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The best of film 2014: The ballots

We voted, we tallied, we made a list: The A.V. Club’s tribute to the best films of 2014 was democratically assembled, with each of its six contributors submitting a ranked inventory of their favorites. The individual ballots are below, each affixed with six superlatives, including an outlier (a film that made one list but no others) and a wild-card category of the writer’s choosing. Did we forget something essential? Set the record straight in the comments section, and head over to the results of the readers’ poll to see if this indisputable masterpiece got its due there.

A.A. Dowd

1. Boyhood
2. Whiplash
3. The Strange Little Cat
4. Two Days, One Night
5. Stray Dogs
6. Under The Skin
7. Force Majeure
8. Blue Ruin
9. Gone Girl
10. The Missing Picture
11. Nightcrawler
12. The Babadook
13. Ida
14. The Immigrant
15. Inherent Vice

Outlier: Stray Dogs

For almost 30 of its 138 minutes, Stray Dogs depicts two of its characters staring at a mural in complete silence. That should give readers some sense of the patience Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang demands of his audience—and why, perhaps, his potential swan song failed to make much of a splash when it opened in a couple of American theaters earlier this year. There is, however, a political and even moral dimension to the film’s (very) long takes: Tsai has made a movie about the importance of not looking away, his static camera locked on the type of people society usually renders invisible. Set in the shopping malls and abandoned buildings of modern Taipei, Stray Dogs chronicles the daily routines of a homeless father (Tsai regular Lee Kang-Sheng) and his two latchkey children. Scenes of deep despair alternate with moments of hypnotic surrealism; the constant is the empathy of Tsai’s unblinking gaze. Viewers capable of getting on the film’s wavelength may feel, by the end, like those aforementioned characters: overcome with feeling and unable to avert their eyes from a work of such staggering beauty. Tsai rewards your patience.

Most overrated: Foxcatcher

Almost everything about Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s chilly true-crime dramatization, is one-note. There are the celebrated performances, in which fine actors wrestle with the single character trait they’ve been afforded—Channing Tatum just simmering and simmering as an inarticulate bull of a man, Steve Carell slapping on a fake schnoz to play the drowsy vampire of American privilege. There’s the mood of the movie, invariably glum, as though Miller had drained every moment, every frame, of life or vitality. And don’t get me started on the allegorical aims, which hinge on viewing these real-life people as totems of their class, the mad prince and his exploitable subjects. Foxcatcher reaches for big themes, but it’s built on a faulty dramatic foundation: Liberties are taken, facts are fudged, and a timeline is severely truncated—all to make a mundane series of events seem directly related to the tragedy that occurred a whopping seven years after them. Only Mark Ruffalo deserves his acclaim; he always manages to find multiple dimensions, even in a film as flat as Foxcatcher.

Most underrated: A Million Ways To Die In The West

On the small screen, Seth MacFarlane continues to earn every ounce of scorn he receives; American Dad and Family Guy remain as execrable as ever, the latter even managing to spread its toxic nihilism to characters from other shows. That said, critics (including our own) were too hard on A Million Ways To Die In The West, MacFarlane’s mostly harmless and, yes, occasionally funny Western spoof. As with Ted, the limitations of live-action filmmaking bring out the best in the writer-director-star: Forced to rely less on lazy cutaway gags, which are more expensive to shoot than to animate, MacFarlane actually tells a story. Furthermore, writing for flesh-and-blood actors—as opposed to cartoon characters, who can get away with much more heinous behavior—seems to partially curb his mean-spiritedness. Million Ways isn’t exactly a laugh riot, nor does it entirely refrain from the kind of cheap shock tactics that its creator seriously needs to outgrow. But the film is sweeter and less idiotic than its detractors let on, with MacFarlane poking good fun at the mercilessness of the era (“People die at the fair”) and coaxing a relaxed, charming supporting performance out of Charlize Theron. Also, to those complaining about how anachronistic MacFarlane’s wiseass routine is: Do you also despise Blazing Saddles?

