The 15 Best Movies of 2014

Finishing up our first ever year-in-review coverage for our first ever year in existence, we have for your approval or disdain.first list of the year’s best movies: The Top 15 Best Movies of 2014.

Fifteen, because ten was too few this year. Fifteen, because some of us were narrowing down our individual ballots from lists of thirty or forty. Fifteen, because it never hurts to offer more reasons to be hopeful about the future. Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, Maggie, and Jesse all sent in ballots, and a lot of great and diverse choices didn’t quite make our final list. But I think we explain pretty well why these movies went the distance. So let’s quit preambling and just get to it:

The 15 Best Movies of 2014

Big Eyes

15. Big Eyes

Big Eyes sees Tim Burton working with a cast full of actors he hasn’t worked with before and reunites him with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the guys who wrote Ed Wood!) on a small human story with very few special effects. Basically, it fulfills the requests of everyone who has complained about the fantasy films he’s been making for the last decade (or two, depending on where you personally think he lost the thread). And sure enough, it’s garnered him his best reviews in a decade, unless you count Frankenweenie…or Sweeney Todd…or Corpse Bride… or even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But really, whether you’ve loved, hated, or just sorta tolerated Burton’s post-’90s work (I’ve most often loved it), Big Eyes is terrific movie. Telling the amazing-but-true tale of Margaret and Walter Keane and the secret behind their success in the art world, the film mines its story for comedy and pathos (and a bit of thrilling proto-feminism) in equal measure. Christoph Waltz finds another perfect role in Walter Keane, taking full advantage of his facility at mixing and alternating charm, ebullience, menace, and weaselly desperation. Matching him moment for moment is a fantastic Amy Adams. Margaret is a deceptively tricky role, forcing Adams to play things largely internal and reactive, and she rises to the occasion, communicating volumes of thwarted feelings without saying much. Burton, for his part, is predictably sensitive to the quietly artistic Margaret, and builds a film around his two leads riddled with striking and lovely images. The temptation to look for notes of autobiography in Burton’s work offers a chance to use this story as ammunition against his last decade of films (has Burton, like Margaret, been forced to pump out kitschy junk to keep his commercial masters from turning on him?). But it is just as easy to read Margaret’s genuine emotional and artistic attachment to her paintings as a defense of work, no matter how tasteless or critically derided, as art nonetheless. – Nathaniel

14. Only Lovers Left Alive

One of Jim Jarmusch’s most distinctive traits as a filmmaker is his willingness to take his time. This can be charming, as in Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise, or aggravating, as in The Limits of Control, whose title was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But with Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s deliberate yet relaxed pace makes narrative sense; he’s making a movie about vampires, who have all the time in the world and then some. It doesn’t hurt that he cast two actors eminently worth spending time with: Tilda Swinton, who I’d like to be when I grow up, and Tom Hiddleston, the Internet’s boyfriend, as a bloodsucking couple still working out the kinks of their endless lives in the modern age. Jarmusch has been accused of hipster indulgence before and this film often seems like a blatantly comic response: both Adam and Eve are scrupulous cultivators of precious objects threatened by technology, books in Eve’s case, records and guitars in Adam’s; much of the action takes place in Detroit which has recently become an unexpected artistic enclave; and both characters wear sunglasses in nightclubs, though that’s probably as much to keep their retinas from burning up as a fashion choice. But the film has a romantic spirit that undercuts the posturing and its two stars provide the perfect antidote to the teenage melodrama of YA vampires. Real relationships take work and care, particularly when they’re eternal. – Sara

