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The 20 best movies of 2014

Illustration by Jeremy Wheeler
Illustration by Jeremy Wheeler

From Anatolia to Zubrowka, the great motion pictures of 2014 took you places. They leapt into the past, winding their way through 19th-century art galleries and 20th-century brothels, and speculated about the future, piloting audiences into wormholes and beyond. There were imaginary settings, like the crooked California community of Gordita Beach, and ones that just looked imaginary, as glimpsed through the inhuman eyes of an extraterrestrial tourist. Finding a common link among the 20 wildly different movies singled out below may seem like an exercise in futility, but most if not all of them operated like passports to somewhere else, even if that somewhere else was just a single suburban house or a tiny Berlin apartment. Yet for all the far-flung locations represented on our list—including the mundane residential backdrops of our top choice, the only movie to appear on every one of the six contributors’ ballots—a unilateral piece of travel advice emerges: There was no better place to be this past year than at the movies.

20. Winter Sleep

Winner of this year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep seems, at first blush, like a daunting viewing challenge—a 196-minute Turkish drama that’s composed almost entirely of conversational scenes. And yet the film is anything but an arduous experience, providing a richness of interpersonal exchange through the story of a former-actor-turned-hotel-proprietor (Haluk Bilginer) dealing with an unhappy younger wife (Melisa Sozen), a sour single sister (Demet Akbag), and a family in financial debt to him. In scene after thoughtfully composed scene, Ceylan immerses himself in the minute problems of his protagonist. Those issues all eventually prove to be symptomatic of his much larger failing to understand himself, just as they reveal Winter Sleep to be not just the story of a single individual, but a more universal study of the discrepancy between how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. Bolstered by stunning visuals that constantly express the characters’ shifting relations to one another, it’s a film that plumbs small-scale drama to epic effect. [Nick Schager]

19. Bird People

What does it mean to be truly free? Pascale Ferran’s intoxicating diptych Bird People asks that question by contrasting the experiences of an American businessman (Josh Charles) staying at an airport hotel in Paris and the young maid (Anaïs Demoustier) who cleans his room. In the film’s first half, Charles’ Gary wakes up to a panic attack and abruptly decides to quit his job, end his marriage, and remain in Paris indefinitely. In the second half, Demoustier’s Audrey unexpectedly has something very unusual happen to her. (To say more would be to ruin the giddy surprise.) Both are tales of liberation, but they’re in dramatically different registers. Gary’s withdrawal from his entire life has severe real-world repercussions, with which he has to deal at length (hunker down for his all-night Skype fight with his wife), and is arguably rooted largely in selfishness. Audrey’s bizarre journey of discovery, on the other hand, while exhilarating, is also tinged with danger, and opens her eyes to aspects of her surroundings she’s never noticed before. Few filmmakers would think to combine the mundane and the whimsical in quite this way, and fewer still could pull it off so beguilingly. [Mike D’Angelo]

18. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan may be a fanboy’s idea of genius cool, but one of the most endearing through-lines of his work is actually a nerdy squareness on par with TARS, the monolithic robot that serves as intermittent comic relief in Interstellar. Nolan’s ambitious sci-fi adventure features some of his trippiest and most beautiful imagery, surrounded by wordy explanations of science, all in service of a story about a man who misses his kids, emotionally and literally. Matthew McConaughey gives one of his best movie-star performances as that man, who leaves his family to pilot a mission to find planets that may be hospitable to human life following a devastating food shortage on Earth. He winds up traveling across not just space but time and dimension, with the director’s characteristic urgency, sincerity, and big-canvas imagery. 2001 is an obvious visual influence, but Nolan, often and incorrectly pegged as a Kubrick heir, reaches for the stars in a more literal-minded but also more humanity-friendly way. His blockbuster epic feels simultaneously huge (especially on a proper Imax screen) and intimate—an appropriate combination for the vastness and loneliness of space. [Jesse Hassenger]