Biggest disappointment: Night Moves

Some filmmakers set the bar so high that they have trouble reaching it again themselves. Four years ago, Kelly Reichardt made a quantum leap forward as a director with Meek’s Cutoff, a masterfully tense and ambiguous neo-Western about a group of pioneers lost in the Oregon wilderness. Her follow-up, the thriller Night Moves, is by no means a bad movie—it boasts a strong atmosphere of unease, and a quietly menacing turn by Jesse Eisenberg, playing one of a trio of radicals plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam. But after Meek’s, the film can’t quite help but feel like a letdown, or at least a step in the wrong direction. Reichardt, who’s normally an expert at character development, never really gets to the core of her frazzled protagonists. Nor does she have much to say about their tactics or ideals; this is not a political film, even if the narrative seems to encourage reading it through that lens. Mostly, Night Moves just coasts on mood, and—fair or not—we’ve come to expect more from its maker. A masterpiece is a hard act to follow; whatever Reichardt makes next will benefit from less inflated expectations.

Most pleasant surprise: Birdman

Speaking of expectations: A meta showbiz comedy by Alejandro González Iñárritu sounds like a bad joke, one told at the expense of anyone who suffered through the consecutive misery piles of 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. Even after the raves started pouring in from Venice, and that bewitching first teaser hit the web, it seemed safe to remain skeptical of this presumptive mismatch of talent to material. Oh me of little faith: Birdman turned out to be the funniest, most playful film Iñárritu has ever made—a backstage farce that rescues his formal talents from the we-are-all-connected melodrama to which they’re usually applied. Yes, some of the credit belongs to the director’s collaborators: his dynamite cast, led by a rejuvenated Michael Keaton; his hot-shit cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who pulls off the one-shot formal gimmick; and composer Antonio Sanchez, whose percussive score is instrumental (har har) to the project’s energy. But it’s Iñárritu who orchestrates everything, and if there’s some irony to such a self-important filmmaker poking fun at self-importance, it’s probably intentional. Either way, the director has achieved the kind of career 180 that Keaton’s character desperately desires, and I’m happy—and yeah, a little shocked—to be won over by it.

Most widely and successfully emulated genre master: John Carpenter

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, than John Carpenter must be blushing pretty hard right now. While filmmakers have been biting on his style since at least the early ’80s, when the first wave of Halloween knockoffs began flooding theaters, some of the most affectionate and skillful homages to his work arrived in 2014. This past January’s Sundance Film Festival featured not one, but two blatant Carpenter nods: Jim Mickle’s unpredictable crime drama, Cold In July, and Adam Wingard’s crackerjack genre pastiche, The Guest. Then in May, at the Cannes Film Festival, David Robert Mitchell successfully mixed his own indie sensibilities with those of the master, emerging with the superbly scary horror film It Follows. All three movies evoke Carpenter in their framing choices, their dread-infused small-town environments, and, especially, their synth-heavy scores. It’s a good omen for the future of genre cinema, which could use fewer Blair Witch clones and more The Thing impersonations.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

1. The Immigrant
2. Listen Up Philip
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Whiplash
5. Beloved Sisters
6. Starred Up
7. Goodbye To Language
8. Stranger By The Lake
9. Gone Girl
10. Boyhood
11. John Wick
12. The Strange Little Cat
13. Snowpiercer
14. Lucy
15. Norte, The End Of History

Outlier: Starred Up

If I were asked to list the most underrated filmmakers working today, I’d reckon one of the first people I’d name would be Scottish director David Mackenzie, whose explorations of queasy sexual dynamics and relationship power struggles have never gotten the recognition—or viewership—they deserve. Things seem to have turned around a bit with the reception of his latest film, Starred Up, a brutal, but ultimately very humane prison drama about a violent juvenile offender (Jack O’Connell) who gets moved into the adult prison where his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is serving a life sentence. It’s the kind of taut, unsentimental, sensitive filmmaking Mackenzie excels at—one of the year’s best films, as well as a great opportunity for folks to reconsider Mackenzie’s Ashton Kutcher downer Spread.

Most overrated: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

I backed out of answering this question on last year’s ballot, but since A.A. Dowd has told me I can’t pull the same stunt again this year, I’ll say that I’m irked by a certain tendency within the culture of film criticism to view movies through the diffuse, rosy filter of festival hype. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night isn’t a terrible movie, but its reception provides a perfect example. So many of the movie’s reviews bring up the influences listed in the film’s press kit, without getting into how the film really works and moves; somehow, through the alchemy of hype, an art-schoolish American indie full of slow-motion sequences set to synth-laden, sub-hip indie rock has willed itself into being described and addressed as an Iranian Western. Go figure.

