Friday, January 9, 2015

Best and Worst of 2014: Top 25 and Bottom 10

The Year that Was: 2014

2014 has come and gone, which means it's arbitrary list-making time. Who cares if art really ought to be judged on its individual merits when we can rank them and assign definitive positions to our subjective favorites? I'm still undecided on whether 2014 was a better or worse year for film than 2013. While '13 had a higher share of easily identifiable great movies (I could have arranged my top 12 or so from 2013 in any order and been perfectly happy), 2014 easily produced a wider array of very good films. If anyone has an equation to determine how many good films it takes to equal one great one, please send it my way. Perhaps the most impressive thing about 2014, like 2013, was the range of subject matters and locations. My top 25 includes (*deep breath*): vampires, doppelgängers, trauma-induced ghosts, working class grief, post-apocalyptic soul searching, eco-terrorism, Martin Luther King, a gruesomely funny spousal mystery/thriller, an existential feminist alien chiller, an indictment of modern Russia, a 12 year experiment, and the latest pastel-pastry delight from Wes Anderson. And that just feels like the tip of the iceberg.

Refreshingly, 2014 was, despite some truly awful work, a solid year for studio films, and not just the indies and foreigners. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, though a bit unwieldy, was a major step forward for the writer/director's emotionally frigid style. One key scene in Interstellar, in which Matthew McConaughey's Cooper goes through a decade's worth of messages from home, nearly moved me to tears. This has never come close to happening in anything Nolan has done to date. Mainstream comedies also hit some high marks. February's The LEGO Movie was a fast-paced, inspired comedy-adventure from Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The pair returned in the summer with 22 Jump Street, the rare comedy sequel that goes above and beyond its predecessor in terms of laughs. If nothing else, 2014 truly confirmed that Lord and Miller are the masters of making winning films that, on paper, should never work. Additional blockbuster successes include X-Men: Days of Future Past, which took a messy plot set up and turned it into and elegantly fashioned time travel adventure, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a fantastic sequel that turned one of Marvel's most boring heroes into a surprisingly charming leading man (bonus points for further showcasing Scarlett Johansson in action star mode). Finally, Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proved to be another shockingly good sequel, featuring some astounding visual effects work and first rate motion-capture performances from Andy Serkis and a terrifying Toby Kebbell.

Of course, they can't all be winners, and 2014 wasn't without its share of failures. But, compared to last year, the worst of the worst is pretty much par for the course (although my pick for Worst of the Year is a rare, special sort of awful). Some were disappoints, like The Amazing Spider Man 2, which failed to join The Winter Soldier and Dawn as a superior sequel. Instead, Spider Man 2 was a bloated, messy, un-involving example of big budget filmmaking at its worst. The same also goes for Maleficent, which squandered Angelina Jolie's perfect casting on a tedious, revisionist plot and heaps of distractingly bad effects. Well, since we're on the subject of Spider Man and Maleficent, it's time to get this countdown started with the 10 worst (along with 3 overrated) films of 2014, according to yours truly.

***As with the lists for 2013, all films present must have been released in the US in some theatrical capacity between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 in 2014, even if it was just in one screen in New York.

Bottom 10 of 2014

Dishonorable Mentions: Filth, Maps to the Stars (a 2015 US release)

10. The Amazing Spider Man 2:

The sequel to the franchise reboot no one asked for did nothing to build on the minor successes of its predecessor. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone still charm as a couple, but the villains (Jaime Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Paul Giamatti) are...less than good. Filled with conflicting tones, an overabundance of CGI, and some cringe-worthy performances, it's a mess of a blockbuster that exists as little more than a set-up film for future installments.

09. Maleficent:

Spider Man 2 may be drowning in CGI, but at least many of its effects look solid (albeit a bit plastic). The same cannot be said of Robert Stromberg's Maleficent, an ugly, bloated blockbuster with some of the year's worst visuals and visual effects. Angelina Jolie is perfect casting as the famous Sleeping Beauty villain, but she only has a few scenes where she can really shine in the role. Otherwise, she's lost in bucket loads of CGI that look consistently awful. We need more female-led, big budget movies, but not like this.