17. The Missing Picture

The most devastating documentary of the year was the one that used inanimate objects to animate a traumatic past. Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, who’s spent most of his career cataloguing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, turned to his own horrible history with the Communist group—specifically, his childhood experiences in an agricultural labor camp, where his parents and siblings died of starvation. As footage of these dark days is scarce, Panh devised a novel workaround, placing tiny clay surrogates—of himself, of his slain family, of the war criminals responsible—into model recreations of the camp. Almost any version of the director’s first-person account would have been harrowing, but The Missing Picture gains an additional power from its unlikely approach: Despite its reliance on still images, the film is inherently cinematic, with Panh bringing his survival story to life through both evocative manipulation of the figurines and poetic voice-over recollections. Filling the void implied by its title, The Missing Picture proves not only that necessity can be the mother of invention, but also that great suffering can be channeled into great art. [A.A. Dowd]

16. God Help The Girl

So many contemporary film musicals drown their feelings in production value, or try to fashion apologetic excuses for singing and dancing. God Help The Girl, from Belle & Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch, is an unabashed and heartfelt musical with production numbers on the scale of a living-room dance party, shot on beautifully grainy 16 mm film. Eve (Emily Browning), an anorexic songwriter, James (Olly Alexander), an aspiring musician, and Cassie (Hannah Murray), a sweetly dizzy rich girl, meet and form a makeshift band. In between Murdoch’s wittily staged confessional songs, they grapple with how and whether to become full-fledged artists. Murdoch’s allegorically autobiographical first film takes more cues from A Hard Day’s Night than The Sound Of Music (though both get a shout-out in a single scene), but it’s not just a charming throwback; it’s a celebration, laced with melancholy, of how young people find and lose each other through music. And it makes the musical feel personal and vital again. [Jesse Hassenger]

15. Coherence

Shot in a single location (director James Ward Byrkit’s house) with a tiny budget and a largely unknown cast, this fiendishly clever throwback to golden-age Twilight Zone mindfucks assembles eight yuppie friends for a dinner party and then unleashes hell when a comet passes over them. The power goes out all over the neighborhood, with the exception of a single house down the block; when a couple of guys go over there to check it out, they return with a box—which contains individual photos of the whole group, each with an unexplained number on the back—and a crazy story. Or do they return? Byrkit and Alex Manugian (who’s also part of the cast) devised a freaky exercise in escalating paranoia, then had the actors improvise their way through the narrative, not knowing what would happen next. Miraculously, the result plays like tightly scripted drama, building relentlessly toward a decisive moment for one character in particular. Those with a little layman’s knowledge of quantum physics will be extra prepared for the question Coherence ultimately poses: If there are an infinite number of things you could be doing with your life right now, why on earth are you doing that? (But keep reading, please.) [Mike D’Angelo]

14. Listen Up Philip

Part biting black comedy, part intimate psychological drama, Alex Ross Perry’s dazzlingly accomplished indie feature is structured like an extended epilogue to a non-existent novel, beginning where most stories about young artists end and proceeding from there to create a richly textured, funny, and ultimately tragic portrait of New York creative types succumbing to narcissism. Jason Schwartzman is perfectly cast as the eminently quotable title character, a toxic novelist, but Perry pulls off a tricky structural switcheroo by cutting him out of most of the middle chunk of the movie, instead shifting the focus to his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) and literary idol (a superb Jonathan Pryce). What emerges is a film about egoism that refuses to indulge its protagonist’s ego—a movie of counterpoints and unflattering close-ups. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

13. Mr. Turner

As complex as its subject (and nearly as masterful as his paintings), Mr. Turner finds writer-director Mike Leigh at the absolute apex of his art. A biopic of supreme beauty and engaging nuance, the film charts the adult life and career of famed landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall in a career-best performance. Constantly grunting, habitually shifting his eyes to and fro, and alternating between gruff brusqueness and surprising warmth, Spall embodies Turner as a man of inherent dualities, one whose personal flaws—including a callous refusal to publicly admit to, or privately show any compassion toward, his ex-girlfriend and children—did not compromise his standing as a great man. An intimate snapshot of the artist as neither saintly nor damnable but, instead, a multifaceted human being, Mr. Turner digs deeply and shrewdly into the various components (some harmonious, some discordant) of Turner’s life, all while evoking his peerless works through striking, gorgeous panoramas of the English countryside. [Nick Schager]