Most underrated: The Immigrant

This probably seems like an odd pick, because it’s actually in our top 10 and has received consistently good reviews. Still, the movie—a major accomplishment by any metric—remains under-seen and under-discussed. Its director, James Gray, is one of the most gifted American filmmakers of our time—a master of the unspoken, who uses style to express what his characters can’t articulate. It’s one of the most emotionally overwhelming big-screen experiences I’ve had in the last few years, and I wish more people were able to see in a theater. Ditto Listen Up Philip.

Biggest disappointment: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is one of the most sublime rom-coms of the past decade—a love triangle set in Hong Kong’s financial sector, crafted with such meticulousness that its visual references to Vertigo and Playtime never seem like over-reaching. I was therefore bummed out by To’s follow-up, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, which is exponentially zanier than its predecessor (impromptu road races, multiple mistaken identities, and a psychic octopus are involved), but is also one of the stodgiest things To has made since he and Wai went independent in the late ’90s. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 isn’t an out-and-out bad movie—To doesn’t seem capable of making one at this point—but it’s surprisingly impersonal and stiff. If we’re counting festival screenings, though, I can name some bigger disappointments, the biggest of which has to be Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi’s overheated Catholic melodrama, Foreign Body, which probably won’t get released in the States. Zanussi’s best works are complex investigations into the search for personal and cosmic meaning, whether founded on science, religion, or work; that he’d end up making something this stupid is kind of mind-boggling.

Most pleasant surprise: Need For Speed

This has been an uncharacteristically strong year for English-language action movies, with such pleasant surprises as John Wick, Lucy, and Non-Stop gracing multiplex screens. (That last one, a twisty Liam Neeson thriller set almost entirely inside of a jetliner during a transatlantic flight, almost ended up on my ballot.) Though Need For Speed isn’t even close to being in the same category as those three films, it’s much better than an overlong game adaptation probably has any right to be, thanks in no small part to its energetic racing scenes, which are animated by ingenious stunt work and a real sense of snarling car-culture cool.

Best filmmaking in something that isn’t technically a film: The Knick

The idea that movie and TV are two different things—rather than, say, different versions of the same thing—is becoming increasingly vestigial, a distinction held over from a time when the two media were distinguished by how they were transmitted. Nowadays, when movies aren’t exclusively seen in movie theaters and TV shows aren’t exclusively watched on TV sets, it seems like high time to re-evaluate the boundary drawn between the two—which, for the record, was always sort of artificial. Case in point: Steven Soderbergh’s Cinemax series The Knick, an eccentric period piece that shows how easily the expressive qualities traditionally associated with film style translate to the episodic format. Shot for shot, it’s a smarter and more gripping show than the more ballyhooed True Detective, with Soderbergh—who, as per usual, served as his own cinematographer—doing some of the most adventurous camerawork of his career.

Mike D’Angelo

1. Two Days, One Night
2. Coherence
3. Bird People
4. Under The Skin
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. Boyhood
7. Last Days In Vietnam
8. Proxy
9. The Missing Picture
10. Snowpiercer
11. Joe
12. Lucky Them
13. The Strange Little Cat
14. Edge Of Tomorrow
15. John Wick

Outlier: Proxy

Watch 300 or 400 movies every year and it gets dispiritingly easy to predict, within the first few minutes, where the vast majority of them are headed. Proxy, the fourth low-budget feature written and directed by Indiana native Zack Parker, is thrillingly determined to keep viewers off-balance. Opening with a brutal act of violence (which some folks won’t make it past), it appears to be the story of a bereaved mother (Alexia Rasmussen) who’s befriended by a suspiciously supportive woman (Alexa Havins) at the support group they both attend. Almost immediately, however, this already sinister narrative starts spiraling out of control, as characters repeatedly take actions that seem wholly inexplicable. Parker favors a magnificently baroque visual style, clearly influenced by Brian De Palma, that heightens the sense of a film that’s becoming increasingly untethered from reality; his actors likewise give stylized, deliberately artificial performances (mistaken for ineptitude by some) intended to disorient. Proxy suffers from some lapses in logic, but it’s operating on a level of ambition and formal dexterity that makes most indie thrillers seem comparatively anemic. Don’t be surprised if Parker’s next film makes a significantly bigger splash.