07. The Monuments Men:

No year is complete without a star-studded mega-failure dressed up as a prestige project. George Clooney's WWII drama set the bar high (low?) in February, dragging viewers through a history lesson without tension or meaning. The 2007 documentary The Rape of Europa remains the best telling of this incredible slice of 20th century wartime history. Clooney's film, on the other hand, postures as something meaningful while it's only message is basically, "art is important, right?" Groundbreaking stuff. Spare yourself. 

06. Heli:

Amat Escalante's examination of Mexican drug violence is refreshing in that it features Mexican characters existing as more than cartel member stereotypes. That's about it when it comes to the film's strengths. The film's most talked about scene (it involves fire and do the math) is the only point at which Escalante's film comes alive. Heli is nobly anti-sensationalist in style, but Escalante's character's are so thin and given so little to do that the director's unflinching approach is dull, rather than gripping.

05. Winter's Tale:

I....I still don't know how to talk about Winter's Tale. It confounds me. Maybe it's that it seems to have been made with such sincerity, even as it indulges in head-spinning flights of fancy. There's a magical horse named Horse, a wishy-washy mythology about forces of good and evil, and a Russell Crowe performance that has to be seen to be believed (for all of the wrong reasons). Unlike the other films on this list, Winter's Tale at least comes off as a genuine passion project. Unfortunately, it's a passion project that flies off of the rails so quickly that it can never recover.

04. Fury:

Cardboard cutouts of hyper-masculinity traipse through Nazi Germany in a tank, hitting every expected storytelling beat imaginable. Director David Ayer handles the action sequences well, but he has left his characters completely neglected. The resulting performances range from adequate (Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf) to unbearable (Jon Bernthal).

03. Stranger by the Lake:

I have been holding on to my resentment for Alain Guiraudie's psychological drama/thriller for over a year now, and it has yet to dissipate. Guiraudie's set-up is, on paper, superb. His execution, however, is anything but. Stranger's pacing is often eye-rollingly slow, mistaking long stretches of minimal activity for atmosphere. The characters fare no better, and they're not helped by the fact that they're trapped in a screenplay that has a strong understanding of its psychological dynamics but can't translate it into compelling drama. When it comes to slow-building stories of gay men trapped in twisted relationships, Stranger by the Lake fails in every way that Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm succeeds so wondrously. 

03. Goodbye to Language 3D

There is one scene in which aging enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard uses 3D to absolutely thrilling effect. This one sequence, which received applause at the film's Cannes premiere, is exceptional, prompting great modern critics like Calum Marsh to dedicate entire articles to it. Sadly, Godard's one nifty technical trick is all that Goodbye to Language 3D has that's worth praising. For 70 minutes, Godard attacks the viewer with scene after scene of minutiae occasionally broken up by interjections of stock footage. It's as if a lazy sitcom parody of an abstract art house film came to life. The characters (I'm using that term loosely) ramble on and on to the point where they make the intellectual windbags of Winter Sleep seem tolerable. The slapdash digital photography is a special sort of ugly. All together, it's a toothless, lazy attempt at rule-breaking cinema that left me rolling my eyes and laughing at its overwhelming pretension. 

02. Men, Women, and Children:

If you cut together all of the scenes of Judy Greer and Dean Norris in Men, Women, and Children, you would have an intriguing, nicely acted, unconventional romantic comedy/drama. Unfortunately, Greer and Norris are but small parts in Jason Reitman's woefully misguided, Crash-like drama about human awfulness and the ways it manifests in the age of social media. Some stories are unintentionally funny (a tear-streaked suicide attempt should never, ever evoke laughter, but alas...). Others are just embarrassing, and rife with backwards, misogynistic double standards (that Adam Sandler/Rosemarie DeWitt plot is particularly heinous). Greer and Norris, delightful actors that they are, briefly rise above the wretched material, but they're not given enough to counterbalance the rancid, reactionary messages at the film's core. 

