Life in an increasingly digitized world means, among other things, that you can stream practically any film you want online or through providers like Netflix; more and more, cinema is designed to be viewed from the comfort of your La-Z-Boy recliner. Still, the convenience is no substitute for sitting in a dark movie theater, electrified by the story on the giant screen and the surround sound swallowing you and your bag of crunchy popcorn.
This year’s most memorable films varied widely in both form and theme, but they were similar in the way that they kept us on edge. These are documents emblematic of the tension currently driving our relationship to technology, the government, the ghosts of our pasts and each other. From the imaginary Birdman to the very real terror of our increasing lack of privacy, to paradigm-shifting takes on abortion and disability to tackling the subliminal horror of violent images, these were the films that we connected to the most this year, as humans, writers and journalists.
We chose not to rank this into a “best of” list because it’s not definitive, nor do we expect to cover every single release that came out in 2014. It’s simply a list of 20 films that stunned, satisfied, shocked and/or scared us. — Paula Mejia
BIRDMAN (OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s films often pluck at humanity’s moments of resilience and are for the brave of heart. His latest Birdman draws the best elements of his past feats, particularly from the depth of Babel, to create a wrenching tale of madness and melancholy. Michael Keaton plays Riggin Thompson, a washed-up Hollywood star struggling to dredge up his one last hurrah (and moment of sincerity) when he attempts to adapt Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway, in hopes that it will free him from being identified with the role the public knows him best for, the crime fighting superhero Birdman. Within the confines of the theater’s backstage (and sometimes on the stage itself) there are sucker punches and smooches, spurts of brilliance, and rage: a portrait of a slumped, sad guy trying to make it until tomorrow, and under pressure to make it look so easy.
The film has surely ruffled a few feathers, but its tight shots, tense and often comic dialogues and stellar performances from Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone have clocked critical acclaim and Golden Globe nods. It’s absolutely worth suspending your disbelief for this movie. The story is terrifying in that it is not about one man’s delusions, but our collective delusions about celebrity—and, by association, ourselves. —Paula Mejia
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Everyone’s a little amoral in Bad City, the setting of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. But the town’s sole sense of justice—maybe even peace—comes from a life-starved vampire, known only as the Girl (Sheila Vand). As a dark chador cascades behind her, the Girl feasts on miscreants and misogynists in a town of pimps, pushers and prostitutes somewhere in Iran, and tries to make this place a little less bad. Her blood-lusting days are threatened when she meets fellow loner, the dreamy greaser-type Arash (Arash Marandi); their budding romance is an especially treacherous game when she has a run-in with his drug addict father. Can she resist falling in love with Arash, and at what cost? This feat from director Ana Lily Amirpour is part neo-noir, part Western, and simmers in long, black-and-white takes. This beautiful story is one of vengeance and love, which, as we learn, might be more perilous than death. —Paula Mejia
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Wes Anderson’s obsessive and detailed approach to aesthetics can, at times, overshadow his films’ plots and terrific acting from regulars, including Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, among many others. But in his latest work The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson takes a leap of faith, and it lands: The result is a zany, touching story of loyalty, in a way a period piece foreshadowing the time before Europe became a war-torn wasteland. Meticulous Grand Budapest Hotel concierge Gustave H, played brilliantly by Anderson first-timer Ralph Fiennes, leaves the desk when one of his older lovers, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), unexpectedly dies and leaves him a precious family heirloom painting in her will. Her scheming son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who may or may not have plotted her death, is furious, and sends a hit man (Willem Dafoe) to get it back. When framed for her murder, Gustave attempts to ward them off with the help of lobby boy protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) and his girlfriend baker (Saoirse Ronan) in this lovable caper. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson at peak maximalist form (think pastel-colored everything, sweets, whimsy abound) but this is the first time he’s revealed his propensity to reel viewers completely into his world, in this case, into the fictitious Zubrowka. More macaroons, anyone? —Paula Mejia
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” I heard someone say at the end of Boyhood. It was my second time seeing it; the first time I went with my brother, and at the end of this screening I was sitting with my wife. She cried watching the credits. This time I could better savor the art behind the artifice: Everyone talked about Richard Linklater using the same actors over 12 years (why didn’t we think of that?). But the true miracle of the Texas director’s 17th film, which follows the peripatetic upbringing of one boy and artist in the making, Mason (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane), is what’s not there: no surging music to tell you how to feel; few scenes with beats and payoffs, as if life was a series of canned moments on a conveyor belt; no need for that awful dread you feel watching most domestic drama (if they’re happy now, disaster must be about to strike).