Most overrated: Listen Up Philip

Listen up critics. Sure, Alex Ross Perry is one of us. He worked the counter at New York’s late and lamented Kim’s Video; he fetishizes defunct and near-defunct media; he makes intentionally abrasive movies that challenge rather than pacify. He’s the kind of indie filmmaker we want to champion. So far, however, he’s still stuck in the juvenilia phase, and he may never emerge from it if people keep insisting that he’s already making masterpieces. For Listen Up Philip, Perry employs a literary model (Philip Roth, specifically) that mostly just exposes his superficial understanding of the books he’s read. The title character, a mildly successful author played by Jason Schwartzman, is less a complex antihero than an empty, self-congratulatory collection of obnoxious tics, while his Roth-like mentor (Jonathan Pryce) embodies every known cliché about the intellectual elite. Incredibly, virtually none of the reviews that praised the film effusively even noticed, or at least deigned to mention, that Perry’s screenplay, which includes copious omniscient voice-over narration (delivered by Eric Bogosian), is riddled with errors, ranging from badly dangling modifiers to the complete misuse of simple words like “remiss.” Let’s wait for a filmmaker to learn the difference between “subside” and “subsist” before we declare him a genius.

Most underrated: The Longest Week

By contrast, here’s a thoroughly charming, if admittedly clumsy and derivative, attempt at sophistication and dry wit that was treated by many critics as if it were radioactive nuclear waste. First-time writer-director Peter Glanz was accused left and right of shamelessly mimicking Wes Anderson, which is apparently the gravest sin that a young American filmmaker can commit. In truth, Glanz’s sensibility is just as heavily indebted to Whit Stillman, who could use a talented acolyte or two. Admittedly, The Longest Week doesn’t have much of a story, observing the painful personal growth of an idle rich dude (Jason Bateman) who falls for the new girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) of his longtime best pal (Billy Crudup). But Glanz has a sharp camera eye, a knack for clever dialogue, and a light touch with actors. And if he goes a little overboard with his homages to folks like Anderson and Woody Allen, that’s hardly a capital offense. Most artists take some time to develop their own unique voice; if they demonstrate as much obvious talent as Glanz does in his debut, it’s safe to assume that they’ll eventually outgrow their tendency to regurgitate.

Biggest disappointment: Nymphomaniac: Volume II

Had it been released as a single five-hour film, Nymphomaniac as a whole might well have been cited for this dubious honor. Lars Von Trier’s decision (or his financial advisors’ decision) to release the film in two halves, however, created a truly massive imbalance. Volume I, which constantly offsets its heroine’s recounted erotic adventures with tortured analogies and digressions from her learned listener, is both fun and fascinating—it’s clear that Von Trier is using Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as a means of interrogating his own ideas. In the dreary Volume II, however, Seligman all but vanishes, replaced by monotonous depictions of sexual masochism. What’s more, the second half concludes with a laughably awful twist that is somehow simultaneously out of character and depressingly predictable. At the end of Volume I, Nymphomaniac looks as if it might be the movie of the year. At the end of Volume II, it looks more like Von Trier merrily giving his audience the finger. Even more so than usual, that is.

Most pleasant surprise: Hercules

In this era of escalating superhero bloat, it was refreshing to see a summer blockbuster—starring The Rock, no less—devoted to cutting its larger-than-life hero down to size. Hercules craftily opens with a set-piece with typically overblown effects, accompanied by pompous narration, before revealing this as a story being told by a captured prisoner. When Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) appears to singlehandedly save the day, killing a small army without breaking a sweat, the carnage is shot by director Brett Ratner in a way that makes it difficult to see what’s actually happening. Only afterward is it revealed that “Hercules”—the myth, not the man—is really half a dozen people (including the actual man named Hercules) working as a unit, creating the impression of an invincible warrior in order to frighten foes into quick submission. The rest of the movie doesn’t capitalize on this inspired idea (which originated in the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars) as much as it might have, but at least it has a sense of both humor and proportion.

Best special effects: Bird People

The trouble with this selection is that explaining the nature of Bird People’s special effects would constitute a major plot revelation. Suffice it to say that the amount of technical wizardry expended on the second half of this low-budget French drama is genuinely astonishing, and that I honestly have no idea how certain shots were achieved. That director Pascale Ferran even imagined that she could make the movie without the full resources of a Hollywood studio, or its foreign equivalent, is remarkable. Was the [REDACTED] trained? Is it completely digital? A combination of both? The last option seems most likely, but such is the fragile magic of this movie that I can’t bring myself to investigate. I really don’t want to know.