01. Grace of Monaco:

Hooooooooooooooooooo boy. Where to begin? The nicest thing I can say about Grace of Monaco is that the clothes look nice. That's it. That is, quite literally, the only positive thing Olivier Dahan's head-turning train wreck has going for it. Every performance is bad, from Nicole Kidman's wishy-washy Grace Kelly to Tim Roth's sniveling Prince Rainier, to Parker Posey's Mrs. Danvers-lite caricature. At any given moment, the film tries and fails to juggle multiple tones, all while bathing every scene in blasts of light shot through a camera lens smeared with two tubs of vaseline. Special mention should go to the screenplay for churning out howlers like, "But isn't colonialism just so last century?" And then there's the actual story, which is little more than Grace Kelly pulling strings behind the scenes to help a bunch of rich businessmen avoid becoming slightly less rich. When it comes to bad movies based on real life princesses, we thought we had seen the worst with 2013's Diana. We were wrong. We were so horribly wrong.

And, for good measure, here's three of 2014's most Wildly Overrated Films:


Damien Chazelle's music school drama has some undeniably exhilarating pieces of filmmaking. But when it's over, this allegedly "dangerous" film blows away like a bunch of dandelion spores. Miles Teller and JK Simmons do some convincing work, but both performances are ultimately one-note. The critical failing of Whiplash, the one that strands it in "perfectly fine" territory, is that it has no connection to its characters' attraction to music. They simply wander from one overheated training session or performance to next, without establishing a deeper emotional drive. In its furious musical performances, Whiplash can be gripping, best-of-the-year material. But once the dust settles, there's not much there beyond all of the sound and fury.

Starred Up:

David Mackenzie's prison drama has received the best reviews of the director's career. Yet while it's easily Mackenzie's most consistent film, Starred Up is also his least interesting. The last five minutes of his previous film, Perfect Sense, pack more genuine craft and emotional weight than the entirety of Starred Up. Rising star (though one wonders why) Jack O'Connell bruises through his troubled character in a performance so reliant on physicality that there's really not much for him to do in the role. Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend make nice contributions, but they're given equally flimsy material. Starred Up captures the brutality of prison life, but nothing about the specifics of the execution allows for a more meaningful experience to emerge. It's the epitome of a film that just sits there and exists.

The Theory of Everything:

When it comes to middle of the road Oscar bait movies about British men, consider The Theory of Everything the evil twin of The Imitation Game. James Marsh's Stephen and Jane Hawking drama is perfectly amiable, but its narrative progression lacks any notable stakes or character insight. Felicity Jones is given more room to emote, but she's saddled with a character with virtually no arc. Redmayne does what he can as Hawking, but Theory tries too hard to capture Hawking's looks and mannerisms without actually making him, well, a character. 

And now, finally...

The Top 25 of 2014

Honorable Mentions: Enemy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Obvious Child, X-Men: Days of Future Past, A Field in England, Interstellar, Snowpiercer, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Ernest and Celestine, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 22 Jump Street, Calvary

25. The Double:

Richard Ayoade's sophomore feature, loosely adapted from Dostoevsky's novella, is a slim, sharp, off-kilter dark comedy led by one of Jesse Eisenberg's two terrific performances this year. Though set in a vaguely defined dystopia, Ayoade's vision of a failed future is weirdly retro in design, further drawing one into its strange, often absurd world. Ayoade streamlines his various influences (most notably Orson Welles' The Trial and Terry Gilliam's Brazil) and applies his own brand of deadpan humor. Andrew Hewitt's lively score is a standout, lending the story's escalation an air of cheeky malice. 

24. Only Lovers Left Alive:

Jim Jarmusch's vampire love story really doesn't say anything, but its use of atmosphere is some of the best of the year. Hauntingly scored, beautifully designed, and filled with lovely performances (minus Tom Hiddleston, who comes off as stiff rather than brooding), the slow-burn story quietly envelops you in its dreamy haze. Tilda Swinton, getting more attention for her bizarro work in Snowpiercer, really deserves to be in the Best Actress conversation for her warm, witty portrayal of a vampire at peace with a modest life, yet still vulnerable to the occasional pangs of loss. Her scenes with John Hurt, though strange, are among the most oddly touching of the year. For an actress so often associated with icy weirdos, Only Lovers Left Alive is proof that Swinton has quite the formidable range. 

