50 Best Films of 2014

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15. The Immigrant 

If one were to rank the films of 2014 based solely on innovation, The Immigrant would probably end up near the bottom. Writer-director James Gray’s languid melodrama tells the tumultuous story of a resilient Polish woman looking to find a slice of the American Dream, without much in the way of narrative bravado or anything approaching experimentalism. The moralistic script feels like a relic from a bygone studio era.

But to assess the film’s merit based on its stubborn refusal to buck conventions is to deny one’s self the virtues of one of the year’s great films. Marion Cotillard gives an unforgettable performance as Ewa, the titular heroine whose desire to save her sister enables her to overcome the harsh realities of life in New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century. Joaquin Phoenix portrays the snarling antagonist who helps her survive, but only so that she can fulfill his selfish interests. Gray masterfully weaves their stories into a powerful representation of the struggles faced by those who came to Ellis Island not knowing of the challenges that lay ahead. The trials faced by immigrants from the period contribute to an archetypical tale of good and evil that scoffs at the notion of moral ambiguity while making it feel unimportant to this particular narrative.

What does feel important are the strength of the performances and the gorgeous camerawork which captures them. The subtle but beautiful colors render Ewa’s tribulations in powerful and unsparing detail. The memorable final shot pulls off the remarkable feat of showcasing technical dexterity without sacrificing emotional resonance. In its unabashed old-fashioned-ness, The Immigrant proves the timelessness of compelling storytelling.
– Max Bledstein

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14. Goodbye to Language 

“The idea is simple.” So begins the official summary of Jean-Luc Godard’s 43rd feature film, his first in 3D. And indeed, Goodbye to Language, the 84-year-old’s award-winning audio/visual extravaganza, does have a rather simplistic premise. A man and woman meet, fall in love, discuss life, and quarrel. There’s a dog in there too, watching things and walking around. That’s about it in terms of narrative (and even this much is never quite straightforward or easily discernible But why Goodbye to Language is one of the year’s best films has little to do with its “story.”

Like so much of Godard’s work, the film is more than its ostensible plot; the idea may be simple, the ideas are not. There are arguments made and questions posed—about relationships, politics, technology, communication, society, and concepts of cinema itself—and Godard’s provocative take on conventional film form thrives in this thematic mosaic. Added to the mixture of topical concerns is an incomparable visual strategy that coalesces Godard’s penchant for natural beauty, abstract imagery, and color and light experimentation with, new this time and most notably, three-dimensional composition. Godard’s self-consciously inventive use of 3D as an aesthetic and theoretical tool goes beyond any previously instituted use of the format. Many 3D films benefit from the technology; this is the first time where 3D is imperative to a film’s objective and total impact.

In 1967, Godard concluded Week End with titles declaring “End of Cinema,” but that was just the beginning of one of his most audacious periods of filmmaking. If this, then, is how he says “goodbye to language,” one can only imagine what he will greet next. – Jeremy Carr

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13. The LEGO Movie
Hold on to your butts and make way for one of the best animated features of the year. The LEGO Movie is a story about an ordinary rule
-abiding construction worker named Emmet, who is given the seemingly impossible task of stopping Lord Business’s diabolical plan to super-glue the LEGO universe. Rather than using movie tropes in the same tired manner, LEGO acknowledges tropes and cleverly repurposes them. It pokes fun at the “chosen one” prophecy, the use of floating words to identify locations, and comments on current pop culture in a way that make you laugh and blush at the same time. The level of detail they poured into the LEGO figures is astounding. Scratches, fingerprints, fading, and dust make it look like human hands have actually manipulated the bricks on screen. No simulated motion blur was used in the film either, limiting obvious CGI effects and promoting the feel of stop-motion. The LEGO Movie is a film for audiences of all ages that delivers big laughs, inspires creativity, and leaves you craving a box of LEGO bricks. – Elizabeth Rico

