BEST: 10. Jodorowsky's Dune
Easily the geekiest and most obsessive documentary I saw all year, Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is an exhumation of the weirdest movie never made. In the mid-’70s, eccentric Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) tried and failed to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi talisman Dune. The false starts, bizarre detours, and cult luminaries attached to the project are probably more interesting than the film would’ve been. But Pavich argues (convincingly) that Star Wars, Alien, and The Terminator wouldn’t exist as we know them were it not for one man’s epic fail. A delightful celebration of a visionary whose dream never got the chance to live outside his head.
BEST: 9. Birdman
Everybody loves a comeback story. But few are as welcome—and winking—as Michael Keaton’s in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. Keaton, who achieved his most indelible moment on the A list as Batman in the late ’80s and early ’90s, is Riggan Thomson, the onetime star of the blockbuster Birdman films who’s faded into obscurity, a fate the film regards as worse than death. If you’re rattling your worry beads, fretting that Birdman is just a meta storytelling parlor game, fear not. I mean, it is that. But not just that. To reclaim his fame, Riggan has staked what’s left of his savings (and his sanity) on a Broadway play. As the show stumbles toward disaster, he retreats deeper into his head, where his gravel-voiced Birdman alter ego mocks him. Because Iñárritu’s film is so chaotically funny and stylishly shot, it’s easy to overlook how cleverly it dissects celebrity, the theater, and even mental illness. More than anything, though, Birdman is a long-overdue reminder of Keaton’s singular gifts as an actor.
BEST: 8. Snowpiercer
Considering the limitless possibilities of science fiction, it’s shocking how many movies serve up the same basic vision of the future. Thankfully, there are still directors like Bong Joon-ho, whose dystopian saga Snowpiercer bristled with such idiosyncratic weirdness that it felt like a fever dream. Set some years down the road, after an attempt to counteract global warming has backfired and forced the frozen-over planet’s remaining population to live on a locomotive circling Earth, the film is a breakneck metaphor for class warfare. At the front of the train is the decadent elite; in the rear, the soot-faced huddled masses (led by Chris Evans) plotting revolution. Despite the movie’s gonzo flourishes (ladies and gentlemen, I give you Tilda Swinton…), it boils down to a prison-break thriller. But what a prison! Snowpiercer sucks you into its strange and disorienting world so fully, you’ll feel dizzy and drunk as the end credits roll.
BEST: 7. Gone Girl
Let’s admit right from the get-go that the degree of difficulty in pleasing everyone who devoured Gillian Flynn’s bruise-black beach read was off the charts. And I certainly get why some fans of the novel walked out of the theater disappointed. Movie adaptations never mesh with the way we envision characters on the page. But I loved David Fincher’s Gone Girl. I loved it as a bleak account of modern love after it’s curdled, as a wicked satire of cable-news scandal-mongering, and as just a good old-fashioned dark-as-hell thriller. Fincher’s film managed to tease us, play with our loyalties, and sucker punch us with surprise twists most of us already knew were coming. There was no film this year that left me with a sicker smile on my face.
BEST: 6. Guardians of the Galaxy
When it comes to superhero movies, I have become an agnostic. I have neither the faith of a fanboy nor the knee-jerk derision of a men-in-tights heathen. But if there’s one movie that’s come the closest to making me a believer, it’s James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel’s merry band of squabbling misfits goosed anarchic life into a genre that tends to get mired in existential heaviosity. And what’s not to love about a posse of anti-heroes that includes Chris Pratt’s cocky Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana’s green-skinned assassin, plus a mound of muscles, a foulmouthed raccoon, and a grunting tree named Groot? Guardians works precisely because it’s so unlike every other comic-book movie. At last, an excitingly unpredictable blockbuster.
BEST: 5. Selma
Directing a Great Man biopic can be a treacherous high-wire act. If you genuflect too deeply, you risk hagiography. If you show too many warts, you can lose sight of what made the subject great in the first place. In her soaring snapshot of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., director Ava DuVernay walks that wire with the grace of a Wallenda. She wisely avoids the temptation of chronicling the full sweep of the civil rights leader’s eventful life—a mistake of comprehensiveness that too many filmmakers make. Instead, like Steven Spielberg did with Lincoln, she zeroes in on one brief chapter of King’s legacy: the explosive three-month period in 1965 when he led a campaign of civil disobedience to force LBJ to sign the Voting Rights Act. As King, British actor David Oyelowo reclaims the man from the myth, showing us his humor, self-doubt, and all-too-human faults. Though it takes place 50 years in the past, Selma never feels like an old, yellowed newspaper. It burns with a relevance that, considering today’s tragic headlines, is urgent.