13. The Boxtrolls

With their third idiosyncratic home run in three tries, Laika Studios (the Portland-based animation outfit behind Coraline and ParaNorman) has made a real case for themselves as the weird kid’s Pixar. Adapting the novel Here Be Monsters!, the Laika folks applied their knack for creating beautiful (if off-kilter) and intricate stop-motion worlds to what might just be their strangest tale yet. The Boxtrolls follows a boy named Eggs, raised by the titular trolls, as he is reintroduced to human (matter-of-factedly and hilariously cheese-centered) society, befriends daughter-of-wealth Winnie, and runs afoul of the ghastly Archibald Snatcher (voiced by an incredible, unrecognizable Ben Kingsley). Sneaking some surprisingly complex ideas about class in amongst the dazzling animation (Eggs and Winnie’s visit to a ball is a marvel) and agreeably grotesque comedy (I’m giggling just thinking about Snatcher nibbling on a bit of cheese), The Boxtrolls is so good that the wait for Laika’s next strange, lovely fable is only mitigated by knowing just how much work goes into making them (see the trailer below). – Nathaniel

12. Gone Girl

Auteur theory says that every movie directed by David Fincher will have certain unifying, Fincherian qualities marking it as such. But as strong a voice as Fincher is, he’s always been slightly more of a Hollywood guy than he sounds like (for example: homeboy has never made a movie released in fewer than a couple thousand theaters or that grossed less than $33 million). At this point, his movies can be split into two unequal piles. The first, smaller pile is dramatic thrillers that dig so deep into fact-based procedurals that they reveal so much more about human nature than mere process. This consists of pretty much just Zodiac and The Social Network. The second pile is trashy thrillers and it contains the rest of his work. Even Fight Club you ask? Yeah, kind of even Fight Club, and I like Fight Club a hell of a lot. I like most of Fincher’s movies a hell of a lot, even Alien 3 and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If that last one seemed to find Fincher reaching a kind of apex of precise, invigorating filmmaking elevating what seems, to this non-reader of the source novel, like airport-level garbage into (mostly) guilt-free junk food, Gone Girl, based on another wildly popular airport-y novel, represents Fincher’s filmmaking — his near-flawless eye for framing, camera movement, and razor-sharp edits — stretching past that apex to where the material in question almost becomes the kind of sociological procedural that populates that first movie-pile by sheer force of craft.

That’s not even to say that Gone Girl the movie is necessarily better than Gone Girl the book, though in some ways it is. Just that it’s made me slightly less afraid of the David Fincher airport thriller in a way that Panic Room and The Game, good as they are, did not. He gets a particularly sly, seductive, terrifying performance out of Rosamund Pike; why the hell, in this year notably bereft of Best Actress contenders, is she not an awards lock yet? Why are we still dicking around saying Julianne Moore has to win for a movie no one has even seen when Pike brought missing housewife Amazing Amy to such chilling, sometimes sneakily hilarious light? You can quibble with how the casting of Ben Affleck is spot-on yet also injects a skotch too much sympathy into his character (I did!), but I’m amazed how much sheer fun Fincher made Gone Girl even for people who already knew the book, knew the twists, knew the deal with Cool Girls (I did! Though my issues with that rant belong in another essay entirely!). It must have been a lot of work. But it sure didn’t feel like it. – Jesse

11. God Help the Girl

Fact: The year’s best Michel Gondry movie was not the impressive Mood Indigo. Instead, Gondry was bested at his own game by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch and his concept-album-turned-movie.

Sure, those of us here at may be biased, being big fans of Belle and Sebastian. But it is undeniable that God Help the Girl bears all of the loveable Gondry hallmarks: a cutesy DIY feel, mod fashions, and a sense of handmade whimsy. Murdoch’s songs only pile on the charm. We’ve written about how enjoyable the musical numbers in the movie are, so I won’t spend too much time gushing over them here. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say you should check out “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” (if you haven’t already), unless for some reason you don’t want to be a joyful, fulfilled person. And I spent most of the end of 2014 with “I Dumped You First” stuck in my head. It’s quite a good song if you can hear it over the bloody drums.

