In writing about my top 10 movies of 2014 (something all aspiring movie critics are required to do by law & Buzzfeed), I didn’t initially notice anything that would tie my list together: an overarching theme, a repeated message or trope – and I took that to mean that it was a good year in film, but a chaotic one.
With the approach of the mighty Oscars, we’ve been presented one piece of awards-bait after another about great men overcoming great obstacles to do great things, but I found none of them particularly original or impressive. Instead, it was one great woman – the indomitable Tilda Swinton – who appeared as the constant among my favorites. In case you’re not familiar, she’s a fantastic British actress, a fierce, androgynous fashion muse and a pretty perfect David Bowie doppelgänger:
Hands down, she won the year, appearing in three of the ten movies below – the ten I would deem the greatest from what I saw (and I hardly saw everything, damn you 9 to 5 job). And perhaps that itself does speak to something universal about my list. Tilda could kill it in any movie, but she tends to pick projects that are a bit dreamy or strange, movies where the borders of reality blur and the mundane surfaces of life lift to reveal something perhaps darker and always more fantastical.
With that in mind, let’s dive in:
10. Force Majeure
Like an overfilled pot on the stove, perpetually on the verge of boiling over, you can never take your eyes off this whip-smart, palpably uncomfortable film. During its two-hour run we see how family bonds can transform from instinctive intimacy to the kind of chilling alienation that makes characters ask, “Who the hell did I marry and decide to procreate with anyway?” It’ll have you wondering the same of the person sitting next to you and with each roller coaster of a scene you’ll either grip their hand more tightly or slowly inch toward the other side of the couch.
9. The One I Love
Another film that takes a typical domestic script and flips it, The One I Love has my favorite unexpected twist of the year AND one of the best trailers, which captures the movie’s enigmatic, playful energy without giving that twist away:
Mark Duplass plays one half of a couple mired in their relationship by some bad history and boredom. And I think at this point we can all just acknowledge that Mark Duplass is never going to be the world’s greatest actor. But he can certainly handle the kind of farcical, observational comedy which sells about half film. Luckily, when things get deeper, he has the fantastic Elizabeth Moss to carry him. She moves effortlessly from hilarious to terrifying in almost every scene and was unquestionably my favorite thing about the movie. Of course it makes sense she’d be so good here, as she has some practice in playing a complicated woman whose true feelings lie just below the surface (and who’s just generally badass at everything):
Even without it being my number 1 (or even in my top 5), I can feel good knowing that awards season will probably bestow its top prizes on Richard Linklater and his twelve year opus about the growing pains of one American family. Unlike most on my list, there’s nothing weird or otherworldly about the four people whose lives we see unfold, but Linklater’s talent has always been to shine a light on the power and truth in moments we so often ignore. Bolstered by two powerful supporting performances in Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, Boyhood lets us watch a life unfurl before our eyes and experience all the pain and sweetness that happen therein.
7. The Babadook
Like every movie based on our worst childhood fears, The Babadook asks us to wonder what it really is that goes bump in the dark. The answer it gives – a parent’s sanity when pushed to its limits – is both more real and more disturbing than the shock tactics used by most of today’s predictable horror films. Lead actress Essie Davis gives what is, for my money, the strongest female performance of the year, as she shows us an amazingly nuanced range of emotions and doubts with each new struggle her exhausted single parent faces. A first feature from writer & director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook thrillingly examines the line between love and hate, a troubled child and a force of evil, a protective parent and a murderous one, all while keeping you jumping at every knock, knock, knock.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Tilda #1)
This is the least Tilda you’ll get for your money, but it’s still a great movie and a strong defense against Wes Anderson detractors who accuse him of being all carefully manicured set pieces and no substance. The past always shines in his movies, but never more than here, where the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel and its employees is presented as a story within a story, a distancing device that makes the nostalgia that much sweeter. I’ll admit that I cried both times I watched, each unexpectedly right at the end. In those last moments Anderson brings home the realization that history has already happened and in looking back, we can only remember and mourn the many things we never thought we might lose.