23. Dear White People:

Justin Simien's debut couldn't have arrived at a better time, given the string of racially charged incidents across the country. While Dear White People doesn't directly confront issues like police violence, it does a smart job of tackling the forms of racism that exist on more subtle levels. Simien uses his excellent ensemble cast to portray the ways that racism continues to exist, even in would-be progressive circles of modern academia. It's a funny, smart reminder that the election of a black president doesn't mean that A) racism is instantly over or B) that certain racially-insensitive behaviors (blackface) instantly lose their oppressive sting.

22. Joe:

David Gordon Green's full-blown return to form puts the director back on track as one of the leading voices of independent American cinema. Headlined by execeptional performances by Nicolas Cage (yes, that Nicolas Cage) and Tye Sheridan, this stately character study is a powerful examination of unconventional father son dynamics. Green momentarily loses control of the tone in one bizarre scene between Cage and a prostitute, but for the most part Joe shows the director at the height of his narrative and atmospheric powers.

20. The Skeleton Twins:

The Skeleton Twins opens with a suicide attempt, but it's not all heavy going from there. Director Craig Johnson's sibling dramedy adeptly balances heartbreak and laughs without forgetting how to keep both sides in check. The material gives comedic stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig the chance to show off their range, and both succeed beyond expectations. This isn't a case of two comedians merely doing an OK job with heavier material. These are two well-rounded portrayals that are genuinely devastating one minute and gut-bustingly funny the next. 

19. Belle: 

In a year of star-making performances, none has stuck with me as much as Gugu Mbatha-Raw's turn in Amma Asante's Belle. Though it has all the hallmarks of your typical period piece, the story's bi-racial protagonist (based on a real person) is radical stuff. Asante's script tackles thorny issues of racism through an unconventional lens, and Mbatha-Raw does the story's heroine justice at every turn. Some scenes veer toward melodramatic territory, but the actress sells every moment, and turns the title character's struggle into much more than just another story of pride and (substantial) prejudice.  

18. The One I Love:

Charlie McDowell's Sundance hit is an uncommonly polished and dynamic feature-length debut. Though the script gets a bit lost in its own weirdness in the finale, McDowell's characters are well-drawn and his pacing his snappy and engaging. Actors Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are excellent together as a struggling couple grappling with each other and their increasingly strange surroundings.

17. Top Five:

At long last, Chris Rock has directed a film that translates his comedic voice to the big screen without feeling watered down. This showbiz comedy, part Before Sunset, part Annie Hall, is fast, funny, and features a standout performance from Rosario Dawson. Watching Dawson and Rock interact is a joy to watch, and the ways their personalities click and clash is more than enough to sustain an entire movie. Even the cruder moments land thanks to Rock's execution. 

16. The Babadook:

Horror films are not often thought of as great showcases for actors, but The Babadook is a wonderful modern exception. Jennifer Kent's Aussie ghost story is plenty creepy, but the real draw here is actress Essie Davis. As a mother struggling to cope with a malevolent presence in her home, Davis is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Kent smartly links the titular creature to specific events in her characters' lives, thereby making the story more than just a run-of-the-mill exercise in white people running around and panicking as things go bump in the night. Best of all is how unexpectedly moving the film's finale is. Monsters and ghosts can be scarier, but without genuine characters to root for, most horror films have precious little actually going on beyond the scares. The Babadook is an example of what modern horror films, and modern horror protagonists, should strive to be. 

15. Two Days, One Night:

The Dardenne brothers have never been the sort to hurry a story along, which makes the time-sensitive pressure placed upon their main character here so energizing. As a factory worker fighting to keep her job, Marion Cotillard is simply outstanding, delivering some of her most nuanced work to date. The Dardennes have given the actress a superbly set-up character and situation, and Cotillard makes the most out of it, creating one of the most authentic portrayals of desperation and depression in quite some time. The film may not go down as one of the Dardennes' all-time greats, but it's a highly-accessible film that still showcases their gifts as writes and directors without compromise. 