The music is great, but my favorite thing about the movie is the clever little background details. When James (Olly Alexander) sings a song about the multiple suitors chasing Eve (Emily Browning), for example, Cassie (Hannah Murray)—Eve’s best friend—is standing among them wearing a fake mustache. Or, when the ultra-cool dreamboat walks into the ultra-hip vintage clothing store (to the tune of “Perfection as a Hipster,” of course), there’s a mannequin there dressed exactly like him. In the film, Eve says James has “one sneaky little move” to win over girls and make them like him. God Help the Girl has many, many more. – Marisa


10. Muppets Most Wanted

2011’s The Muppets found Jason Segel writing and starring in a (pretty funny and sweet) movie about a Muppet fan pulling Kermit and company back from cultural obscurity. With all that cultural table-setting and autobiographical meta-narrative out of the way, Muppets Most Wanted sets its sights on a slightly narrower (but awfully difficult) target: just being riotously, consistently, exuberantly funny. And they pull it off. Sure, the film tells a nice “careful what you wish for” story about the Muppets learning the value of Kermit and the level head he brings to the table. And it has one of the more interesting takes on the Kermit/Piggy relationship in the last decade or two. But mostly it takes advantage of its globetrotting mistaken-identity/heist-movie story and supporting characters (with winning turns by Tina Fey, Rickey Gervais and Ty Burrell along with a host of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos) to pile on joke after joke with a shockingly effective success rate. The regular cast is in fine form, with a lovely turn by Steve Whitmire as Kermit and career-best work by Eric Jacobson as Miss Piggy. But probably the biggest surprise is Matt Vogel’s breakout performance as Constantine, Kermit’s doppelganger and the world’s most dangerous frog. Vogel’s performance is packed with hilarious little details, from his malevolent brooding to his utter disinterest in blending in with the Muppets (Constantine’s accent is funny, but somehow his impression of Kermit is even funnier). Even the hunched, heavy way he walks is funny. I’m also surely remiss for getting this far into the blurb without singing the praises of Bret McKenzie’s brilliantly silly songs. There are few cinematic pleasures to match a good Muppet song, so having this many of them in one movie makes it one of the best of the year almost by default. – Nathaniel

9. Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho went big for his first English language film. A loose adaptation of a French comic book from the 1980s with an international cast, including Korean star (and frequent Bong collaborator) Song Kang-ho and Captain America Chris Evans, Snowpiercer might just be his masterpiece. The wild and willful mixture of elements and tones is familiar from recent Korean cinema that’s made it to US shores (and Bong has proven particularly adept at managing those shifts), but it really stands as something unique among this year’s films. A sci-fi fairy tale allegory with thrilling action, gritty violence, and big ideas about social and political systems, Snowpiercer also has a bracing and unsentimental momentum to its storytelling. The cast is great (in addition to Song and Evans, Tilda Swinton and Alison Pill are particular standouts), the train is incredible (each car is another terrific set), and it uses both as a way to explore real issues in a way that feels like classic 1970s sci-fi (like my beloved Planet of the Apes series). And the ending, which proved to be somewhat controversial with audiences, is perfect, following the film’s ideas to a point that most stories of revolution stop short of considering. – Nathaniel

8. Boyhood

Time passes. It’s such an obvious, inescapable idea, something everyone over the age of five or so understands, in some way or another. It makes sense, then, especially after all of the wild acclaim, that someone could look at Boyhood and say: so what? We’re just watching an unremarkable kid get older. It’s like those 7 Up documentaries, but fake, and less happens. Watching the banality of sorta-real life is not an inherently valuable experience.

And yet: it is a remarkable thing to watch this kid get older, to wonder about who he’s growing up into, and to have that question largely unresolved when the movie leaves him, at age eighteen, the world opening up more every day. I don’t see much of myself in Boyhood, at least not in the details: I didn’t grow up in the ’00s. I didn’t grow up with an older sister. I didn’t grow up in Texas. My parents didn’t divorce until I was older. I never had to shave my head. I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school. But I recognize it anyway. It’s one of my favorite sensations in art: feeling that recognition in what is extremely specific.