BEST: 3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s films have always been easier to admire than embrace. They’re like hermetic, handcrafted dioramas in which every last detail, no matter how tiny, has been exquisitely attended to—often at the sake of real emotional engagement. But with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a deliriously funny and wistfully romantic fairy tale about a time long lost to history, the director finally found the human touch. It suits him. Set in the fictional European nation of Zubrowka sometime between the world wars, the film tells the story of a world-class concierge and gigolo named Monsieur Gustave (a marvelously persnickety Ralph Fiennes) and his ever-loyal lobby boy (the droll, deadpan Tony Revolori). A grab bag of dizzy intrigue swirls around them and the supporting cast of colorful oddballs, all while the ominous specter of fascism looms just outside the frame. For once, Anderson has created a confectionary universe that not only dazzles your eye but also breaks your heart.
BEST: 2. Boyhood
Richard Linklater has always understood that life is a collection of small moments. Occasionally they feel meaningful. But more often than not, they seem unremarkable…trivial. Those are the ones that end up shaping who we become. Episodically shot with the same cast over 12 years, Boyhood is a movie of small moments. It’s an epic in miniature. And Ellar Coltrane, the young actor at the heart of Linklater’s time-lapse cinematic experiment, slowly grows up before our eyes like a photograph being developed in the darkroom. His story is the centerpiece of Linklater’s greatest and most humane film. We’re not only invested in Coltrane’s Mason as he slips from innocence into adulthood, we’re rooting for him, hoping that everything will turn out okay. Boyhood is a work of huge ambition that never for a second feels anything less than intimate.
BEST: 1. Whiplash
There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job. Such is the philosophy of J.K. Simmons’ monstrous music instructor Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle’s thrillingly brutal masterpiece Whiplash. With his bullet-shaped bald head, mad-dog eyes, and bite that’s every bit as bad as his bark, Fletcher is like a vicious Marine drill sergeant at Parris Island. His latest recruit is Andrew Neiman (brilliantly played by Miles Teller), a cocky jazz-drummer prodigy whom he puts through a meat grinder of physical and verbal abuse. We’ve all seen movies like this before: A naïve kid is beaten down only to then be built back up. But Chazelle has more on his mind than 106 minutes of bebop, bleeding palms, and bluster. He’s grappling with Big Ideas—ambition, alienation, and the psychological toll of pursuing perfection—via two actors who boil over with bare-knuckle intensity. Whiplash is a film that electrifies you with its live-wire beat.
And the Worst Movies of 2014 are?
WORST: 5. The Monuments Men
George Clooney has directed a couple of great films. This airless WWII caper isn’t one of them. It’s the movie equivalent of listening to seven guys hum the national anthem for two hours.
WORST: 4. Transcendence
We haven’t given up on you, Johnny Depp. But you can do a lot better than this preposterous techno-thriller that felt more like Max Headroom than The Matrix. Owning your own private island in the Caribbean is God’s way of telling you that you can occasionally say no.
WORST: 3. Let's Be Cops
WORST: 2. Transformers: Age of Extinction
Hands down, the most idiotic blockbuster of the year. Michael Bay’s rock-’em-sock-’em sequel raked in more than $1 billion worldwide despite being a shamelessly cynical orgy of Fortune 500 product placement and about as narratively coherent as your average funny-pages word jumble. With the fate of the world at stake, you should at least care who wins in the end. Me, I was just relieved the damn thing was over.
WORST: 1. Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II
I don’t know what’s more depressing: the tepidly transgressive, petulant-child posturing of enfant terrible Lars von Trier in his two-part slog, or the critics who bent themselves into knots looking for a non-existent feminist subtext in the Danish auteur’s art-house provocation. Then again, maybe it’s just Shia LaBeouf’s dodgy British accent. What I’m certain of is this: Nymphomaniac is, was, and shall always be pretentious hooey and hackwork.