hard-hearted social-realist tract into mournful surrealist territory, at which point that lettuce’s unfair end retroactively seems the only logical expression of Kang-sheng’s overbearing existential imprisonment. Lund


The 25 Best Films of 2014

8. Only Lovers Left Alive

Casting contemporary society as a derelict post-apocalypse, humans as the “zombies” who got us there, and the two impossibly sexy immortals at its melancholy heart as witnesses to our dying age, Only Lovers Left Alive could easily have degenerated into cynical posturing. Instead, as intoxicated by human achievement as it is mournful about our propensity for tearing everything down, it’s the most achingly romantic film of 2014, positing that true love and great art are the only real lifelines through the end times. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s Adam and Eve are humanity in a microcosm, creating, consuming, arguing, and fucking amid the decaying remnants of fallen civilizations; his existential angst and her bright optimism are representative of our own alternating reactions to time and entropy. The duo’s longevity accentuates the fleeting nature of everything around them, and as history winds itself down, they cling to the sole surviving constants: the art of each passing era and their ever-intensifying romance. But for all its elegiac trappings, the film never feels oppressive. Sure, everything ends, but maybe that’s okay as long as the one beside you at the moment of truth is someone you love and, preferably, share irreproachable taste in books with. Abhimanyu Das


The 25 Best Films of 2014

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel

By now, it’s clear for some that Wes Anderson’s style is of a taste they’ll likely never acquire. For the enamored, however, his films are not unlike the Mendl’s cakes that play a key role in The Grand Budapest Hotel: meticulously constructed, gorgeous, and, like all great art, capable of bearing invaluable life tools—or breaking a great fall. A tale twice removed, the bulk of the film unfolds in and around the titular institution, a one-time jewel in the crown of the fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, where passions and crimes of the sort rock the already turbulent life of Zero (Tony Revolori), a lobby boy orphaned and displaced by war, now under the tutelage of one Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Joy and melancholy, love and loss, chaos and control—all these and more mingle and magnify within the nesting doll of a narrative, an illusion sustained by Anderson’s breathless tonal mastery and cunningly insular use of artifice as a memory echo chamber. A light film carrying a heavy heart, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s whimsical flights of fancy are worthy of comparison to Georges Méliès. Rob Humanick


The 25 Best Films of 2014

6. Two Days, One Night

“It’s like I don’t exist,” Sandra says to her husband before collapsing and falling from the frame, as if vanishing from the world around her, surrendering the want to live, like some kind of ghost. Played faultlessly by Marion Cotillard with a piercing, sweat-stained fragility, she’s a wife and mother just beginning to emerge from the throes of depression and forced to undergo a 36-hour crusade, lobbying her factory co-workers to relinquish a considerable monetary bonus so as to preserve her job. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have long been heralded as advocates of solidarity fostered through community, but in Two Days, One Night, more than ever before, they intertwine the collective with the passion of the individual. As she rallies her co-workers, Sandra gradually re-stirs her soul, willing herself back to existence, and an ardent socioeconomic allegory gives way to a guileless parable of spiritual revival built on hard-scrabble naturalism and its leading lady’s towering turn of weary restraint. Nick Prigge


The 25 Best Films of 2014

5. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful, streamlined adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s shambolic stoner noir manages to locate the frangible heart of the author’s luxuriantly overstuffed narrative. Abounding in double-crosses and double agents, Inherent Vice evinces an acute case of double vision, keeping one eye on the future’s vanishing point, while inevitably casting nervous glances into the rearview of historical hindsight. Hence it’s a logical extension of those downbeat ’70s L.A. noirs that straddle eras—a relentlessly demythologized past and a present that’s up for grabs (Chinatown and The Long Goodbye are the clearest precedents)—to elucidate the vices inherent in each. Here that’s the troublous heritage of the 1960s, its boundless urge to revolutionize, as well as its tendency toward self-destructive solipsism. While giving witness to the vexing vicissitudes of addiction (whether to smack or frozen bananas), Inherent Vice posits a shadowy conspiracy bent on reclaiming the counterculture’s best instincts for the “ancient forces of greed and fear.” Nothing proves safe from its baleful influence, not even that last bastion of society, the blissfully insulated romantic couple, as the Burt Bacharach song PTA cannily selects for the closing credits ruefully acknowledges: “Any day now, love will let me down.” Budd Wilkins


