In preparing this reflection of 2014’s most memorable cinematic offerings, I revisited my countdown from last year—my first as a published critic. It confirmed something I’ve suspected for quite some time: The ranked year-end top-ten list, as a tradition, is fucking insane. Even after rereading my agonizingly self-deprecating preamble and string of qualifiers, I still found myself scratching my head over my own choices (did I really like John Dies at the End more than The World’s End?). And this is speaking as a part-time film blogger—can you imagine doing this as a nationally scrutinized film critic, or worse, an Academy member? No wonder Gene Shalit is the way he is—I’d go crazy too.
So know this: What follows are the top ten (okay, ten-ish) films from 2014 that speak to me at this particular moment. They are films that I saw, and enjoyed, and will almost certainly continue to stand behind. But there is always the possibility that something that didn’t make the cut will burrow more deeply into my psyche as time goes by, and the order is obviously subject to change (though I’m reasonably confident my #1 will remain). Furthermore, as an amateur critic (read: one who has to pay for most tickets), there are a number of films I meant to see, but I just never got the time; if you refuse to read the year-end list of a critic who has yet to see Boyhood, I will understand completely.
ANYWAY, here are my picks!
10 (tie): ALL THE AWESOME SUPERHERO MOVIES I CAN’T QUITE BRING MYSELF TO GIVE THEIR OWN ENTRIES
It’s not exactly news that we’re living in the Golden Age of the Superhero Film: That phrase has been kicked around at least since 2008, and we’re currently looking down the barrel of roughly a bajillion years of announced films based on Marvel and DC properties. But 2014 is maybe the first year that superhero flicks managed to get over themselves and really feel like comic books. Captain America: The Winter Soldier may take the form of a crackerjack spy thriller, but it unashamedly revels in geeky mythology (hailhydra). That’s doubly true for X-Men: Days of Future Past, which manages to be lively and engaging despite a sprawling plot involving time travel, retconning, and at least two versions of most major characters. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, meanwhile, plunged headfirst into some serious deep-end comic book weirdness, involving talking raccoons, adorably murderous tree-people, and a mining facility inside the severed head of a giant alien robot space god. And despite not actually being based on a comic book, Luc Besson’s Lucy might be the craziest of them all, using flagrantly pseudoscientific technobabble as an excuse to turn Scarlett Johannson into a living, ass-kicking cartoon character. This lunacy bubble is bound to burst sometime, but for now, it’s rarely been more fun to shovel popcorn into your face.
9. Borgman dir. Alex Van Warmerdam
As I watched this cockeyed Dutch thriller, I found myself mildly irritated at what I took to be a willfully opaque rehash of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Exiting the theater, however, it dawned on me that I had actually seen something much more clever: a supernatural thriller so subtle that it never quite even reveals itself as such. The titular Borgman and his grimy compatriots clearly have a plan as they ingratiate themselves into, and subsequently dismantle, a clean-cut suburban family; but the film never quite tips its hand as to what that plan is (though viewers up on their Germanic nightmare-goblins might have a clue). Regardless, it’s one of the year’s most darkly funny mindfucks.
8. The Sacrament dir. Ti West
When Ti West, the auteur behind such modern slow-burn classics as House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, announced that he was collaborating with goremeister Eli Roth on a found-footage movie, horror fans were understandably wary. The twist, as it turns out, is that West merely used the anti-aesthetic to disguise his formalism, artfully dropping and passing the camera to reframe the action and shift the perspective. That he also effectively creates a harrowingly realistic retelling of the Jonestown tragedy (centered on a mesmerizing performance from the aptly named Gene Jones) helps too.
7. NYMPH()MANIAC: Volume 1 dir. Lars Von Trier
Full disclosure: I have not seen the second half of the Danish enfant terrible’s transgressive opus. Honestly, I’m a little hesitant, partly because my girlfriend sometimes uses our Netflix account in her preschool classroom, but also out of worry that the tepidly received latter installment might diminish my esteem of its predecessor. Alternately funny and gut-wrenching, clinical and compassionate, Von Trier’s film is far more than the gratuitous provocation it at first appeared to be (Shia LaBeouf notwithstanding). Maybe someday I’ll work up the nerve to finish it.