14. The Rover:

David Michod's follow-up to Animal Kingdom wasn't quite the home run it could have been, but it also avoids the sophomore slump but quite a margin. Though it kicks off rather sluggishly, The Rover is a film that gets better as it goes along, and ends with its best foot firmly planted forward. Guy Pearce is outstanding as the gruff, withdrawn title character, filling in the gaps of a complicated figure even as the script refuses to spell anything out. Robert Pattison also equips himself quite well as a slow-witted outlaw left in Peace's care. Michod also deserves credit for carefully developing a lived-in post-apocalyptic future without letting the world-building get in the way of his story. The photography and strange scoring heighten the rugged, barren, and unforgiving Outback settings. And the final scene, which answers the opening's simple question (why does Peace care so much about getting that specific car back?) is a devastating conclusion that feels fully earned, rather than a manipulative, last-second ploy for sympathy.

13. Tracks:

Wild has gained plenty of momentum in the coming awards race, but John Curran's Tracks is the far-superior woman vs. nature/herself story of the year. Curran and his collaborators actually capture the feel of Robyn Davidson's (Mia Wasikowska) physical struggle. As a result, there's a greater connection with Wasikowska as a performer. It's a role that could too easily fall into nothing more than physical actions, but the actress turns Davidson into more than an audience cypher. Some of the emotional developments in the film are a tad abrupt, but there's still a genuine impact. Mandy Walker's work as cinematographer is unparalleled, capturing the rough, lush beauty of the Outback without growing redundant. 

12. Tom at the Farm:

Pinning down an exact US release for Xavier Dolan's fourth feature hasn't been easy. After premiering at AFI Fest in 2013, the film spent 2014 showing up at dozens of film festivals, and even played at the MoMA in New York. The film's release in its country of origin (Canada) was also in 2014, so I'll just count the film as being released here last year, seeing as Dolan recently discussed how his psycho-sexual thriller somehow never managed to get an official US distributor. A shame, too, because the film is also his best. In a departure from his emotionally florid dramas, Tom finds the young director working in the mould of Polanski with a tightly wound story of secrets, violence, and emotional manipulation. Dolan is solid as the story's lead, a young man attending his closeted boyfriend's funeral. But the film really takes off with the introduction of Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Lise Roy as the deceased's brutish brother and doddering mother, respectively. Dolan's control of the atmosphere is immaculate, keeping one on edge as the story branches out into murkier places. 

11. Night Moves:

Kelly Reichardt's characters may be eco-terrorists, but the director refrains from simplifying their personalities. In Night Moves, the director has created something vaguely resembling a commercial thriller, albeit told with her signature stately pacing and emotional ambiguity. Regardless of how you feel about the characters' actions and ideologies, the film's big sequence, involving the bombing of a dam, is overflowing with nail-biting tension. Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard are all excellent as the three wildly different personalities embarking on a radical path of violent activism. 

11. Mommy:

Note to self: maybe don't try to write a review of a movie when you spent the screening coping with a leg cramp. When I first saw Xavier Dolan's fifth film, I felt as though I was grasping at straws when it came to pointing out "flaws" that justified my original rating. Having seen the film again (and in a non-fatigued state), my admiration for the film has only increase (this happened with 2013's The Great Beauty as well). As loud and over-the-top as Mommy is, it is still a deeply compassionate work of storytelling. Though Dolan reverts to some of his older, more florid tendencies, Mommy emerges as his most emotionally and narratively complete work. Anne Dorval is a force to be reckoned with, and she's supported by powerful work from Suzanne Clement and Antoine-Oliver Pilon. The boxy 1:1 aspect ratio is used to keep the film in line with the story's emotional claustrophobia, and the two breaks from the format are wondrously open. The second transition to widescreen, involving a lengthy fantasy/day-dream, is the best scene Dolan has ever crafted. Loud and chaotic, but also quite focused, Mommy proves that what looks like a step backwards can actually be a great leap forward.