There are small disasters, in part due to the sequence of bad stepdads Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquette) brings into Mason’s life. But what makes grownups cry is seeing their own lives, and that of their kids, reflected in the passing show. By the time Mason graduates from high school, we have come to know him, his mom, his father (Ethan Hawke) and sister (Lorelei Linklater) as well as we know our own families. Before going in the house to his own graduation party Mason sits in his friend’s car, nipping on a flask, afraid to walk in and face all that love. —Sean Elder
To say that Chris Rock’s new movie is just a rom-com is like saying a Cadillac is just a car. Rock’s vehicle (which he wrote, directed and stars in) is a pimped-out model, with raunchy performances by great black comedians including Cedric the Entertainer and Tracy Morgan, but underneath its ’hood exterior it’s more like Annie Hall. Though also an homage to stand-up comedy (Rock plays Andre Allen, a formerly funny comedian who sold out playing a cop in a bear costume, as implausibly popular as the Birdman that follows Michael Keaton around), Top Five is not a series of one-liners, or even, for the most part, payoff jokes.
At its best the film lets the cast riff, as in a scene in a crowded apartment in the projects where Morgan’s character and other sketchy friends and relations vie to convince the journalist played by Rosario Dawson that they were way funnier than Rock was. He was only funny when he was drunk, we’re told (Allen and Dawson’s character are both in recovery) and we are left with the image of a drunk Oprah, one of the film’s many resonant gags. Like a good Rock routine, Top Five grabs an odd assortment of cultural references and turns them upside down, like Allen’s assertion that it was the original Planet of the Apes that caused the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That anyone can get a laugh out of that tragedy (in the same season that Selma comes to the screen) is a testament to the genius behind the wheel. —Sean Elder
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” —Donald Rumsfeld
And then, of course, there are the “unknown knowns.”
The first unknown known of Donald Rumsfeld’s life was his wife, Joyce H. Pierson, whom he married right after graduating from Princeton in 1954. He did not at all want to get married, he told Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, but he was leaving for the Navy and didn’t want anyone else to have her. (As it happened, she may have very well waited for him, but he didn’t know that.)
Rumsfeld’s decision—to manage the perceived risk by eliminating it—says a lot about how he managed risk for the rest of his career, including helping to build the CIA’s recently disgraced torture program as U.S. Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush. In love and in war, this was a man who didn’t like to take chances. And considering Rumsfeld, 60 years later, is still married to his wife, this is also a man who doesn’t back off once he’s made a choice.
From serving as the youngest Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford at the age of 43 to serving as the oldest under Bush at 74, Rumsfeld could never get comfortable with the unknown knowns—the biggest one being that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And throughout his interviews with Morris, who won an Oscar for The Fog of War (another great film about the regrettable machinations underpinning a chaotic war, only that one was Vietnam) this is what makes this film so fascinating. —Leah McGrath Goodman
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, everything is a symbol, and so nothing is. “To see patterns in the chaos is to be deluded,” says private eye (“gum sandal”) Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the film’s protagonist. It would be pointless to rehash the plot of this noir(ish) story, adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, set in a made-up SoCal hippie(ish) beach-bum, Technicolor (lost) paradise. Doc doesn’t so much go from point A to point B as he becomes buried under ever-deepening snowdrifts of unreliable personae, shady and long-tentacled organizations, and obtuse conversations overladen with Age of Aquarius philosophizing.
Both the novel and film version of Inherent Vice are loaded with symbols that could easily be construed as kitsch: Ouija boards, beaded curtains and chocolate-covered bananas don’t seem to do much besides evoke a sentimentality for another time. The honey-sweet voice-over narration performed by singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom in the role of Sortilege seems to fall into this category. She’s a sort of psychic His Girl Friday, “in touch with invisible forces,” who spews New Age–isms that are evocative but feel light and lost, easily washed away by one of the many Pacific waves that crash on the beach just a few hundred yards from Doc’s driveway.