This brings us to Richard Linklater, the film’s writer and director. Though he’s often showier in his experiments than his filmmaking (his Before trilogy plays with time in a similar way, folding its audience into the passage of actual time), Linklater has a very specific energy, a way of letting scenes and conversations play out, a way of letting actors inhabit their roles that inspires some career-best work from Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the kid’s parents. The idea that Linklater is being praised, that he might receive awards, more for his film’s “gimmick” than its achievement, smacks of I-could-paint-that syndrome. Yes, someone else could have filmed a kid for twelve years and it could have come out differently: more emotional, more epic, more exciting. But Linklater is the one who actually did it. And anyway, those other stories, the ones he didn’t tell, are in the DNA of this movie and the audience watching it. It’s anything but banal, it’s anything but a slog. Boyhood is long for a movie but awfully short for an entire childhood. – Jesse

7. Under the Skin

It’s been a good year for Scarlett Johansson playing otherworldly beings. There was her micro-chipped superhuman in Lucy and her Marvel time logged in The Winter Soldier. But I have a feeling it’s the eerie, gloriously direct work she does in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin that will be best remembered beyond 2014. The film works on multiple levels: as a straight-up creepy creature feature, as a critique on the female image in media, as a tricky inversion of the woman-in-danger narrative, as the closest approximation we may ever come to getting inside the head of an alien being. From the sound design to the atonal score to the guerrilla-style filmmaking of the early abduction scenes, it’s aggressively and intentionally unnerving while asking viewers to empathize with someone who’s literally inhuman and Johansson utterly commits, as if cinematically spitting in the faces of all the critics who’ve called her robotic in the past. The film at any given moment recalls works as diverse as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Morvern Callar, and Nights of Cabiria but, like its lead character mimicking the behaviors and expressions of those around her, Glazer is using cinematic language we’re familiar with to assemble something entirely new. – Sara

6. Obvious Child

It was a mistake to assign me this blurb.

I can’t write about this movie in anything but the first person. I love, love, love, love, loved it.

Before going in to this movie, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to tell you what my ideal piece of entertainment contained. I might’ve said I wanted something funny, sure; and I would’ve wanted ladies who were allowed to be honest and awkward; and a cute boy, why not? But I didn’t know until I saw Obvious Child that my perfect piece of entertainment would also have to include Jenny Slate, an accidental pregnancy and subsequent abortion, a divey comedy club, and an uncomfortable near-sexual encounter with David Cross. Through it all, Slate and Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman talk to each other like real people. They’re funny and crass and care about each other. Slate is cute as heck but nothing about the script or the character choices is lazy or pandering—and in the end, it still manages to be romantic. (Yes, watching Gone with the Wind on the couch wrapped in blankets is basically the most romantic thing I can think of.)

Now that I have encountered the platonic ideal of entertainment, what am I supposed to do with myself? How will I enjoy anything—rainbows, the promise of spring, hot tea? Everything fades. Except for this movie, which will always be perfect. I got the Blu-Ray for Christmas. Goodbye forever. – Maggie

5. Birdman

I’ve heard wisps of backlash against long takes. The argument goes that they’re showy and they call too much attention to themselves, the visual equivalent of overused melisma in a pop song. That’s bunk. I haven’t checked with the other founders, but I feel confident enough to declare that the official position of on long takes is pro.

I don’t know why long shots would take the flack when something like cross-cutting wouldn’t; both are just tools in a director’s arsenal. And both are tools that Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu have used in his body of work. But to me, the austere, cross-cutting-across-continents Babel is deadly boring, while Birdman, with its jazz-drum-filled long takes, builds excitement with every second it spends in the vicinity of a New York theater.

The make-it-look-like-one-shot hook fits with the rest of the movie. Riggan (Michael Keaton) is attempting to mount a serious play — an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (the fantastic short story that launched a thousand bad magazine headlines) — to salvage his acting reputation. So it makes sense that the movie would unfold as continuous action the way a play would. And hiding the cuts in the film, eliminating the little moments of relief between scenes, means the emotion compounds with every minute, until the whole thing erupts into a climax I’m not sure the movie could pull off without the feigned long takes. It all ensures that Birdman will be What We Talk About When We Talk About Gimmicks That Totally Work. – Marisa

