When I was at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September, getting a head start on this year’s Oscar contenders both expected (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Wild) and unforeseen (Still Alice), there was a sinking realization developing amongst my fellow attendees: 2014 was going to be a crap year for movies. And if not a crap year, then at least a forgettable one lacking in clearly deserving frontrunners. The previous year’s festival had cemented instant-classics 12 Years a Slave and Gravity as the awards-season horse race to watch. This year, nothing even began to approach such levels of well-deserved buzz.
So, we all looked ahead to the fall’s major films that hadn’t yet premiered, assuming that at least one would be worthy of becoming The Big One. Would it be Birdman? Gone Girl? Interstellar? Unbroken? Selma? Into the Woods? Big Eyes? A Most Violent Year? Inherent Vice? American Sniper? Each had its subsequent public unveiling, and while several number among the year’s best (and others are, uh, Big Eyes), not a single one had that indisputable Best Picture oomph. So, we had to look back at the films that had been released pre-awards season—and now Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is not only this year’s Best Picture frontrunner, but also the overwhelming favorite from critics circles (including my own). The nearest competition is the similarly one-word-titled Birdman, a naming convention that’s really trending this season (see also: Wild, Unbroken, Selma, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Interstellar, Ida, Mommy).
Of course, there doesn’t necessarily have to be any correlation between Oscar love and critical recognition (as those four chilling words “Best Picture winner Crash” will eternally attest). None of my #1 favorite films of the last few years went on to win Best Picture, although two of them won Screenplay prizes: Her (2013) and The Descendants (2011)—my 2012 favorite, Zero Dark Thirty, was punished for the historic Oscar success Kathryn Bigelow’s great-but-lesser earlier film, The Hurt Locker, had enjoyed, as well as a damning and nonsensical smear campaign alleging that it condoned torture.
Anyway, here we are in the year of Boyhood vs. Birdman (or, if I’m tired and/or drunk, Boyman vs. Birdhood). While I admire both of these films, neither are my favorite of the year. I find it troubling that the conversation about each tends to focus more on the their gimmickry (Boyhood‘s stunning 12-year shoot; Birdman‘s virtuosic “single-take” cinematography/editing) than on their content, which in both cases is rather lightweight. Boyhood doesn’t so much tell a story as let a life unfold in front of our eyes, in times both dramatic and banal (mainly the latter). To call the film slight could be considered missing the point, but I’m gonna call it that anyway—it’s magnificent, but slight. Meanwhile, beneath Birdman‘s eye-bulging performances, dashes of surrealism, and the relentless screwball energy fostered by its filming technique, it’s just a conventional backstage drama populated by stock characters.
With all that said, there are a few things you won’t see in my movie lists below. You won’t see Boyhood or Birdman, although they’re each deserving in their own ways. I just think it would be a waste of space to lavish further praise on them at this point. You also won’t see The LEGO Movie or Guardians of the Galaxy, although they’re both outstanding; this has been a remarkable year for blockbusters, with movies like them, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy, 22 Jump Street, and Neighbors giving major-studio Hollywood one of its best showings in recent memory. Still, those movies don’t need any help from me. Another thing you won’t see is ranking…or a #1. That’s right—this year’s crop of films failed to yield a single movie that I felt comfortable trumpeting as the 2014’s best. In lieu of a unified and ranked top 10, I’ve decided instead to offer three separate lists of 10, organized alphabetically by genre. So, without any further ado, here are my picks for the best films of 2014.
10 Best Dramas
A lacerating psychological character study in the guise of a chilling horror film. As a grieving wife and mother coming apart at the seams, Essie Davis gave one of the year’s greatest unsung performances.
Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes good on the immense promise shown by her classic Love & Basketball with this timely State of the Union address on women, sexuality, and agency in the music industry, with a stunner of a lead turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Dark, seductive, and shot through with bone-deep dread, Bennett Miller’s true crime saga gave us the year’s most perverse love triangle in Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo—each giving career-best dramatic performances.
Evocative and poetic yet shockingly bold and unflinching, this portrayal of a young Brooklyn girl’s sexual awakening was one of the year’s most auspicious feature debuts, courtesy of first-time writer/director Eliza Hittman.
Tom Hardy puts on one of the most astounding one-man shows in the history of cinema.
