2014 was excellent for animated features, including How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Big Hero 6, but the best animated movie of the year is Song of the Sea. Director Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells) tells the story of a young boy whose mother has died, and whose little sister is the last of the selkies, a race of fantastical beings who can turn into seals. Breathtaking 2D animation, a dynamic musical score and a tender, imaginative story about loss and loneliness make Song of the Sea a treasure.
Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) returns to British history for a sumptuous biopic of painter J.M.W. Turner. Inscrutable, dominating, emotional and complicated, Mr. Turner is a meaty figure whose love affairs and artistic evolution make for engrossing drama, bolstered by glorious cinematography and a pitch-perfect supporting cast. Timothy Spall plays the title character, and he turns in the best performance of his career.
In some ways, the year's best superhero movies couldn't be more different. Captain America is a daring takedown of American fear-mongering, using a good guy with a flag on his chest to question every cynical thing we've come to take for granted about modern politics. Guardians of the Galaxy is a quirky space-faring adventure about the power of friendship, with the best soundtrack in years and unique characters who practically leap off the screen. But both of Marvel Studios' efforts in 2014 achieved the same goal: they injected new life into the now ubiquitous genre, proving that tales of derring-do can do more, say more, and be more than their predecessors would have you believe.
Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure is a disaster movie in more ways than one. A family on a ski trip almost falls prey to a freak avalanche, and although everyone is safe, the husband ran away instead of protecting his children. What follows is a harrowing and emotional exploration of mature relationships, and the expectations placed on patriarchs which may - or may not - be simply unreasonable. The situation is distinct, but the feelings expressed in Östlund's film are truly universal.
Korean director Bong Joon-ho's adaptation of a post-apocalyptic comic book, in which all of civilization resides on a fast-moving train plowing through the arctic wastelands, is disturbingly on point. Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer as a dissident who leads the abused lowest class of passengers on a rebellion that takes them from the back of the train to the front, traveling through successive cars which harbor disturbing revelations and amazing production design. Snowpiercer is an incredible adventure, but more importantly it's a nightmarish microcosm of humanity, throwing the engines of the world into sharp relief and revealing just how horrible - and possibly even necessary (?!) - oppression can be.
Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's drugged out detective novel is just as impenetrable as you would expect. But who knew that it would also be this much fun? Joaquin Phoenix soars as a super high P.I. whose ex-girlfriend throws him knee-deep into political intrigue, capitalist conspiracies, corrupt cops, and malevolent dentists. Everything is connected - to the point that it's practically absurd - but really, that's the point. The lines we draw in the sand are easily wiped away once you stumble on top of them. Inherent Vice is smart, insightful and funny as hell.
A salient commentary about a lost generation? A damning indictment of mainstream journalism? The year's best thriller? Nightcrawler is all of these things and more, anchored by a powerhouse performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as a diabolical entrepreneur who seems just one fetish outfit away from turning into a Batman villain. Gyllenhaal plays an amoral sleaze who films crime scenes and sells the footage to local news outlets, an already ethically murky endeavor that only gets more unsettling - and more exciting - as the film progresses to a high-speed, satisfying, inky climax.
Bliss. In We Are the Best!, a trio of adolescent young girls decides to start their own punk rock band, despite having no talent whatsoever. Who needs talent when you've got rage? But these girls just don't have much to be angry about. Their one song, about the lameness of gym class, encapsulates a unique brand of non-angst that permeates throughout Lukas Moodysson's film. It's optimistic but defiant, and distinctly recognizable as a catalogue of youthful travails. We Are the Best! can easily be adored. Just don't call it "adorable."
David Ayer had his cake, ate it too, and mutilated the remains in Fury, a World War II drama with superlative action sequences but - more importantly - an outright traumatized outlook on the conflict. Saving Private Ryan feels positively sanitized in comparison to Fury, in which a hardened tank team desperately tries to destroy their newest recruit's soul before his naiveté gets them all killed. The performances are damaged, the tank battles are second to none, but it's the attitude towards violence - absolutely accepting towards unspeakable acts of horror - that makes Fury one of the best films of its kind. It'll rattle you.
"And they lived happily ever after." That's where most love stories end, with the lovers intertwined and getting married. But what about afterwards? Jim Jarmusch's sexy, thoughtful Only Lovers Left Alive ponders that question to the nth degree with a tale of two vampires - played by the ethereal Tom Hiddleston and the doubly ethereal Tilda Swinton - whose centuries-old relationship should be the envy of us all. They are content with the quiet moments, able to endure noisy disasters, and emerge as honest, beautiful creatures no matter how much blood they drink. The best love story of the year is as conversational as any of Jarmusch's films, but what's amazing is that after such a long relationship, these two still have anything left to talk about. They do, and it's enthralling. The most hypnotic vampire tale around.
The most entertaining movie of 2014 wasn't a big-budget blockbuster, it was The Guest, a small-scale action/horror hybrid that defied all convention. From Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (You're Next) comes this wickedly clever genre mashup, in which Dan Stevens plays a soldier who comes home to pay his respects to a fallen comrade's family, only to use his deadly skills to fix their humdrum problems at home. Stevens gives one of the best performances of the year - half Lucifer, half Terminator - as the story careens from one unexpected and exciting twist to another, and the impressive screenplay folds rich and complicated themes about American military policy into a yummy, Hitchcockian soufflé.
"Powerful." That's a word that gets tossed around a little too easily nowadays, but Ava DuVernay's grand and evocative drama - about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Civil Rights marches in Selma, AL - earns the distinction. David Oyelowo delivers a nuanced performance as Dr. King, but Selma wisely expands its focus to demonstrate that dozens of other heroes also made history in the face of shocking - and all too topical - institutionalized racism. Selma is a tapestry of oppression and rebellion, of politics and personal drama, lusciously photographed by cinematographer Bradford Young and skillfully capturing the terror, humility and power of a moment that feels, sadly, like it still hasn't ended yet.
The most illuminating depiction of boyhood this year wasn't Boyhood (although that is also a fine film), it was The Dance of Reality, Alejandro Jodorowsky's autobiographical account of growing up in Chile with a political dissident father. The trials of youth are ever-present, but Jodorowsky's impressionistic storytelling blithely mixes fact with fantasy, adhering to his impressions of childhood as opposed to what may or may not have actually happened. Surreal imagery, a heaping helping of schadenfreude and the loving embrace of Jodorowsky's younger self by Jodorowsky himself, decades later, mix to form an enlightening look at the totality of life from all perspectives, young and old, immature and wise, honest and fanciful. It's a wonder.
I called Whiplash "dangerous" when it first premiered at Sundance 2014, and I meant it. Damien Chazelle's nearly despicable drama - about an abusive music teacher who demands greatness at any cost - asks unthinkable questions about art and excellence and the difficult relationship between a mentor and a student. What's shocking is that it also gives you the answers, and you probably won't like them. J.K. Simmons is a tornado as the professor, who has a method to his madness, and Miles Teller is disturbingly pathological as the aspiring drummer who seems to thrive on cruelty. Whiplash plays like jazz - brash, amelodic, unrestricted - and culminates in a dazzling performance that feels at once glorious and unseemly. It evokes overwhelming emotions and contradictory intellectual responses. There is nothing else quite like it. It's the best film of the year.