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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

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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