5. Snowpiercer (Tilda #2)
A blend of dystopian social commentary and sci-fi/horror pulp, Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a thrilling mess of a movie. To some degree its merits are in its efforts alone: to even attempt to pull off the main concept here – a train with perpetual-motion engine endlessly circles the planet during a postapocalyptic ice age, containing the Earth’s remaining survivors who are divided among the train cars by class, with the poor and sickly forced to sacrifice in the back while the rich live lavishly in the front – is madness. And certainly there are scenes where you know a better version of the movie could exist, one without painfully bad dialogue and a drawn-out final confrontation that completely undermines the movie’s fast-paced first and second acts. For all its flaws, Snowpiercer succeeds on guts, Joon-ho’s brilliant direction of some brutal action pieces, and Tilda’s gonzo performance. Here playing a role originally written for a man in a suit, she makes things so much more interesting – her version of the character is a preening, fawning sycophant, a perfect right-hand to power in a world gone mad.
Every year a good film gets ravaged by the hype machine, and in 2014, Birdman was it. For every critic, like Odie Henderson from RogerEbert.com, who dismisses it as “a movie-length whine about being maligned by reviewers,” I want to ask what happened to their sense of humor and their sense of magic. Nothing is real and art is life and everything is both beautiful and tragic in this fairy tale journey through the psyche of one broken man, dreaming of redemption.
There’s something about the character of the ambitious, loner psychopath that so perfectly encapsulates all the downfalls of the American dream. Modern cinema has done a great job capturing this archetype in a line of fascinating characters from Jake La Motta to Tracy Flick. Now we can add Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom to their ranks. He is the bad guy that we have to root for, probably against our morals and better judgment, because when you get down to it, he wants what we all do – success at any costs. Dan Gilroy’s creep-tastic movie supports this stellar performance with a perfectly unnerving soundtrack and cinematography, and a ruthless turn by (surprise!) Rene Russo makes it all the more exciting.
2. Inherent Vice
The movie I awaited for all of 2014 (only to have it come out in January of this year), was not just everything I wanted in a movie, but everything I wanted in having one of my favorite authors translated to the screen for the first time. There’s a very good reason this is the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel – as Kevin Lincoln examines in depth here, Pynchon’s “words” and “sentences” are not very easy to “follow” or “understand”. Luckily, virtuoso director Paul Thomas Anderson knows that with Pynchon, cohesion and meaning are far from the point. Drugs, deception and sweeping corruption are the foundation of Inherent Vice, but rather than telling us another solemn story of America’s dark past, the film, like the book, plays upon the absurdity of the existence of it all.
Doc, the stoner detective at the story’s core, is descended from line of postmodern PIs, each an outsider needed to decode the systematic injustices and censorship forced on individuals by the man (man). But like Doc, we can rarely get a hold on what exactly is going on, because each mystery is only girded by more unknowns and each life is only made up of the fleeting moments we can remember feeling happy and whole. This movie got so many things right, but none of it made me happier than how it captured Pynchon’s fine sense of humor, so often overlooked, due mostly to Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin hitting every comic note with perfectly stoned timing.
1. Only Lovers Left Alive (Tilda #3)
We’re at peak Tilda, people. A hipster, scholar vampire couple roams the planet (hanging their respective hats in Detroit and Tangier for the most part) attempting to create something approaching artistic originality while lamenting the flaws of humanity and the drawbacks of eternal life. I highly doubt that anyone other than American auteur Jim Jarmusch could do such a story justice. My favorite of his since the inventive Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Only Lovers creates a similar tableau in which two outsiders, the vampires, played here by Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, move in and among the world, while never becoming part of it. Their beauty is timeless and their musings are intensely profound compared to us lesser mortals, but in the end it is their romance that gives their endless lives meaning and the film a heart. Perhaps according to the tween set vampires were so 2010, but for Jarmusch, these creatures whom death can not touch prove the perfect agents to affirm the vast gulf between mere survival and life.
Obvious Child, The Lego Movie, Edge of Tomorrow