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12. Interstellar 

The ultimate Kubrick fan-fiction? An elaborate metaphor for the collapse of film? Christopher Nolan’s ambitiously flawed yet sporadically stunning sci-fi epic about as Michael McConaugheys’ junked mid-western pilot searching for mankind’s salvation among the stars has prompted the usual constellation of praise and scorn.
It’s certainly a film of peaks and troughs as the exposition-laced dialogue sits uneasily with a spectacular visual momentum, with Nolan and his screenwriting brother Jonathan bringing a genuine scale and scope to the big screen usually stuffed with spandex and the latest franchise fallacy. Beyond the blockbuster spectacle, it’s the smaller mission phases which linger the mind – a white knuckle docking sequence, a tesseract -tangled visual metaphor on the infinite reach of knowledge, and the true cost of inscrutable relativity on the human social animal.
With Hans Zimmer’s ecclesiastical soundtrack deafening in the mix,the film has been as rapturously praised by acolytes as it has been damned by apostates for its incoherent plot strands and verbal gyrations (complaints inaudible dialogue have plagued the movie), but the lasting impression is of a film which has the ambition and the guts to seize the blockbuster joystick away from increasingly commoditized stale franchises, and sometimes guts is enough. – John McEntee
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11. Whiplash
Jazz. Drums. Perfection. Sure, the Julliard-inspired film might sound like it’s only catering toward the pretentious highbrow intellect, but you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. When Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) clashes head-on with bullying instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the gloves come way off and sanity is hanging from a thin line. Terence is a tyrant like no other. He’ll bite your head off if not on tempo, and he’ll manipulate you without you knowing. Whiplash is all about jazz, and is shown and heard loud and beautifully. The two lead actors will blow you away, figuratively and literally. Teller, a drummer in real life, is a young actor of startling power and attention. Simmons, who is not new to the game of playing evil, is a brilliant force, playing the role of his career. Let’s just hope an Oscar is in his horizon. Simply put – Whiplash is a masterpiece. – Chris Clemente
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10. The Babadook
Horror aficionados love to talk up how effective the genre can be at concocting monsters that serve as metaphors for life. But too often those metaphors fall apart under any kind of scrutiny. The great horror films know how to spin truly resonant parables. And The Babadook is great. First-rate construction and some fantastically unsettling atmosphere act as the vector for a devastating story about loss and grief. And the film sticks to that conceit, not just using it as a jumping-off point but following it until its haunting, beautiful, perfect ending. – Dan Schindel

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9. Nightcrawler
If you were told that Dan Gilroy, writer of The Bourne Legacy and Two For The Money, was making his directorial debut in 2014 with a script he’d also penned, chances are you wouldn’t expect a great deal, especially when said story was about an idiosyncratic loner trying to find success in the world of freelance crime scene video-journalism. Of course, as the lead of this tale might say in a creepily earnest tone, a chance is all you need, and skepticism is just something to overcome if you ever cared about it in the first place. Rippling with the raw verve of Drive and the immorality of American Psycho, Nightcrawler proves not only a success but a potential future classic.
It’s a testament to Gilroy, clearly suited to a dual filmmaking role. His understated script tells an extraordinary story within the confines of character study, while his visual eye captures the shadows and neon glow of L.A. after dark, gorgeous and yet oddly dirty; it’s a film of metaphorical grime on the lens. However, what most people will take from the end product is the work of Jake Gyllenhaal, who sells the product and within it gives the performance of his career, magnetic and electric within a cold and gaunt physique. Lou Bloom, personality-free and speaking in slogans, is pathetic, fascinating, frightening and believable all in one, and is perhaps the pure embodiment of meritocratic ambition. He’s one of the year’s most memorable protagonist in one of the year’s best films.
– Scott Patterson
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8. Guardians of the Galaxy 

There are reasons aplenty that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy should hold a place on any list of 2014’s best films. Aesthetically, Guardians is a bold break away from the dominant aesthetic style of many contemporary science fiction films, with their muted, drab color palettes and Transformers-inspired mechanical designs. Guardians is a visual feast, with a bright, varied range of colors and striking, interesting visuals and designs. The film’s soundtrack, composed entirely of 70s pop/rock songs, gives Guardians a unique and memorable soundscape, but does so while at the same time cleverly tying that soundtrack into the plot, making it (and the object it stems from) an important factor in the film rather than just a striking detail in the film’s design.