Simultaneously beautiful and wrenching, Ira Sachs’ latest offered the year’s most indelible depiction of marriage.
This crucial must-see masterpiece blew every other biopic out of the water this season (not that it took much).
Jonathan Glazer is one of today’s most visionary directors, and Scarlett Johansson is among our bravest and most fearless performers. Together, they crafted the year’s most singular cinematic vision.
A jaw-dropping depiction of obsession, antagonism, and the quest for greatness. It kicked everyone’s ass at Sundance in January and continued kicking asses all year long.
MVPs director Jean-Marc Vallée, screenwriter Nick Hornby, cinematographer Yves Bélanger, and editor Martin Pensa brilliantly capture the fragmented, visceral stream of memories and regrets that drove Cheryl Strayed onward as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
10 Best Comedies
John Michael McDonagh’s flair for spiky dialogue, memorable characters, and philosophical rumination pays off in dividends.
Like Higher Learning were it directed by Whit Stillman, this essential satire introduced the year’s freshest new point of view in writer/director Justin Simien.
So fun, so smart, so hilarious, so timely. George Northy’s inspired script found the ideal director in Jawbreaker‘s Darren Stein; the result is the year’s most quotable film.
We take Wes Anderson’s greatness for granted at this point, but he truly outdid himself with this masterful, complex, delightful work of abundant imagination.
As dark and violent as it gets, I can’t help but consider Nightcrawler a comedy of the darkest variety. Jake Gyllenhaal’s ferociously unhinged performance is one of the most interesting things that’s happened all year, while Rene Russo superbly goes toe-to-toe with him.
The most authentic and refreshing romantic comedy in ages, Obvious Child firmly established Jenny Slate as one of our most exciting, engaging leading ladies.
A profound, one-of-a-kind brainteaser featuring yet another flawless turn from Elisabeth Moss.
If I’m being honest, this may have been my personal favorite movie of the year. Bill Hader deserves to be in the Best Actor conversation. Get Cumberbatch outta there.
The only thing funnier than this delicious rom-com parody is reading outraged reviews from flummoxed viewers who somehow didn’t get it.
Let me amend my earlier praise for Love is Strange: it’s the year’s most indelible depiction of marriage in a drama. For comedies, they don’t come any more bitingly funny or poignant than Roger Michell’s bittersweet tale of an English couple celebrating their 30th anniversary with an emotionally tumultuous weekend getaway to Paris.
10 Best Foreign Films + Documentaries
Everything a great documentary should be, Charlie Siskel’s journey of discovery into the life of a brilliant but completely unknown photographer is by turns funny, sad, perplexing, riveting, and altogether awe-inspiring
This painfully funny Swedish sensation examines the consequences when, during a family vacation to the French Alps, the clan’s patriarch does something he’ll never be able to take back during a moment of perceived crisis.
Taking place entirely within the infuriating confines of rabbinical court hearings that span far too many years, this Israeli drama starring the phenomenal Ronit Elkabetz (who also co-wrote and co-directed) as a woman attempting to obtain a divorce from her wretched husband is the best kind of targeted activist cinema: it may even change things.
Unlike the Best Picture race, this year’s Best Foreign Film category does have a clear and deserving frontrunner: this gorgeous, provocative Polish drama about a young nun in the ’60s untangling the mystery of her parents’ fates.
Roger Ebert gets a documentary worthy of his legacy. As for scripted films, we’ll always have Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
My favorite movie at TIFF was one of several high-profile snubs on the Oscars’ foreign-category shortlist, but it doesn’t matter: I have no doubt that Xavier Dolan’s searing, eye-popping mother-son drama will find the audience it deserves when it gets wider distribution in early 2015.
A heartbreaking, luminous slice-of-life documentary about the impoverished residents of a small Missouri town, focusing on several unforgettable young teens.
Imagine a French-language gay porn directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and you’ll picture something resembling this sexually explicit chiller about a serial killer picking off gay men at a lakeside cruising spot.
Marion Cotillard gives one of her most nuanced performances as a woman forced to beg to keep her job, in the Dardennes brothers’ gripping, thought-provoking meditation of workforce dehumanization and solidarity.
The sweetest coming-of-age romance in recent memory, this Brazilian beauty about a blind teen boy whose other senses tell him he’s falling for the new boy at school consistently zigs when you expect it to zag. It’s a charming, ravishing gem.