The 25 Best Films of 2014

4. Boyhood

Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is an avatar of both endless becoming and endless stasis. His journey from video game-obsessed six-year-old to artistically inclined teenager, charted by director Richard Linklater in three surprisingly breezy hours, is a revelation of accumulated knowledge that extends far beyond the visual impact of watching Mason (and his family) age 12 years before one’s eyes. In fact, Boyhood’s greatest achievement is that even amid constant change (the fallout of friendships, the shuffling of abrasive stepfathers, the acquisition of new skills and fears), Mason at 10 (or 12, or 15, or 18) remains so recognizably Mason at six (or eight, or 11, or 14): laconic, eager to please, observant but weary of expressing said observations. Thus, Boyhood isn’t about the creation of a soul, but about the unburying of one: The most crucial difference between the cloud-gazing little boy of the first shot and the lovestruck, scruffy young adult of the final shot is simply that the latter has found a voice with which to articulate the wonder he has always felt whenever he stares up at the sky. David Lee Dallas


The 25 Best Films of 2014

3. The Immigrant

Given how poorly The Immigrant was handled by the Weinstein Company, the sort of undue treatment endured by Hollywood masters during the days of vertical integration, it’s almost fitting that James Gray has cited silent cinema and studio-era melodrama among his inspirations for the project. So nakedly Borzagian in its sentimentalism, the film relates the story of a Polish émigré, Ewa (Marion Cotillard), adjusting to American life under the guise and employ of a spineless pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) in 1920s New York City. Its voluptuous emotional tenor reverberates from its unspeakably beautiful imagery; there is, of course, the justly renowned final shot, one of many images whose pathos arises from the way characters’ interiors are woven into the painterly compositions. But it also flits across Cotillard’s face, so concurrently wrapped in sorrow and happiness, fear and hope (shades of Lillian Gish). To watch Ewa look upon a crowd of boorish womanizers, to watch her study her pimp from across a café table, to watch her regard an illusionist levitate on stage, is to witness her wrestling with the roots of the American dream. Drew Hunt


The 25 Best Films of 2014

2. Stranger by the Lake

In which a Gallic neo-Hitchcock charts out the undulations of what the French refer to as “little deaths,” and then sets a Grimm fairy tale in the dead zone representing that throbbing, nobly malignant impulse deep within the limbic system of all gay men. And inadvertently explains why so many puffy-chested boys who struggle to accept remaining “just friends” with their closest objects of desire (indeed, denying the psychological damage that doing so will absolutely wreak) cry every time Britney Spears sings about the world ending. Few other films, including the august Un Chant d’Amour itself, have been this bold about taking Jean Genet’s most politically untenable indecent proposals out for a nude swim. On the surface a murder mystery, Alain Guiraudie’s graphic, terrifying day-night-day-night in the country is otherwise stripped of all elements that don’t define the prison wall Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps, with his perfectly boy-next-door looks) constructs in order to blow smoke up his acquaintances’ asses, and offer up his own ass to anyone but them. If Stranger by the Lake made any more sense, it would have to friend-zone you. Eric Henderson


The 25 Best Films of 2014

1. Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson played two exceedingly dangerous women in 2014, both capable of inflicting horrendous harm on their male victims, both beset by unusual caveats limiting the scope of their control. But only one of these films offered a nuanced exploration of the mental toll of this kind of power, the dark flipside to sexual dominance and the seamy underside of aesthetic splendor. Unlike Luc Besson’s eponymous Lucy, who grows stronger as she shrugs off the constraints of the human body, Under the Skin’s extraterrestrial seductress Laura shrinks in stature as the film progresses, from an indomitable, inviolable man-eating ghoul to an increasingly fragile woman suffering from the psychic trauma wreaked by her own weaponized sexuality. It’s a heartbreaking process to witness, one that flips a sleek, mysterious sci-fi thriller into a singular melodrama focused on the unlikeliest of protagonists. Establishing an atmosphere in which each new intrusion of feeling delivers another blow to the character’s once-steely exterior, director Jonathan Glazer spins out a maelstrom of dread as Laura simultaneously contracts and expands, adapting to the frailty of her assumed human form. Mirroring this development, the film’s polished style comes into sharp conflict with the tangled complexity of empathy and emotion, a clash embodied by the alluring dissonance of Mica Levi’s shrieking score, the stunning gloom of the film’s Scottish landscapes, the strange, wounded beauty of men pickled in their own putrid desire, and the poignant spectacle of a monster barred by circumstance from becoming anything more. Cataldo

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