Updated 2/25/15 to include A Most Violent Year. Snowpiercer was dropped from #20 as a result.
I don’t have a hard fast rule about eligibility. The purpose of a yearend list is to highlight the films that I found most rewarding over the past year, not document which year a film was released. I made a pretty good effort this year than last to track down my most anticipated films in time for this list, but I’m sure there are still some great films which I missed. I have highest hopes for Force Majeure, Beginning with the End, Siddharth, Virunga, and The Strange Little Cat.
In addition to a top ten, I’m also including five runners up, and five honorable mentions.
As a necessary disclaimer, just because these films from last year that meant the most to me, does not mean I necessarily recommend them. If you think any of them sound like something you might like, research them and make an informed decisions. And with that, onto the lists:
20. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Lima)
19. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
18. As It Is in Heaven (Joshua Overbay)
17. The Sublime and Beautiful (Blake Robbins)
16. A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor)
15. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson) – There’s almost no one to whom I’d recommend this; the plot is a semi-incoherent mess, and the story itself is more than a little disturbing, but that’s basically the point of this neo-noir comedy, in which the hippie, stoner private eye “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in the midst of an increasingly convoluted, dangerous mystery in which everyone seems to want his help for different reasons, but the Doc is just as lost as his clients.
14. Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu) – An aging Hollywood star (Michael Keaton) tries to prove his relevance by conquering the Great White Way, and amidst disastrous rehearsals, the messy backstage life of actors raises interesting questions as to whether these foolish conceited actors have any insight to offer. Carefully edited to appear as a single take live performance, Birdman will likely either enthrall or infuriate you. (full review)
13. Noah (Darren Aronofsky) – Not everything works – the film stumbles a bit once onboard the ark – but Aronofsky’s vision of the antediluvian world is fantastic to behold, and his interpretation of the story of Noah adds new depth and insight to one of the oldest stories about the consequences of original sin. (full review)
12. Selma (Ava DuVernay) – A powerful dramatization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, as well as the dynamics between King, his family, his friends, and politicians. Especially touching are the scenes between David Oyelowo (King) and Carmen Ejogo (his wife Coretta). Portraying real, flawed human beings and their struggles, Selma is not one to miss.
11. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn) – A sleek espionage thriller helmed by great performances, especially from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, this adaptation of John le Carré’s novel is surprisingly effective and unnerving.
The Top Ten
10. Gone Girl – I haven’t always been the biggest fan of David Fincher, but Gone Girl may be changing my mind. Combining several Hitchcockian elements with biting dark satire, Fincher’s latest film is a brutal exposé of obsession with appearances, media manipulation, maintaining fake personas, and the public’s gullibility. When amazing Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, passive husband Nick (Ben Affleck) finds himself the chief suspect in the subsequent police investigation. Featuring two antiheroes (not one, as some reviews have said) and a psychopathic protagonist, Gone Girl deliberately plays into the nastiest examples of sexism in order to expose just how shallow and absurd they are. (a lengthy, spoiler filled discussion here)
9. The Immigrant – Beautifully tinted with sepia tones, The Immigrant immediately sets up an haunting contrast with the cold brutal world of 1920’s New York that Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arrives in. Looking for work to help her sister, she is exploited by the pimp Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who will do anything for his own survival even as he suffers flickers of conscience due to his cruel treatment of Ewa. Director James Gray expertly frames each scene, and with careful pacing and subtle foreshadowing throughout, all of the film masterfully comes together for a powerful, thought-provoking finale indicating that there is often much depth beyond mere surface appearances.
8. The LEGO Movie – Containing references to Star Wars, The Matrix, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Buster Keaton’s The General to name a few, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s witty and hilariously self-aware parody of and tribute to blockbuster entertainment is undoubtedly this year’s biggest surprise. Not just an exciting adventure story for children, The LEGO Movie deconstructs the standard tropes of many superhero and kids movies with lines like, “Always follow your intuition…unless your intuition is terrible.” It also emphasizes the importance of fantasy and creativity as a way which children learn. Indeed, everything is awesome.