Jesse Hassenger

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. God Help The Girl
3. Muppets Most Wanted
4. We Are The Best!
5. Under The Skin
6. Boyhood
7. Whiplash
8. Edge Of Tomorrow
9. Interstellar
10. Joe
11. The Lego Movie
12. Gone Girl
13. The Boxtrolls
14. Inherent Vice
15. Birdman

Outlier: Muppets Most Wanted

I put a lot of stock in a movie that can make me laugh, and no movie this year made me laugh as often or as joyfully as Muppets Most Wanted, the mostly ignored sequel to 2011’s Jason Segel-penned Muppets revamp. Segel is absent this go-round (human characters rarely return for Muppet sequels), but director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller stick around to write great Muppet jokes; charming as Segel and Amy Adams were, their more TV-scale replacements (Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, and Ricky Gervais) do fine supporting the real stars: Kermit, Piggy, Animal, Gonzo, Sam The Eagle, and Kermit’s villainous doppelgänger Constantine. Matt Vogel does especially delightful work in the latter role, mangling Muppet names and expressing his nefarious indifference to Muppet routines. There’s real and underappreciated cinematic craft in sustaining the amount of character humor, sight gags, meta asides, musical comedy, and absurdist and/or pun-based juxtapositions that this kind of enterprise, at its best, demands. As high as my hopes were for a new series of Muppet movies, I didn’t expect them to rival golden-age Simpsons in gag-craft, but here we are.

Most overrated: The Immigrant

I may have to turn in my film-snob card over this. While James Gray’s ’20s-set immigration saga wasn’t quite universally acclaimed (and was surely screwed over by Harvey Weinstein), Gray has a smart set of virulent fans in his corner whenever he releases a movie. I agree with them on one point: The Immigrant is one of his best and most beautiful, particularly in the muted yellows, blacks, and browns of its cinematography. But the movie as a whole is just as verbally stilted and inertly plotted as his other New York stories (Two Lovers; We Own The Night) that, like this one, have moments of recognizable human feeling amidst awkward artifice and narrative passivity. It seems like Marion Cotillard’s performance as a Polish immigrant in a sort-of love triangle (with manager/pimp Joaquin Phoenix and charming magician Jeremy Renner) is supposed to be so open, empathetic, and iconic that it doesn’t matter how many of her relationships seem to develop off-screen or not at all. She’s just a beacon of beautiful suffering in a gussied-up melodrama.

Most underrated: White Bird In A Blizzard

When I saw Gregg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up, I never imagined I’d register any complaints about the writer-director not getting enough attention. But since Mysterious Skin, Araki has been on a hell of a streak, oscillating between serious coming-of age stories and wacked-out comedies with a lot more warmth than his earlier, attention-grabbing work. His surreal and serious impulses complement each other, and the combination gives his recent work a distinct, otherworldly vibe. White Bird In A Blizzard is more on his serious side (though it has its share of laughs), and while it’s not as affecting as Skin, it captures young-adult hometown alienation with similar sensitivity. Shailene Woodley holds the frame even when her character turns passive by design—impressive when she’s acting opposite Eva Green, capping a year of great supporting turns and looking here like the type of mother who might at any minute devour her young.

Biggest disappointment: Chef

It’s not as if I went into Chef expecting a year’s-best movie, necessarily. But here’s Jon Favreau, scrappy filmmaker who worked on Made and Swingers, returning to his indie roots after a decade of blockbusting, with an enhanced Rolodex giving him access to the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr., among others. Surely Chef would be, at minimum, a pretty funny human-scale comedy. And yet the best it ever achieves are fleeting moments where its mild pleasantness overtakes its self-aggrandizement. The movie is supposed to be about a chef reconnecting with his roots and forging a new bond with his young son, but Favreau stacks the deck by denying the kid any personality beyond his desire to help his father cook. Yes, this is the touching story of a chef who fixes his family by allowing his son to share an interest he already has—oh, and by learning how to use social media correctly, rather than fighting with online haters. These wan conflicts wouldn’t detract so much from a funnier, livelier movie, but Favreau seems to assume that if he just gets John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and himself in the same room, hilarious banter will find them. It doesn’t, and the rest of his strong cast is stranded, too. Twitter has more to do in the movie than Johansson, Hoffman, or Downey, and plenty of comments sections are funnier.