12. National Gallery

At 84 years old, Frederick Wiseman continues to make documentaries his way—which is to say, with a patience, attentiveness, and lack of flash that’s missing in most modern non-fiction efforts. His latest, National Gallery, is a three-hour tour through London’s famed museum; Wiseman’s camera peers over the shoulders of patrons staring at classical masterpieces, around the corners of offices where administrators struggle to balance artistic and financial demands, and into the private rooms where restoration experts painstakingly rehabilitate works for display. Full of the director’s usual long takes, which precisely capture his milieu’s atmosphere of quiet contemplation, National Gallery is a portrait of cultural dialogue, be it between employees and patrons, students and teachers, or the past and the present. With a concentrated focus on the various ways in which artistic history is nurtured, it’s a film that not only conveys a stirring sense of its time and place, but also evokes a more profound impression of the intellectual and emotional conversations that keep creativity alive. [Nick Schager]

11. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson turns Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel into a psychedelic cousin to The Long Goodbye. The material fits well with the director’s expanding catalog of American loners and dreamers; it can even be seen as a chronological and spiritual prequel to Boogie Nights, in the sense that it captures a last gasp of idealist freedom before an era (’60s here, ’70s there) comes to an end. As Doc Sportello, a perpetually stoned detective getting to the bottom of a comically convoluted plot, Joaquin Phoenix earns more laughs with each facial turn than most comedians manage in an entire movie. The character’s druggie delusions prove to be justified—as in Chinatown, another noir that dealt with L.A. land use, all mysteries are hidden in plain slight. Yet the film’s sense of doomed romanticism (most disturbing in an extraordinary one-take monologue by Katherine Waterston, who plays Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta) is pure Anderson, making this a companion piece to The Master and Punch-Drunk Love. Because it’s the first screen Pynchon adaptation, the movie was destined to be unprecedented in at least one sense. But it finds its director staking out new turf in risky, often riotously funny ways. [Ben Kenigsberg]

10. Goodbye To Language 3D

Having spent his career creating new ways to see in 2-D, Jean-Luc Godard tackles the next dimension. Those who have seen Goodbye To Language should read David Bordwell’s lengthy discussion of the film’s narrative structure (basically, two short sections and two long sections that mirror each other). But as with many of Godard’s greatest films, this latest one is durable even before it begins to make linear sense. Like Contempt, which also used a strained relationship as a backdrop, Goodbye To Language is a sidelong history of artistic representation, updated with the technological developments of the intervening five decades. Godard supplies a shot in which some hands fiddle with PDAs as others flip through books, and he repeatedly casts the film’s central figures in silhouette against hi-def TVs showing classic movies. Not content with the fundamental constraints of stereoscopic shooting, the director turns out to have experimented with shots that violate the basic 3-D principle of two cameras in sync. No film in 2014 matched Goodbye To Language for sheer density of invention; it’s a case of an 84-year-old director who’s still ahead of his time. Also, it had the year’s best dog. [Ben Kenigsberg]

9. Force Majeure

If Michael Haneke grew a sense of humor, he might make something as pitilessly funny as Force Majeure. Set at a French ski resort during a vacation that goes spectacularly awry, this incisive Swedish import has all the trappings of a rigorous domestic drama. But then come the bleak jokes, rolling in as rapidly as the wall of snow that sends a panicked family man (Johannes Kuhnke) sprinting for safety, away from both the encroaching danger and his defenseless wife and children. The avalanche is a false alarm, but the damage is done—and Force Majeure closely studies the fallout of this failure of nerve, watching as a marriage buckles under the weight of a husband’s denial and a fragile male ego shatters into pieces. Ruben Östlund, the film’s exacting writer-director, splashes black comedy across the white slopes, provoking nervous laughter with every awkward exchange. Insecure macho men, incidentally, will find all of this about as amusing as Funny Games. [A.A. Dowd]