7. Ida – When a young woman about to take her vows to be a nun learns of her family’s dark history, her entire world is shaken and she undergoes a crisis of identity. Embarking on a journey with her aunt, she uncovers painful secrets which test her resolve and remind the viewer that nothing should be taken for granted. Director Pawel Pawlikowski frames each shot with stunning precision, and his use of still camera and a full screen aspect ratio creates the sensation of a window into a world and even into a soul. (full review)
6. Begin Again – This is a heartfelt story of second chances in which a song really does save several people’s lives. As drunk, washed up music producer Dan, Mark Ruffalo is very likeable and as Greta, a down and out songwriter, Keira Knightley effortlessly shines. The two meet in bar and decide to record an album outdoors in New York City. Eschewing Hollywood clichés, Once director John Carney crafts another story about a once in a lifetime opportunity for decent, empathetic human beings to pursue their art and make something unique and magical with it. There is no tense drama or overblown indecision, but rather quiet moments of grace and generosity that are touching and inspiring in their direct simplicity. (full review)
5. Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch’s moody rumination on desire, temperance, art, its place in society, and eternity is beautifully realized in the story of two vampires: the melancholic perfectionist Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and the knowledgeable, pragmatic Eve (Tilda Swinton). Cursed to destructively feed on others throughout eternity, their search for beauty and great art is threatened by the increasingly prevalent mediocrity that supplants excellence as well as the carelessness, drugs, and pollution of the last couple decades, which has poisoned much of their blood supply. The vampires’ need for blood acts as a metaphor, suggesting we need to be careful what we consume; bad art and good art affects and influences us, and allowing mediocrity to permeate soon makes bad art (blood) more prevalent. Only Lovers Left Alive recognizes the power of art’s influence on a culture as well as the tragedy of its destruction.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel – (modified from a review published here) The second film on the list to utilize full screen framing, Wes Anderson’s latest film is as whimsical and eccentric as to be expected, but this story of nostalgia for a fantasy world of secret societies, crazy hijinks, unattainable goals, murder mysteries, and above all, friendships is rife with bittersweet humor and surprising poignancy. As the concierge of the titular hotel Ralph Fiennes effortlessly captures the typical self-centered deadpan of Anderson protagonists as well as a longing for something beyond this imperfect world. Told through the eyes of Zero (Tony Revolori), the devoted lobby boy of the Grand Budapest, the film chronicles the final glory days of a time and a world long since past.
3. The Babadook – (originally published here) The festering of grief and the frightening ways such grief manifests itself is at the heart of The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent’s horror film about the relationship between a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis) has never really accepted her husband’s death, which occurred as he drove her to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). With Sam’s seventh birthday approaching, Amelia is feeling increasingly overwrought, and she copes by isolating herself and Sam in their gloomy Victorian home, making an ideal setup for Mister Babadook, a sinister popup book character, to come knocking. Despite their misguided choices, neither Amelia nor Sam ever loses our sympathy. Kent expertly plays upon the audience’s sympathies and fears, reminding us of the beauty of the love between a parent and a child and the tragedy that occurs when it is threatened. (full review)
2. Two Days, One Night – The Dardenne brothers have crafted what may be their finest film to date. When Sandra (a phenomenal Marion Cotillard) loses her job after her coworkers vote for a bonus which entails her being fired, she persuades her boss to hold a second ballot, and she will have the weekend (two days and one night) to persuade her coworkers to vote for her to stay. Each encounter with her coworkers is filmed with increasing drama and tension, and the film never demonizes anyone as it emphasizes the dignity of work and the human person. Best of all, when you think the movie has to end one of two ways, falling on one side or another, the Dardennes find a third way that logically and incredibly ties everything together and finds quiet moral triumph in putting up a good fight.
1. Into the Woods – Admittedly, I am one of the world’s biggest Stephen Sondheim fans, but Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Tony award winning 1987 musical is a lovingly crafted, faithful adaptation that preserves the essence of Sondheim and James Lapine’s story about being careful what you wish for and the far reaching consequences of our wishes that often go well beyond what we can imagine. With a fantastic score and an all-around great cast, Into the Woods is a delight from the first frame to the last. (full review)