But it may more be valuable to think of kitsch, as the novelist Milan Kundera did in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as “the stopover between being and oblivion.” And that’s squarely where Inherent Vice sits. Ultimately, the best way to understand the film is as a form of joyful nihilism. The conspiracy is inescapable—Doc can’t do anything about what’s happening to him—so why not join in the fun? —Elijah Wolfson
Trespassing is the first, and arguably the least heinous, of numerous crimes we witness Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, in Oscar-worthy form) commit in the Los Angeles noir thriller, Nightcrawler. The first person Bloom encounters becomes a victim of assault and the next bluntly calls him a “thief.” But Bloom is not a criminal, per se: He is an antisocial Darwinist: “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people,” asks Bloom, a loner who may be just slightly less unhinged than Travis Bickle, “but that I don’t like them?”
There is no pathos in writer-director Dan Gilroy’s script, no explanation for Bloom’s amoral opportunism. Gyllenhaal is a self-assured sociopath, redolent of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in American Psycho. Except that, unlike Bateman, Bloom views crime not as an end but as a means. “Who am I?” Bloom says to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a local news editor who is waging her own war against career obsolescence. “I’m a hard worker. I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent.”
Oh, yes. Unlike Boogie Nights's Dirk Diggler, who also once rose from the fringes of L.A. life to success and wealth in a questionable profession, Bloom’s character is never corrupted. Ostensibly, he is an aspiring crime-scene videographer, the living embodiment of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.” On a more visceral level, Bloom is capitalism, always seeking to “expand to the next level” without empathy or remorse. Underestimate him at your own risk. — John Walters
The story of a family vacation in the Swiss Alps gone awry, Force Majeure relishes in its hard-earned position as the most uncomfortable film of the year. A few days into the much-needed holiday for a young Swedish family, an avalanche strikes at lunchtime. Just as quickly, the powder clears and everyone returns to drinking midday beers in the sun, but the aftermath from the freak accident threatens to unravel the family and forces Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) to confront what it means to be a man, a woman and a married couple in a time of trauma.
With a dizzying string refrain and glorious shots of snow and mountains, Force Majeure is reminiscent of The Grand Budapest Hotel, albeit without the sugar coating. The movie has brilliant flashes of humor, seen in attempts at male bonding with fellow Swedish travelers and in the mundane rigmarole of the vacationing family (hunger-induced temper tantrums and creepy hotel staff), but should come with a warning to the squeamish. Some of the conversational voids and prolonged silences in the film’s more tense moments so closely mirror real life, you’ll wonder if you’re still in the theater. — Lucy Westcott
There's no shortage of post-apocalyptic movies being released right now, but Snowpiercer stands among the best and cleverest. In the film, the remains of humanity are packed on to one superlong train that endlessly circles the globe. Its passengers are strictly divided by class and those in the back of the train—literally and figuratively—are fomenting a revolt. Their struggle, at times comical and surreal, is a commentary on today's inequality, globalization, and it makes for some deft filmmaking along the way. — Matthew Cooper
20,000 DAYS ON EARTH
Nick Cave is a man, a myth, a monster (onstage, at least, especially when performing “Stagger Lee”) and still the most compelling and prolific frontman to have emerged from the 1980s post-punk diaspora. He is all of those things and more within the 95-minute confines of 20,000 Days on Earth, a cinematic tribute from filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard that seems to suggest Cave is the last scarily compelling frontman, period. Part documentary and part fantasy, 20,000 Days provides a glimpse of a single, fictitious day in the life of the Birthday Party veteran, tackling the artist’s creative life (there is intimate footage of him recording 2013’s great Push the Sky Away) and personal ruminations with equally surreal aplomb. At points, when the camera is privy to strange, late-night conversations between Cave and past collaborators, 20,000 Days feels like an entry point into the man’s subconscious. Frankly, it is the closest you’ll get to the famously prickly interview subject without shivering. —Zach Schonfeld
Even in 2014, Obvious Child feels like a small miracle: a film about an abortion that doesn’t hinge on trauma, guilt or near-death injury. But even without a larger political context, Gillian Robespierre’s first feature film is enough of a treasure to transcend the pregnancy rom-com cliché. That’s due in large part to Jenny Slate, who is the perfect mix of charming and graceless as Donna Stern, a broke comedian who needs nothing less than the awkward one-night stand that winds up getting her pregnant. But it’s also thanks to a script that’s sincere in the right places without crossing over into preachy territory and a use of the titular Paul Simon track that’s worth waiting half the movie for. The consensus is that this is an unusually promising debut from Robespierre, but even that’s not entirely fair: Obvious Child is a promise fulfilled. —Zach Schonfeld