Continuing with the retro theme, Guardians embraces a space opera formula that has been largely absent from cinema screens for years, taking audiences through fantastical locations and pitched space battles, with post-2000s snark and attitude balanced with operatic grandeur and drama. But beyond the aesthetics, the soundtrack, and the return to space opera adventure, what makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a singular experience is that it represents the exceedingly rare summer blockbuster with real emotional weight. While other summer effects spectacles make haphazard attempts to create a connection with their audiences, Guardians is able to present moments of genuine emotion in the midst of larger than life space adventure. From the disarmingly affecting opening scene (“Take my hand, Peter”) to simple but powerful moments of grief (“I called him an idiot….”), Guardians isn’t afraid to take momentary breaks from being an exceedingly fun sci-fi romp to present emotional content that for once feels sincere. On that count alone, Guardians of the Galaxy is a true triumph.
– Thomas O’Connor

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7. Snowpiercer 
Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian classic seemed doomed for derailment, as it battled studio interference and a limited theatrical release.  That Snowpiercer became a VOD juggernaut is a testament to its flawless blend of style and substance.  Chris Evans leads a railway jailbreak through increasingly bizarre worlds, each imbued with its own visual personality.  Gilliam-esque surrealism and brutal, gritty violence punctuate each signpost, with Joon-ho gradually revealing the elegance of his thematic design; the closer Evans gets to freedom, the more thoroughly enslaved he becomes.  Together with co-writer Kelly Masterson, Joon-ho preserves Snowpiercer’s pulpy roots as a graphic novel while still expanding the narrative reach far beyond this frozen tin can.  Wisely, all heady reflections on systemic tyranny are saved until the finale, long after we’re under the spell of its impeccable action set-pieces.  Whether it’s the perilous crossing of an icy bridge, or intimate warfare with a gang of ogre-like minions, Joon-ho throws us into the desperate center of his claustrophobic nightmare.  Endlessly inventive and emotionally gripping, Snowpiercer is truly the little sci-fi engine that could. – J.R. Kinnard
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6. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
A cathartic film about an aging actor’s ego wildly vacillating between being irrevocably broken and indestructible, Birdman is a homecoming for Michael Keaton’s talent and a showcase for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s creative capability. Slinking in and out of private and public humiliations, Keaton portrays fading star Riggan Thomson as a snarky mess of nerves as he mounts a dramatic Broadway production, while the director keeps up the tension and propels the provocations of the plot forward at a satisfying pace. What feels like a free form rift on life behind the curtain is in fact a tightly orchestrated look into a wounded psyche on the verge of collapse. The unrelenting movement of the camera matches the erratic nature of the protagonist’s instability and the absolute denial of his intimate failures in order to keep his future afloat. Riggan’s compulsion to attain validation at any cost reverberates from start to finish, and the storytelling at hand is unapologetically enamored with the cycles of defeat and triumph that go along with the huge gamble that the movie and the main character are taking. Skillfully grounded and executed supporting roles from Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan give Keaton’s tantrums perspective. A dizzying work of inner turmoil imbued with a biting humor about creative chaos, Birdman possesses a self-destructive brand of hope that infuses an adventurous enthusiasm about risk back into independent cinema.  – Lane Scarberry
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5. Only Lovers Left Alive
What have we done to deserve Tilda Swinton? This ethereal goddess blesses us with her presence on our screens time and time again, always taking chances and going all in (see Snowpiercer) and deliciously over-committing to small parts (The Grand Budapest Hotel). In Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, about vampires who show us that everyone becomes a hipster eventually, Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfectly paired as they roam a ruined Detroit and talk about art and music. It’s a post-Gothic, recession-era atmosphere that you involuntarily lose yourself in, partly because it is a only slightly pulpier take on a typical Jarmusch movie. His script is a beautiful document, giving Swinton and Hiddleston a lot to work with in what doesn’t amount to much more than a hangout movie. Though the darkness can seem overwhelming, it’s also frequently hilarious, with references to chilling out with long-dead celebrities and offhand comments on the amusing folly of man. No one looks cooler than Tilda Swinton playing a centuries-old vampire, and there’s no one better to spend two hours hanging out with. – Jake Pitre
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4. Gone Girl
Lately, it’s hard for a film to completely capture someone’s attention. Even if one isn’t blatantly pulling their phone out to check Twitter all the time, it’s hard for the very weight of time to be completely lifted from you as one watches a movie these days. Not so for David Fincher’s “trashterpiece”, as critic David Ehrlich called it. It’s a nasty piece of work, but it’s one of the slickest things you’ll see all year. Like few other films this year, it sucks you in and doesn’t let go. While you’re caught in Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn’s nightmare, you will inevitably be stuck, mouth agape, transfixed by the pulpy goings on. From examining the role of media in contemporary crime to a treatise on the inherent fraudulence of relationships, Gone Girl throws everything at the wall, and, impossibly, it all sticks. Not one second passes by when you’re not totally invested in the thriller, which is a multi-layered examination of money, marriage, and narrative. Regardless of its gender politics, Gone Girl is undoubtedly one of the most thrilling films in ages and certainly Fincher’s masterpiece. – Kyle Turner
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3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s films have long reveled in nostalgia, but none have been tempered with as much loss as The Grand Budapest Hotel. Shot in multiple aspect ratios and briefly crossing several generations, the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel as run by its fastidious caretaker M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is a forlorn tale of fading glory. War is creeping in on the fictional land of Zubrowska, and even as the most hopeful like M. Gustave try to educate the next generation with wisdom on the goodness of mankind, even he can’t help but concede, “Oh fuck it.”

