Favorites of 2014

Everybody knows these lists are subjective. Incomplete. Dumb. Necessary. Even for people whose job it is — or, you know, whose tenuous freelance gig it is — the idea of having seen everything, and being able to weigh in with authority on everything, at the end of the year or ever, is silly. You shouldn’t trust us. Yet how the hell else are you supposed to at least begin narrowing down your own list of must-sees?

For starters, “everything” means 50,000 movies, which is about how many get made around the world each year. Of this year’s crop, the New York Times is reported to have reviewed nearly 1,000. Assuming an average running time of around 90 minutes, the most efficient way for any one person to see them all would be place him or herself in front of a screen every minute of every day for more than two straight months. That’s hard when you’ve still got a few hundred films from last year to catch up on, more than 10 of which, surely, are great.

A little cravenly, perhaps, I call mine “favorites.” I prefer to list them alphabetically. Not all of them were made in 2014, or even available for most people to see in 2014, but that’s when I saw them. Release dates are shiftier than ever in these crazy abundant times. Meanwhile the studios have dug into their risk-avoidant strategy, planning spinoffs and superhero sequels for the rest of your life. It is at least statistically possible that some of those will be good, maybe even good enough to wind up on an end-of-year list somewhere, someday. But then there’s all the other stuff. Recently announcing its 2105 lineup, the Sundance Film Festival reported that for the third consecutive year it’s had at least 12,000 submissions. Send a film to just about any festival nowadays, and whether it’s accepted or not the programmers probably will tell you they’ve had a record year for submissions. And never mind the embarrassment of streaming riches available for reasonable subscription prices at any given moment from the likes of Netflix, Mubi, Fandor, or relative newcomer Vyer Films.

We live in a movie-lover’s paradise, and also a tyrannical dystopia. In such a world, any given top-ten list is at the very least an organizing principle. And although increasingly at the mercy of marketing-dollar Darwinism, any given list still can be a cultural compass. All you have to do is cross-check it against all the other lists.

Now then, 10 of my favorite movies from 2014:

Blue Ruin 

A bar-raiser for independent movies everywhere, Jeremy Saulnier’s scrappy little revenge thriller turns on the darkly comic pathos of an inept avenger. It’s a revelation role for lead actor Macon Blair, without whose presence the movie is hard to imagine, but also a controlled blast of exhilaratingly economical storytelling.

Boyhood

The 12-year slice of life: what a concept! Widely hailed as the movie of the year, Richard Linklater’s insouciant epic lets us reflect on being a kid, and maybe also on being a parent, and knowing all too well the feeling that the speed of life, once presumed constant, does accelerate.

Calvary 

John Michael McDonagh’s deeply Irish comedy-drama describes an apocalypse, in very intimate terms. The outstanding Brendan Gleeson plays a priest confronted with a reckoning, and a great grabber of an opening gives way to a payoff far weirder and more stirring than we had any right to expect.

Force Majeure (pictured)

The essential plot point in Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s film is a controlled ski resort avalanche; the action is a more metaphorical snowing under. Here is tonally exquisite marital strife as maybe only the Swedes can do, but with shades of absurdist, Buñuel-worthy satire. It’s not cruel, but it is beautifully pitiless.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Of all the so-called dollhouses Wes Anderson has built, this one has the most square footage. Its capacity is vast enough to contain a whole civilization — or at least a collective yearning for one. We knew Ralph Fiennes was intelligent, but who’d have thought he could be so bittersweetly funny?

Happy Christmas

What’s great about the latest structured improv from DIY inspiration Joe Swanberg is how it allows for a lived-in feminism that isn’t zero-sum. Also, that shy sweet moment when Anna Kendrick’s character and Melanie Lynskey’s can’t quite look at each other while admitting how much they like hanging out.

Land Ho! 

This rare delight, a perceptive movie by young people about non-young people, involves two old friends on a trip through Iceland. Filmmakers Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens transmute the low-key chemistry between stars Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson into a timeless affirmation of human dignity.

Listen Up Philip 

The insecurities underpinning white male entitlement come under welcome scrutiny in a lot of movies on this list, but never with as much brutal hilarity as in Alex Ross Perry’s film, with Jason Schwarztman as a hipster novelist who’s also a dick. The welcome surprise here isn’t literacy; it’s generosity.

Night Moves 

How lonely it must be at the crossroads of top-notch suspense thriller and truly indie character study. How brave of director Kelly Reichardt to go there. And to cast Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard as a trio of bomb-plotting environmental activists, how brilliant.

Under the Skin 

It may once have been hard to believe that the same guy who made Sexy Beast also made Birth. Now it’s easy to believe that Jonathan Glazer can do anything. In this case, it’s soul-rattling science fiction, in which Scarlett Johansson fearlessly interrogates her own public persona.