It’s tough to think of a film that preyed on our collective insecurities—about marriage, trust, feminism, old-fashioned small-town values—more thoroughly and viciously than Gone Girl did this past October. From the best-selling 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn (who serves as screenwriter), David Fincher has crafted a psychological horror of Hitchcockian proportions. The story centers around a rural Missouri town where a husband (Ben Affleck) slowly becomes the lead suspect in the disappearance of his own wife (Rosamund Pike), though of course there is more that cannot be revealed. There is something ghoulish about how the plot (and the audience’s trust) dissolves bit by bit; how the twist arrives midway through, so there is time to soak in its deepest consequences, and how Trent Reznor’s unsettling score follows along each step of the way, an eerie icing on a cake already thick with dread. Gone Girl is a star-making vehicle for Pike, who is stunning as the scorned wife with myriad secrets of her own, though it also makes shrewd use of Affleck’s dopey affability—a casting accomplishment in its own right. —Zach Schonfeld
Foxcatcher is no formula movie, but a haunting look at two Olympic wrestlers who tragically fall under the influence of the very weird gunpowder heir John E. DuPont, who happens to be the richest American ever convicted of murder. From the opening scenes where Channing Tatum, Olympic gold around his neck but desperate to earn $20 for speaking to disinterested school children, to when the Army gives DuPont a .50 caliber machine gun and ammunition, Greig Fraser’s cinematography sets the shifting tone from hope to happiness to the abruptly horrifying crime.
Mark Ruffalo, as the compassionate older brother, captures the feral motions of his sport: hunched over, palms turned up, always bouncing, ready to pounce. The usually goofy Steve Carell, however, is unrecognizable as DuPont. Makeup transforms his look, but it is his flat eye and flatter voice that reveal an emotionally dead Dorian Gray. DuPont calls himself the Eagle, willfully blind to payoffs that polish his false self-image. We never get inside DuPont’s twisted mind, but how could we? Well worth every one of its 134 minutes. —David Cay Johnston
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART 1
The fictional Panem, a future North American dystopia that forces children to fight to the death, starves its enslaved citizens and ruthlessly destroys regions that challenge its absolute rule. The place faces a righteous rebellion in the third installment of the Hunger Games story, led by the fearless Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). She evolves from reluctant hero of the games into a poster girl for rebellion, only to find herself caught in a web of political intrigue, moral ambiguity and the ugly realities of civil war. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his final screen appearance here too, as a presidential confidant turned enemy of the state.
While author Suzanne Collins says she based her young adult trilogy on Greek myths combined with Roman bread and circuses (in Latin, panem et circenses), the story can also be viewed as a savage allegory about modern Washington, the growing wealth gap and the influence of big corporations on government. The last installment hits theaters next year, the third book becoming two films to double the profits. We can only hope for more from Collins, especially if her insightful fiction creates leading roles for actors like Lawrence. —David Cay Johnston
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
It doesn’t seem much of a storyline: A young British physics genius contracts a motor neuron disease that paralyzes him from head to toe and confines him to a wheelchair. He laboriously pens an almost unreadable book about the Big Bang, the beginning of time and other barely comprehensible stratospheric concepts by blinking his eyes to signify one letter after the next. After fathering three children, he abandons his long-suffering wife in favor of his equally long-suffering nurse. Dr. Strangelove it ain’t. For those who think they roughly know who Stephen Hawking is, there are few surprises. Being incarcerated in your own body limits your freedom of action so completely that there is little room for hijinks. The plot arc that informs every Hollywood movie too is completely missing.
Why, then, is The Theory of Everything such a surprisingly satisfying movie to watch? Well, at first this grim tale is told through the eyes of Hawkings’s angelic wife, Jane, who spotted her husband-to-be when he was a nerdy boy but saw beyond his pimply awkwardness and found herself hooked. Without fully spilling the beans about what was always a stormy relationship, her take on events provides a suitably chilly distance that ensures that this is a saccharine-free tale. Hawking was a pain before his illness and even more of a pain afterwards. Rarely has disability been portrayed so unsympathetically.