Most pleasant surprise: Magic In The Moonlight

As a committed Woody Allen fan, I should not necessarily be surprised when I like one of his movies. Then again, as a committed Woody Allen fan, I also know not to get my hopes up too high every time, especially when the movie starts off a little poky and creaky, as Magic In The Moonlight does. But what initially feels like one of those mild, repetitive trifles that Allen tosses off with some regularity turns into a charming trifle with a soul underneath. Colin Firth searches for that soul as a curmudgeonly magician with a sideline in debunking mystics like the maybe-psychic played by Emma Stone. Allen’s explorations of faith, love, and their accompanying mysteries doesn’t break new ground for him, but Firth’s self-doubt feels authentic and Stone is effortlessly charming. Moonlight rates as the year’s most pleasant surprise because in the end, I felt moved by it, May-December romance and all, in a way I hadn’t since Midnight In Paris.

Best forestallment of inevitable franchise ruination: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and 22 Jump Street

Most of the year’s very best movies came from outside the Hollywood tentpole system, which has become so enamored of franchising via sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and expanded universes that even its good movies can feel like a threat to make many additional worse ones. That’s why the summer of 2014 felt like some kind of crazy backwards universe, where good blockbuster sequels threatened to become the norm. New entries in the Captain America, X-Men, Planet Of The Apes, and 21 Jump Street series didn’t quite make my top 15 list, but all of them were bubbling under, repping some of the most purely enjoyable moviegoing experiences of the year. Their approaches are diverse: The Winter Soldier genre-hops with a ’70s-ish conspiracy thriller; Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes continues and deepens the story that began with its predecessor; 22 Jump Street opts for heavy self-mockery; and Days Of Future Past goes full-on comic-book with retcons, timeline replacements, and curtain calls. Their results, though, are similar: renewed excitement over having fun at summer movies. It’s hard to imagine this continuing much longer (for every promising Age Of Ultron, there’s a Terminator: Genisys), but maybe 2016, where sequels to at least three of these four franchises are currently scheduled, will revive the streak.

Ben Kenigsberg

1. Inherent Vice
2. Boyhood
3. Two Days, One Night
4. Gone Girl
5. The Strange Little Cat
6. Goodbye To Language
7. The Last Of The Unjust
8. Whiplash
9. The Immigrant
10. Interstellar
11. Force Majeure
12. A Most Wanted Man
13. CITIZENFOUR
14. National Gallery
15. Policeman

Outlier: The Last Of The Unjust

In making his landmark, nine-and-a-half hour 1985 film, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann excised one of his most compelling interviews. Watching The Last Of The Unjust, it’s easy to see why he felt that encounter might warrant a movie of its own. The film is built around the director’s 1975 meeting in Rome with Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi who became the chief Jewish elder at Theresienstadt, the “model” camp outside of Prague that the Nazis used propagandistically, to show off their “humane” treatment of the Jews. As the main liaison between the ghetto’s Jews and the Nazis running the camp, Murmelstein faced charges of being a collaborator, even though he was ultimately never prosecuted. Squat, bullish, and hardly central casting’s idea of rabbinical, he makes a riveting, charismatic screen subject, using the interview to offer a vigorous defense of his actions during the war—and, even, as Lanzmann suggests, the extent to which he saw the camp’s survival as inextricably linked with his own. Few films have more to say on the lure of power, the ambiguities of perspective, and the difficulty of claiming the moral high ground in a context where matters of life and death are so precarious.

Most overrated: Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut benefits from Jake Gyllenhaal’s nutso lead performance and its moody, immersive portrait of a nocturnal Los Angeles, but if it’s earned comparisons to Network, that’s mainly because the satire doesn’t seem to have been updated since 1976. The movie cries out for a sequel in which Gyllenhaal’s unhinged ambulance chaser matches wits with a camera-phone-wielding bystander. Maybe it’s just a reflection on the sprawl of L.A., but Nightcrawler doesn’t seem to acknowledge that accidents everywhere are now surrounded by civilians who impulsively shoot their own footage—or that various websites have long vied with local TV news in their quests for sensationalism and quick views. Some of Nightcrawler’s defenders insist that it’s actually a movie about the economy, not media outlets that stubbornly still believe that “if it bleeds, it leads.” (That’s a news flash?) But even then, Gilroy’s allegory, in which a bottom-feeding mercenary rises to the top, seems borrowed from any number of Reagan-era offerings.