10. Foxcatcher:

Bennett Miller began his career as a documentary filmmaker, so it's understandable that he would be drawn to real-life stories even as he moves into narrative cinema. The director's third film, about the relationship between wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz and billionaire sponsor John DuPont, might just be his finest work yet. Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carrell all do impressive work, but Miller's direction is what really leaves a mark once the credits roll. Foxcatcher is an austere film, determined to move at its own unchanging pace. But, thanks to moody visuals and some of the year's most elegant editing, that austere approach gradually evolves into something both compelling and horrifyingly sad. The Valley Forge setting couldn't been any more perfect a location for this tragic tale about the downfall of the American quest for greatness. 

09. Nightcrawler:

A modern successor to Network and To Die For is just about the highest compliment I can think of for Dan Gilroy's darkly funny and disturbing thriller. From the moment Jake Gyllenhaal's emaciated face appears on screen, it's impossible to look away as his character rises through the underworld of LA journalism. Nightcrawler can be uncomfortable to watch, but Gilroy's slickly-assembled film is consistently engaging, and not just because of Gyllenhaal's work. Co-stars Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed are great as well, making two very different foils for Gyllenhaal's increasingly creepy figure. And even though Nightcrawler is a talky movie, its climactic car chase is one of the best action scenes of the year. 

08. Selma:

Martin Luther King was more than just the man who told us that he had a dream. Ava DuVernay's Selma intelligently affirms this, by going beyond that famous speech and examining how the Civil Rights activist led the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. In doing so, DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo portray King as an actual character, rather than a saint. Oyelowo delivers speeches and sermons with a conviction that induces goose-bumps, and he's just as effective in the smaller moments. Yes, Dr. King had a dream, but he also knew that accomplishing that dream would require more than just pretty words. Selma is an excellent tribute to King's work as a leader and media-savvy tactician. It's also just a damn good movie in its own right, one that is uncomfortably relevant despite taking place nearly half a century ago.

07. Birdman:

Birdman, for all of its virtuosic camera movement, is not without a few stray puzzlements. The most egregious is a borderline exploitative make-out session between Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts that seems to exists as nothing more than an underdeveloped fantasy for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Moving beyond this, however, Birdman is a thrilling technical display as well as a grandly entertaining ensemble piece filled with juicy, exciting performances. Michael Keaton throws himself into the role of Riggan Thompson fully, working every angle of the man's fractured psyche. Riggan is the story's anchor, but in the world of Birdman no anchor is without a few sizable cracks. The further Keaton burrows into those cracks, the better his performance becomes. Backing him up is an excellent cast featuring standout work from Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and all-too-brief appearances by Amy Ryan and Lindsay Duncan. Like another film on this list, Birdman could have been nothing more than a technical gimmick. Instead, that gimmick is used to heighten the impact of the storytelling. Inarritu's writing and direction perform a cinematic high-wire act that sometimes wobbles, but still makes it to the other side as a rousing success.

06. Gone Girl:

Dark, funny, and nasty in all of the right ways, David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's hit novel is a cinematic valentine soaked in acid. Despite its considerable runtime, Gone Girl moves along smoothly, condensing portions of Flynn's novel without undercutting the story. If nothing else, Gone Girl deserves credit for being one of the most perfectly cast films of the year. Ben Affleck is a perfect Type-B slacker husband, while Rosamund Pike is icily charming and domineering in equal measure. Supporting players Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, and Kim Dickens all make valuable contributions to this twisted tale of fractured marital life and death. Fincher, meanwhile, lends his expected visual polish to the story while also expertly bringing out its warped sense of humor. Gone Girl, in different hands, could have wound up as a trashy guilty pleasure. Instead, it's a juicy, royally messed-up black comedy that delivers all of Flynn's twists and turns with a stomach-churning wink.

05. Leviathan:

Russia has a long history of long, elegant, bleak storytelling, and Andrey Zvyagintsev's searing drama is more than qualified to join the ranks of the country's greatest works of art. The film that should have claimed the Palme at Cannes last year, Leviathan starts small but soon evolves into an epic indictment of corrupt power in modern Russia. Zvyagintsev moves the various pieces of his plot around expertly, without ignoring his characters. They're real people, not just pawns to be abused for the sake of a rant of moral outrage. And, despite a story that could easily be set on a New York stage, Leviathan is quite cinematic thanks to Zvyagintsev's subdued visual sense. There's even humor to be found in this lengthy tragedy, most notably when the main characters get drunk and fire off rounds at pictures of former Russian leaders. Zvyagintsev's decision to show every step of the story's injustice gets a bit longwinded at the top of the third act, the righteous fury on display here is always intelligently delivered.