And yet in aiming to find the former glory of the past, Anderson has made a film as rich and funny as any in his career. The hilarious sight gags of expertly crafted pastries, miniature digging tools, or cartoonishly elaborate ski slaloms feel like part of Zubrowska’s intricate fabric and world-building, not just the playful eccentricities of a director. But Fiennes’s eloquent taskmaster of a character, obsessed with even the tiniest detail, seems to channel Anderson’s inner genius. Fiennes joins Anderson’s cast of regulars and finds himself right at home, giving this completely zany caper a soul that’s missing from even some of Anderson’s best. – Brian Welk

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2. Boyhood

“You know how everyone’s always saying ‘seize the moment’? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around… like the moment seizes us.”

The above line in the final scene of Boyhood acts as a mission statement of sorts for Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Unlike a traditional coming-of-age film that would hone in on a single event or a sequence of milestones that changes or crafts a person, Linklater’s 12 year spanning work of (fairly) major and (deceptively) minor occurrences allows us to see the moments make a person. Or, rather, the moments become part of the man we see age from 6 to 18 over the course of 165 minutes. It may actually be misleading to even classify Boyhood as a coming-of-age film, as, outside of witnessing the physical development of its leads, it is not actually about transformation. It is instead a portrait of the nature of human maturation and memory, depicting the idea of sum of experiences in a most unique fashion through its now famous production process. Life is a process of accumulation, and we all bear the marks of every experience that shapes us, every moment acting as a pathway to either new possibilities or new reflections. In beautifully realising this aspect of humanity through a single fiction feature, Linklater creates what, through accumulation, is one of the most emotionally overwhelming American works of recent… well… memory. – Josh Slater-Williams

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1. Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson’s eyes scanning the streets of Glasgow, crowned with jet-black hair. Hapless yet serene men sinking step by step into a viscous black nothingness. An infant shrieking alone on a beach, fierce waves crashing too closely for comfort. Slurry red gore pouring into an incandescent opening to… where, exactly? A man with facial neurofibromatosis wandering naked in the countryside. A wisp of black smoke dissipating between snowflakes. If it can garner no other praise, Jonathan Glazer’s first film in a decade can at least claim some of the only truly iconic images to etch themselves onto the retinae of moviegoers in quite some time.

With some filmmakers fleeing to television in search of new modes of storytelling, it has been left up to true visionaries to push the boundaries of the medium and fight to keep it relevant. Under the Skin is a testament to the art of careful subtraction. Glazer pared down the film’s source material, Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, to a small collection of characters, visual motifs, and key incidents, using his decades-honed eye for conjuring imagery that packs a subconscious wallop to do the heavy lifting. Thanks to Glazer’s minimalist approach, Under the Skin gains an immense allegorical power that no other film this year could match, touching on identity politics, eroticism, the [assignation of your choice] gaze, and especially the power and the dangers of empathy. Through it all, Johansson’s disquieting performance acts as a constant magic trick, a sort of reverse uncanny valley. Whether or not Glazer takes another decade to follow it up, Under the Skin will stand as one of the totemic features of both arthouse and genre filmmaking for a very long time to come. – Simon Howell

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