Most underrated: Jersey Boys

If, even down to its title, Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming American Sniper plays like something close to Nation’s Pride—the jingoistic movie within a movie in Inglourious BasterdsJersey Boys is the type of film to which the director’s staunchest defenders more typically gravitate. Once again, Eastwood takes an almost randomly selected subject and turns it into what seems to be a highly personal, auteurist meditation. Playing down the effervescence of his jukebox-musical source material, the director, with an almost confessional tone (assisted by the washed-out hues of Tom Stern’s cinematography), explores the toll that creative success takes on friendship and family, as seen through the guise of a singing group whose fame rose almost contemporaneously with Eastwood’s own, albeit on a different coast and in a different context. The movie is a long way from perfect: Most of Eastwood’s recent films have suffered from longueurs, variable acting, and even iffy makeup. But Jersey Boys may be the closest thing we got this year to an old-fashioned movie musical, at least in the sense that it seems to be about feelings as well as songs.

Biggest disappointment: Maps To The Stars

Thanks to vagaries of movie release dates, Noah Baumbach’s overextended Seinfeld episode While We’re Young will have to wait in this category—it may yet be 2015’s biggest letdown—but a below-the-radar awards-qualifying release for David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars means that its lingering misfire can be addressed now. Much has been made of the fact that it’s the first time Cronenberg has shot a movie in Hollywood; appropriately (perhaps intentionally?), the film plays like the work of someone who’s had only received notions of the movie industry, which here is portrayed as a toxic swamp of spoiled child stars, self-help gurus, and over-the-hill actresses. Because Cronenberg always packs his films densely—they tend to operate on multiple levels at once—it was hard to resist the temptation to praise this as an ingenious send-up of an incestuous, remake-obsessed dream factory; the movie even alludes to a mythological dimension. But no amount of subtext, unearthed through who knows how many viewings, is going to remove the text of Bruce Wagner’s screenplay.

Most pleasant surprise: The Final Member

Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s documentary on two men who compete to provide the Icelandic Phallological Museum with its first human schlong may sound like a limp, protracted dick joke. Thankfully, The Final Member turns out to be something more humane and offbeat. It parlays the stories of its subjects—an Icelandic adventurer, a California cowboy type, and the museum’s own curator—into a meditation on unlikely dreams and the legacies the men are determined to leave behind. As tempting as it is to snicker at curator “Siggi” Hjartarson’s cock-themed Christmas cutlery and his bowties made from sperm-whale penis skin, he notes that his focus has always been on removing the taboo from the male genitalia, a naturalist’s instinct that seems both noble and poignant, given his own health has begun to falter. It’s a movie to file alongside Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control and some of Werner Herzog’s chronicles of quixotic determination.

Best actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work as a rumpled, Hamburg-based operative is one of the year’s acting triumphs; it would have been that even if the performance hadn’t acquired a retroactive air of melancholy after the actor’s death. Hoffman makes counterterrorism agent Günther Bachmann a study in unflappable, determined behavior. The character’s methods essentially beget more method: Once Bachmann has caught a terrorist, he turns the terrorist to his side, extracts new information, and then follows that evidence to the next link up the chain. The actor makes it easy to see how this slow, deliberate approach has ground Bachmann down, even if it hasn’t quite stifled his sense of humor. Hoffman carries himself heavily while grumbling quietly, with a lightly worn, never-distracting accent. A scene in which he questions a lawyer played by Rachel McAdams, as she and the audience struggle to figure out whether he’s on her side, is a master class in withholding.

Nick Schager

1. Mr. Turner
2. National Gallery
3. Winter Sleep
4. Gone Girl
5. A Field In England
6. Two Days, One Night
7. Under The Skin
8. Only Lovers Left Alive
9. Force Majeure
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
11. A Most Violent Year
12. The Homesman
13. Boyhood
14. A Most Wanted Man
15. Foxcatcher

Outlier: Only Lovers Left Alive

No horror subgenre has seen greater over-saturation during the past few years than the vampire film, and yet Jim Jarmusch’s own take on bloodsuckers, Only Lovers Left Alive, remains a startling breath of fresh air. Recounting the saga of a centuries-married couple (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) living on opposite ends of the globe, with Hiddleston’s guitar-loving Detroit vamp in a state of suicidal despair, the film boasts a languorousness that borders on the hypnotic. It’s as if Jarmusch wants nothing more than to just hang out with his immortal characters, luxuriating in their over-cramped apartments and tapping into their ancient longing for companionship, love, and a sense of purpose from a life that’s sustained by the deaths of others and yet will itself never end. Goth romanticism of the most enveloping sort, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story rooted in melancholy, and one that’s brought to haunting life by a despondently cool Hiddleston and a peerlessly regal and weird Swinton, playing decaying hipster-artist monsters in a world gone to seed.