04. Under the Skin:

Slow pacing is not an inherently bad thing, but it is worth mentioning that the first 20 minutes or so of Under the Skin are slooooooow going. Director Jonathan Glazer firmly plants the viewer in the mindset of an alien visitor (Scarlett Johansson), so there isn't too much that's relatable at first. This is further driven home by Mica Levi's brilliant and unnerving score. Yet that unwavering pace eventually becomes subtly involving. After establishing a routine, Under the Skin breaks its own template. Johansson's literal man-eater cracks her stoic facade, and the film begins to open up, despite maintaining its chilly detachment. This shift is critical to Under the Skin's success as a story of what it means to be human (specifically, a woman). For a film with barely any dialogue, Under the Skin has a startling amount to say.  

03. The Grand Budapest Hotel:

Wes Anderson reached greater emotional depths with his previous film, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is still a delightful achievement on its own terms. This is most narratively complex story Anderson has concocted to date, and he keeps the seemingly dozens of pieces moving in harmony. Underneath all of the pastel coloring is a plot that requires clock-work precision. Even with its farcical aspirations, Budapest is charming and moving in its own carefully engineered way. Ralph Fiennes is inspired as eccentric concierge Gustave, expertly channeling the screwball comedies of the 1930s. This is the actor's first collaboration with Anderson, but he adapts to the director's signature deadpan approach so seamlessly that it's hard to imagine him not becoming a regular in the director's future work. After breaking out with The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson went through a slight rough patch with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. With his last two films, however, the director has solidified his style as a director and writer, and has entered a new phase of his career that sees him becoming one of our most consistently inspired auteurs. 

02. Boyhood:

Time has always been the underlying theme in Richard Linklater's work. But where the three Before movies put characters under constraints, Boyhood moves to the opposite end of the spectrum. Shot over 12 years, Boyhood allows time to unfold in its most natural ways. Transitions from year to year are handled without flashy editing techniques, allowing the scenes to simply exist side by the side, the way the everyday events of real life do. And, despite its title, the film could easily be titled Motherhood, Fatherhood, or An American Family. Ellar Coltrane's Mason Jr. is more of a cypher, as we watch the various people in his life shape his life from 6 - 18. Even when the film engages in more deliberately constructed scenes, like those involving Olivia's (Patricia Arquette) abusive second husband, Linklater's handling of the material remains authentic. Boyhood avoids sentimentality, but it's certainly not a cold film. Yet, rather than try to tug at heart strings, Linklater merely wants to observe time and the way people in our lives shape who we are before we set off to create our own futures. It started as an experiment, but after more than a decade of work, Boyhood emerged as nothing short of a triumph.

01. Force Majeure: 

I have precisely one complaint with Force Majeure, and it's that director Ruben Ostlund includes two full concluding sequences when he should have merely opted for one. Yet, on their own terms, both work. And, as I was watching the film, I didn't grow frustrated with each passing shot that I assumed would be the last one. Instead, I became fascinated, wondering just where Ostlund was leading me. This is due to just how brilliantly Ostlund handles his film leading up to his two semi-ambiguous climaxes. After a father runs away during what looks like an out of control avalanche, his status as head of the house falls apart. As he and his wife struggle to cope with his failure to live up to the role of the brave, masculine protector, Force Majeure's uncomfortable and uncomfortably hilarious story soars. It's a sharp deconstruction of gender roles, and how both men and women buy into them. Beautifully shot (some of the framing is immaculate) and magnificently acted, Ostlund's fourth film is funny without being condescending towards its characters, and compelling without becoming pretentious. In a year filled with numerous triumphs of American cinema, it was a Swede who ultimately won me over. 

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