6. The Dance of Reality dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky
If you had told me just a couple of years ago that moviegoers in 2014 would be treated to not one, but two chances to revel in the madness of Alejandro Jodorowsky, I probably would have assumed you were on peyote. As it happened, The Alchemist himself returned with a vengeance, directing his first film since the 1990 work-for-hire The Rainbow Thief. The Dance of Reality is by far the director’s most straightforwardly personal film to date, adapted from his own memoir about his upbringing in war-torn Chile. That said, it also includes a woman reviving her husband by graphically urinating on his wounds and an assassination attempt which devolves into a mystical spirit-quest to train a prize show horse. Self-evidently essential.
5. Interstellar dir. Christopher Nolan
Interstellar is a sprawling double album of a movie. Just as the Beatles attempted to top Sgt. Pepper with the White Album, and Pink Floyd built the ideas of Dark Side of the Moon into The Wall, Christopher Nolan has launched from his genre-defining Dark Knight trilogy into this massive sci-fi epic, packed with enough ideas for five films. Some scenes soar (like “Shine a Light”), some fall flat (“Turd on the Run”), and some are just peculiar (“I Just Want to See His Face”). Like the greatest double albums, however, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: a face-melting, breathtaking blockbuster of monolithic proportions.
4. Jodorowsky’s Dune dir. Frank Pavich
It feels wrong somehow to rank a film about Jodorowsky higher than his own work, but if there’s one thing more exhilaratingly crazy than an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, it’s an Alejandro Jodorowsky interview. Over the course of 90 minutes, the director/guru spins the tale of his almost-was Frank Herbert adaptation, the making of which snowballed into an existential journey to rival El Topo’s. The film was to involve everyone from David Carradine to Salvador Dali to H.R. Giger to Pink Floyd; listening to the man talk, it’s easy to see how he attracted them.
3. Under the Skin dir. Jonathan Glazer
The year’s award for Most Fitting Title undoubtedly goes to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin: The movie will stick with you long after the credits roll. Continuing the recent hot streak that has officially made her Okay To Like Again, Scarlett Johansson plays an icy, nearly mute alien predator, driving around dreary Scotland and picking up men to . . . eat? The film is tantalizingly opaque on that point; much of the proceedings border on impressionistic, finding true beauty where other films might deliver cheap scares. It also boasts my favorite score in ages (courtesy of experimental composer Mica “Micachu” Levi), which somehow manages to be simultaneously maddeningly catchy and nearly atonal.
2. The Babadook dir. Jennifer Kent
It’s a rare horror movie which creates an iconic, terrifying title monster—complete with catch phrase—and then manages to overshadow it with something really scary. Indeed, the strained central relationship between grieving widow Amelia (an incredible performance from Essie Davis) and her oddball son Samuel (an equally remarkable turn from six-year-old Noah Wiseman) is both nerve-wracking and all too real, even before they find that sinister pop-up book. First-time director Jennifer Kent (who previously served time assisting Lars von Trier) has turned in one of the greatest horror debuts in recent memory, and one that will likely be remembered for a long time yet. After all: If it’s in a word or it’s in a look . . .
1. Only Lovers Left Alive dir. Jim Jarmusch
Despite my usual hand-wringing over the order of this list, my number-one spot was locked in pretty much from the get-go. No other film this year made me fall in love quite as hard as Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance/hang-out comedy. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are typically magnetic as a pair of aggressively cool bloodsuckers (named Adam and Eve, naturally) whose eternal lives are painstakingly curated, from medieval poetry to Dirtbombs records. There is a plot—Adam and Eve have some issues to work out, and there’s a bit of third-act drama toward the end—but the joy of the film is simply spending time with these characters in the world they’ve created for themselves.