This matter-of-factness about a terrible set of circumstances appears to limit the director James Marsh’s freedom to maneuver almost as much as his big-brained subject. Apart from a couple of scenes where he allows Hawking to imagine leaping from his chair, the story is told deadpan. Eddie Redmayne plays Hawking, impeccably, with a similar lack of artifice. It can’t be easy to act with only your eyes to transmit meaning, but Redmayne does it to perfection. Felicity Jones as Mrs. H follows suit, leaving the whole piece admirably understated and underwrought. Every shot is a reminder that this could only be Cambridge, England, not Cambridge, Massachusetts. — Nicholas Wapshott
Citizenfour, a documentary by Laura Poitras about former National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence analyst Edward Snowden’s decision to leak classified information about the agency’s surveillance programs, is at once informative, entertaining and terrifying. From the depictions of Snowden’s encrypted communications with Poitras to his intense hotel room conversations with journalist Glenn Greenwald, each minute of the film sheds light on the mysterious expanse of the NSA’s top-secret spying capabilities. Citizenfour draws secret government activities from the shadows; it is also punctuated with moments of contagious fear.
Snowden, who is calm even when contemplating the possibility of spending a lifetime in prison, experiences bursts of paranoia—he becomes overwhelmingly suspicious when a fire alarm goes off in his hotel, for instance, and unplugs his room’s phone multiple times, thinking it may be bugged. As the viewer witnesses the scope of an expert’s distrust, they are reminded of the behemoth at the other end. By exposing the growing power of the federal government in proportion to the people it represents, it’s impossible not to see Citizenfour as an artful yet urgent call to action. — Lauren Walker
UNDER THE SKIN
This near-silent film is a sci-fi head trip set to little more than snatches of electronic music and a few—very few—muted words. But the visuals are more stimulation that your senses could ever need. Scarlett Johansson, the film’s protagonist, drives through the drizzling gray of Glasgow in a van, picking up its down-and-out men. The quotidian scenes of wet streets and drawn faces becomes surreal when Scotland cuts away to elemental sequences of pure onyx and fire, and you learn that Johansson is a (literal) man-eater from another world. Little is explained, and little can be inferred, except on the level of stripped-down emotion. Does she have empathy for the men she destroys? Can we, the audience, sympathize with a killer?
Under the Skin is at times too brutal, with moments of unparsed cruelty that are tough for the viewer to bear. But it is countered by its strengths, which includes gorgeous shots and a supremely weird plot. Best served with something strong. — Zoe Schlanger
A good horror movie has you jumping from your seat, spilling your popcorn; a great horror movie has you losing sleep a week later. I am not entirely certain that The Babadook is a great movie, but it is unquestionably an impressive first effort from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent. Borrowing the best suspense tropes from both The Shining and The Exorcist, The Babadook presents the creepiest mother-and-son duo in recent cinematic history. Kent knows that no attic or cellar is as terrifying as the one that is in our own mind. Did you hear that knocking? — Alex Nazaryan
Very few films will leave an audience numb when the lights come on, seeking out an Adam Sandler slapstick classic as a palate cleanser. Low Down is one of these films, an apologetic, unrelenting descent into despair where every choice a character makes is a gut check to the viewer and a reflection on society's treatment of drug addiction and the idolization of the "young and wild" artist which perpetuates it. It's hard to watch, in the best way possible.
With lingering takes and jazz that wafts in and out of sunkissed California rooms, first time director Jeff Preiss unfolds the story of real-life jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes), who played with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Lester Young and struggled with heroin addiction for much of his life. Albany lost the battle in 1988 at age 63, but the film isn't interested in the final days. It instead focuses on a few truncated years of self-destructive behavior at a crossroads, as Albany tries to raise his daughter, stay out of jail, get off heroin and book a gig, any gig.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Albany’s daughter, Amy-Jo portrayed by Elle Fanning, delivers a nuanced performance and provides the heart of the film, becoming a woman as she comes to terms with who her father is. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who co-executive-produced the film, has battled his own addictions with heroin and grew up with an addicted jazz musician stepfather, disappears into the role of the drug addled sideman Hobbs, always teetering on the edge, but with a soft tenderness that makes his self-destruction that much more heart-wrenching to witness. Glenn Close rounds out the cast as Albany's mother and without an ounce of bravado provides the only moments of levity to be found in this bleak world.
When it comes to jazz, the mantra "no smack, no soul" is thrown about liberally, but no one ever celebrates what happens after the last chords are played. Low Down lives in that seedy world and the wake of drug fueled destruction, all without falling into the melodrama that taints efforts of filmmakers with less conviction. — Shaminder Dulai