Most overrated: The Babadook

Jennifer Kent’s exceedingly over-heralded The Babadook is, in many respects, a fine film, detailing the psychological disintegration of a single mother (Essie Davis) whose efforts to raise her son (Noah Wiseman) while still grieving over the death of her husband—who died while taking her to the hospital to deliver their child—is complicated by the arrival of a scary children’s book dubbed Mister Babadook. Yet for all its acuity about parental anxieties, replete with fine performances from its two leads, Kent’s film fails to be the one thing that any horror film must, first and foremost, strive to be: scary. The Babadook is an obvious creation, making painfully clear from the outset that its demon is merely a figment of its protagonist’s tormented imagination, and that obviousness is a knife to the heart of any potential tension or terror. Without anything approaching a decent jolt scare, much less any convincing sense that its child-in-peril scenario might actually end in tragic circumstances, The Babadook just sits there, predictable and inert, teasing viewers with horrors it has no intention of ever actually delivering, and thus making one pine for the truly scary predecessors (The Shining, It’s Alive) that inspired it.

Most underrated: A Field In England

It’s not difficult to understand why A Field In England didn’t receive much moviegoer attention when it hit theaters in February: Despite Ben Wheatley’s budding critical reputation, a black-and-white period piece that slowly devolves into a hallucinatory nightmare of almost baffling proportions was never going to be a mainstream hit. And yet for those who braved it past the film’s introductory title-card warning about strobe-light effects (which soon manifest themselves in copious amounts), Wheatley’s latest is a rewardingly unique experience. Plunging down a 17th-century rabbit hole, the director follows a trio of English Civil War deserters and an alchemist in search of mysterious buried treasure. Their quest is equally horrifying and hilarious, though A Field In England’s profusion of peerless insanity peaks with what may be the most bonkers single shot of the year, in which the alchemist’s assistant (Julian Barratt) emerges from a tent on a leash, in slow motion, with a look of possessed-by-unholy-forces lunacy on his face.

Biggest disappointment: The Raid 2

Proving the age-old axiom that more is often less, The Raid 2 amplifies everything thrilling about The Raid and comes up with a plodding, unreasonably self-serious wannabe crime epic full of dreary narrative convolutions and violence so extreme it crosses the line into outright repugnance. Gareth Evans’ sequel has a corrupt-cops-and-crooks storyline that makes it play like warmed-over Infernal Affairs, replete with double-crosses and bombshell revelations that land with consistently dull thuds. Worse still, while Evans’ action choreography remains impressive, his fondness for reveling in broken limbs, smashed bodies, and blown-apart faces is both off-putting and juvenile, as if he honestly believes that the only way to really make an action film “tough” and “brutal” and “real” is to revel in gratuitous dismemberment and suffering. The endless look-at-me nastiness negates any trace of the lean, mean excitement that defined its predecessor.

Most pleasant surprise: We Are The Best!

Given director Lukas Moodysson’s recent, more out-there output, it was more than a bit surprising to find him returning to the upbeat spirit of his first two films (Show Me Love and Together) with We Are The Best!, the story of three young Swedish girls who endeavor to form their own punk rock band in 1982 Stockholm. Featuring the best child-actor performances in years, Moodysson’s film is a rollicking blast of adolescent rebellion and camaraderie, one in which music strengthens the bonds between kids viewed as outsiders by both their families and peers. With a sly sense of humor and period detail that never tips into nostalgic mawkishness, We Are The Best! paints a believably scraggly portrait of childhood as a period of pushing back against elders (and the cliques that dominate social life), and finding yourself through experiences both embarrassing and enlivening. It’s the coming-of-age film so many others only wish they could be.

Best adapted screenplay: Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestseller, Gone Girl, was a potboiler of twisted gender warfare, but the real surprise about David Fincher’s adaptation of the novel—written, expertly, by Flynn herself—is that it recognizes, and enhances, the inherent black comedy of its source material. Flynn’s screenplay is far more wickedly funny than her book, in large part because it more clearly underlines the inherent craziness of its scenario, in which failed journalist (Ben Affleck) finds himself at the center of the investigation into the disappearance and possible murder of his wife (Rosamund Pike). Flynn’s sharply honed script excises much of the fat from her novel and emphasizes the caustic bon mots and contentious discord that defines her protagonists’ relationship, all while keeping her skewering of the media (and its hunger for sensationalism) potent. The result is a film that surpasses its novelistic origins, embracing its status as a biting satire about the marital ties that bind.