4. Inherent Vice

It would be difficult to tease out many through- lines in the admirably varied career of Paul Thomas Anderson so far. But one I’ve latched onto recently is an interest in purity, be it emotional, artistic, or political. Boogie Nights, the most obvious antecedent to Inherent Vice in Anderson’s filmography, employed the titillating backdrop of LA’s porn industry to explore the shift from film to video in the early 80’s, juxtaposing this with its characters’ own descent into addiction and crime. Inherent Vice too is about a dying era, in this case the optimism of late-60’s hippie culture giving way to paranoia and fear as Nixon and Vietnam enter the scene and harsh everyone’s mellow. You have to clear out a lot of reefer smoke to get the message but it’s there. But of course, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without the reefer and this is without a doubt Anderson’s funniest film to date. Imagine the Keaton-esque physicality that Leo DiCaprio displayed in Wolf of Wall Street‘s infamous ‘ludes scene stretched to feature length and you’ll have some idea of the befuddled comedic feats that Joaquin Phoenix performs here as Doc Sportello, a put-upon P.I. attempting to unknot a procedural that’s less threaded and more Chinese finger-trapped. He’s the pure embodiment of the affable doper and Josh Brolin is his main foil, an imposingly flat-topped cop named Bigfoot, and the give and take of the two men rivals such classic movie pairings as Butch and Sundance and Nick and Nora Charles. Those hoping to see the ends tied up will be sorely disappointed but if you can give yourself up to its singular wavelength it’ll take you, in the unlikely words of Bigfoot himself, “far out, man.” – Sara

3. We Are the Best!

Many of 2014’s best movies — like Whiplash and Birdman — are about people striving to achieve their wildest and most intense artistic ambitions. Sometimes it’s nice to have a movie where the artistic ambitions sometimes take a backseat to, like, buying and eating a lot of candy. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! is ostensibly about three teenaged girls who decide to start a rock band. Really, though, it’s about three girls who consciously decide to be friends, and the rock band is pretty much the byproduct.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any music. “Hate the Sport,” the band’s first and arguably only song, is pretty catchy for something written almost entirely to spite a gym teacher. It doesn’t matter that, for the entirety of the movie, the girls never really get to play it all the way through. What matters is the energy they bring to the music, and, as a result, the rest of the film. When they feel so strongly about their need for a new guitar that they decide to beg strangers for change to save up for one, you really feel their burning desire for the new instrument. But, when they turn around and spend all that money on snacks instead, that feels important, too. When you’re that age, treats and music are equal priorities, especially if you share both with friends. A lot of people have (correctly) lamented the lack of movies that focus on female friendships. We Are the Best! is one that gets it right. – Marisa

we are the bestwhiplash

2. Whiplash

In Whiplash, Miles Teller plays an eighteen year old who has just started at a prestigious music college. He’s picked to play in the competitive jazz band, run by a sadist conductor played by J.K. Simmons. Teller’s character is consumed with being perfect, and earning Simmons’s praise. Neither character is pleasant to be around: Teller alienates his family, and Simmons, it is suggested, has driven a former student to suicide. But Teller’s desire to be the best is so consuming, and he plays the role with such a desperate edge, you can’t help but root for him. And even in Simmons’s most evil moments, his razor edge of humor compels us to keep watching. With every repetition of “not my tempo,” he becomes more toweringly intimidating. Both of them are so focused and intense, a collision is inevitable; and yet when it happens, it’s still shocking.

Miles Teller has quickly become one of his generation’s brightest talents (as much as he may seem insufferable in person)—but he’s young, and an actor, so we can give him a pass). J.K. Simmons, consistently delightful in character roles for the past few decades, is as cold as a blade. The music is heart-jangling, and the cinematography close and unflinching. Whiplash captures the feeling of being a young, ambitious person in a competitive creative field. So even though the ending is unrealistic (my former-orchestra-conductor father assures me it is absurd), it works because it feels realistic (even Dad agreed). These characters rip into each other and the music with the entire force of their personalities, and it’s electrifying to watch. – Maggie

And then:

You might have seen this coming. Our best movie of the year is getting its own post, coming soon. But hopefully we’ve given you plenty to chew on in the meantime.