8. The Immigrant

James Gray’s sad, sweeping tale of survival on the margins of 1920s New York follows a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) as she struggles to get her sister out of the Ellis Island quarantine, in the process becoming involved with a small-time pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and catching the eye of his magician cousin (Jeremy Renner). Gray, a director whose style is capable of creating a tremendous sense of intimacy between camera and character, builds the movie out of unspoken feelings, evoked through gestures and glances; the between-the-lines stuff that the people on-screen refuse to say or acknowledge becomes not only tangible, but central to the movie as a whole. The result is a masterful drama that works in the great tradition of the silent movie close-up—a story of desperation, escape, and redemption that builds to a haunting final image, one of the greatest endings in recent memory. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

7. The Strange Little Cat

How rare to encounter a film (and a debut, no less!) of such casual brilliance and offhand delight. Named for the pet feline whose perspective it seems to occasionally adopt, The Strange Little Cat captures a few hours in a cramped Berlin apartment, as a family of 10 gradually convenes for a late meal. That’s about all there is to the plot, but first-time writer-director Ramon Zürcher treats his wisp of a narrative as license to playfully bend and break the basic rules of moviemaking. Characters arrive unannounced, sometimes speaking before they’ve even appeared in frame; much of the dialogue, in fact, seems to occur offscreen, as those in view become lost in private thought. Time skips forward without warning. Flashbacks operate like non sequiturs. Little visual gags—a ball flying in through an open window, a bottle spinning like a top—create a sense of mysterious mischief. Zürcher toys wildly with the grammar of the medium, even as his focus remains on the gentle, unassuming business of cohabitating. And lest one think the film’s an empty formal exercise, there’s a subtle emotional fulcrum: a melancholy mother, grappling with the realization that her home may never be this full—this abuzz with life and activity—ever again. [A.A. Dowd]

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson has been dismissed as a fussy director—an architect of intricate, closed-system dollhouses. But The Grand Budapest Hotel shows just how much his impeccably designed world can expand. Here it accommodates a series of nested timelines, eventually digging down to the story of hotel concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) working in a fictional country in between World Wars. Fiennes, playing one of Anderson’s self-styled ringmasters, and Revolori, playing one of Anderson’s deadpan nerds, are new to the writer-director’s stable, while a variety of alumni (Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton) pass through the movie. With its stolen painting, ski chases, shoot-outs, and macabre slapstick, The Grand Budapest Hotel is nutty, madcap fun—until its final moments, when the characters are all, in their various ways, lost to history, and those losses echo across time. The lavishly appointed set design and meticulous camera choreography give way to decay and regret, and one of Anderson’s funniest films becomes one of his most quietly devastating. [Jesse Hassenger]

5. Under The Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s first feature since Birth (2004) ambitiously attempts the near-impossible, viewing human existence through the eyes of an alien that sees us only as meat. Technically, the film is an adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, but Glazer and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell tossed most of the book aside, choosing to tell a more abstract story through images and sounds infused with sheer dread. As the alien seductress, seen driving around Scotland in a van picking up men whose sorry fate is almost too bizarre to describe, Scarlett Johansson empties herself of all affect whenever she’s alone on-screen, offering no clues regarding what she—or, rather, it—is thinking. That’s entirely implied by Glazer’s astonishing ability to render the world unfamiliar, assisted by a nerve-shredding score from Mica Levi (a.k.a. Micachu). Even when the narrative takes a predictable turn, with Johansson’s predator starting to identify with her borrowed form, Under The Skin portrays this existential crisis in the least sentimental way imaginable. It’s a nearly unparalleled feat of creative imagination—the kind for which the word “visionary” was coined. [Mike D’Angelo]

4. Gone Girl

It’s an understatement to say that David Fincher is drawn to mysteries that resist closure; his movies show an obsessive concern for what we know, what we can prove, whose perspective we’re seeing, and how we can learn more. Go to the library. Look at the files. The Internet is written in ink. While it doesn’t rise to Zodiac levels of brilliance, Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller is yet another investigation, albeit of a more interior sort. Instead of a sprawling murder case, the film centers on a couple trying to worm their way inside each other’s heads. Nothing can be trusted: not the flashbacks, not the news footage, not even the narrative tone. Gone Girl begins as a deceptively conventional procedural in the Presumed Innocent mode before gradually rising to a Verhoeven-esque pitch of exaggerated, comic trashiness. As always, Fincher’s sense of rhythm is without fault, thanks in part to Jeff Cronenweth’s eerily precise compositions and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ weirdly soothing score. Eclectic casting also helps: Tyler Perry finds just the right balance of swagger and bemusement as a gummy-bear-throwing attorney, while Carrie Coon, as Ben Affleck’s character’s sister, locates the film’s well-obscured heartbeat in what deserves to be a breakout performance. [Ben Kenigsberg]

3. Whiplash

A tightly ratcheted thriller disguised as a coming-of-age movie, Damien Chazelle’s second feature puts two sociopathic musicians—a drill-sergeant-type jazz instructor and a teenage drummer who’s got more than a little Travis Bickle in him—into a film-long duet of abuse, obsession, and self-destruction. Blood spills, sweat pours, folding chairs are thrown, slurs are loosed, and, in the end, during a climactic full-band performance that’s our pick for the best scene of the year, what they finally produce is less music than the sound of two people attacking and wrecking each other with everything they’ve got. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons play their characters as captivating monsters: repulsive, but oozing unspoken vulnerability. Like our 14th-place pick, Listen Up Philip, this is a movie about men who have no qualms about alienating everyone around them in the pursuit of art; however, the stakes here are both higher and more esoteric. The kind of perfectionist, collegiate big-band music taught by Fletcher (Simmons) and played by Andrew (Teller) is neither hip nor popular—it’s something to obsesses over, an enabler for a person’s worst anti-social impulses. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

2. Two Days, One Night

No feat performed in any of this year’s action movies demanded as much courage and fortitude as what Belgium’s Dardenne brothers (The Kid With A Bike, The Son, Rosetta) ask of their latest harried protagonist. Due for release next week, Two Days, One Night stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a factory worker who’s just been laid off after having been hospitalized for clinical depression. Specifically, her 16 co-workers were given the choice between letting Sandra keep her job or receiving their €1,000 annual bonus, and they collectively chose the bonus. She has just the weekend to change at least nine minds for a revote on Monday morning, and as she trudges wearily around town asking everyone for their support—a pride-swallowing endeavor if ever there were one—the Dardennes use her quest to explore a wide spectrum of humanity, touching on every imaginable node between altruism and self-interest. Cotillard digs deep into Sandra’s struggle to overcome her shame at having to beg her friends for help, anchoring the most nakedly emotional film Jean-Pierre and Luc have made yet. Which is really saying something. [Mike D’Angelo]

1. Boyhood

For the second year in a row, a film by Richard Linklater has topped the A.V. Club’s list of the finest movies released from January to December. That’s no fluke: Two and a half decades into his career, the shaggy Texas bohemian who made Dazed And Confused and Waking Life has emerged as our premier cinematic time traveler, hunkering down with his camera to depict how people change, emotionally and physically, in the space between then and now. But with apologies to last year’s sublime Before Midnight, the true pinnacle of Linklater’s virtuous patience arrived this year, a dozen summers after he began tracking the annual growth patterns of a young boy (Ellar Coltrane), his older sister (Lorelai Linklater), and the divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) raising them. Were it nothing more than an ambitious stunt, Boyhood would still demand to be witnessed, if only for the amazing time-lapse spectacle of seeing its actors mature in fast-forward. But what really makes this grand experiment the best film of the year—and indeed, one of the most profound coming-of-age stories ever put on celluloid—is Linklater’s commitment to finding significance in life’s seemingly insignificant moments. He’s made a film about the small, mundane experiences that shape who we become, and by the end of three relaxed hours, a viewer may feel as though they’ve lived a second childhood with the characters. There’s just never been a film quite like Boyhood. Nothing this year could compete with watching it gestate, in tandem with its young stars, into the modern masterpiece it already looks like. [A.A. Dowd]